Need To Dump A Protected STM32F0x? Use Your Pico!

Sometimes, security mechanisms can be bypassed if you just do things slightly out of the ordinary. For instance, readout protection on microcontrollers is a given nowadays, to the point where it’s intentionally enabled and relied upon as a major technical measure to protect intellectual property. The gist is — when you connect to a microcontroller over its debug interface and then ask to read its flash memory, it will politely refuse. However, [Racerxdl] shows us that in practice, it’s not flawless protection – for certain chips, you just need to be a little quicker than usual.

Usually, flashing and debugging software will chat with the microcontroller for a bit, and probe parameters before going for any direct requests. However, if you skip the courtesy and bluntly get to the point immediately right after power is applied to the microcontroller, you can intimidate them just enough to give you one byte of its memory before it refuses to cooperate further. Since that can be any byte you wish, you can read the entire flash — one byte at a time.

You need to power cycle the chip before you can progress, so the hardware does involve a bit more than just an SWD interface, and it will take a fair bit more time than reading out a non-protected chip the usual way; plus, of course, the debugging interface needs to be active for this in the first place, which isn’t always the case. However, it still beats paying a few thousand dollars for a factory in China to decap your chip and read it out using a fancy machine.

[Racerxdl] didn’t just write a proof-of-concept for this attack – they implemented it for one of our favourite chips, the RP2040. As such, you no longer need an unobtainium STM32 to dump an unobtainium STM32.

To be clear, [Racerxdl] didn’t design this attack — it’s been around for some time now. Credit for that goes to Johanes Obermaier. All in all, this is a wonderful reminder that seemingly reliable security mechanisms can be foiled by the simplest tricks. For instance, if your chip erases the flash when you unlock its protection, you can just tell it not to.

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