The Anatomy of Hardware Reverse Engineering: An Exploration of Human Factors during Problem Solving


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Understanding of microchips, known as Hardware Reverse Engineering (HRE), is driven by analysts’ problem solving. This work sheds light on these hitherto poorly understood problem-solving processes. We propose a methodology addressing the problem of HRE experts being unavailable for research. We developed a training enabling students to acquire intermediate levels of HRE expertise. Besides one expert, we recruited eight top-performing students from this training for our exploratory study.

All participants completed a realistic HRE task involving the removal of a copyright protection mechanism from a hardware circuit. We analyzed 2445 log entries by applying an iterative open coding and developed a detailed hierarchical problem-solving model. Our exploration yielded insights into problem-solving strategies and revealed that two intermediates solved the task with a comparable solution time to the expert. We discuss that HRE problem solving may be a function of both expertise and cognitive abilities, and outline ideas for novel countermeasures.


Hardware Reverse Engineering
Understanding and Transforming Security and Privacy Behaviors