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A Strategy For Protection

Exclusive Interview: Going Three Levels Beyond Kernel Rootkits
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Alan: Unless you’re on the iPhone, where passwords are unmasked. Sorry to interrupt, go ahead…

Joanna: Hooking keyboard/USB controllers would be a bit better strategy, but that would work only for the simplest scenarios, like a banking Web site that doesn't use any tokens or OTP passwords--nothing fancy really. A much better attack, from the malware point of view, is to simply hook into the browser. The obvious drawback of this would be that kernel-mode A/V agents would be able to spot such a browser hooker (in theory at least, in practice they suck, of course).

Another problem with this approach is when the user is a bit more paranoid and uses a different browser to do daily surfing (and maybe also keeps it inside a virtual machine), and a whole new other one to do online banking. In that case it would not be so easy to hook this "banking" browser, and some other attacks would be needed.

Also, the reason we focus on deep-to-the-hardware attacks is that we believe that secure systems should be built on a solid foundation, otherwise it would all not make any sense. This is especially true if one believes in the "Security by Isolation" approach, as I do.

[See Joanna’s post at http://theinvisiblethings.blogspot.com/2008/09/three-approaches-to-computer-security.html]

Alan: But why focus on just one approach? As a software developer, shouldn’t I work on “security by design” and then install it on systems implementing “security by isolation?”

Joanna: Sure, but we should design our systems with assumption that any application can be potentially buggy, and the OS should still be able to protect other applications from this misbehaving or malicious one.

Alan: How about some practical tips? Although most of your research involves the bleeding edge of security research, the vast majority of malware currently in the wild does not operate at levels this close to the metal. How should our readers secure their own system?

Joanna: That's a very generic question and it is hard to give one answer that would fit all.

Alan: What do you do for your regular systems?

Joanna: First, as stated, I believe in the Security by Isolation approach. The problem is, however, that all current popular OSes, like Vista, Mac OS X, or even Linux, do not provide a decent isolation to its applications. This is primarily a result of all those systems using big monolithic kernels that consists of hundreds of third-party drivers that operate at the same privilege level as the rest of the kernel. As a result, it is relatively easy for a malicious application to break into the kernel and consequently to bypass any OS-provided security mechanisms.

So, I'm trying to get around this weak isolation by using virtualization. I use different virtual machines to host various types of browsers that I use for different kind of activities. So, I use a "Red" VM to do daily browsing, something totally non-sensitive like news reading, Googling, etc. I use a "Yellow" machine to do some semi-sensitive tasks, like online shopping, updating my blog on Blogger, etc. Finally, I have a "Green" machine to access my bank's account.

I totally don't care about a compromise of my "Red" machine--in fact I revert it to a known snapshot every week or so. I care much more about my "Yellow" machine. For example, I use NoScript in a browser I have there to only allow scripting from the few sites that I really want to visit (few online shops, blogger, etc). Sure, somebody might do a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack against a plaintext HTTP connection that is whitelisted by NoScript and inject some malicious drive-by exploit, but then again, Yellow machine is only semi-sensitive and there would not be a big tragedy if somebody stole the information from it. Finally, the "Green" machine should be allowed to do only HTTPS connections to only my banking site. It is quite important to make sure only HTTPS is used for this machine to mitigate potential MITM attacks, that might occur, for example on any hotel Wi-Fi.

I've been using this setup for quite a while and it seems to work pretty well for me. My partner, who is a totally non-tech person, also uses a similar setup on her Mac, and she finds it usable. So, I guess it's not as geeky as it might sound.

There are quite a few more details one should also consider when using such a setup, for example handling updates, the use of clipboard, the transfer of files between the machines and the host, where to keep one's email client, why to use a Green machine and not just the host's browser, etc. But I guess this is not the best place to go into all of the details now, or our interview would transition into a How To.

Still, I cannot say I'm totally satisfied with my setup. To run all of my virtual machines, I use a type II hypervisor (VMWare Fusion), which is a fat application running on my host. From the theoretical point of view, there is no good reason to believe that it would be harder to find a bug in the type II hypervisor than it would be to find a bug in the OS kernel itself. Both are big and fat, and have many drivers inside them. But practically, it seems that it is more difficult. The attacker must first find a way to execute code in the guest's kernel. Remember that the attack starts from being able to execute code in the browser only, then he or she must find a way to attack the VMM (hypervisor). So, to break out of the VM and finally do something reasonable in the host's kernel, which might be a totally different OS then the guest's kernel (I use Windows in my guests and Mac OS X on the host).

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Top Comments
  • 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
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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