Derived Credentials in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE)

In the previous post I discussed the storage of derived credentials (Federal credentials carried in a mobile device instead of a PIV/CAC card) in a software token, i.e. in a cryptographic module implemented entirely in software, whose contents are stored in ordinary flash memory. In this post I will discuss the storage of derived credentials in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE).

Malware Attacks

As discussed in the previous post and in a technical report, it is possible to protect derived credentials stored in ordinary flash storage by encrypting them under a high entropy key-wrapping key kept in a secure back-end, which the mobile device retrieves by authenticating to the back-end with a key pair regenerated from a protocredential and an activation passcode.

This provides effective protection against an adversary who captures the device while the software token is not active, preventing the adversary from extracting or using the credentials. But it does not provide protection against malware running on the device while the legitimate user is using the device. Such malware can carry out the following attacks:

  1. It can use the derived credentials, by issuing instructions to the software token after it has been activated by the legitimate user.
  2. It can read the plaintext derived credentials from the flash storage after the software token has been activated, and transmit them to the adversary responsible for the malware, who can then use them at will on a different machine.
  3. It can capture the activation passcode by phishing or intercepting it. In a phishing attack, malware prompts the user for the passcode while masquerading as legitimate code that needs the passcode, such as token activation code. In an interception attack, malware gets the passcode after it has been obtained from the user by legitimate code.

The first of these attacks may be impossible to prevent once privileged malware is running on the mobile device without the user being aware of it. But the second and third attacks can be prevented using a TEE as we shall see below; and preventing them is important because they are more damaging than the first attack.

The second attack, extracting the credentials and sending them to the adversary, is more damaging than the first because it cannot be stopped by recovering or wiping the stolen device. Use of an authentication or signature private key cannot be stopped until the associated certificate is revoked and relying parties become aware of the revocation. Correspondents should avoid sending messages encrypted under a symmetric key wrapped by a “key management” public key after becoming aware that the key management certificate has been revoked. But there is no time limit for using a key management private key to decrypt earlier messages that the adversary may have previously captured or may capture in the future, e.g. by breaching the security of a MS Exchange server containing older encrypted messages.

The third attack is even more damaging for several reasons. First, it enables the first two attacks, because once it has the passcode, malware can activate the software token and use and extract the plaintext derived credentials. Second, if the adversary captures the device after using malware to obtain the passcode, the adversary can use the device, or install more comprehensive malware that is able to extract the credentials. Third, the passcode may be independently exploitable because it may be used for other purposes.

A TEE has security features that make it possible to prevent the second and third attacks.

Features of a TEE

A TEE is a computing environment provided by a secure OS running on the same processor as a normal OS. One or more trusted applications (TAs) run under the secure OS. A hardware bus architecture ensures that a portion of the flash storage can only be accessed by the secure OS. Both OSes can access the touchscreen, but a security indicator lets the user know when the screen is controlled by the secure OS and the user interface can be trusted. GlobalPlatform is developing TEE specifications, including a Trusted User Interface API specification, which can be downloaded from the GlobalPlatform site. TEEs are provided by ARM Cortex-A processors, where a TEE is also referred to as a TrustZone. A TA running in a TEE can be used to implement a cryptographic module in which derived credentials can be stored and used.

Using a TEE to Protect Derived Credentials

Derived credentials stored and used in a cryptographic module implemented within a TEE can be protected against the second malware attack discussed above by making their private keys unextractable from the cryptographic module. The ability to mark private keys as being unextractable is a typical feature of cryptographic modules. The PKCS #11 cryptographic module API, for example, allows private keys to be made non-extractable by setting the value of their CKA_EXTRACTABLE attribute to CK_FALSE. The forthcoming TEE Functional API, mentioned in the TEE white paper, will no doubt allow private keys stored in a cryptographic module within a TEE to be made non-extractable as well.

Furthermore, derived credentials stored in a cryptographic module within a TEE can be protected against the third malware attack using the Trusted User Interface feature of the TEE. The passcode can be prompted for by the TA that implements the cryptographic module, and the user can be instructed to only enter the passcode when a Security Indicator shows that the touchscreen is controlled by the Secure OS of the TEE. The passcode is then protected against phishing and interception by malware, assuming that all TAs can be trusted and that the secure OS is not infected by malware. The latter assumption is motivated by the fact that the secure OS is simpler than the normal OS and presents a much smaller attack surface.

Virtual Tamper Resistance

Using the same processor and a portion of the same storage for the secure OS as for the normal OS has important benefits. It provides greater performance for the secure OS than would typically achieved by a secondary processor located in a secure element, and it saves the cost of the secure element. On the other hand, it means that a TEE is not expected to provide much, if any, tamper resistance. Indeed, the TEE Secure Element API, available at the GlobalPlatform site, is concerned with using together a TEE and a secure element, with the TEE providing a Trusted User Interface, and the secure element providing tamper resistance.

(BTW, some secure elements do provide serious tamper resistance, but tamper resistance is never absolute. A fascinating description of the elaborate anti-tampering countermeasures in a family of Infineon chips, and how they were defeated by an attacker with no insider knowledge, can be found in an 80-minute video demonstration—broken down into ten eight-minute segments—presented at Black Hat 2010.)

But the lack of tamper resistance in a TEE can be remedied using the same technique that I described in the previous post as a solution to the problem of protecting derived credentials stored in a software token. Encrypting the derived credentials under a high entropy key-wrapping key, kept in a secure back-end and retrieved by authenticating to the back-end with a key pair regenerated from a protocredential and an activation passcode, can be viewed as a form of cloud-based virtual tamper resistance.

Combining such virtual tamper resistance with the TEE Trusted User Interface feature would make it possible to implement a cryptographic module that would protect both the derived credentials and their activation passcode.

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