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Paper 2017/822

On the Power of Optical Contactless Probing: Attacking Bitstream Encryption of FPGAs

Shahin Tajik, Heiko Lohrke, Jean-Pierre Seifert, and Christian Boit


Modern Integrated Circuits (ICs) employ several classes of countermeasures to mitigate physical attacks. Recently, a powerful semi-invasive attack relying on optical contactless probing has been introduced, which can assist the attacker in circumventing the integrated countermeasures and probe the secret data on a chip. This attack can be mounted using IC debug tools from the backside of the chip. The first published attack based on this technique was conducted against a proof-of-concept hardware implementation on a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). Therefore, the success of optical probing techniques against a real commercial device without any knowledge of the hardware implementation is still questionable. The aim of this work is to assess the threat of optical contactless probing in a real attack scenario. To this end, we conduct an optical probing attack against the bitstream encryption feature of a common FPGA. We demonstrate that the adversary is able to extract the plaintext data containing sensitive design information and intellectual property (IP). In contrast to previous optical attacks from the IC backside, our attack does not require any device preparation or silicon polishing, which makes it a non-invasive attack. Additionally, we debunk the myth that small technology sizes are unsusceptible to optical attacks, as we use an optical resolution of about 1 um to successfully attack a 28 nm device. Based on our time measurements, an attacker needs less than 10 working days to conduct the optical analysis and reverse-engineer the security-related parts of the hardware. Finally, we propose and discuss potential countermeasures, which could make the attack more challenging.

Available format(s)
Publication info
Published elsewhere. ACM CCS 2017
Contact author(s)
stajik @ sec t-labs tu-berlin de
2017-08-31: received
Short URL
Creative Commons Attribution


      author = {Shahin Tajik and Heiko Lohrke and Jean-Pierre Seifert and Christian Boit},
      title = {On the Power of Optical Contactless Probing: Attacking Bitstream Encryption of FPGAs},
      howpublished = {Cryptology ePrint Archive, Paper 2017/822},
      year = {2017},
      doi = {10.1145/3133956.3134039},
      note = {\url{https://eprint.iacr.org/2017/822}},
      url = {https://eprint.iacr.org/2017/822}
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