Safe AND secure avionics? You can do that? Yup!

Although we all love connectivity and the benefits it brings us, there is a downside. By now, we’ve all heard about cars that have been hacked. Wired magazine even has an entire section of their website dedicated to the subject. Anytime you connect to a network, you open up your system to vulnerabilities.

Avionics systems are the same. These critical systems operate our airplanes, helicopters and airborne unmanned vehicles. Everything is moving to digital and they are increasingly being networked.

Digital display in cockpit
Increase use of digital cockpits

Historically (despite the recent 737 max 8 incidents), avionics systems have been remarkably safe – much safer than driving. One example of this can be found in this USA Today article quoted below.

“In absolute numbers, driving is more dangerous, with more than 5 million accidents compared to 20 accidents in flying. A more direct comparison per 100 million miles pits driving’s 1.27 fatalities and 80 injuries against flying’s lack of deaths and almost no injuries, which again shows air travel to be safer.”

How has air travel achieved such safe success? Through very diligent design methodologies combined with testing and verification procedures. These procedures are captured in the certification process known as DAL (Design Assurance Level). And the intensity of the testing and compliance depends on the system involved as noted below.

Design Assurance Levels

There are two components of this process, one for software and one for hardware:

The move to digital

But now the world is changing. These platforms are being networked for a number of reasons:

  • Connections to satellites for flight information, on-board entertainment and more
  • Nose-to-tail connectivity
  • Increasing use of AI and machine learning algorithms
  • Predictive real-time system monitoring

Even when a plane isn’t flying, it gets connected to testing equipment that receives updates through the internet. Any of these networks can introduce security issues.

Add to this, there is a push for open system architectures. For avionics, FACE is one of these important design paradigms. The goal of FACE is to make military computing more robust, interoperable and portable through use of a common operating environment.

So now design engineers need to balance the needs and requirements of safety with open architectures and security. Here are a couple of recent articles on the topic:

  • From Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine:
    Safety- and security-critical avionics software
    Functionality of avionics software continues to expand. Additional software capabilities bring many more lines of code, and greater opportunity for error. At the same time, the more critical an avionics software suite becomes, the higher its risk of cyber terrorism and of being hacked, so current and future avionics software offer safety and security through software development tools, testing and verification utilities, and operating systems that are tamper-proof.

What to do?

Mercury has invested in security for defense electronics for many years. We have designed techniques to detect and prohibit intrusion to key systems. Combined with our avionics safety capabilities, we are uniquely prepared to address the convergence of safety, open architectures and security.

Listen to this podcast

Scott Engle, Business Development Director for Mercury, was just interviewed for a podcast entitled Wheels Up! In this episode, Scott talks about the coexistence of safety and security in world of avionics and why the key to security in aviation may be tied to the reclassification of security-related failures.

And to learn more about secure design and manufacturing, read our recent whitepaper entitled: Next Generation Defense Electronics Manufacturing

Encryption Keys: The Cliffs Notes Version, Part 2

In my first post of this series, I explained terms relating to encryption keys and the standards that exist governing encryption key algorithms. Now I will spend some time on ATA passwords and how they correlate to encryption keys.

Clarifying the Functions of an Encryption Key and ATA Password

The role of an encryption key is commonly confused with the role of an ATA password.

The only purpose of an encryption key is to convert data to cipher text so it is illegible to anyone accessing the data without proper authorization and to then decrypt data back to plain text.

Read More

classified top-secret-data

Military-Grade Secure Solid State Drives Part 5: The Backdoor VIPs Don’t Know About

I used to work for a company that required us to remove any proprietary data from our laptop hard drive prior to traveling to some countries overseas. I didn’t know if it was because they could secretly access my hard drive as soon as I passed through immigration, or maybe a government-run internet meant any foreign user access would be monitored, recorded, and analyzed! I didn’t understand the multitude of threats to data security, which also includes backdoors designed into untrusted hardware that can lie dormant until triggered by an outside force. At the time, I did not have access to classified or top secret data, as I was working for a commercial company, but imagine if I did have high value data. What if a backdoor was triggered once I logged onto an unsecure foreign network?  What if that backdoor initiated a complete download of my hard drive without my knowledge? All because my employer trusted a commercial SSD without strict supply chain management of foreign-made components.

Read More

Data Security CSfC

Military-Grade SSDs Part 4: How Many Licks Does it Take to Get to the Center of a Tootsie Pop: One, Two…

What is the NSA hiding from us???  Hopefully all classified, secret and top secret data!

As part of their recent initiative to leverage commercial technologies in a sophisticated layered approach, the NSA is enabling an alternative to traditional Type 1 security solutions for the protection of data up to the Top Secret level. By adopting these agile commercial innovations, the Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) Program will save time and money for classified programs in all branches of government — from benign data centers to forward-deployed systems in harsh, unsecure environments. While I discuss the CSfC program in this blog post, the CSfC program’s website is the ultimate authority for up to date information.

Read More

Military-Grade Solid State Drives

Military-Grade Secure Solid State Drives Part 3: Diamonds are Forever; Encryption Keys Last Longer

Have you ever forgotten your password for your work laptop and had to go to your IT guy for help to reset it? Imagine if it was that easy when the data on the hard drive was classified or top secret.

Commercial SSDs use basic ATA password to access drive data. Military and government applications require higher security and therefore basic ATA passwords must be strengthened and sophisticated key management techniques employed.  Self-encrypting drives allow for up to 32 character passwords while Mercury drives 64 characters. One technique is to condition the password.  By this you can create a unique suffix to the end of a password that changes with each log-in, making the password impossible to hack.
Read More

AES256bit encryption

Military-Grade Secure Solid State Drives Part 2: Encryption Decoded

In my introduction to military grade SSDs I conjured an image from a familiar movie of a data recorder destroyed by internal combustion to remove evidence of high value data. While the end result is the same, the implementation of self-destruct in the real world can be a bit different than in Hollywood.  In military-grade solid state drives, self-destruction of data or a data storage device happens through sophisticated non-thermal events. Advanced algorithms are used to erase encryption keys, non-volatile NAND flash memory, and controller firmware.  Other mechanisms can be employed to wipe the drive by high powered magnetic exposure. In these scenarios the data and device will be rendered useless with no chance of reverse engineering, but no flames or bodily harm will ensue. Read More

Security hypervisor

Hypervisor – Part 1

The Engineers in Mercury’s SMP department have been adding to Mercury’s many capabilities and offerings on both Mercury’s 6U and 3U product lines. I will be featuring some of these over the next few weeks and months to show the commitment and ingenuity that our engineers have for our customers’ needs. One of these capabilities is the availability of Hypervisor. Development, Quality and Test Engineers have been looking for this type of capability on these platforms for a long time. With this product, you are able to control the level of security, isolation, authentication and protection to critical software, hardware and components within your system. You determine what level, depending on your or your customer’s needs. Read More

Military-Grade Solid State Drives

Military-Grade Secure Solid State Drives Part 1: Hollywood Imagination or Reality?

This message will self-destruct in five seconds…

Who knew that concept was anything but Hollywood imagination?  It is very real, particularly in today’s modern threat environment.  Protection including destruction of mission critical data has never been more relevant to the success of our military and government forces.

As our adversaries become more skilled in hacking and reverse-engineering, the impact of stolen or captured mission, classified, secret or top secret data can be catastrophic. Military systems and networks must continually incorporate innovative security protocols to combat the bombardment of attacks. Whether in forward-deployed unmanned systems or laptops used in office environments, data security must be in the forefront of design all the way down to the microelectronics.  Military grade microelectronics, including solid state drives, must embed security at the lowest level with sophisticated algorithms and design techniques.  Security cannot be bolted on.   When these capabilities are coupled with trusted design and manufacturing disciplines, military grade SSDs provide an unparalleled approach to data security.

In this blog I’ll address how Mercury is uniquely positioned as the trailblazer of secure military grade SSDs through our leading edge technologies and business practices.  In my upcoming posts Encryption Decoded and Diamonds are Forever. Encryption Keys Last Longer, I’ll explore the security advancements in military-grade secure SSDs.