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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Understanding Physical Security Attacks

Physical security is a very important element when defending an organization against any security risk. The following sections provide an overview of physical device security and facilities/building security concepts.

Understanding Physical Device Security


Attackers with physical access to a device can perform a large number of attacks. Of course, device theft is one of the most common risks and the main reason it is important to encrypt workstations, laptops, and mobile devices as well as to enable remote wipe and remote recovery features. On the other hand, a few more sophisticated attacks and techniques can be carried out, including the following:

  • Cold boot attacks: Cold boot is a type of side channel attack in which the attacker tries to retrieve encryption keys from a running operating system after using a cold reboot (system reload). Cold boot attacks attempt to compromise the data remanence property of DRAM and SRAM to retrieve memory contents that could remain readable in the seconds to minutes after power has been removed from the targeted system. Typically, this type of attack by using removable media to boot a different operating system used to dump the contents of pre-boot physical memory to a file.

  • Serial console debugging, reconnaissance, and tampering: Many organizations use terminal servers (serial console servers) to allow remote access to the serial port of another device over a network. These devices provide remote access to infrastructure devices (for example, routers, switches), servers, and industrial control systems. They are also used to provide out-of-band access to network and power equipment for the purpose of recovery in the case of an outage. Many serial devices do not require authentication and instead assume that if you are physically connected to a serial port, you probably are assumed to be allowed to configure and connect to the system. Clearly, this can be abused by any attacker to gain access to a victim system. Even if terminal servers may allow you to connect using a non-privileged account, attackers can use unprotected serial consoles for reconnaissance and debugging to then perform further attacks on the targeted system.

  • JTAG debugging, reconnaissance, and tampering: JTAG is a hardware access interface that allows a penetration tester to perform debugging of hardware implementations. Debuggers can use JTAG access registers, memory contents, and interrupts, and they can even pause or redirect software instruction flows. JTAG can be an effective attack research tool because it allows debugging software (such as OpenOCD) control over a JTAG interface. OpenOCD can be used to manipulate the JTAG’s TAP controller and to send bits to a state machine with the goal of the chip being able to interpret them as valid commands. These types of tools allow you to debug firmware and software in devices via the GNU Project Debugger (GDB) or even interact with other tools like IDA Pro and other disassemblers and debuggers.

Clearly, an attacker with physical access to the targeted system has an advantage. Physical security to protect buildings and facilities is therefore crucial. In the next section, you will learn details about different physical security threats and attacks against buildings and facilities.

Protecting Your Facilities Against Physical Security Attacks


Numerous types of attacks can be carried to infiltrate facilities and to steal sensitive information from an organization. The following are some of the most common of them:

  • Piggybacking/tailgating: An unauthorized individual may follow an authorized individual to enter a restricted building or facility.

  • Fence jumping: An unauthorized individual may jump a fence or a gate to enter a restricted building or facility.

  • Dumpster diving: An unauthorized individual may search for and attempt to collect sensitive information from the trash.

  • Lockpicking: An unauthorized individual may manipulate or tamper with a lock to enter a building or obtain access to anything that is protected by a lock. Lock bypass is a technique used in lockpicking. Locks may be bypassed in many ways, including by using techniques such as simple loiding attempts (using a “credit card” or similar items against self-closing “latch” locks) and bypassing padlocks by shimming.

  • Egress sensors: Attackers may tamper with egress sensors to open doors.

  • Badge cloning: Attackers may clone the badges of employees and authorized individuals to enter a restricted facility or a specific area in a building. One of the most common techniques is to clone radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags (refer to Chapter 5).

Exam Preparation Tasks

As mentioned in the section “How to Use This Book” in the Introduction, you have a couple of choices for exam preparation: the exercises here, Chapter 11, “Final Preparation,” and the exam simulation questions in the Pearson Test Prep software online.

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