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Secure Element (SE) Meaning

Oct 24, 2023 | Updated Oct 24, 2023
A Secure Element (SE) is a microprocessor chip that facilitates the secure storage and processing of sensitive data. It is commonly used in SIM cards, passports and credit cards.

What is a Secure Element (SE)?

A Secure Element (SE) is a secure hardware component or chip that stores and processes highly sensitive data. It holds important user data, such as biometric information and banking and transaction information, and protects it from malware attacks. Secure Element can be perceived as a ‘nomad’ type of HSM.

In crypto context, an SE can be used in hardware wallets to provide an extra layer of security for private keys. Despite how secure hardware wallets are, a hacker can still perform physical attacks if the wallet comes into their possession. This is where the SE comes in. 

The Secure Element protects sensitive information with intrinsic countermeasures that make it tamper-proof and resistant to hacking. Entropy, from which the secret recovery phrase and private keys are derived, in cryptocurrency wallets is generated within the SE. The private keys never leave the SE The SE protects your hardware wallet against software attacks and physical attacks, including fault attacks and side-channel attacks.  For instance, they can withstand cold-boot attacks, a form of side-channel attack where a malicious actor physically accesses your device to perform a memory dump in the RAM. This forces a hard reset of the device. 

Fault attacks

A fault attack occurs when a hacker manipulates your hardware wallet circuit to disable the device’s internal protection. The goal is to cause an error in the wallet, such as causing it to skip a step during transaction processing or producing a wrong output. 

A Secure Element is designed to detect any abnormal behaviors in the circuit. If the chip flags any suspicious activity, it can react, for instance, by wiping the private key and recovery phrase to prevent the hacker from accessing an individual’s wallet and digital assets. 

Side channel attacks

In a side-channel attack, hackers attempt to extract private keys from a hardware wallet by using external indicators that reveal the function of the device. For instance, a hacker with your hardware wallet could try to match its power consumption pattern or electromagnetic emissions with cryptographic data in their database. The SE can generate artificial and dummy power consumption events such that it becomes more complex to correlate the performed operations to the attacker’s actual power consumption. This makes it nearly impossible to make out the electromagnetic emission and power usage readings.

Where is a Secure Element Chip Used?

The Secure Element runs in numerous applications, ranging from authentication in online systems to digital signatures and mobile payment services. It is used in mobile devices and Smart Card applications, such as SIM cards, passports, and credit cards, since it stores data in a way that is inaccessible to malicious actors.

Hardware wallet providers, such as Ledger, use secure element chips in their hardware devices to generate and store private keys.


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