Public Key Re-Use for Signing both Debug and Production Code

The same public key is used for signing both debug and production code.


A common usage of public-key cryptography is to verify the integrity and authenticity of another entity (for example a firmware binary). If a company wants to ensure that its firmware runs only on its own hardware, before the firmware runs, an encrypted hash of the firmware image will be decrypted with the public key and then verified against the now-computed hash of the firmware image. This means that the public key forms the root of trust, which necessitates that the public key itself must be protected and used properly.

During the development phase, debug firmware enables many hardware debug hooks, debug modes, and debug messages for testing. Those debug facilities provide significant, additional views about the firmware's capability and, in some cases, additional capability into the chip or SoC. If compromised, these capabilities could be exploited by an attacker to take full control of the system.

Once the product exits the manufacturing stage and enters production, it is good practice to use a different public key. Debug firmware images are known to leak. With the debug key being reused as the production key, the debug image will also work on the production image. Thus, it will open all the internal, debug capabilities to the attacker.

If a different public key is used for the production image, even if the attacker gains access to the debug firmware image, they will not be able to run it on a production machine. Thus, damage will be limited to the intellectual property leakage resulting from the debug image.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

This example illustrates the danger of using the same public key for debug and production.

Suppose the product design requires frugality of silicon real estate. Assume that originally the architecture allows just enough storage for two 2048-bit RSA keys in the fuse: one to be used for debug and the other for production. However, in the meantime, a business decision is taken to make the security future-proof beyond 2030, which means the architecture needs to use the NIST-recommended 3072-bit keys instead of the originally-planned 2048-bit keys. This means that, at most, one key can be fully stored in the fuses, not two. So the product design team decides to use the same public key for debug and production.
Increase the storage so that two different keys of the required size can be stored.

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Protection Mechanism Failure

Weaknesses in this category are related to protection mechanism failure.

Debug and Test Problems

Weaknesses in this category are related to hardware debug and test interfaces such as JTAG and scan chain.

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

Weakness Base Elements

This view (slice) displays only weakness base elements.

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