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RSA Laboratories

7.21 What is tamper-resistant hardware?

One part of designing a secure computer system is ensuring that various cryptographic keys can be accessed only by their intended user(s) and only for their intended purposes. Keys stored inside a computer can be vulnerable to use, abuse, and/or modification by an unauthorized attacker.

For a variety of situations, an appropriate way to protect keys is to store them in a tamper-resistant hardware device. These devices can be used for applications ranging from secure e-mail to electronic cash and credit cards. They offer physical protection to the keys residing inside them, thereby providing some assurance that these keys have not been maliciously read or modified. Typically, gaining access to the contents of a tamper-resistant device requires knowledge of a PIN or password; exactly what type of access can be gained with this knowledge is device-dependent.

Some tamper-resistant devices do not permit certain keys to be exported outside the hardware. This can provide a very strong guarantee that these keys cannot be abused: the only way to use these keys is to physically possess the particular device. Of course, these devices must actually be able to perform cryptographic functions with their protected keys, since these keys would otherwise be useless.

Tamper-proof devices come in a variety of forms and capabilities. One common type of device is a ``smart card,'' which is approximately the size and shape of a credit card. To use a smart card, one inserts it into a smart card reader that is attached to a computer. Smart Cards are frequently used to hold a user's private keys for financial applications; Mondex (see Question 4.2.4) is a system that makes use of tamper-resistant hardware in this fashion.

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