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Java Card Security

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    Java Security Goes Both Ways

    There are a large and growing number of Java systems running the gamut from Java gizmos such as Java rings, through smart cards with built-in Java interpreters (the subject of this chapter), to complete Java Development Kits and Integrated Development Environments (IDEs). Java is simultaneously making in-roads on many fronts. In distributed systems, Java-based servers and servlets are becoming as common as Java clients.

    As with any platform meant to interact in a networked world, there are security concerns with each flavor of Java. These concerns take on a new urgency when it comes to e-commerce. When electronic blips are money, the stakes change considerably. It may be an inconvenience to lose a Web server that amounts to fancy brochureware; it is something else entirely if the Web server and its associated backend perform all customer transactions. The security concerns raised by e-commerce are a large enough topic in their own right that there is no way we can do them justice here.

    Of course, because Java is commonly used at all levels in e-commerce systems, the risks we identify have serious e-commerce implications. This is especially true for Java cards. Counterintuitively, Java is both growing and shrinking at the same time. On one hand, the JDK, now up to Java 2, is doubling in size with each major release. Just to complicate matters, at the same time as the explosive growth of the code base is occurring, the security architecture is undergoing major reorganization.

    What Is a Smart Card? 

    A smart card looks just like a credit card, only with a chip embedded in its plastic. Imagine replacing the hologram on a standard credit card with a similarly thin chip and you get the idea. Most smart card chips are about the size of a dime (only thinner) and can be recognized by their distinctive gold terminals.

    Visa’s Open Platform classes interact with Java Card to provide a secure framework for which to develop smart card applications. (This figure used by permission from Visa. ) A smart card chip is actually a complete little computer with nonvolatile memory, storage, a card operating system (COS), and accompanying communication protocols. The most advanced smart cards on the market have the processing power once found in an IBM-XT (with less memory, of course). There are many different uses for smart cards.

    Smart cards can serve as:

    • Security cards that are able to identify the carrier using advanced authentication algorithms and can safely store secrets like private keys
    • Electronic wallet cards that use several different approaches to store value and provide a kind of electronic cash
    • Transaction cards that take over the role once played by the magnetic stripe commonly found on the back of credit cards
    • Processor cards that carry out proprietary calculations in a black box fashion
    • Memory cards that act as highly portable databases

    Cards with Virtual Machines that run Java applets Unlike traditional computers, smart cards are not delivered with a built-in power supply, a keyboard, or a display device. That means smart cards require a terminal in order to work. Such a terminal is usually called a smart card reader or a card acceptance device (CAD).

    Some of these readers can be quite small and provide limited capabilities. For example, one CAD popular in Europe among users of stored-value telephone cards is not much bigger than a smart card itself. This CAD’s sole purpose is to display the balance of money stored on the card. Having a trusted device with which to query a card you own is important for consumer peace of mind, especially when spending money at businesses that are of questionable trustworthiness. Plus, it’s nice to be able to verify that transactions, like adding money to a card, actually happen properly. ) CADs are also present at merchant sites (usually in the form of point-of-sale devices) and at issuing banks. These CADs may look much like a typical point-of-sale credit card processor, with a small display screen and a few buttons for answering queries or entering PINs.

    In similar fashion to today’s ATMs, a smart card is inserted directly into the reader. The reader then provides power to the card and sets it up to receive software commands. Although a CAD of this sort may look like an ATM on the outside, a smart card is much more powerful than an ATM card or a mag-stripe credit card. These latter cards store only a few kilobytes of information on the magnetic stripe and are not capable of performing computations. Smart cards can store many megabytes of information and carry out sophisticated cryptographic calculations.

    Another sort of CAD more commonly encountered by developers is a CAD connected directly to the serial port of a standard PC. Using development environments similar to those used in normal application development, programmers can create code for smart cards, download it into a prototyping card, and in this way create new smart card applications. Most major smart card vendors have proprietary Java development environments: Gemplus offers the GemXpresso environment; Schlumberger offers Cyberflex.

    There are many custom command sets for smart cards. In fact, there are so many custom environments and they are so specialized that the number of smart card programmers is very small. Considering that smart cards are traditionally programmed in platform-specific assembly languages and that each vendor has a different language, the small number of programmers should come as little surprise. The situation could be worse, of course. At least all of the major vendors conform to a set of common communications standards.

    The ISO 7816 specifications provide at least some common ground and ensure that smart cards have similar terminal pin-outs, accept standard protocol messages, and store some information in databases of common design [ISO7816, 1987]. ISO 7816 defines some commands in great detail and lays out communication protocols used by smart cards. Because of the existence of 7816, a smart card made by, say, Gemplus, can interface with a CAD meant for, say, Schlumberger cards. Smart cards have long been associated with security since they provide a partial solution to the need for personal identification and nonrepudiation.

    Because smart cards provide more nonvolatile storage than other highly portable devices, they make ideal storage compartments for digital identities. They can also compute hashes, session keys, digital signatures, and MACs right on the card.

    Why Put Java on a Smart Card?

    As we mentioned earlier, one obstacle blocking widespread use of smart cards in U. S. arkets has been the large number of incompatible and often obscure development languages available for writing smart card applications. Regardless of the ISO 7816 specifications, programming languages for smart cards have traditionally amounted to special-purpose assembly languages. Few developers were familiar with card application languages, the upshot being that only a handful of people could develop smart card code. As cards become computationally more powerful, new application languages are being designed and put into use. One of the most interesting new systems is Java Card 2.

    The problem of multiple, noninteroperable platforms is not limited to smart cards, of course. A major part of Java’s appeal is that it was designed as a cross-platform solution. Developers have always wanted a solution to the platform problem (other than the adoption of one single proprietary platform controlled by a monopoly). Java is one good way of addressing the platform problem on smart cards. A Java card is a smart card that is able to execute Java byte code, similar to the way Java-enabled browsers can.

    But standard Java with all of its libraries (especially in the Java 2 guise) is far too big to fit on a smart card. A solution to this problem is to create a stripped-down flavor of Java. Card Java is just such a flavor. It’s based on a subset of the Java API plus some special-purpose card commands. Besides providing developers with a more familiar development environment, Card Java also allows smart cards to have multiple applications on them. For the most part, existing smart card products (especially in the financial arena) have only one application per card.

    This application is automatically invoked when power is provided to the card or the card is otherwise reset. The one-application-per-card paradigm doesn’t scale well, to say the least. Who wants to carry 20 credit cards around? Card Java can solve this problem by allowing multiple applications, potentially written by different organizations, to exist on the same card.

    How Can Java Fit on a Card?

    Even a stripped-down version of Java and its accompanying VM requires a fair amount of computational power in order to work. To be capable of running Card Java, a smart card must have at least 16K of read-only memory, 8K of EEPROM, and 256 bytes of random access memory. Given a Java Virtual Machine on a smart card, the number of possible new applications is mind-boggling. With an off-the-shelf (or off-the-Net) application development environment for Card Java, thousands of Java developers will be able to program smart cards. Gemplus and Schlumberger both distribute commercial Card Java environments. Of course, the memory and interface constraints of smart cards deeply affect programming style, testing concerns, and other aspects of program development.

    The JCRE is made up of the Virtual Machine and the core classes of the Java Card API. It keeps track of applets that are selected and currently active. The JCRE is in this sense the card executive, receiving messages (known as APDUs) on the input lines and carrying out the appropriate activities such as selecting an applet. Only one applet can run at a time in current Card Java implementations. Future versions of Card Java are likely to allow applets to be loaded onto an existing card even after it has been issued to a consumer (much the same way that applet code is loaded into a browser’s VM).

    This introduces a number of security risks, including the risk that downloaded applet code will behave maliciously (in the manner of the hostile applets detailed in Chapter 4, “Malicious Applets: Avoiding a Common Nuisance,” and Chapter 5, “Attack Applets: Exploiting Holes in the Security Model”) and the risk that poorly engineered code will disable or otherwise break the platform. Unlike VMs inside browsers, a smart card VM is not quite as easy to restart, nor are the security mechanisms as rigorous. By this point, it should be clear that Card Java has important security implications.

    How Secure Are Smart Cards? 

    Before we dig into the security implications raised by putting a Java VM on a smart card, we need to address the issue of basic smart card platform security. Smart cards are funny things. Depending on how they’re used, smart cards can sometimes be meant to keep secrets from the very people who carry them around and use them. Consider, for example, a smart card that stores monetary value in an internal register.

    If the card user can figure out a way to change the value of the register outside of traditional means, he or she might be able to mint money! Smart cards like this make tempting targets for bad guys. Because smart cards are often used in security-critical situations, they have undergone a fair amount of scrutiny from security researchers. Two main results are worth considering before we get into security issues specific to Java:

    • the terminal problem
    • physical attacks on the card.

    The Terminal Problem Smart cards need a way to interact with their users.

    Since there is no built-in display capability in most cards, the CAD must take on this responsibility. Any display used during critical transactions, such as transferring money, needs to have two properties: the display must be trustworthy, and it must be unspoofable. Making sure a terminal presents proper and trustworthy information to a user is known as the terminal problem. The terminal problem is really a trust issue. How is a card user to be sure that the card is doing what it is supposed to be doing during a transaction?

    How can a card user check to see whether account balances (for example) have been properly debited or credited? The problem is that cards are very much black boxes. Many systems now on the drawing board include the use of personal computers as client-side CADs. Consumers will use a PC to interact with the smart card and to address the concerns raised by the terminal problem. The problem is that PCs are notoriously insecure, especially when they’re used to exchange lots of documents and programs, as most consumers do. If you use your computer this way, you’re taking on a great deal of risk.

    One direct consequence of PC untrustworthiness is a PC’s impotence relative to the terminal problem. If your PC can’t be trusted, how can you believe that what it is telling you on behalf of your smart card is correct? In fact, one excellent reason for using smart cards at all is that PCs can’t be trusted. The reasoning goes that it is better to store secrets like PINs, sensitive personal data, and private keys on a smart card than on a PC. That way, if the PC is compromised, your secrets can’t be so easily stolen. However, this leaves us with the terminal problem.

    A scenario can make this more concrete. Imagine that someone has tampered with your Web browser either by hacking into your PC or by tampering with the Web browser executable before you downloaded it. Now clearly you can’t trust the browser not to steal or rewrite data on the way from your smart card to you.

    In fact, the PDA can replace the smart card entirely since it can easily carry out all the required computations. (PDAs are probably too unwieldy for this idea. It’s much easier to slide a smart card into your wallet than a PalmPilot. ) Unfortunately, there is not much reason to trust a PalmPilot much more than a PC these days. The problem is that newer PalmPilots and other PDAs are designed to network with PCs directly (sometimes even using a TCP/IP stack). That’s good news if you want to transfer data to and from your PDA, but it’s risky.

    Just like a PC, a PalmPilot is probably insecure if you frequently download programs onto it. Crackers are currently devising hacks that work against PalmPilots. In the end, we’re stuck with the terminal problem. As smart cards move into more widespread use on PCs, PC-based interfaces will be especially susceptible to this problem. An insecure Windows 95 OS in concert with a Web browser should not be trusted to display critical information to a smart card user. A PDA might do the trick, but is likely to carry similar risks. Physical Attacks on Smart Cards

    The most obvious and direct attack on a smart card is a physical attack on the card itself. In the case of a stored-value card, this sort of attack may even be carried out by the owner of a card. Physical attacks attempt to reverse engineer the card and determine the secret key(s). Such attacks have been demonstrated in practice against commercial secure smart card chips, most notably by three groups of researchers: Dan Boneh, Richard DeMillo, and Richard Lipton of Bellcore; Ross Anderson of Cambridge and Marcus Kuhn of Purdue; and Paul Kocher and colleagues of Cryptography Research, Inc.

    Boneh, DeMillo, and Lipton Boneh, DeMillo, and Lipton, three Bellcore researchers, published a paper called On the Importance of Checking Cryptographic Protocols for Faults in which they pointed out that an adversary who can introduce computational errors into a smart card can deduce the values of cryptographic keys hidden in the smart card [Boneh, et al. , 1997]. The surprising part is that an attacker can do this even without precisely controlling the nature of the errors or even the exact timing of the errors.

    By comparing the result of an erroneous encryption with the result of a correct encryption of the same data, the attacker can learn something about the correct encryption key. By doing enough of these comparisons, the attacker can learn enough information to deduce the entire encryption key. How does the attacker introduce errors? There are plenty of ways. The attacker can subject the smart card to fluctuations in temperature, input voltage, or clock rate; point a radiation source at the card; or hit the card with a rubber mallet.

    More sophisticated attacks requiring professional equipment and materials involve uncovering the layers of a chip by etching, discerning chip behavior by advanced infrared probing, and reverse-engineering chip logic. The somewhat gloomy conclusion is that, at best, chip designers can only impose costs and delays on attackers, never providing guaranteed security. Many businesses that rely on smart card security realize this and do all they can to manage the risks prudently. Users should do the same.

    Some caveats: the Anderson and Kuhn work is somewhat dated and is based on attacks carried out in the lab against conventional micro-controllers, which are usually much simpler than today’s smart cards. Micro-controllers provide a great deal of open access to potential attackers since they are meant to be interactively programmed. For example, micro-controllers often provide an interface for external memory; generally speaking, smart cards don’t have this feature. Thus they provide less of a beachhead for attacks. Of course Java complicates this line of reasoning somewhat.

    Card Java provides a platform that is meant to be programmable in the sense that applets may be loaded onto a smart card after it is issued. Mechanisms for loading new code onto a smart card provide a good starting point for an attacker. Differential Power Analysis In 1998, Researchers at Cryptography Research, Inc. , led by Paul Kocher, publicly announced a new set of attacks against smart cards called Differential Power Analysis (DPA). DPA can be carried out successfully against most smart cards currently in production.

    DPA is a complicated attack that relies on statistical inferences drawn on power consumption data measured during smart card computation. The equipment required to perform DPA is simple: a modified smart card reader and some off-the-shelf PCs. The algorithm itself is quite complex, but details have been widely published. Chips inside a smart card use different amounts of power to perform different operations. By hooking a card up to an oscilloscope, a pattern of power consumption can be measured.

    Particular computations create particular patterns of spikes in power consumption. Careful analysis of the peaks in a power consumption pattern can lead to the discovery of information about secret keys used during cryptographic computations. Sometimes the analysis is straightforward enough that a single transaction provides sufficient data to steal a key. More often, thousands of transactions are required. The types of sensitive information that can leak include PINs and private cryptographic keys.

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    Java Card Security. (2018, Jun 21). Retrieved from

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