Microsoft engineers have started working on a new project codenamed TCPS —short for Trusted Cyber Physical Systems— that is intended to provide a hardened system for securing Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Control Systems (ICS) devices.

Microsoft formally announced TCPS at the Hannover Messe 2018, a trade show for industrial technology that took place last week.

TCPS is a tri-component system

According to Microsoft, TCPS systems are designed to utilize three elements to catch and block intrusions.

The first is a hardware-level Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs) such as Intel SGX, ARM TrustZone, and SecureElements. Such systems are found on processors and are hardware-separated areas of modern CPUs meant to process highly-sensitive information.

If low-resource ICS or IoT devices don't come with support for a hardware-level TEE component, then companies are supposed to deploy a so-called "brownfield gateway," an intermediary point that funnels all commands from upstream equipment to IoT devices, sensors, actuators, or safety control systems through one server/host (that supports a TEE).

The second component is a graphical user interface (GUI) that is meant to appear on what Microsoft considers a "Secure Confirmation Terminal," operated by a trusted employee.

Whenever a TEE gateway receives a command to execute certain operations, a GUI prompt will appear on the trusted terminal. No code executes unless it gets approval from the human operator.

If the operator confirms an operation, then the TEE cryptographically signs the command that is then forwarded for use by the rest of the system.

But if a command to execute came out of nowhere, the operator can easily detect when malware might be trying to interact with IoT/ICS systems, and block the attempt before it can cause any harm.

The third and last component of Microsoft's TCPS is a cloud-based platform that could be used for provisioning, key management, certificate authority, patch management, and tamper-proof logging. Since we're talking about a Microsoft project, Azure will be the default go-to solution.

TCPS meant to provide protection for "data in execution"

Normally, good IoT and ICS systems utilize various security features to protect data in transit (data moving between devices — e.g., use of HTTPS encryption) and data at rest (data stored on a device — e.g., cryptographic file signatures).

According to Microsoft, the purpose of its new TCPS project is to add support for the last missing piece in IoT and ICS systems design —protection for data in execution— by utilizing TEEs, similar to how they're used on desktops and laptops.

Microsoft cited the recent attacks with the Trisis/Triton malware as the reason it started working on TCPS. This malware has been used in a cyber-attack last year when hackers attempted to intentionally damage safety systems at an Aramco gas and oil plant in order to cause an explosion that could lead to physical damage and even loss of human life.

More details about Microsoft's new TCPS project are available in this 18-page whitepaper.

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