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FPGA Security: Trends and Best Practices 

24 June 2024

Importance of FPGA Security in Modern Systems 

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have become indispensable across a variety of applications, from consumer electronics to critical infrastructure systems. Their flexibility and reprogrammability make them ideal for rapidly evolving technological needs. However, these same features also make FPGAs attractive targets for security threats. Ensuring FPGA security is paramount to maintaining the integrity, functionality, and reliability of the systems that depend on them. 

FPGA security is not just about protecting the hardware but also safeguarding the entire ecosystem, including the firmware, software, and data that interact with these devices. Given their widespread use in sensitive applications, any breach can have significant repercussions, ranging from operational disruptions to data theft and beyond. 

This blog post delves into the current trends and best practices in FPGA security, aiming to provide engineers with a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and solutions in this crucial area. 

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By the end of this post, you will have a thorough understanding of how to safeguard your FPGA designs against various security threats and the latest trends and best practices to follow in 2024 and beyond. 


Common Threats to FPGA Security 

FPGA security faces multiple threats that can compromise the integrity and functionality of these critical components. Understanding these threats is essential for implementing effective security measures. 

Threats to FPGA: Malware, Power Analysis Attacks, and More 

FPGA security is threatened by various vectors, each capable of compromising the integrity and functionality of these crucial components. Here are some of the most significant threats: 

  1. Malware: FPGAs can be targeted by malware through compromised bitstreams and firmware attacks. Attackers can insert malicious code into the bitstream during the design or update phases, altering the FPGA’s functionality to perform unauthorized operations. 
  2. Power Analysis Attacks: These attacks involve analyzing the power consumption patterns of an FPGA to extract sensitive information, such as encryption keys. This type of side-channel attack can be particularly effective in environments where FPGAs are used for cryptographic operations. 
  3. Radiation Effects: FPGAs used in high-radiation environments, such as aerospace and defense, are susceptible to Single Event Upsets (SEUs). These transient faults can cause data corruption or system failures. 
  4. Physical Tampering: Direct access to the FPGA allows attackers to reprogram or physically alter the device, potentially embedding malware or extracting sensitive data. 
  5. Timing Attacks: Timing attacks involve analyzing the time taken to execute cryptographic algorithms on FPGAs. By measuring these times, attackers can infer secret keys or other sensitive information. 
  6. Fault Injection Attacks: These attacks deliberately induce faults in the FPGA to disrupt normal operations and extract sensitive information or cause malfunctions. 
  7. Electromagnetic Analysis: Similar to power analysis, this technique involves monitoring the electromagnetic emissions of an FPGA to gather information about its operations and potentially extract sensitive data. 
  8. Configuration Attacks: Attackers can target the configuration processes of FPGAs, inserting malicious configurations that alter the device’s intended functionality. 
  9. Overbuilding and Cloning: Unauthorized production of additional FPGA devices using stolen designs, leading to potential security breaches and intellectual property theft. 
  10. Supply Chain Attacks: Inserting malicious components or code during the manufacturing or distribution stages, compromising the security of FPGAs before they even reach the end-user. 
  11. Side-Channel Attacks: Exploiting indirect information leakage (e.g., power consumption, electromagnetic emissions) to extract sensitive data from FPGAs. 
  12. Volatile Memory: FPGA memory can be volatile, meaning it loses its data when powered off. These characteristic impacts security, especially for storing sensitive information.  

To effectively protect FPGAs from these threats, engineers must implement comprehensive security strategies, including encryption, secure boot, and real-time monitoring. Fidus Systems offers advanced FPGA design and security solutions tailored to protect against these common threats. Our expertise in secure FPGA design ensures robust protection for your projects.

What Makes FPGAs Unique in Terms of Security? 

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) offer unique security features due to their flexible and reprogrammable nature. These characteristics allow for tailored security measures that can adapt to evolving threats. 

FPGA Architecture and Security 

FPGAs are composed of a matrix of configurable logic blocks (CLBs) connected via programmable interconnects. This architecture allows for significant customization, enabling developers to implement specific security protocols tailored to their applications.

Key security advantages of FPGA architecture include: 

  • Customization: Developers can design custom security features at the hardware level, making it harder for attackers to exploit generic vulnerabilities. 
  • Reprogrammability: FPGAs can be reprogrammed to address new security threats without the need for hardware replacements. This flexibility ensures that security measures can evolve in response to emerging threats. 
  • Isolation: FPGAs can isolate critical functions within the chip, preventing lateral movement of threats across different system domains. This isolation helps protect sensitive data and operations from unauthorized access. 

Comparing FPGA Security with Other Technologies 

When compared to other technologies, such as Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) or microcontrollers, FPGAs offer distinct security benefits: 

  • Adaptability: Unlike ASICs, which have fixed functionality once manufactured, FPGAs can be reconfigured to implement new security protocols or countermeasures as needed. This adaptability makes FPGAs particularly suited for environments where security requirements frequently change. 
  • Performance: FPGAs can perform parallel processing, which enhances the efficiency of security algorithms, such as encryption and decryption processes. This parallelism allows for faster and more secure data processing compared to microcontrollers, which typically execute instructions sequentially. 
  • Versatility: FPGAs can integrate multiple security functions on a single chip, including encryption, authentication, and secure boot processes. This integration reduces the need for additional security hardware, simplifying the overall system design and reducing potential points of vulnerability. 

To maximize the security benefits of FPGAs, it is essential to implement best practices and leverage the unique features of FPGA architecture. For more information on FPGA security and how Fidus Systems can help you secure your FPGA designs, visit Fidus FPGA Design Services. 

Staying ahead of security threats requires understanding the latest trends and innovations in FPGA security. Here are some of the most important trends shaping the future of FPGA security: 

Enhanced Encryption Techniques 

The adoption of advanced encryption algorithms such as AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), SHA2 (Secure Hash Algorithm 2), and SHA3 (Secure Hash Algorithm 3) is critical for securing FPGA designs. These algorithms provide robust protection against data breaches and unauthorized access. By encrypting the bitstream and sensitive data, FPGAs can ensure that only authorized users can interpret and utilize the information, making it significantly harder for attackers to compromise the system. 

Secure Boot Implementations 

Secure boot processes ensure that only verified code is executed on the FPGA. This technique involves using cryptographic signatures to validate the integrity and authenticity of the firmware before it is loaded. By implementing secure boot, FPGAs can prevent unauthorized firmware from running, thus protecting the system from potential malware attacks. This approach is particularly crucial in applications where the integrity of the firmware is paramount, such as in military or aerospace systems. 

Robust Authentication Protocols 

Implementing strong authentication protocols is essential to protect FPGA-based systems from unauthorized access. These protocols ensure that only trusted entities can interact with the FPGA, reducing the risk of tampering and unauthorized modifications. Methods such as multi-factor authentication (MFA) and Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) can significantly enhance the security of FPGA systems by ensuring that only authenticated users can access and configure the device. 

Partial Reconfiguration for Security 

Partial reconfiguration allows for updating specific sections of the FPGA while the rest of the system continues to operate. This capability is particularly useful for implementing security updates without causing system downtime. By enabling partial reconfiguration, engineers can apply patches and updates to vulnerable sections of the FPGA promptly, ensuring continuous protection against emerging threats. 

Isolation Design Flow 

Isolating different security domains within an FPGA prevents lateral movement of threats. By segregating critical functions, this approach minimizes the risk of a security breach affecting the entire system. Isolation design flow involves creating independent security zones within the FPGA, each with its own set of security controls. This technique ensures that even if one part of the FPGA is compromised, the rest of the system remains secure. 

Post-Quantum Threats 

With the rise of quantum computing, preparing for quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms is becoming increasingly important. These algorithms are designed to withstand the computational power of quantum computers, ensuring long-term security for FPGA-based systems. Transitioning to quantum-resistant algorithms will be crucial for applications requiring high security, such as financial services and national defense. 

Increased Connectivity and Complexity 

As FPGAs are integrated into more complex and interconnected systems, the security challenges increase. Addressing these challenges requires comprehensive security measures that cover all aspects of the FPGA’s operation. Increased connectivity exposes FPGAs to a broader range of potential attacks, necessitating robust network security protocols and continuous monitoring to detect and respond to threats. 


Nation-State Attacks 

Nation-state actors pose a significant threat to FPGA security, often targeting critical infrastructure for espionage and disruption. Robust security measures are necessary to protect against these sophisticated attacks. Defense against nation-state attacks requires a multi-layered security approach, including encryption, secure boot, and regular security audits to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities. 


Crypto agility involves dynamically changing cryptographic schemes to adapt to evolving threats. This approach ensures that FPGA-based systems remain secure even as new vulnerabilities are discovered. By employing crypto-agility, systems can quickly switch to stronger cryptographic algorithms when weaknesses are identified in existing ones, maintaining a high level of security. 

Obfuscation and Logic Locking 

Obfuscation techniques and logic locking help secure FPGA hardware by making it difficult for attackers to reverse-engineer the design. These methods add an extra layer of protection against hardware-level attacks. Obfuscation involves deliberately complicating the design to confuse attackers, while logic locking integrates secret keys into the design that must be known to operate the FPGA correctly. 

Understanding and implementing these trends is crucial for maintaining the security of FPGA-based systems. 

Best Practices for FPGA Security 

Implementing robust security measures is essential to protect FPGA-based systems from the numerous threats they face. Here are some best practices to enhance FPGA security: 

  • Adopting Secure Design Principles: Incorporate security at the initial design phase by using threat modeling and conducting security reviews. Secure design principles should be integrated into every stage of the FPGA development process to identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities early on.
  • Regular Security Audits : Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments to identify and mitigate security risks. Regular audits help ensure that any new vulnerabilities are detected and addressed promptly, maintaining the security integrity of FPGA systems. 
  • Leveraging High-Level Synthesis Tools : Utilize high-level synthesis (HLS) tools that incorporate security features to reduce coding errors and enhance security. These tools can automatically implement best practices for secure coding, reducing the risk of vulnerabilities due to human error. 
  • Implementing Real-Time Monitoring : Integrate real-time monitoring and logging to detect and respond to security incidents promptly. Real-time monitoring can help identify suspicious activities or anomalies that may indicate a security breach, allowing for immediate action. 
  • Utilizing Trusted Platforms : Deploy FPGA solutions on platforms with built-in security features like Altera, AMD/Xilinx, Lattice, and Microchip SoCs. Trusted platforms offer advanced security capabilities, including secure boot and hardware-based encryption, providing a strong foundation for secure FPGA implementations. 
  • Ensuring Data Integrity : Implement error detection and correction codes (ECC) to protect data integrity. ECC can detect and correct errors, ensuring that data remains accurate and reliable even in the presence of faults or attacks. 
  • Robust Bitstream Protection : Ensure that the FPGA bitstream is protected through strong encryption and authentication methods. Bitstream encryption prevents unauthorized access and modifications, safeguarding the integrity of the FPGA’s configuration. 
  • Multi-Layered Security Approach : Employ a multi-layered security approach, including encryption, obfuscation, and access control. Multiple layers of security provide redundancy, ensuring that if one layer is compromised, others remain effective in protecting the system. 
  • Zero-Trust Supply Chain : Adopt a zero-trust approach to the supply chain, ensuring all components and suppliers are thoroughly vetted and verified. A zero-trust supply chain strategy helps prevent the introduction of malicious components or code during manufacturing and distribution. 
  • Utilize eFPGAs for Critical Applications : Use embedded FPGAs (eFPGAs) for critical applications to reduce attack vectors. eFPGAs can be integrated into larger systems, providing additional security by isolating critical functions from potential threats. 
  • Fault Injection and Side-Channel Attack Mitigation : Implement countermeasures against fault injection and side-channel attacks. Techniques such as redundant computation and noise generation can help mitigate the effects of these attacks, protecting sensitive information. 
  • Crypto-Agility and Dynamic Protection : Implement dynamically changing cryptographic keys and algorithms to maintain crypto agility. This approach ensures that security measures can adapt to evolving threats, maintaining robust protection over time. 
  • Transparent and Secure Update Mechanisms : Ensure seamless and secure firmware and bitstream updates. Secure update mechanisms prevent unauthorized modifications and ensure that the FPGA system remains up to date with the latest security patches. 
  • Design-for-Test (DFT) Functionality Management : Control DFT capabilities post-production to prevent backdoor access. Managing DFT functionality ensures that testing features do not become a vector for attacks once the FPGA is deployed. 
  • Consultation with Security Professionals : Engage security experts for designing and reviewing FPGA security measures. Professional consultation can provide insights into best practices and emerging threats, helping to ensure comprehensive security coverage. 

By following these best practices, engineers can significantly enhance the security of their FPGA-based systems, protecting against a wide range of potential threats. 


Summarizing Key Points 

In this blog, we explored the critical aspects of FPGA security, including the common threats such as malware, power analysis attacks, and radiation effects. We also discussed the unique security features of FPGAs and highlighted the latest trends in FPGA security, such as enhanced encryption techniques and secure boot implementations. Best practices like adopting secure design principles, regular security audits, real-time monitoring, and robust bitstream protection were emphasized as essential measures to enhance FPGA security. 

What We Learned from the Blog 

  • Common Threats: Understanding the various threats FPGAs face, including malware, power analysis attacks, and physical tampering. 
  • Security Trends: Keeping up with trends like post-quantum threats and increased connectivity challenges. 
  • Best Practices: Implementing secure design principles, regular audits, and leveraging trusted platforms are crucial for maintaining FPGA security. 
  • Unique Features: FPGAs offer unique security advantages due to their customizable and reprogrammable nature. 

Future Directions in FPGA Security 

As technology advances, the future of FPGA security will likely involve: 

  • Quantum-Resistant Cryptography: Developing and implementing algorithms that can withstand the computational power of quantum computers. 
  • Enhanced Real-Time Threat Detection: Utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect and respond to security threats in real-time. 
  • Greater Integration of Security Features: Embedding advanced security protocols directly into FPGA hardware to provide more robust protection against evolving threats. 

If you have any questions or need assistance with securing your FPGA designs, book a consult at Fidus Systems for expert guidance and support. Our team is ready to help you navigate the complexities of FPGA security and ensure your projects are protected against the latest threats. 

FAQ: FPGA Security 

Are FPGAs Vulnerable to Malware? 

Yes, FPGAs are vulnerable to malware. Malware can infiltrate through compromised bitstreams, malicious firmware updates, and physical tampering, altering FPGA functionality to perform unauthorized operations. 

Is FPGA Memory Volatile? 

Yes, FPGA memory is often volatile, meaning it loses data when power is lost. This can have implications for security, particularly in maintaining the integrity of sensitive information. 

What Are the Radiation Effects on FPGAs? 

Radiation can cause Single Event Upsets (SEUs) in FPGAs, leading to incorrect data processing and potential system malfunctions. SEUs are transient faults caused by radiation strikes. 

Are Cloud FPGAs Really Vulnerable to Power Analysis Attacks? 

Yes, cloud-based FPGAs are particularly vulnerable to power analysis attacks. In shared environments, attackers can exploit power consumption data to infer cryptographic keys and other sensitive information. 

What Is FPGA in Firewall? 

FPGAs in firewalls are used to enhance performance and flexibility in processing network traffic. They can be programmed to handle specific security functions, such as deep packet inspection and encryption, providing a customizable and high-speed solution for firewall applications. 

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