Definition

hardware security

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

1. Hardware security is vulnerability protection that comes in the form of a physical device rather than software that is installed on the hardware of a computer system.

Hardware security can pertain to a device used to scan a system or monitor network traffic. Common examples include hardware firewalls and proxy servers. Less common examples include hardware security modules (HSM), which provision cryptographic keys for critical functions such as encryption, decryption and authentication for various systems. Hardware systems can provide more robust security than software is capable of and can also add an additional layer of security for important systems. 

2. The term hardware security also refers to the protection of physical systems from harm. Equipment destruction attacks, for example, focus on computing devices and networked non-computing devices such as the ever-increasing number of connected devices in M2M or IoT (Internet of Things) environments. These environments are bringing connectivity and communications to large numbers of hardware devices that must be protected through either hardware- or software-based security. 

To assess the security of a hardware device, it’s necessary to consider vulnerabilities existing from its manufacture as well as other potential sources such as running code and the device’s data I/O on a network. Although any device should be protected if it connects even indirectly to the internet, the stringency of that protection should be in accordance with need. A system controlling the color and intensity of lights in Wi-Fi LED for a dwelling, for example, may not require much security.

In the case of more significant hardware and more critical function, the added reliability and lower number of vulnerabilities associated with hardware-based security may make it advisable. Critical infrastructure includes systems, networks and assets whose continuous function is deemed necessary to ensure the security of a given nation, its economy, and the public’s health and/or safety. Critical infrastructure security is a growing area of concern around the world.

This was last updated in April 2016

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