Secure bootloader

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There are six priorities that this secure AVR bootloader provides:

  1. Secure hardware
  2. Encrypted firmware
  3. Signed firmware
  4. Per-device firmware
  5. Enforced limitations
  6. Operable with standard tools

Secure hardware

The Atmel AVR ATmega128 processor has many specific features designed to make it very difficult for an attacker to retrieve the firmware image from inside the chip for reverse engineering. These features are designed for high-security applications such as cell phones, against hostile adversaries with significant equipment budgets. Examples of the effort required to read-out the memory can be found in FlyLogic's reverse engineering examination of the ATmega169. Their conclusion is that Atmel makes the most secure microcontrollers on the market.

Encrypted firmware

The firmware images that are sent to customers for updates are protected with AES128 in CBC chaining mode, approved by the NSA for classified data. The encryption keys and a random IV are stored in protected memory inside the Mega128 and are not retrievable without significant effort in excess of re-implementing the software. This prevents anyone from reverse engineering a firmware update since only the signer and the device itself are able to decrypt the firmware image.

Signed firmware

Only approved firmware can be loaded and any modification of the file before flashing or after it is inside the device will prevent the system from starting. The boot loader is not circumventable without erasing the chip and its embedded decryption key, so it is not possible to avoid the verification step. The loader uses SHA1 as an HMAC algorithm, the US NIST standard for message authentication.

Because the AES128 key and IV are used as part of the checksum, only the holder of the keys is able to generate firmware images that will authenticate and run on the device. Even a single bit modification to the firmware image after flashing, which is not possible due to the secure hardware, will cause the authentication routine to fail. Any changes made to the encrypted version before flashing will cause the entire image to be corrupted and, obviously, fail to authenticate as well.

For high-security applications the chip can be configured to do an automatic erase of the application if this checksum ever fails.

Per-device firmware

Each device has its own AES128 key and random 16-byte IV, known only to the developer and programmed into the secure memory of the Mega128. Since this key is included in the sum for authentication as part of the HMAC algorithm at boot time, it is not possible to load a firmware image with extra features enabled onto another device. For instance, if certain features are disabled for export control reasons or for extra cost, it is not possible to use a firmware from another customer on the one with reduced functionality.

Enforced limitations

Several limitations on device features are possible, such as designating a geographic area in which a GPS equiped device will operate or limitations on number of hours that the device can be operated. Using the HMAC algorithm present in the flash memory, it should be possible to also have a key-generation algorithm to generate a one-time key that will allow operation over a specified period of time or in a specified location.

Standard tools

The bootloader speaks the standard AVR109 protocol that works with uisp and other programming tools over a standard RS232 port. No special hardware is required once the bootloader has been flashed into the chip. The Motorola SREC file that is produced is encrypted and has the HMAC block in high memory, but since the SREC format allows holes it does not take much longer than normal serial programming to install. The HMAC block also includes the capability bits in high memory where they are safe from SPM instructions.

Source code

Generating encryption keys

The Makefile will generate keys and IV for a given serial number in a deterministic fashion. This makes it easy to recover the keys later, if necessary, but also provide a potential attack. If the nonce is large enough, it can be impractical to brute force it through an AES dictionary attack. The encrypt-firmware script does key generation as well if the --gen-key argument is passed in.


  • The file is encrypted in CBC mode, so it is possible that known plaintext attacks against the interrupt vectors in the first few bytes. Supporting a randomized offset address and shuffling the pages in the file before encrypting would prevent this, but would complicate the bootload process.
  • Instead of SREC and AVR109, perhaps the protocol should be changed to xmodem or zmodem so even less special software is required.
  • The size of the bootloader requires an atmega128 with a 4 KB boot segment.
  • Position the aes and sha1 functions at fixed locations in the boot segment so that they can be called by user code to perform HMAC validation.
  • Performance measurement of AES and SHA1 algorithm. Can the boot time be reduced?