Build critical security into many facets of your circuit

Jim Harrison

security into a MCU circuit design has many facets and many types of solutions.
Keeping in mind that it’s the system-level security that is certifiable, you
will need to start with some necessary hardware in or attached to the microcontroller
to have a chance at getting good, and maybe certifiable, security. And, while
connected systems have the most critical need for security, even standalone
designs may need tamper protection for your important IP.


Kinetis K63FN1MOV
MCU from NXP fits cost-sensitive applications requiring low-power, USB and 100 Ethernet
connectivity, and security. The 120-MHz Cortex-M4-based MCU has 1 Mbyte of
flash and 256 Kbytes of SRAM. Security and integrity features include:

  • A hardware CRC
  • Tamper detect and
    secure storage
  • A hardware
    random-number generator
  • Hardware
    encryption supporting DES, 3DES, AES, MD5, SHA-1, and SHA-256 algorithms
  • A 128-bit unique ID
    number for each chip

Run-time power consumption is 250 μA/MH, typical. Static power consumption is 5.8
μA with full state retention and 5-μs wakeup. Tamper detection includes
active/passive pin, temperature, clock, and supply voltage monitoring. The chip
runs from a 1.71- to 3.6-V supply and operates up to 105°C. The IC has a CAN port, dual 16-bit A/D converters,
dual 12-bit D/A converters, a reference, and comparators. It has two eight-channel
Flex-Timers (PWM/Motor control), two two-channel FlexTimers (PWM/Quad decoder),
and a PLL, an FLL, and multiple internal oscillators.


This chip
costs $6.02 ea/10,000. Other NXP devices with the same security features, but
without an Ethernet port and with 50-MHz clock speeds have prices as low as
$2.45 ea/10,000 (MK11DX128AVLK5).

Texas Instruments

The MSP430 low-power 16-bit MCUs provide embedded
security systems that allow designers to prevent, detect and respond to
unintended or malicious behavior, including MCU reverse-engineering. The MSP430FR5
and MSP430FR6 versions provide a 256-bit AES accelerator to verify the
integrity of data as well as repudiate the credentials of any untrusted participant.

The chips can
protect code from external readout attacks using the standard debug or firmware
upgrade channels. They provide the means to either secure JTAG using a password
or to disable it completely by programming a fuse signature in FRAM. In cases
where the JTAG is disabled, access to the device is possible only using
bootstrap loader (BSL). The BSL requires a password to read out or receive
data. This password is the content of the interrupt vector table — which is a
list of addresses or locations for interrupt service routines used in the
application. Providing an incorrect password will result in the entire FRAM
code area being mass-erased.


algorithms need secure storage of a key. This can be achieved easily in the
MSP430 since you can generate a new key for every session and quickly store it
in internal NV FRAM. The chips also have a 128-bit true random seed that can be
used to implement a deterministic random-number generator for key creation.


Atmel offers the ATAES132A EEPROM crypto
element device with secure hardware-based key storage. It provides both
authentication and confidential nonvolatile data-storage capabilities. The 32-Kbyte serial EEPROM memory has 16 user zones of 2 Kbytes each. High-security
features include:

  • AES algorithm
    with 128-bit Keys
  • AES-CCM for authentication
  • Message authentication
    code capability
  • Guaranteed unique
    die serial number
  • Secure storage
    for up to 16 128-bit keys
  • Encrypted user
    memory read and write
  • A high-quality
    FIPS random number generator
  • 16 high-endurance
    monotonic EEPROM counters
  • User zone access
    rights independently configured
  • Authentication prior
    to zone access
  • Read/write,
    encrypted, or read-only user zone options

The chip uses a 10-MHz SPI (Mode 0 and 3) or 1-MHz
Standard I2C Interface and needs a 2.5- to 5.5-V power supply.
Authentication is often used in financial transaction products and to verify a
product is genuine. It is priced from $0.72 ea/1,000.


The MAX32550
DeepCover secure Cortex-M3 based microcontroller from Maxim Integrated offers
all of the essential functions for secure mobile payment and pin pads. The IC is
based on a Cortex M3 processor with 1 Mbyte of flash, 256 Kbytes of RAM, and 8
Kbytes of battery-backed AES self-encrypted NVSRAM. It includes all of the
essential functions of mobile POS terminal:

  • AES, DES, and SHA crypto hardware acceleration
  • A secure boot
    loader with public key authentication
  • A 256-Bit flip-flop-based battery backed up AES key storage
  • A true random-number generator
  • A battery-backed
  • Environmental and
    tamper detection circuitry
  • A magnetic stripe
  • A smart card
    controller with embedded transceiver to support 1.8-, 3.3-, and 5-V cards
  • A secure keypad


The chip also provides a seamless interface to
TFT displays and includes a vast array of peripherals, SPIs, and UARTs. 

Inside Secure

can also obtain security hardware in the form of IP for your SoC design. VaultIP
from Inside Secure gives designers a tool to secure IoT devices. The family’s
synthesizable IP includes fixed-function cryptographic accelerators, secure
lockboxes for key storage, secure policy-based key usage, and secure boot
capability. It ships in three flavors targeting different security features and
available die areas. The light version, called the VaultIP-100, includes strong
device authentication, secure key storage, and a true-random-number generator.
The company estimates this version consumes about 50,000 gates, or about 0.05 mm2
in a 40-nm technology.