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I'm trying to build this Ethereum hardware wallet on a custom designed embedded system and I'm no expert. Googling around I found this Robust, low-cost, auditable random number generation for embedded system security paper. As I read the proposal in this paper, it sounded quite safe; a real TRNG. Neverthless, as I struggled to simulate the circuit in any online circuit builder, I thought that maybe I didn't need that much of a complicated system. Maybe using some sensors (humidity, light, vibration, sound) I could gather external data, use it to seed a PRNG and it would be safe enough. But I'm no expert neither in cryptography nor in private key generation practices.

What do you think? Is it reasonably safe enough to use simple external sensors to gather entropy and seed a PRNG? Or should I build this TRNG no matter the struggle? What are the drawbacks of using one over the other? What are the benefits?

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  • $\begingroup$ @PaulUszak When I simulate your 9V circuit, how should I measure the "entropy" terminal? I tried using a voltmeter, but at least in the simulation, it didn't change. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2021 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ Let the Gods be praised that they allow us to talk some electronics here. (Otherwise we can jump to the electronics forum if you like). Typical simulators do not have a Zener/Avalanche noise model. That's why nothing is changing. You have to inject external pseudo noise, usually via capacitive/resistive coupling. See electronics.stackexchange.com/q/55233/56469. Add say 100mVpp. $\endgroup$
    – Paul Uszak
    Nov 2, 2021 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ Any luck......? $\endgroup$
    – Paul Uszak
    Nov 3, 2021 at 13:22

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Bottom line up-front: don't do it.

First of all, what threat modeling have you done? In other words, if someone physically has the wallet (device) and they crack it open, the source of entropy is attackable (as it is an external circuit fed into the microcontroller). And most of these circuits have issues such as:

  • easily influenced or attacked via physical / evironmental attack (temp, voltage glitch, EMI, etc.)

  • aging. Many of these circuits have issues where after even only months, the entropy can drop by an order of magnitude.

Futhermore, it looks like (from the PDF you cited), not including NRE costs, the cost per unit is like 1.44 US dollars or so? At that is QTY 10K. Atmel (now Microchip) makes RNG chips (others too) that are totally validated, they resist physical attack (mesh), and they are like $0.50 in QTY 1 (see ATSHA204 as just one example). I think the Atmel chip drops to ~30 cents US in QTY 10K.

If you want to play around with this kind of circuit on your lab bench and in LTSPICE, fine, but if you're looking to do this is in a security product, there are better paths to choose.

Note: an MCU w/ built-in HRNG/TRNG is even harder to attack, although power/temp/glitch etc is still possible. But the attacker would have to de-cap the chip to tamper with the interface from RNG to microntroller's CPU.

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  • $\begingroup$ 1) Do you have any examples of bullet point 2? Non of my nine+ entropy sources vary by more than a few percent due to temperature variation. And that's irrelevant if you measure Hmin properly. $\endgroup$
    – Paul Uszak
    Nov 4, 2021 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ 2) How do you propose to validate Microchip's chips given computational indistinguishability? Take their (NSA's) word for it? $\endgroup$
    – Paul Uszak
    Nov 4, 2021 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ 3) Given a coin price of £3,314.01, why are you focusing on $0.30 costs? $\endgroup$
    – Paul Uszak
    Nov 4, 2021 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulUszak - wow, I seem to have really animated you. I appreciate your politeness (sincerely) about upvoting the question, I had only a couple minutes to reply and just forgot to upvote the question. i $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Nov 6, 2021 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ @PaulUszak Re 3) what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? If a solution is 20% of the price and is also superior (that part is subjective, clearly we may not agree), it doesn't matter if you're protecting a ball of lint or a bitcoin, now does it? Not to mention the NRE. Sorry, I don't know if you design embedded electronics for a career. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Nov 6, 2021 at 22:55

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