Exclusive Interview: Going Three Levels Beyond Kernel Rootkits


Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Joanna Rutkowska, one of the top computing security innovators in the world. She is the founder and CEO of Invisible Things Lab (ITL), a boutique computer security consulting and research firm.

Alan: Joanna, thanks for taking the time to chat. Let's start with the basics for our readers. You've carved out a niche in the security world with your expertise on stealthy attacks, such as rootkits, and more recently by exposing vulnerabilities with virtual machines and low-level hardware. But before we go into all of this, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Joanna: I'm a researcher focusing on system-level security issues like the kernel, hypervisor, chipset, etc.  Researcher--not a bug hunter or a pen-tester. I'm more interested in fundamental problems rather then specific bugs affecting specific user software. For example, can the OS/platform provide any security to the user, despite its apps such as Adobe Reader or IE being potentially compromised? I believe in “Security by Isolation.”

Business-wise, I'm a founder and director of Invisible Things Lab (ITL), a boutique security research and consulting firm. I'm very proud of the team I managed to create at ITL, which includes Alexander Tereshkin and Rafal Wojtczuk, who are two of the most skilled researchers in the field of system-level security.

Recently, I've been becoming less and less of a "debugger-attached-researcher," gravitating towards a higher-level role, which is needed to supervise the work done by my team. I enjoy this new role of a director a lot, in fact.

Alan: It’s good to be the boss.  How did you get started in security research?

Joanna: That was so long ago that I don't remember now. ;)

Alan: Easier question then. What was your first computer and first computing memory? Mine’s a TI-99/4A, playing Parsec and Alpiner. I can still remember typing “OLD DSK1” as a three-year-old.

Joanna: It was PC/AT 286 running at a blazing speed of some 16MHz, if I remember correctly, and also having 2MB of RAM (I think that all was after a motherboard upgrade though). I was 11 when I started playing with it, and almost immediately started my adventure with GW-BASIC, and then after a year or so I switched to Borland’s Turbo Basic--that was really a killer, with its beautiful GUI and ability to actually build executables!

Alan: What’s a typical week at the office like?

Joanna: We're proud to be a truly modern company. We don't have any physical offices. Everybody works from home and we exchange all the stuff via encrypted email. There is no such thing as 9-to-5 work hours here. The work we do requires lots of creativity, and it would be silly to enforce any strict working hours.

For me personally, it’s especially important to take a nap during an afternoon. I cannot actually function too long without decent amount of sleep. I have actually never worked a single day in an office.

Alan: (laughs) So who’s the typical ITL customer?

Joanna: We direct our services primarily to system-level vendors.

Alan: So, the likes of BIOS manufacturers and individual corporations looking for a secure computing environment?

Joanna: I would stress the word vendors here, as we really are interested in being able to affect the technology. In my opinion the only rationale behind doing offensive research is to provide constructive criticism and change or improve the technology we have now. As such, ideally, we would like to work with both hardware (CPU/chipset) and software (BIOS/OS) vendors, as some of the cool new hardware technologies can be fully engaged only with the system software that is properly designed.

Alan: What's the configuration of your primary system?

Joanna: My primary desktop machine is an eight-core Mac Pro (2 x 2.8 GHz Intel Xeon) with 16 GB of DRAM and with a gorgeous 30" Apple monitor. It's the most beautiful desktop machine I've ever had--both when it comes to its aesthetics as well as GUI experience.

I also use a rather old black MacBook (Santa Rosa, Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz, 4 GB of DRAM) as my general-purpose laptop. I've been postponing buying a new unibody sexy MacBook Pro because up until recently they have not supported more than 4 GB of DRAM (at least the 15" versions, which I prefer) which I've found discouraging.

I can still see the weak point of the Mac hardware though: the lack of TPM, TXT, VT-d, and the OS X system. I try to get around some of the limitations of the OS with virtualization.

I also use a number of PC-based hardware, both laptops and desktops. It strikes me how ugly most of the PC laptops are compared to Apple’s products, though. One exception being the Voodoo Envy 133--I just wish it came with a newer chipset, so I could rationalize the decision to buy it. ;)

Alan: I’ve been running two generations of 13” unibody MacBooks now. The 9400M is perfect and the Li-polymer battery in the new one is absolute amazing. Flying across the US with in-flight Wi-Fi while on a single charge is an epiphany. 

Joanna: Our conversation is becoming an Apple ad I guess. Maybe somebody at One Infinite Loop reads it and sends me a new 15” MacBook Pro in return?

Alan: Last of the intro questions: what’s your favorite non-tech hobby?

Joanna: A non-tech hobby? Hmm, you mean programming an autonomous hexapod robot with a brain based on two 8-bit AVR microcontrollers doesn't count?

  • johnbilicki
    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?
  • truehighroller
    I think she has very nice fat looking lips. xD
  • johnbilicki
    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.
  • 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
  • Humans think
    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 :)
  • thx for spending the time to discuss this complex world in easy to understand terminology. good luck with the R-3 presentations!
  • haplo602
    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).
  • candide08
    Being SUCH an obvious fanboy makes me suspect many other aspects of your judgment. Please TRY to stay objective.
  • coolkev99
    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!
  • 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: