I would like to know if there are some symptoms that let me detect if my integrated circuit is actually subject to a side channel attack.

For example, are the following potential indicators?

  • Energy consumption becomes too high
  • Temperature becomes too high

3 Answers 3


Side channel attacks are variably understood as excluding or including fault attacks. Let's start with the excluding definition, where side channel attacks monitor a device running some security-critical process, without deliberately attempting to alter its normal operation.

The most straightforward and perhaps earliest form of side channel attack is probing the internals of the circuit using contacts on the physical traces (e.g. of a PCB); that's called micro-probing when done directly on an IC. The archetypal goal of probing is capturing the data bus of a microprocessor system, letting one examine all that it manipulates. Some devices have dedicated sensors to detect probing; see e.g. figures 2 and 3 in Ross Anderson, Mike Bond, Jolyon Clulow, Sergei Skorobogatov Cryptographic Processors - A Survey, in proceedings or IEEE, 2006. On occasion, micro-probing indirectly cause misbehavior and can be detected as some fault attacks are in software, see last 5 bullets.

Many side channel attacks (including most with the keyword Differential) require many cryptographic computations to be performed. Counting the number of computations (with a carefully implemented power-loss-resistant counter in EEPROM or Flash) and limiting that number is a from of detection, and is effective if a small enough limit is functionally acceptable. Alternatively, the key can change regularly (e.g. every 100 uses), but typically that must be integrated in the specifications, and recovery in case of protocol errors can be an issue; and that's prevention rather than detection as asked.

In the special case of Power Analysis, it conceivably could be detected that a test setup inserts a resistor on Vcc or Gnd (the simplest option for a Power Analysis setup), and thus that the power supply voltage (which the device can measure) changes with DC power consumption (that the device can change by turning on or off some circuits, or changing a frequency divider). The effective series resistance of the power supply could thus be estimated to some degree, and attack suspected above some threshold. However, doing this has a risk of false positive (e.g. if the power contacts are dirty); and it could be circumvented by a better attack setup. I do not know that this line of defense is used.

Other forms of side-channel attacks seem basically undetectable to me. One can not hope to test if something is timing execution, monitoring EMI emission..

Fault attacks are detectable, high-security ICs (like those in many Smart Cards) have sensors for that, and high-security software has countermeasures trying to block these attacks by performing redundant checks. There are things like:

  • Vcc out-of-range or/and rapid change sensor.
  • Light sensor, to detect optical flash or laser pulses, as well as careless use of the IC in lighted environment after epoxy removal or de-passivation.
  • Clk frequency out-of-bounds detector (glitching Clk used to be an effective fault attack in early Smart Cards; but the trend is internally generated clock).
  • Temperature-out-of-bound sensor.
  • Mesh(es) and associated sensors: one ore more mesh(es) (a long wired forming a regular pattern) is/are added on top of the IC or circuit, and it is hopped that probing will interfere with the mesh, activating some sensor: mesh-has-been-opened, meshes-have-been-shorted, capacitance-between-meshes surveillance (which has a chance to detect de-passivation). See this archived FlyLogic blog, read after Mesh Comparison.
  • Internal self-test: like stuck TRNG detector, parity check on bus or memory, or even dual CPUs performing the same operations concurrently with their result matched.
  • Checking results of cryptographic computations; the archetypal one is checking that $x\equiv y^e\pmod N$ after having computed $y=x^d\bmod N$ in RSA (especially if the computation of $y$ was using the CRT).
  • Redundant implementation and testing of critical states, like are the access rights granted by a proper PIN presentation.
  • Checksums on critical variables or code.
  • I imagine, much more..

Note: I have not much touched prevention (rather than detection) of Side Channel and Fault attack, which is a much wider subject.

  • $\begingroup$ thank you very much for this great answer, I have one last question, I don't understand just the detection of side channel attack on mesh sensors? could you explain the idea please? and I would be very gratefull if you could sends me some sources(article, thesis ...) about those types of detection please? thank you in advance. $\endgroup$ Oct 21, 2017 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ I added links illustrating micro-probing and meshes. One recent article is Michael Weiner, Salvador Manich, Georg Sigl, A Low Area Probing Detector for Power Efficient Security ICs, in revised selected papers of RFIDSec 2014. Googling security tamper mesh gives interesting results. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Oct 21, 2017 at 15:17

Yes, both energy consumption and temperature can be used to attack chips. The first attack is known as a Power Analysis attack. A more advanced and strong form of power analysis is called Differential Power Analysis, where repetition of the attack is used together with some basic statistics. These can be combined with active attacks such as fault injection attacks.

With regards to temperature: it is possible to make thermal images of a chip surface, which might leak some information. Generally the resolution isn't that high though, so it is tricky to extract meaningful information. Temperature differences are tricky to measure as differences on a small area will quickly level out.

Note that determination if there is an attack possible almost comes down to performing the attack. If nothing is found then the chip may or may not be susceptible to such attacks. A positive outcome of course does mean that there are problems though. And there are other side channel attacks as well, such as timing attacks.

  • $\begingroup$ thank you very much for your answer, but my question is about detection of side channel attack, do you have any idea how to detect that my device is having a side channel attack? $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2017 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ I've explained in the last paragraph that basically you will have to perform the attack. You won't have the equipment so send it to lab, e.g. Riscure. $\endgroup$
    – Maarten Bodewes
    Oct 20, 2017 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ I have already make the CPA attack, template attack, but All what I have done is to take some traces of Energy consumption, then I use that traces to extract the secret key, but I don't notice any strange behavior in my device. That's what make me crazy. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2017 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ @user6652926 The device can detect if an attack is happening if you watch the Vdd input "bounce" due to the resistors that are used in a power attack, etc. $\endgroup$
    – b degnan
    Oct 20, 2017 at 14:32

You seem to be asking how to detect if you are under attack not to detect if you are vulnerable. Such detection techniques tend to be heuristic in nature. But there are things you could look out for which are common side channel attacks.

In general the attacker monitors the side channel while the system is doing some cryptography. A completely passive side channel attack can not be detected. Though many attacks aren't possible or simply way to slow with out the attacker being more active. Usually using legitimate protocols to cause the system to perform more specific and rapid secret key operations. You can watch out for rapid requests from same source. You can watch out for failed decryption attempts. You can watch out for repeated requests with similar plain/cipher text. All of these are common in side channel attacks.


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