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Security Model

Cryptographic Peculiarities

IBM Security


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IBM 4758 Security Model

The IBM 4758 secure cryptographic coprocessor provides an extraordinary degree of security against physical attack, having been validated to FIPS-140 level 4. In order to provide the benefits of this hardware security to users, the device implements a number of security features in the firmware and operating system. The resulting security model has complexities which impact the RPOW design.


The 4758 software is divided into three segments: Miniboot, operating system (OS), and application. (Actually the Miniboot itself has two parts, Miniboot0 and Miniboot1, so by some counts the 4758 uses four segments.) Each has greater privileges than the next one.

The Miniboot is analogous to the BIOS in a PC. It runs as firmware in the flash memory and seldom changes. The function of the Miniboot is to do a power-on self test (POST) of the proper functioning of the 4758 hardware, and to load the other software segments, the OS and application. The Miniboot is also responsible for performing some cryptographic operations as described below.

The OS on the 4758 is called CP/Q++. It provides an interface to the various functional components on the 4758, including encryption and hashing engines, large integer calculations, persistent memory storage, and communications with the host computer. For development purposes, IBM also supplies a version of CP/Q++ which has debugging hooks to allow a host-resident debugger to examine memory and control the application program. The production version of CP/Q++ lacks these features and when it is loaded there is no way for an outsider to get access to the memory or program operation on the 4758.

The application, in this case, is the RPOW program itself. It uses the facilities provided by the OS to implement the RPOW token validation and signing functionality described in these pages.

Many operators of IBM 4758 systems do not use the custom programming features which allow the creation of programs like the RPOW server. Instead, they use one of two application programs provided by IBM which work in conjunction with library code that runs on the host computer. One of these modules implements a PKCS-11 interface, which is a standard smart-card API; the other implements IBM's CCA, the Common Cryptographic Architecture, an API used in a wide variety of IBM equipment.

Segment Ownership

The 4758 uses a concept of segment ownership for segments 2 and 3, which are the OS and application. Segment owners are relatively small integers, and every segment has an owner ID associated with it. Along with the owner ID is an owner key, an RSA key which is certified by the IBM root key. When a program is loaded into segments 2 or 3, the owner ID and ownership key are set for that segment.

Segments start off in an unowned state, and ownership is granted by submitting a command to the card which is signed by the owner of the next lower segment. Taking ownership of segment 2 requires a command signed by IBM; and taking ownership of segment 3 requires a command signed by the owner of segment 2. Similarly, segment ownership can only be relinquished by issuing a command signed by that segment's owner, or by the owner of the next lower segment.

These ownership checks are enforced by the Miniboot cryptographically validating the signatures on the commands to take and relinquish ownership, as well as loading and reloading software. The Miniboot keeps track of the ownership data for segments 2 and 3 and uses this information to validate commands which come from the host.

Segment Loads vs Reloads

The relevance of segment ownership for RPOW is its impact on how programs can be loaded or reloaded into the memory of the device. The 4758 defines two different operations which load a program into segment 2 or 3. The terms IBM use are EMBURN and REMBURN. An EMBURN is a segment load which fully re-initializes the segment and clears all of the memory. A REMBURN is a segment reload, which retains the persistent data in the segment.

The REMBURN command, which reloads a program into a segment, can only be issued by the owner of the segment, i.e. it must be signed by the key which is the current ownership key for the segment. EMBURN, which loads a program, can be issued to an unowned segment to take ownership of that segment. Although I am calling REMBURN a reload, that does not imply that it is the same program which is loaded. A new program can be loaded with a REMBURN. It is a reload in the sense that the owner is putting a new program into the same segment.

Preserving Memory

There are several classes of memory on the 4758. Ordinary DRAM is meant for data variables and is cleared on reboot. Programs are loaded into flash memory. There is also a region of flash memory set aside for programs to use for persistent data, that is, data which should be preserved across a reboot. Another class of memory is battery-backed up RAM (BBRAM), which is also preserved across reboot.

To aid in debugging and development, one of the features of the 4758 security model is that persistent data in flash and in BBRAM is preserved across a REMBURN command (a reload). This facilitates debugging of a program in a couple of ways. One option is to reload the OS, substituting the debugging OS for the production OS using a REMBURN for segment 2. The developer can then debug his program using the debugging OS, and anything which the program had stored in persistent memory will be preserved from the earlier runs. Another option would be for the developer to load a different application, with a REMBURN of segment 3, which could then dump out the contents of persistent memory, to help get an understanding of what might have gone wrong with the program under development.

RPOW Requirements

This ability to reload a program and retain persistent data, while useful in some contexts, is a problem for RPOW. The concept behind this security feature is that the developer and owner is trusted, and should have access to the secrets which the program retains for itself. However, that is the opposite of the security model used in RPOW. RPOW assumes that the owner, the operator, and the developer of the system are the enemies. In the RPOW design, only the software is trusted. It is crucial for RPOW security that no one gets access to the persistent memory of the program.

RPOW stores its token signing keys, among other sensitive data, in persistent memory. It has to be done that way, so that the RPOW server can continue to run after a power cycle or some other reboot or restart. A straightforward implementation would then give the owner of the board the power to reload the OS or the application and acquire the RPOW signing keys. This would destroy the security of the RPOW system.

The problem is even more acute because RPOW is being developed using the free development tools from IBM Research's Alphaworks web site. These use ownership keys for segment 3, the application, which are publicly available. This means that anyone can act as an owner of segment 3, and if the system were vulnerable to its owner, it would be vulnerable to everyone.

RPOW Persistence Countermeasures

Fortunately, the IBM 4758 does define one class of data which is not preserved across a REMBURN reload. These are RSA secret keys generated by the Outbound Authentication (OA) manager of a particular type, called "configuration" keys. OA configuration keys are guaranteed to have their private parts cleared on any change to the software configuration on the card, including REMBURN reloads of the OS in segment 2 or the application in segment 3. Unlike other persistent data, OA configuration keys are not preserved across a reload.

RPOW exploits this feature to protect its sensitive persistent data. At initialization time, RPOW generates an OA configuration key. It then uses this key to protect the private data which must persist across reboot. Before storing the data in flash memory, RPOW encrypts it with the OA configuration key. Then, if a reboot occurs, RPOW uses that same OA configuration key to decrypt the sensitive data in flash memory and gain access to its secrets, such as the RPOW signing key.

By encrypting its secrets with the OA configuration key, RPOW assures that this secret data will not be available to even the card owner. If the owner attempts to reload the OS or the application, that will clear the OA configuration private key, even though it preserves other encrypted data. Without the private key, there is no way the attacker can decrypt RPOW's sensitive secret data. In effect, that data is securely erased in the same way that the OA private key is, on a reload.


The IBM 4758 secure cryptographic coprocessor provides high security and a relatively complex security model for software developers. Fortunately, the design is flexible enough that even a system like RPOW, which has a rather different security perspective than most programs which use this device, can accommodate its needs. By using the Outbound Authentication manager to generate a key bound to the memory configuration, RPOW is able to protect its secrets against any attempt to reload software components and gain access to sensitive data.