Hardware-based disk encryption can be bypassed in certain SSDs

Flaws in self-encrypting SSDs let attackers bypass disk encryption

"Suppose that the DEK is stored unprotected, after which a password is set by the end user, replacing the unprotected DEK with an encrypted variant", they explain. The bottom line is: the drives require a password to encrypt and decrypt their contents, however this password can be bypassed, allowing crooks and snoops to access ciphered data. In theory, the security guarantees offered by hardware encryption are similar to or better than software implementations.

In particular, the researchers said, the SSDs fail to cryptographically tie the owner's password to the actual data encryption key (DEK), both of which are stored in the drive.

The vulnerability has affected only those SSD models supporting hardware-based encryption which uses local built-in chips for carrying out disk encryption operations. The vulnerabilities that researchers Carlo Meijer and Bernard van Gastel found are in the firmware of the SSDs.

There are three techniques that Meijer and van Gastel found to exploit these flaws.

Samsung T3 and T5 USB. This vulnerability information was responsibly disclosed to both manufacturers and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) of the Netherlands in April 2018.

The researchers tested these methods against well known and popular SSD drives such as the Crucial MX100, Crucial MX200, Crucial MX300, Samsung 840 EVO, Samsung 850 EVO, Samsung T3 Portable, and Samsung T5 Portable and were able to illustrate methods to access the encrypted drive's data.

Other issues are detailed in the researchers' paper, titled "Self-encrypting deception: weaknesses in the encryption of solid state drives (SSDs)", which can be downloaded in PDF format from here.

However, the issue runs deeper. That's because Microsoft's BitLocker, which is available only on Professional, Enterprise and Education editions of Windows 10, uses the drive's own encryption by default instead of its own.

SSDs with hardware-based encryption have specific chips inside that handle the task of encrypting and decrypting data. "For multiple models, it is possible to bypass the encryption entirely, allowing for a complete recovery of the data without any knowledge of passwords or keys".

The good news for Windows users is that BitLocker's encryption can be forced to work at the software level via a Group Policy setting, but the bad news is that they'll have to format their SSD and reinstall everything because old data will remain encrypted at the hardware level even if they change BitLocker's settings.

In addition, because the root of the problem resides in how vendors have implemented hardware-level encryption specifications, the two researchers have also advised the TCG working group to "publish a reference implementation of Opal to aid developers", and also make this sample implementation public so security researchers can probe it for vulnerabilities.

For those looking to secure their data, the researchers warn that software-based encryption systems may not offer complete protection: While arguing that the inclusion of AES-accelerating instructions in modern processors means that speed is no longer an issue in switching between software and hardware encryption, the pair found that some supposedly software-based systems default to using hardware encryption when available anyway - including Microsoft's BitLocker encryption facility, built into its Windows operating system - leaving them exposed to the same attacks.

This will ensure that future SEDs will implement the Opal specification in a correct manner where the user's data can not be recovered after cursory reverse engineering sessions. "From a security perspective, standards should favor simplicity over a high number of features".

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