If you haven’t read up on the latest debacle in hardware security, I recommend reading EEVBlog’s writeup, or Sparkfun’s blog post, or follow the FTDIGate hashtag on Twitter …

For a summary, FTDI (Future Technology Devices, Inc) released a driver update via Windows Update yesterday. The driver update intentionally bricks unauthorized copies of FTDI’s popular USB to Serial converter by overwriting the USBID. Reports are that their mechanism for selecting devices was actually imperfect, resulting in the driver also bricking one of FTDI’s own legitimate chipsets including the FT2232H.

In Digital Bond Labs, one of the things that we discuss with vendor clients is hardware security. When considering how to build hardware security, one of the items we consider is, what can a vendor do to protect their intellectual property from being cloned?

We’ve seen and purchased a lot of cloned hardware for sale on eBay over the years.  The equipment mostly comes from the Shenzhen/Guangzhou areas of China, and sells for a small fraction of the normal retail price of legitimate equipment. Everything from specialized PLC programming cables (chiefly for Siemens equipment) to knockoff digital protective relays can be found in this way. Knockoff quality ranges from pretty good and fully functional equipment, to equipment that is well-packaged and turns on, but which does nothing functionally.

FTDI’s response is a bit surprising, especially given where its devices are used. FTDI chipsets are a daily part of life for many engineers who work with critical infrastructure, medical devices, and other big industries. It is basically impossible for an end user to know their supply chain, to know whether every FTDI chip in USB devices they own is legitimate. Cables using FTDI chips often come included with hardware that has a serial port, such as network switches, PLCs, and other embedded devices. The chips are also frequently used internally in devices with USB ports. An end user will have a difficult time telling which of their cables or devices is using a legitimate FTDI chip, and which may contain a clone. It can be difficult for manufacturers of these chips to even know, as supply chains can be surprisingly obtuse.  There are some good hackers working on detection scripts, although there may always be corner cases that are not properly detected.

Unauthorized hardware cloning is like insecure-by-design software in one way: once cloned hardware is out in the wild, it’s really too late to try and secure it. While FTDI found a way to disable the unauthorized equipment, the blowback from doing so is going to be extreme. This is precisely because it is the end users that wind up with the broken equipment. I immediately picture a nightmare scenario in which an engineer absolutely needs to reprogram a piece of field equipment in an emergency, and cannot because they didn’t know their chip was not legitimate.  Cutting that engineer off is clearly not the right solution. I for one will recommend that my vendor clients discontinue using FTDI’s chipsets in future products in favor of competitors like Prolific. This incident suggests that FTDI’s management is too reactionary and is not thinking in the long-term about their own security or the safety of end users.  A better idea would have been to implement detection in the driver similar to the script linked above, and simply warned the end user that the driver would stop communicating with the illegitimate chip after a certain date.

Adding good security to a chipset, or any hardware design, takes some dedication and has a cost associated with it. In this case, FTDI wants it both ways: they want to avoid paying the upfront cost of building their device in a manner that is difficult to clone, yet they also want to stop illegitimate chips. Thankfully, they have relented, but only after seriously harming both their reputation and the legitimacy of software updates.

Image by John Fowler