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System Firmware

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System Firmware
ID T0857
Tactic Persistence, Inhibit Response Function
Data Sources Firmware: Firmware Modification, Network Traffic: Network Traffic Content, Network Traffic: Network Traffic Flow
Asset Safety Instrumented System/Protection Relay, Field Controller/RTU/PLC/IED, Input/Output Server


System firmware on modern assets is often designed with an update feature. Older device firmware may be factory installed and require special reprograming equipment. When available, the firmware update feature enables vendors to remotely patch bugs and perform upgrades. Device firmware updates are often delegated to the user and may be done using a software update package. It may also be possible to perform this task over the network.

An adversary may exploit the firmware update feature on accessible devices to upload malicious or out-of-date firmware. Malicious modification of device firmware may provide an adversary with root access to a device, given firmware is one of the lowest programming abstraction layers.1

Procedure Examples

  • In the Ukraine 2015 Incident, Sandworm Team developed and used malicious firmware to render communication devices inoperable.2
  • Triton is able to read, write and execute code in memory on the safety controller at an arbitrary address within the device’s firmware region. This allows the malware to make changes to the running firmware in memory and modify how the device operates.3


  • Communication Authenticity - Protocols used for device management should authenticate all network messages to prevent unauthorized system changes.
  • Network Allowlists - Use host-based allowlists to prevent devices from accepting connections from unauthorized systems. For example, allowlists can be used to ensure devices can only connect with master stations or known management/engineering workstations.4
  • Encrypt Network Traffic - The encryption of firmware should be considered to prevent adversaries from identifying possible vulnerabilities within the firmware.
  • Access Management - All devices or systems changes, including all administrative functions, should require authentication. Consider using access management technologies to enforce authorization on all management interface access attempts, especially when the device does not inherently provide strong authentication and authorization functions.
  • Boot Integrity - Check the integrity of the existing BIOS or EFI to determine if it is vulnerable to modification. Use Trusted Platform Module technology.5 Move system's root of trust to hardware to prevent tampering with the SPI flash memory.6 Technologies such as Intel Boot Guard can assist with this.7
  • Code Signing - Devices should verify that firmware has been properly signed by the vendor before allowing installation.
  • Encrypt Sensitive Information - The encryption of firmware should be considered to prevent adversaries from identifying possible vulnerabilities within the firmware.
  • Network Segmentation - Segment operational network and systems to restrict access to critical system functions to predetermined management systems.4
  • Filter Network Traffic - Filter for protocols and payloads associated with firmware activation or updating activity.
  • Audit - Perform integrity checks of firmware before uploading it on a device. Utilize cryptographic hashes to verify the firmware has not been tampered with by comparing it to a trusted hash of the firmware. This could be from trusted data sources (e.g., vendor site) or through a third-party verification service.