More SEs + TEEs in Products = Improved Security

Global Platform announced in 4Q2019 that more than 1 billion TEE (Trusted Execution Environment) compliant devices shipped in 2018, and that is a 50% increase from the previous year. Moreover, 6.2 billion SEs (Secure Elements) were shipped in 2018, bringing the total number of SEs manufactured to over 35 billion since 2010.

This is good news for cybersecurity and identity management. TEEs are commonly found in most Android-based smartphones and tablets. A TEE is the secure area in the processor architecture and OS that isolates programs from the Rich Execution Environment (REE) where most applications execute. Some of the most important TEE characteristics include:

  • All code executing in the TEE has been authenticated
  • Integrity of the TEE and confidentiality of data therein is assured by isolation, cryptography, and other security mechanisms
  • The TEE is designed to resist known remote and software attacks, as well as some hardware attacks.

See Introduction to Trusted Execution Environments for more information.

A Secure Element (SE) is a tamper-resistant component which is used in a device to provide the security, confidentiality, and multiple application environments required to support various business models. Such a Secure Element may exist in any form factor such as UICC, embedded SE, smartSD, smart microSD, etc. See Introduction to Secure Elements for more information.

Global Platform has functional and security certification programs, administered by independent labs, to ensure that vendor products conform to their standards.

These features make TEEs the ideal place to run critical apps and apps that need high security, such as mobile banking apps, authentication apps, biometric processing apps, mobile anti-malware apps, etc. SEs are the components where PKI keys and certificates, FIDO keys, or biometrics templates that are used for strong or multi-factor authentication apps should be securely stored.

The FIDO Alliance™ has partnered with Global Platform on security specifications. FIDO has three levels of authenticator certification, and using a TEE is required for Level 2 and above. For example:

  • FIDO L2: UAF implemented as a Trusted App running in an uncertified TEE
  • FIDO L2+: FIDO2 using a keystore running in a certified TEE
  • FIDO L3: UAF implemented as a Trusted App running in a certified TEE using SE

See FIDO Authenticator Security Requirements for more details.

KuppingerCole recommends as a best practice that all such apps should be built in to run in a TEE and store credentials in the SE. This architecture provides for the highest security levels, ensuring that unauthorized apps cannot get access to the stored credentials, interfere with operation of the trusted app; and this combination presents a Trusted User Interface (TUI) which prevents other apps from recording or tampering with user input, as in cases where PIN authentication is included.

In recent Leadership Compasses, we have asked whether vendor products for mobile and IoT can utilize the TEE, and if key and certificate storage is required, whether vendor products can store those data assets in the SE. To see which vendors use SEs and TEEs, see the following Leadership Compasses:

In addition to mobile devices, Global Platform specifications pertain to IoT devices. IoT device adoption is growing, and there have been a myriad of security concerns due to the generally insecure nature of many types of IoT devices. Global Platform’s IoTopia initiative directly addresses these security concerns as they work to build a comprehensive framework for designing, certifying, deploying and managing IoT devices in a secure way.

KuppingerCole will continue to follow developments by Global Platform and provide insights on how these important standards can help organizations improve their security posture.


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