FPGA Security: Challenges and Best Practices

Niranjana R


Field-programmable gate arrays, sometimes known as FPGAs, have developed into efficient and flexible solutions for a wide range of applications. The versatility of FPGAs is alluring, but it also comes with significant security vulnerabilities.

It is crucial to protect FPGAs since they are increasingly employed in safety-critical applications, military and aerospace systems, and cryptography systems. In FPGA systems, security breaches may result in a range of detrimental outcomes, including monetary losses from the theft of intellectual property and possibly lethal situations.

The specific risks to FPGA security are covered in this blog, including bitstream manipulation, side-channel attacks, and reverse engineering. The integrity of FPGA configurations must also be maintained in order to prevent unauthorized changes that could have disastrous consequences. To address these problems and enhance FPGA security, the essay provides a comprehensive set of best practices. 

Challenges in FPGA Security

Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are versatile and powerful integrated circuits that offer reprogrammable hardware functionality, making them a crucial component in various applications, including aerospace, defense, telecommunications, and data centers. However, their configurability and flexibility also introduce unique security challenges. Let’s explore some of the significant challenges in FPGA security:

A. Reverse Engineering and Intellectual Property (IP) Protection:

1. Attacks on Bitstream Encryption:

Typically, a bitstream file used to configure the hardware functionality is used to program FPGA designs. To preserve the FPGA designer’s intellectual property, it is essential to guarantee the confidentiality of this bitstream. Attackers might try to extract valuable intellectual property or understand the underlying design by reverse engineering the bitstream, which could expose sensitive data to compromise and result in large financial losses.

2. Watermarking Techniques for IP Protection:

In order to incorporate distinctive identifiers into their designs, FPGA designers use watermarking techniques. These watermarks can be used to locate the true owner of the intellectual property and spot any unauthorized usage or distribution. But creating reliable watermarking methods that can withstand manipulation and extraction is difficult.

B. Side-Channel Attacks:

Side-channel attacks target unintentional information leakage from an FPGA device during its operation. By analyzing these side-channel signals, attackers can gain insights into internal operations and potentially extract secret information. Common side-channel attacks include:

1. Power Analysis Attacks:

Analyzing power entails keeping track of how much energy an FPGA uses when running. The data being processed, the cryptographic keys being used, or the way an algorithm is being implemented can all be revealed by variations in power usage. A key component of FPGA security is putting safeguards in place to make power analysis attacks more challenging.

2. Timing Analysis Attacks:

Timing attacks make use of differences in the timing behavior of the FPGA depending on the data being processed. Attackers can deduce sensitive information like cryptographic keys or internal states by carefully monitoring execution times.

3. Electromagnetic (EM) Analysis Attacks:

The electromagnetic radiation that an FPGA emits when it is operating is taken advantage of in EM analysis. The processed data or cryptographic procedures can be learned by analyzing these emissions. Attacks using EM analysis can be lessened by using shielding and other safety precautions.

C. Malicious Manipulation of Bitstreams:

1. Techniques for Injecting Trojans into FPGA Designs:

When creating or manufacturing FPGA designs, malicious actors may try to smuggle hardware Trojans in. Under certain circumstances, these Trojans can be activated, resulting in illegal access, data loss, or system interruption.

2. Impact of Hardware Trojans on System Security:

Hardware detection It can be difficult to incorporate Trojans into FPGA designs because of how intricate the circuits are. Once activated, these Trojans have the power to jeopardize the security and dependability of the entire system, with dire repercussions for safety-critical applications.

D. Configuration Bitstream Integrity:

1. Methods to Ensure the Authenticity of FPGA Configurations:

To avoid unauthorized modifications, the integrity of the bitstream used to set up an FPGA must be guaranteed. Before loading the bitstream into the FPGA, methods like digital signatures and cryptographic checksums can be used to ensure its legitimacy.

2. Detecting and Preventing Bitstream Modification:

During the transmission or storage of configuration data, FPGA designs are susceptible to manipulation. Putting secure configuration management principles into practice can aid in spotting and stopping unwanted bitstream alterations.

Best Practices for FPGA Security

FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays) are widely used in various applications, including telecommunications, data centers, automotive, aerospace, and more. Ensuring the security of FPGA-based systems is crucial to protect sensitive data, and intellectual property, and prevent unauthorized access or tampering. Here are some best practices for FPGA security:

A. Secure Design Techniques:

  • Secure Coding Practices: Adopt secure coding guidelines and methodologies during the FPGA design process. This includes avoiding common vulnerabilities like buffer overflows, race conditions, and input validation issues.
  • Trusted IPs and Components: Use trusted Intellectual Property (IP) cores and third-party components from reputable sources. Verify the authenticity and integrity of IPs before integrating them into your design.

B. Bitstream Encryption and Authentication:

  • Bitstream Encryption: Implement bitstream encryption to protect the FPGA configuration data from unauthorized access and tampering. Encryption ensures that only authenticated users can configure the FPGA with the correct bitstream.
  • Secure Key Management: Properly manage encryption keys to prevent key exposure and unauthorized access to the bitstream. Consider using hardware security modules (HSMs) for key storage and management.

C. Hardware Trojan Detection and Prevention:

  • Design-Time Trojan Detection: Employ design analysis tools to detect potential hardware Trojans during the design phase. These tools can identify suspicious or unexpected functionalities within the FPGA design.
  • Post-Deployment Monitoring: Implement monitoring mechanisms in the FPGA-based system to detect any abnormal behavior or unexpected activities that might indicate the presence of hardware Trojans.

D. Secure Configuration Management:

  • Secure Configuration Storage: Store the FPGA configuration data securely to prevent unauthorized access or modification. Use secure storage mediums and encryption to protect the bitstream during transit and storage.
  • Remote Configuration Update: Implement secure mechanisms for remote FPGA configuration updates. Ensure that only authorized entities can initiate updates and that the update process is tamper-resistant.

E. Side-Channel Attack Mitigation:

  • Power Analysis Countermeasures: Implement power analysis-resistant designs, such as adding dummy power consumption, and random delays, or using power gating techniques to reduce side-channel leakage.
  • Timing and EM Analysis Protection: Apply countermeasures to thwart timing and electromagnetic analysis attacks. Techniques like logic masking, random logic insertion, and shielding can be effective.

F. Supply Chain Security:

  • FPGA Authenticity Verification: Establish a robust supply chain security process to verify the authenticity and integrity of FPGAs and their components. Work closely with trusted suppliers and demand proof of origin for critical parts.
  • Third-Party Component Evaluation: Evaluate and vet third-party components, including IPs and software, for potential security risks. Perform security audits and assessments before integrating them into your FPGA design.


In conclusion, given the distinctive properties of programmable hardware and the possibility for malicious exploitation, securing FPGA-based systems provides a variety of issues. However, putting best practices into practice can greatly improve FPGA security and protect against potential risks. FPGA security is built on top of secure design practices including following coding conventions and employing trusted IPs. Additionally, bitstream encryption and authentication systems aid in shielding sensitive data and important intellectual property from illegal access and manipulation.

Both design-time detection technologies and post-deployment monitoring techniques must be used to combat hardware Trojans. The risk of unwanted access is reduced by carefully maintaining the FPGA setup, including secure storage and remote upgrades. FPGA designs are more resistant to potential breaches thanks to effective side-channel defenses like electromagnetic, voltage, and timing analyses.

To ensure the validity and integrity of FPGAs, supply chain security must be maintained, as well as an ongoing awareness of new risks. The effectiveness of FPGA security implementations is further improved by routine security audits and penetration testing. FPGA designers and system architects can create resilient systems by combining these precautions and adopting a proactive security-oriented approach, protecting priceless assets, and guaranteeing the dependability of FPGA-based applications in the face of changing security threats.


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