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Can Your BIOS Be Flashed By Malware?

Exclusive Interview: Going Three Levels Beyond Kernel Rootkits
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Alan: Can any vector currently re-flash the BIOS?

Joanna: No! There has been lots of confusion about it in the recent months. Some people thought that SMM attacks allow automatically to re-flash the BIOS. This is not true. Also, there was a bit unfortunate presentation at CanSecWest earlier this year by two researchers from Core, who presented on "Persistent BIOS Infection." I saw their slides and they made it look like if they found a generic way of re-flashing any BIOS and that there is hardly any way to protect against their attacks. Nothing could have been further from the truth, in fact.

First, they chose to attack two low-end, dated BIOSes: an Award BIOS and also VMWare's BIOS (that itself doesn't even count, as it's not a real BIOS). Those two BIOSes didn't require firmware updates to be digitally signed by the vendors. So, no big deal that it was possible to inject some malicious code there. On the other hand, most of the currently used BIOSes (Intel or Phoenix BIOSes) allow only signed firmware updates to be re-flashed. This mechanism has been used for years, and it has nothing to do with TPM or any of the Trusted Computing technologies.

This situation is especially not very comfortable for us, because next month at Black Hat, Rafal and Alex will be presenting on the real attacks on BIOS re-flashing, that would involve getting around Intel BIOS re-flash protection. So, Rafal and Alex will show how to re-flash a secure Intel BIOS, despite the fact that it normally only allows signed updates. This is going to be a really hardcore talk, and the actual exploit is really a masterpiece. I doubt, however, that malware would start using any similar attacks--they are just too complex and too much BIOS-specific. Yet, from the research point of view, the attack is extremely valuable with potential impact being more then just persistent BIOS infections. More on this next month, though.

Alan: I’m looking forward to that! So what's this talk about Ring -3 attacks now?

Joanna: This is going to be the second talk presented next month at Black Hat by Alex and Rafal. It's going to be something totally new, again very hardcore, but potentially offering even more power then SMM rootkits. How can something offer more privileges than SMM, when that already offers all of them? Unfortunately, I cannot say anything more right now. Let me just point out that we have been in touch with Intel for quite some time about the issues we exploit in both of the talks, and that Intel is targeting patch releases to be available a few weeks before the conference.

Alan: So what can you tell us about HyperCore?

Joanna: HyperCore is a thin hypervisor for laptop computers developed by Phoenix Technologies. We have been hired by Phoenix to do research on various technologies that could potentially be used to secure the hypervisor. As it is customary in the industry, I'm not at liberty to publicly discuss much about this research, and whether or how much of it has actually been used in the actual product.

Alan: So far, most of your research involves getting closer and closer to the CPU. What about the other approach, getting closer to the user. If you can take over the GPU memory, couldn't you spoof a password prompt and get the user to volunteer their admin password? Or how about taking over the USB controller and logging keystrokes?

Joanna: Oh, and you think that getting closer to the CPU means farther from the user? Really? It is the CPU that is the central part of the system. Everything that user does, all of his or her programs data, are eventually processed by the CPU. It's the closest element to the user one can imagine. It's where all the data are eventually being decrypted, and where all the actions are eventually being executed.

Alan: I’m a 3D graphics guy, a GPGPU guy, and my hobbies are photography and cinematography. Of course I think the GPU is closer to the user than the CPU! At the end of the day, it all comes back to your senses. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. You know how you sometimes find old food stashed somewhere in the back of the fridge that has gone bad? In the time that you had forgotten it and before you saw it, smelled it, tasted it, felt it, or heard it, you wouldn’t know anything or even care. It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat, but with food.

Joanna: As for your suggestion about taking over GPU memory--I think this would not be a very practical attack for malware. Even the traditional passwords are being entered in the "asterisked" form, so GPU would have troubles seeing what's under the asterisk! 

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  • 11 Hide
    Anonymous , July 16, 2009 8:18 AM
    Interesting interview, and kudos for treating her as a "security expert" and not as a "female security expert".

    In the majority of interviews with young female professionals the interviewer "just have to mention" their hair colour, clothes or makeup. Nice to see a break from that rather tiresome practice
  • 11 Hide
    johnbilicki , July 16, 2009 6:46 AM
    truehighrollerI think she has very nice fat looking lips. xD


    ...not to pick a fight truehighroller...but I don't think most women would find such a statement very "welcoming". Nerd girls rock a hundred times more then girls with only cliche interests, but comments such as yours aren't only unwelcome or alienating by most women they annoy those like myself who highly appreciate women with more refined qualities. Show some dignity and respect and stay on topic or please go else where.
Other Comments
  • 6 Hide
    johnbilicki , July 16, 2009 6:25 AM
    I presume 4GB is limiting on a casual-use laptop because Joanna also runs virtual operating systems on her general purpose laptop?

    How did you two end up talking about Macs instead of something like rootkits or other things more relative to Joanna's line of work?

    As a web developer security is very important though I find it's fairly easy in most regards as attacks, bots, spammers, etc overwhelmingly (though not always) use the same approach methods so there are plenty of patterns that differentiate from normal web traffic. Easy isn't where the fun is though. I'm curious as to the parallels with software in general?
  • 11 Hide
    johnbilicki , July 16, 2009 6:46 AM
    truehighrollerI think she has very nice fat looking lips. xD


    ...not to pick a fight truehighroller...but I don't think most women would find such a statement very "welcoming". Nerd girls rock a hundred times more then girls with only cliche interests, but comments such as yours aren't only unwelcome or alienating by most women they annoy those like myself who highly appreciate women with more refined qualities. Show some dignity and respect and stay on topic or please go else where.
  • 11 Hide
    Anonymous , July 16, 2009 8:18 AM
    Interesting interview, and kudos for treating her as a "security expert" and not as a "female security expert".

    In the majority of interviews with young female professionals the interviewer "just have to mention" their hair colour, clothes or makeup. Nice to see a break from that rather tiresome practice
  • 7 Hide
    Humans think , July 16, 2009 8:19 AM
    I also use Macs myself (also windows systems and linux ones), but I had to say it: Alan Dang you sure are an Apple fanboy :p 
    This woman knows what she is talking about, I think I am in love :) 
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , July 16, 2009 8:19 AM
    thx for spending the time to discuss this complex world in easy to understand terminology. good luck with the R-3 presentations!
    -austinmc
  • -1 Hide
    haplo602 , July 16, 2009 10:48 AM
    read the interview because I was curios about the girl on the picture. turned out to not even be interesting.

    f.e. the bluepill thing. ok you can jail the OS into a VM transparently. Now what can you do ? you have to implement a mini OS by yorself into the hypervisor to do anything usefull (i.e. data collection), you need to read the FS, interrupt the network etc. the only usefull thing is to infect the system again after it was cleaned (again you need to know the FS). but since the AV knows you are there, it knows what to do about it.

    ok AV vendors are a step behind (or 2), but once they figure out the attack vector and means, you are done and have to come up with a new attack technology. there are only limited options available on each architecture that change with each revision, so the AV companies win in the end by closing all the gaps they know about.

    these are only backdoors to break the AV protection or work in a dimension higher than the AV protection. however the usefull data is still on the same level as the AV protection (user space).
  • 6 Hide
    candide08 , July 16, 2009 12:48 PM
    Being SUCH an obvious fanboy makes me suspect many other aspects of your judgment. Please TRY to stay objective.
  • 5 Hide
    coolkev99 , July 16, 2009 12:58 PM
    Interesting... and way over my head. Yet I couldn't help but feel like they were trying to out-geek each others commments.

    She is to nerds what nerds are to normal people. Don't get me wrong, much respect and admiration!
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , July 16, 2009 2:05 PM
    A interesting and informative article but there is a lot of self praise and back slapping, seems that these folks are not the geniuses they make them selves out to be:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Pill_(malware)
  • 0 Hide
    bounty , July 16, 2009 3:08 PM
    Wayne963, I'm not sure I get your point. They also made red pill and discussed at length in the interview about being able to detect a hypervisor, but that fingerprinting it would be a bitch.

    haplo602, that's like arguing that taking control of the memory doesn't get you anywhere, you still have to read the FS, implement sniffing routines etc. While the AV may know it's there, it doesn't have final say. VM says remove kav.exe, kav.exe says 'nooooooooooooooo' as it's being deleted. kav.exe stops bothering VM.
  • -7 Hide
    redeye , July 16, 2009 3:20 PM
    I find her hot!, but I have no chance (of course); that body was/now only satisfied by a girl!...
  • 0 Hide
    haplo602 , July 16, 2009 3:24 PM
    bountyhaplo602, that's like arguing that taking control of the memory doesn't get you anywhere, you still have to read the FS, implement sniffing routines etc. While the AV may know it's there, it doesn't have final say. VM says remove kav.exe, kav.exe says 'nooooooooooooooo' as it's being deleted. kav.exe stops bothering VM.


    well the issue is as I described. you cannot delete anything from outside the OS unless you ask the OS to do so. and once you do, the AV will catch it.

    taking control of the memory only enables you to see what others see. it's like network man-in-the-middle attacks. they too are not detectable (or very hard to do), yet you still have to decode the data you are capturing to use it and you have to interrupt the data stream with very accurate data to alter it. this only leads to content encryption being your last stop.

    look at DRM in Vista and expand it to all the data. what you get is a virtualised OS that is a blackbox for the rootkit. so you have control of the memory, but it's no use to you. simple and effective. of course there are performance hits etc., but this we already get with each new windows version :-))
  • -3 Hide
    thejerk , July 16, 2009 3:34 PM
    I lost interest in the entire article as soon as she began speaking of how pretty her Mac is... seriously. I don't care how talented she is, now. I'm annoyed.

    I just bought my girlfriend a Kate Spade baby bag. I bet Joanna thinks it's beautiful, too.
  • -3 Hide
    DarkMantle , July 16, 2009 3:55 PM
    thejerk +1 hahahaha, it was the same for me. I lost interest after that too.
  • 2 Hide
    Shadow703793 , July 16, 2009 4:09 PM
    This is so ironic. Talking of security, I spent the last 2 hours getting Bastille to work on SUSE. (lol, it should have been only 10 minutes, but my perl install went to dependency hell).

    For those that tun Linux, it's a very good idea to get Bastill up and rnning. Also read: Hacking Linux Exposed 2nd ed

    Bastille: http://bastille-linux.sourceforge.net/
  • 4 Hide
    Shadow703793 , July 16, 2009 4:14 PM
    *damn the submit button and the lack of editing*

    Anyways, good to know a few people actually know what the hell they are talinkg about. These people should help the gov't because unlike most at the gov't these people have knowledge. (Cybersecurity any one? :lol:  Any one who uses that term should be wiped with CAT5e cable :p ).

    @Author: WTH is up with the Mac stuff?
  • 2 Hide
    222222 , July 16, 2009 4:54 PM
    In 2006 she claimed she created the 100% undetectable rootkit, Blue Pill. When invited to challenge, she rejected unless she is paid 400,000$ to do its rootkit better claiming this is "funny challenge".

    So she lied in order to get some publicity.

    - stupid claims
    - arrogant behavior
  • 0 Hide
    maximiza , July 16, 2009 6:26 PM
    222222 did she dump you or something? probably 400 g's is chump change to her. Look at D.C. I think in general if you have enough resources any I/O system can be compromised. Since people are imperfect there designs will always be imperfect. I had a Ti99/4a too, the speech programing was a blast.
  • 0 Hide
    Marcus52 , July 16, 2009 6:30 PM
    thejerkI lost interest in the entire article as soon as she began speaking of how pretty her Mac is... seriously. I don't care how talented she is, now. I'm annoyed.I just bought my girlfriend a Kate Spade baby bag. I bet Joanna thinks it's beautiful, too.


    If that's all you got from her talk, then you are too clueless to get what she was talking about to begin with. It's good you didn't read the article because it clearly would have been a waste of your time.

    The important parts you missed were 1) OS X is no more secure than Windows, and both are more secure than Linux distros, and 2) She'd go with Windows and PC hardware over OS X and Apple's hardware choices unless aesthetics are more important to you than what Windows provides.

    If you are out to burst Apple's bubble, as I am, this article is an indictment of Apple's claims, not a fan-girl advertisement.
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