Flash Encryption is a feature for encrypting the contents of the ESP32’s attached SPI flash. When flash encryption is enabled, physical readout of the SPI flash is not sufficient to recover most flash contents.
Flash Encryption is separate from the Secure Boot feature, and you can use flash encryption without enabling secure boot. However, for a secure environment both should be used simultaneously.
When using any non-default configuration in production, additional steps may also be needed to ensure effectiveness of flash encryption. See Securing Flash Encryption for more details.
Enabling flash encryption limits your options for further updates of your ESP32. Make sure to read this document (including Limitations of Flash Encryption) and understand the implications of enabling flash encryption.
The contents of the flash are encrypted using AES-256. The flash encryption key is stored in efuse internal to the chip, and is (by default) protected from software access.
Flash access is transparent via the flash cache mapping feature of ESP32 - any flash regions which are mapped to the address space will be transparently decrypted when read.
Encryption is applied by flashing the ESP32 with plaintext data, and (if encryption is enabled) the bootloader encrypts the data in place on first boot.
Not all of the flash is encrypted. The following kinds of flash data are encrypted:
Secure boot bootloader digest (if secure boot is enabled)
All “app” type partitions
Any partition marked with the “encrypted” flag in the partition table
It may be desirable for some data partitions to remain unencrypted for ease of access, or to use flash-friendly update algorithms that are ineffective if the data is encrypted. NVS partitions for non-volatile storage cannot be encrypted since NVS library is not directly compatible with flash encryption. Refer to NVS Encryption for more details.
The flash encryption key is stored in efuse key block 1, internal to the ESP32 chip. By default, this key is read- and write-protected so software cannot access it or change it.
By default, the Efuse Block 1 Coding Scheme is “None” and a 256 bit key is stored in this block. On some ESP32s, the Coding Scheme is set to 3/4 Encoding (CODING_SCHEME efuse has value 1) and a 192 bit key must be stored in this block. See ESP32 Technical Reference Manual section 188.8.131.52 System Parameter coding_scheme for more details. The algorithm operates on a 256 bit key in all cases, 192 bit keys are extended by repeating some bits (details). The coding scheme is shown in the
esptool.pyconnects to the chip, or in the
The flash encryption algorithm is AES-256, where the key is “tweaked” with the offset address of each 32 byte block of flash. This means every 32 byte block (two consecutive 16 byte AES blocks) is encrypted with a unique key derived from the flash encryption key.
Although software running on the chip can transparently decrypt flash contents, by default it is made impossible for the UART bootloader to decrypt (or encrypt) data when flash encryption is enabled.
If flash encryption may be enabled, the programmer must take certain precautions when writing code that uses encrypted flash.
Storing Encrypted Data¶
Aside from encrypting the firmware binary, the app may need to store some sensitive data in an encrypted form. For example, in a filesystem or NVS data partition.
The recommended way to do this is to use NVS Encryption .
Alternatively, it is possible to use the Wear Levelling feature with an encrypted partition, if the “encrypted” flag is set on the partition. This allows, for example, a VFAT partition to be stored encrypted in flash.
The following are not suitable and will store data where an attacker with physical access can read it out:
- Custom efuse fields (these can be write protected against modification but not read protected if the app needs to read them)
- SPIFFS (SPIFFS is optimized for the read and write behavior of NOR flash, so it’s not possible to encrypt this filesystem)
Flash Encryption Initialisation¶
This is the default (and recommended) flash encryption initialisation process. It is possible to customise this process for development or other purposes, see Flash Encryption Advanced Features for details.
Once flash encryption is enabled on first boot, the hardware allows a maximum of 3 subsequent flash updates via serial re-flashing. A special procedure (documented in Serial Flashing) must be followed to perform these updates.
- If secure boot is enabled, physical reflashing with plaintext data requires a “Reflashable” secure boot digest (see Flash Encryption & Secure Boot).
- OTA updates can be used to update flash content without counting towards this limit.
- When enabling flash encryption in development, use a pregenerated flash encryption key to allow physically re-flashing an unlimited number of times with pre-encrypted data.**
Process to enable flash encryption:
- The bootloader must be compiled with flash encryption support enabled. In
make menuconfig, navigate to “Security Features” and select “Yes” for “Enable flash encryption on boot”.
- If enabling Secure Boot at the same time, it is best to simultaneously select those options now. Read the Secure Boot documentation first.
- Build and flash the bootloader, partition table and factory app image as normal. These partitions are initially written to the flash unencrypted.
The bootloader app binary
bootloader.bin may become too large when both secure boot and flash encryption are enabled. See Bootloader Size.
- On first boot, the bootloader sees FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse is set to 0 (factory default) so it generates a flash encryption key using the hardware random number generator. This key is stored in efuse. The key is read and write protected against further software access.
- All of the encrypted partitions are then encrypted in-place by the bootloader. Encrypting in-place can take some time (up to a minute for large partitions.)
Do not interrupt power to the ESP32 while the first boot encryption pass is running. If power is interrupted, the flash contents will be corrupted and require flashing with unencrypted data again. A reflash like this will not count towards the flashing limit.
- Once flashing is complete. efuses are blown (by default) to disable encrypted flash access while the UART bootloader is running. See Enabling UART Bootloader Encryption/Decryption for advanced details.
FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIGefuse is also burned to the maximum value (
0xF) to maximise the number of key bits which are tweaked in the flash algorithm. See Setting FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIG for advanced details.
- Finally, the FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse is burned with the initial value 1. It is this efuse which activates the transparent flash encryption layer, and limits the number of subsequent reflashes. See the Updating Encrypted Flash section for details about FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse.
- The bootloader resets itself to reboot from the newly encrypted flash.
Using Encrypted Flash¶
ESP32 app code can check if flash encryption is currently enabled by calling
Once flash encryption is enabled, some care needs to be taken when accessing flash contents from code.
Scope of Flash Encryption¶
Whenever the FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse is set to a value with an odd number of bits set, all flash content which is accessed via the MMU’s flash cache is transparently decrypted. This includes:
- Executable application code in flash (IROM).
- All read-only data stored in flash (DROM).
- Any data accessed via
- The software bootloader image when it is read by the ROM bootloader.
The MMU flash cache unconditionally decrypts all data. Data which is stored unencrypted in the flash will be “transparently decrypted” via the flash cache and appear to software like random garbage.
Reading Encrypted Flash¶
To read data without using a flash cache MMU mapping, we recommend using the partition read function
esp_partition_read(). When using this function, data will only be decrypted when it is read from an encrypted partition. Other partitions will be read unencrypted. In this way, software can access encrypted and non-encrypted flash in the same way.
Data which is read via other SPI read APIs are not decrypted:
- Data read via
esp_spi_flash_read()is not decrypted
- Data read via ROM function
SPIRead()is not decrypted (this function is not supported in esp-idf apps).
- Data stored using the Non-Volatile Storage (NVS) API is always stored and read decrypted from the perspective of Flash Encryption. It is up to the library to provide encryption feature if required. Refer to NVS Encryption for more details.
Writing Encrypted Flash¶
Where possible, we recommend using the partition write function
esp_partition_write. When using this function, data will only be encrypted when writing to encrypted partitions. Data will be written to other partitions unencrypted. In this way, software can access encrypted and non-encrypted flash in the same way.
esp_spi_flash_write function will write data when the write_encrypted parameter is set to true. Otherwise, data will be written unencrypted.
The ROM function
esp_rom_spiflash_write_encrypted will write encrypted data to flash, the ROM function
SPIWrite will write unencrypted to flash. (these function are not supported in esp-idf apps).
The minimum write size for unencrypted data is 4 bytes (and the alignment is 4 bytes). Because data is encrypted in blocks, the minimum write size for encrypted data is 16 bytes (and the alignment is 16 bytes.)
Updating Encrypted Flash¶
OTA updates to encrypted partitions will automatically write encrypted, as long as the
esp_partition_write function is used.
The FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse allows the flash to be updated with new plaintext data via serial flashing (or other physical methods), up to 3 additional times.
The process involves flashing plaintext data, and then bumping the value of FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse which causes the bootloader to re-encrypt this data.
Only 4 plaintext serial update cycles of this kind are possible, including the initial encrypted flash.
After the fourth time encryption is enabled, FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse has the maximum value
0x7F (7 bits set) and encryption is permanently enabled.
Cautions With Serial Flashing¶
- When reflashing via serial, reflash every partition that was initially written with plaintext data (including bootloader). It is possible to skip app partitions which are not the “currently selected” OTA partition (these will not be re-encrypted unless a plaintext app image is found there.) However any partition marked with the “encrypt” flag will be unconditionally re-encrypted, meaning that any already encrypted data will be encrypted twice and corrupted.
make flashshould flash all partitions which need to be flashed.
- If secure boot is enabled, you can’t reflash plaintext data via serial at all unless you used the “Reflashable” option for Secure Boot. See Flash Encryption & Secure Boot.
Serial Re-Flashing Procedure¶
- Build the application as usual.
- Flash the device with plaintext data as usual (
esptool.pycommands.) Flash all previously encrypted partitions, including the bootloader (see previous section).
- At this point, the device will fail to boot (message is
flash read err, 1000) because it expects to see an encrypted bootloader, but the bootloader is plaintext.
- Burn the FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse by running the command
espefuse.py burn_efuse FLASH_CRYPT_CNT. espefuse.py will automatically increment the bit count by 1, which disables encryption.
- Reset the device and it will re-encrypt plaintext partitions, then burn the FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse again to re-enable encryption.
To prevent any further serial updates, see Securing Flash Encryption.
Reflashing via Pregenerated Flash Encryption Key¶
It is possible to pregenerate a flash encryption key on the host computer and burn it into the ESP32’s efuse key block. This allows data to be pre-encrypted on the host and flashed to the ESP32 without needing a plaintext flash update.
This is useful for development, because it removes the 4 time reflashing limit. It also allows reflashing the app with secure boot enabled, because the bootloader doesn’t need to be reflashed each time.
This method is intended to assist with development only, not for production devices. If pre-generating flash encryption for production, ensure the keys are generated from a high quality random number source and do not share the same flash encryption key across multiple devices.
Pregenerating a Flash Encryption Key¶
Flash encryption keys are 32 bytes of random data. You can generate a random key with espsecure.py:
espsecure.py generate_flash_encryption_key my_flash_encryption_key.bin
(The randomness of this data is only as good as the OS and it’s Python installation’s random data source.)
Alternatively, if you’re using secure boot and have a secure boot signing key then you can generate a deterministic SHA-256 digest of the secure boot private signing key and use this as the flash encryption key:
espsecure.py digest_private_key --keyfile secure_boot_signing_key.pem --keylen 256 my_flash_encryption_key.bin
(The same 32 bytes is used as the secure boot digest key if you enable reflashable mode for secure boot.)
Generating the flash encryption key from the secure boot signing key in this way means that you only need to store one key file. However this method is not at all suitable for production devices.
Burning Flash Encryption Key¶
Once you have generated a flash encryption key, you need to burn it to the ESP32’s efuse key block. This must be done before first encrypted boot, otherwise the ESP32 will generate a random key that software can’t access or modify.
To burn a key to the device (one time only):
espefuse.py --port PORT burn_key flash_encryption my_flash_encryption_key.bin
First Flash with pregenerated key¶
After flashing the key, follow the same steps as for default Flash Encryption Initialisation and flash a plaintext image for the first boot. The bootloader will enable flash encryption using the pre-burned key and encrypt all partitions.
Reflashing with pregenerated key¶
After encryption is enabled on first boot, reflashing an encrypted image requires an additional manual step. This is where we pre-encrypt the data that we wish to update in flash.
Suppose that this is the normal command used to flash plaintext data:
esptool.py --port /dev/ttyUSB0 --baud 115200 write_flash 0x10000 build/my-app.bin
Binary app image
build/my-app.bin is written to offset
0x10000. This file name and offset need to be used to encrypt the data, as follows:
espsecure.py encrypt_flash_data --keyfile my_flash_encryption_key.bin --address 0x10000 -o build/my-app-encrypted.bin build/my-app.bin
This example command will encrypts
my-app.bin using the supplied key, and produce an encrypted file
my-app-encrypted.bin. Be sure that the address argument matches the address where you plan to flash the binary.
Then, flash the encrypted binary with esptool.py:
esptool.py --port /dev/ttyUSB0 --baud 115200 write_flash 0x10000 build/my-app-encrypted.bin
No further steps or efuse manipulation is necessary, because the data is already encrypted when we flash it.
Disabling Flash Encryption¶
If you’ve accidentally enabled flash encryption for some reason, the next flash of plaintext data will soft-brick the ESP32 (the device will reboot continously, printing the error
flash read err, 1000).
You can disable flash encryption again by writing FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse:
- First, run
make menuconfigand uncheck “Enable flash encryption boot” under “Security Features”.
- Exit menuconfig and save the new configuration.
make menuconfigagain and double-check you really disabled this option! If this option is left enabled, the bootloader will immediately re-enable encryption when it boots.
make flashto build and flash a new bootloader and app, without flash encryption enabled.
components/esptool_py/esptool) to disable the FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse)::
- espefuse.py burn_efuse FLASH_CRYPT_CNT
Reset the ESP32 and flash encryption should be disabled, the bootloader will boot as normal.
Limitations of Flash Encryption¶
Flash Encryption prevents plaintext readout of the encrypted flash, to protect firmware against unauthorised readout and modification. It is important to understand the limitations of the flash encryption system:
- Flash encryption is only as strong as the key. For this reason, we recommend keys are generated on the device during first boot (default behavior). If generating keys off-device (see Reflashing via Pregenerated Flash Encryption Key), ensure proper procedure is followed.
- Not all data is stored encrypted. If storing data on flash, check if the method you are using (library, API, etc.) supports flash encryption.
- Flash encryption does not prevent an attacker from understanding the high-level layout of the flash. This is because the same AES key is used for every pair of adjacent 16 byte AES blocks. When these adjacent 16 byte blocks contain identical content (such as empty or padding areas), these blocks will encrypt to produce matching pairs of encrypted blocks. This may allow an attacker to make high-level comparisons between encrypted devices (ie to tell if two devices are probably running the same firmware version).
- For the same reason, an attacker can always tell when a pair of adjacent 16 byte blocks (32 byte aligned) contain identical content. Keep this in mind if storing sensitive data on the flash, design your flash storage so this doesn’t happen (using a counter byte or some other non-identical value every 16 bytes is sufficient).
- Flash encryption alone may not prevent an attacker from modifying the firmware of the device. To prevent unauthorised firmware from running on the device, use flash encryption in combination with Secure Boot.
Flash Encryption & Secure Boot¶
It is recommended to use flash encryption and secure boot together. However, if Secure Boot is enabled then additional restrictions apply to reflashing the device:
- OTA Updates are not restricted (provided the new app is signed correctly with the Secure Boot signing key).
- Plaintext serial flash updates are only possible if the Reflashable Secure Boot mode is selected and a Secure Boot key was pre-generated and burned to the ESP32 (refer to Secure Boot docs.). In this configuration,
make bootloaderwill produce a pre-digested bootloader and secure boot digest file for flashing at offset 0x0. When following the plaintext serial reflashing steps it is necessary to re-flash this file before flashing other plaintext data.
- Reflashing via Pregenerated Flash Encryption Key is still possible, provided the bootloader is not reflashed. Reflashing the bootloader requires the same Reflashable option to be enabled in the Secure Boot config.
Securing Flash Encryption¶
In a production setting it’s important to ensure that flash encryption cannot be temporarily disabled.
This is because if the Secure Boot feature is not enabled, or if Secure Boot is somehow bypassed by an attacker, then unauthorised code can be written to flash in plaintext. This code can then re-enable encryption and access encrypted data, making flash encryption ineffective.
This problem must be avoided by write-protecting FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse and thereby keeping flash encryption permanently enabled.
The simplest way to do this is to enable the configuration option CONFIG_FLASH_ENCRYPTION_DISABLE_PLAINTEXT (enabled by default if Secure Boot is enabled). This option causes FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse to be write protected during initial app startup, or during first boot when the bootloader enables flash encryption. This includes if an app with this option is OTA updated.
Alternatively, FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse can be write-protected using the serial bootloader:
espefuse.py --port PORT write_protect_efuse FLASH_CRYPT_CNT
A third option with more flexibility: the app can call
esp_flash_write_protect_crypt_cnt() at a convenient time during its startup or provisioning process.
Flash Encryption Advanced Features¶
The following information is useful for advanced use of flash encryption:
Encrypted Partition Flag¶
Some partitions are encrypted by default. Otherwise, it is possible to mark any partition as requiring encryption:
In the partition table description CSV files, there is a field for flags.
Usually left blank, if you write “encrypted” in this field then the partition will be marked as encrypted in the partition table, and data written here will be treated as encrypted (same as an app partition):
# Name, Type, SubType, Offset, Size, Flags nvs, data, nvs, 0x9000, 0x6000 phy_init, data, phy, 0xf000, 0x1000 factory, app, factory, 0x10000, 1M secret_data, 0x40, 0x01, 0x20000, 256K, encrypted
- None of the default partition tables include any encrypted data partitions.
- It is not necessary to mark “app” partitions as encrypted, they are always treated as encrypted.
- The “encrypted” flag does nothing if flash encryption is not enabled.
- It is possible to mark the optional
phy_initdata as encrypted, if you wish to protect this data from physical access readout or modification.
- It is not possible to mark the
nvspartition as encrypted.
Enabling UART Bootloader Encryption/Decryption¶
By default, on first boot the flash encryption process will burn efuses
DISABLE_DL_ENCRYPTdisables the flash encryption operations when running in UART bootloader boot mode.
DISABLE_DL_DECRYPTdisables transparent flash decryption when running in UART bootloader mode, even if FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse is set to enable it in normal operation.
DISABLE_DL_CACHEdisables the entire MMU flash cache when running in UART bootloader mode.
It is possible to burn only some of these efuses, and write-protect the rest (with unset value 0) before the first boot, in order to preserve them. For example:
espefuse.py --port PORT burn_efuse DISABLE_DL_DECRYPT espefuse.py --port PORT write_protect_efuse DISABLE_DL_ENCRYPT
(Note that all 3 of these efuses are disabled via one write protect bit, so write protecting one will write protect all of them. For this reason, it’s necessary to set any bits before write-protecting.)
Write protecting these efuses to keep them unset is not currently very useful, as
esptool.py does not support writing or reading encrypted flash.
DISABLE_DL_DECRYPT is left unset (0) this effectively makes flash encryption useless, as an attacker with physical access can use UART bootloader mode (with custom stub code) to read out the flash contents.
FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIG efuse determines the number of bits in the flash encryption key which are “tweaked” with the block offset. See Flash Encryption Algorithm for details.
First boot of the bootloader always sets this value to the maximum 0xF.
It is possible to write these efuse manually, and write protect it before first boot in order to select different tweak values. This is not recommended.
It is strongly recommended to never write protect
FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIG when it the value is zero. If this efuse is set to zero, no bits in the flash encryption key are tweaked and the flash encryption algorithm is equivalent to AES ECB mode.
The following sections provide some reference information about the operation of flash encryption.
FLASH_CRYPT_CNT is a 7-bit efuse field which controls flash encryption. Flash encryption enables or disables based on the number of bits in this efuse which are set to “1”:
- When an even number of bits (0,2,4,6) are set: Flash encryption is disabled, any encrypted data cannot be decrypted.
- If the bootloader was built with “Enable flash encryption on boot” then it will see this situation and immediately re-encrypt the flash wherever it finds unencrypted data. Once done, it sets another bit in the efuse to ‘1’ meaning an odd number of bits are now set.
- On first plaintext boot, bit count has brand new value 0 and bootloader changes it to bit count 1 (value 0x01) following encryption.
- After next plaintext flash update, bit count is manually updated to 2 (value 0x03). After re-encrypting the bootloader changes efuse bit count to 3 (value 0x07).
- After next plaintext flash, bit count is manually updated to 4 (value 0x0F). After re-encrypting the bootloader changes efuse bit count to 5 (value 0x1F).
- After final plaintext flash, bit count is manually updated to 6 (value 0x3F). After re-encrypting the bootloader changes efuse bit count to 7 (value 0x7F).
- If the bootloader was built with “Enable flash encryption on boot” then it will see this situation and immediately re-encrypt the flash wherever it finds unencrypted data. Once done, it sets another bit in the efuse to ‘1’ meaning an odd number of bits are now set.
- When an odd number of bits (1,3,5,7) are set: Transparent reading of encrypted flash is enabled.
- To avoid use of FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse state to disable flash encryption, load unauthorised code, then re-enabled flash encryption, secure boot must be used or FLASH_CRYPT_CNT efuse must be write-protected.
Flash Encryption Algorithm¶
AES-256 operates on 16 byte blocks of data. The flash encryption engine encrypts and decrypts data in 32 byte blocks, two AES blocks in series.
The main flash encryption key is stored in efuse (BLOCK1) and by default is protected from further writes or software readout.
AES-256 key size is 256 bits (32 bytes), read from efuse block 1. The hardware AES engine uses the key in reversed byte order to the order stored in the efuse block. - If
CODING_SCHEMEefuse is set to 0 (default “None” Coding Scheme) then the efuse key block is 256 bits and the key is stored as-is (in reversed byte order). - If
CODING_SCHEMEefuse is set to 1 (3/4 Encoding) then the efuse key block is 192 bits (in reversed byte order), so overall entropy is reduced. The hardware flash encryption still operates on a 256-bit key, after being read (and un-reversed), the key is extended by as
key = key[0:255] + key[64:127].
AES algorithm is used inverted in flash encryption, so the flash encryption “encrypt” operation is AES decrypt and the “decrypt” operation is AES encrypt. This is for performance reasons and does not alter the effectiveness of the algorithm.
Each 32 byte block (two adjacent 16 byte AES blocks) is encrypted with a unique key. The key is derived from the main flash encryption key in efuse, XORed with the offset of this block in the flash (a “key tweak”).
The specific tweak depends on the setting of
FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIGefuse. This is a 4 bit efuse, where each bit enables XORing of a particular range of the key bits:
- Bit 1, bits 0-66 of the key are XORed.
- Bit 2, bits 67-131 of the key are XORed.
- Bit 3, bits 132-194 of the key are XORed.
- Bit 4, bits 195-256 of the key are XORed.
It is recommended that
FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIGis always left to set the default value 0xF, so that all key bits are XORed with the block offset. See Setting FLASH_CRYPT_CONFIG for details.
The high 19 bits of the block offset (bit 5 to bit 23) are XORed with the main flash encryption key. This range is chosen for two reasons: the maximum flash size is 16MB (24 bits), and each block is 32 bytes so the least significant 5 bits are always zero.
There is a particular mapping from each of the 19 block offset bits to the 256 bits of the flash encryption key, to determine which bit is XORed with which. See the variable
espsecure.pysource code for the complete mapping.
To see the full flash encryption algorithm implemented in Python, refer to the _flash_encryption_operation() function in the