Paper 2023/579

Revealing the Secrets of Radio-Enabled Embedded Systems: on extraction of raw information from any on-board signal through RF

Erez Danieli, Bar-Ilan University
Menachem Goldzweig, Bar-Ilan University
Moshe Avital, Rafael, Israel
Itamar Levi, Bar-Ilan University

In this work we are interested in evaluating the possibility of extracting information from radio-enabled embedded-systems from a long distance. That is, our focus is capturing information from sources in the micrometer to tens of centimeters scale, such as intra- or inter- device busses, board-level routing traces etc. Moreover, we focus on distances in the range of millimeters to tens of centimeters from the (on-chip or on-board) embedded-system Tx Antenna to the signal source. Side-channels denotes presence of information in illegitimate channels. Side-channel analysis (SCA) attacks typically require statistical analysis and many leakage traces, focusing on micrometer level signals (sources) which emanate direct Near-Field information up to centimeters-level distances. In the same context (Near-Field and micrometer-level) simple power analysis (SPA) like attacks typically extract either direct raw information from one or few leakages or utilize statistical analysis on various samples from the same trace, similarly to horizontal attacks. Lately, radio-enabled systems were shown to emanate to a large distance (Far-Field), information from micrometer level sources, such as CPU processing, through the RF Tx Antenna: so far, SCA-like statistical analysis were shown. On the other hand, various reports exist on direct information eavesdropping/ sniffing or data exfiltration, emanated from centimeter to tens of centimeters scale sources, e.g., SATA, USB, Power-lines, Serial interface, Air-Gap systems, Screens and even optical fibers. All these elements are typically being used as a source and a direct Tx Antenna (huge, several to tens of centimeters) of the sensitive information. These antennas typically transmit information to short distances and the decay is very steep (proportional to $r^{-2}$-$r^{-3}$ depending on various factors and models). To the best of our knowledge, we report here for the first time an alarming security challenge: any signal in the embedded system, from serial ports, DMA-controlled memory-access, JTAG and SPI interfaces, on-board signals with galvanic connection to the Tx Antenna-chip and \emph{on-board signals without galvanic connection to the Tx Antenna-chip itself, all leak direct information up to tens of centimeters from source to the Tx Antenna}. This alarming situation induce signal-integrity implications within the embedded system, and significant implications relating to device-isolation and user-isolation, it may also affect standards and specifications for e.g., electromagnetic compatibility (EMC), on-board signal shielding, electromagnetic and RF interference (EMI, RFI), cross-talk, and generally design-for-manufacturing (DFM) guidelines for both intra-IC and PCB board. We demonstrate such direct readout of signals with commercial and low-cost equipment indicating how problematic the situation is. The existence of such leakage is demonstrated both over an ultra-low-cost platform such as the nRF52832(nRF) embedded-system and on a more advanced ESP32-c3-devkitc-02 board which is far more widespread in ISM radio applications and meets certification like FCC and CE (as compared to the nRF device). We have constructed an experiment to demonstrate leakage scenarios from (1) on- and (2) off-chip, on-board or (3) signals without galvanic connection to the RF front-end chip, showing the severity of the leakage, repetitively and systematic nature of the phenomena over various devices. We further demonstrate how sophisticated adversaries can build a code-injection Gadget which can carry sensitive-data and modulate it to be best extracted by the RF-channel. The main observation we push forward is that unless concrete interference and isolation standards appear with security metrics in mind, which are significantly different than ones needed for communication, it would be hard to prevent such leakages.

Available format(s)
Publication info
Code InjectionFLASHJTAGNFCRadio TransceiversRFSide-channel attacksSniffingSpectral modulationSerial
Contact author(s)
erez danieli @ biu ac il
menachem goldzweig @ biu ac il
mosheavi @ gmail com
itamar levi @ biu ac il
2023-04-28: approved
2023-04-24: received
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Creative Commons Attribution


      author = {Erez Danieli and Menachem Goldzweig and Moshe Avital and Itamar Levi},
      title = {Revealing the Secrets of Radio-Enabled Embedded Systems: on extraction of raw information from any on-board signal through {RF}},
      howpublished = {Cryptology ePrint Archive, Paper 2023/579},
      year = {2023},
      note = {\url{}},
      url = {}
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