Sunday, August 31, 2008

Teamwork & Crediting

As the technology is getting more and more complex, security research, especially offensive security research on a system level, becoming more and more difficult to be done by one person. NX/XD, ASLR, various StackGuard-like things, VT-d, TXT, etc... - all those technologies leave less and less space for the interesting system-level attacks. On the other hand, the widespread "deployment" of Web 2.0 creates a whole new area to explore, but that is a whole different world (plus there are still all those "human factor" attacks that exploit user stupidity, but again, this is a different area).

Our Xen 0wning Trilogy is a good example of how a team of researchers can still come up with interesting new system-level attacks against the very recent and securely design system. Take XenBluePill as an example.

It has first been months of research and coding done by Alex and myself to support nested hardware virtualization on AMD. Then there was months of Rafal's research about how to load code into the running Xen on the fly ("Xen Loadable Modules"). That required ability to access Xen's memory in the first place and Rafal's way for doing that was to use the DMA attack. But then it turned out that the Xen 3.3 uses VT-d protection to protect against this very kind of attacks. So then I came up with the "Q35 attack" that exploited a problem with recent Intel BIOSes on recent motherboards (details are coming this week). But I based my attack on a similar SMM attack that Rafal came up with a few months earlier on a different chipset, when he was looking into ways to compromise SMM handler, as we started thinking about HyperGuard project back then and Rafal was curious reliable the SMM protection is. In the meantime, Alex "converted" our working New Blue Pill that had full support for nested virtualization but was essentially a Windows driver, into a piece of code that was completely OS-independent (own memory management, etc.). Then I finally took Rafal's XLM framework, added a few minor things that were needed to load our "Windows-independent Windows driver" into Xen using XLM, fixed some minor stuff and... it finally worked! But that was possible only because of the joint work by all the three people together.

So, it is simply unfair to attribute all the glory and fame for our research to "Rutkowska" or "Rutkowska and team", as many news portals did. Please don't forget to credit all the co-authors! If you really would like to use a generic term, then "Invisible Things Lab team" would probably serve better.

Speaking of our team, I also have an announcement that starting this month our team has officially been extended by yet another person: Rong Fan from Beijing, China.

Rong is a software engineer, focusing on Intel's hardware virtualization technology (VT). A few months ago he wrote to me with some advanced questions regarding the implementation of our New BluePill that we published after the last year's Black Hat. Turned out that Rong, as part of his after-hour activity, is porting Bluepill to VT-x. After he succeeded, we decided to share our nested virtualization code for AMD with him so that he could investigate how to do it on VT-x. And about 2 months ago Rong succeeded with implementing full nested virtualization support for our NBP on Intel VT-x! During that time Rong has had an opportunity to find out that working with ITL is quite fun, so he decided to quit his job at Lenovo and joined ITL full time. Right now Rong is busy adding nested VT-x support to a normal Xen hypervisor.

So, Invisible Things Lab is all about the team work. The whole idea behind ITL is to gather together a bunch of smart people, so that we could all work on the most exciting problems together. Problems that might be too complex or time-consuming for just one person to solve. But it takes more then just money to get people to be creative and devote themselves to work. Getting recognition is one of the additional factors often needed. That's why ITL is not interested in "hiding" its employees, but rather in promoting their work and fairly crediting them.


mouvement pour la démocratie2000 said...

you're a bit pretentious.

Michael Dundas said...

Great blog post Joanna!

I am just reading it now (it's almost a month old), but well written and very true. It is nice to still see companies that have this type of philosophy -- it is the main reason I am still with my present employer.