Challenges in Designing Exploit Mitigations for Deeply Embedded Systems

Ali Abbasi, Jos Wetzels, Thorsten Holz, Sandro Etalle

IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy (EuroS&P 2019), Stockholm, Sweden, June 2019


Memory corruption vulnerabilities have been around for decades and rank among the most prevalent vulnerabilities in embedded systems. Yet this constrained environment poses unique design and implementation challenges that significantly complicate the adoption of common hardening techniques. Combined with the irregular and involved nature of embedded patch management, this results in prolonged vulnerability exposure windows and vulnerabilities that are relatively easy to exploit. Considering the sensitive and critical nature of many embedded systems, this situation merits significant improvement.

In this work, we present the first quantitative study of exploit mitigation adoption in 42 embedded operating systems, showing the embedded world to significantly lag behind the general- purpose world. To improve the security of deeply embedded systems, we subsequently present μArmor, an approach to address some of the key gaps identified in our quantitative analysis. μArmor raises the bar for exploitation of embedded memory corruption vulnerabilities, while being adoptable on the short term without incurring prohibitive extra performance or storage costs.