Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Trusting Hardware

So, you're a decent paranoid person, running only open source software on your box: Linux, GNU, etc. You have the feeling you could, if you only wanted to, review every single line of code (of course you will probably never do this, but anyway). You might be even more paranoid and also try running an open source BIOS. You feel satisfied and cannot understand all those stupid people running closed source systems like e.g. Windows. Right?

But here's where you are stuck — you still must trust your hardware. Trust that your hardware vendor has not e.g. built in a backdoor into your network card micro-controller…

So, if we buy a laptop from vendor X, that might be based in some not-fully-democratic country, how do we know they didn't put backdoors there? And not only to spy on Americans, also to spy on their own citizens? When was the last time you reverse-engineered all the PCI devices on your motherboard?

Scared? Good!

Enters the game-changer: IOMMU (known as VT-d on Intel). With proper OS/VMM design, this technology can address the very problem of most of the hardware backdoors. A good example of a practical system that allows for that is Xen 3.3, which supports VT-d and allows you to move drivers into a separate, unprivileged driver domain(s). This way each PCI device can be limited to DMA only to the memory region occupied by its own driver.

The network card's microcontroller can still compromise the network card driver, but nothing else. Assuming we are using only encrypted communication, there is not much an attacker can gain by compromising this network card driver, besides doing a DoS. Similarly for the disk driver — if we use full disk encryption (which is a good idea anyway), there is not much an attacker can gain from compromising the low-level disk driver.

Obviously the design of such a system (especially used for desktop computing) is not trivial ans needs to be thoroughly thought out. But it is possible today(!), thanks to those new virtualization technologies.

It seems than, that we could protect ourselves against potentially malicious hardware. With one exception however… we still need to trust the CPU and also the memory controller (AKA northbridge AKA chipset), that implements that IOMMU.

On AMD systems, the memory controller has long been integrated into the processor. Also Intel's recent Nehalem processors integrate the memory controller on the same die.

This all means we need to trust only one vendor (Intel or AMD) and only one component, i.e. The Processor. But should we blindly trust them? After all it would be trivial for Intel or AMD to build in a backdoor into their processor. Even something as simple as:

if (rax == MAGIC_1 && rcx == MAGIC_2) jmp [rbx]

Just a few more gates in the CPU I guess (there are apparently already about 780 million gates on Core i7, so a few more should not make much difference), and no performance penalty. Exploitable remotely on most systems and any more complex program I guess. Yet, totally undetectable for anybody without an electron microscope (and tons of skills and knowledge).

And this is just the simplest example that comes to mind within just a few minutes. I'm sure one could come up with something even more universal and reliable. The fact is — if you are the CPU vendor, it is trivial for you to build in an effective backdoor.

It's funny how various people, e.g. European government institutions, are afraid of using closed source software, e.g. Windows, because they are afraid of Microsoft putting backdoors there. Yet, they are not concerned about using processors made by some other US companies. It is significantly more risky for Microsoft to put a backdoor into its software, where even a skilled teenager equipped with IDA Pro can find it, than it is for Intel or AMD, where effectively nobody can find it.

So, I wonder whether various government and large corporate customers from outside the US will start asking Intel and AMD to provide them with the exact blueprints of their processors. After all they already require Microsoft to provide them with the source code under an NDA, right? So, why not the "source code" for the processor?

Unfortunately there is nothing that could stop a processor vendor to provide its customers with a different blueprints than those that are used to actually "burn" the processors. So, the additional requirement would be needed that they also allow to audit their manufacturing process. Another solution would be to hire some group of independent researchers, equip them with an electron microscope and let them reverse engineer some randomly chosen processors… Hmmm, I even know a team that would love to do that ;)

A quick summary in case you get lost already:
  1. On most systems we are not protected against hardware backdoors, e.g. in the network card controller.
  2. New technologies, e.g. Intel VT-d, can allow to protect against potentially malicious hardware (requires specially designed OS, e.g. specially configured Xen)…
  3. … except for the potential backdoors in the processor.
  4. If we don't trust Microsoft, why should we trust Intel or AMD?
BTW, in May I will be speaking at the Confidence conference in Krakow, Poland. This is gonna be a keynote, so don't expect new attacks to be revealed, but rather some more philosophical stuff about trusted computing (why it is not evil) and problems like the one discussed today. See you there!

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Sky Is Falling?

A few reporters asked me if our recent paper on SMM attacking via CPU cache poisoning means the sky is really falling now?

Interestingly, not many people seem to have noticed that this is the 3rd attack against SMM our team has found in the last 10 months. OMG :o

But anyway, does the fact we can easily compromise the SMM today, and write SMM-based malware, does that mean the sky is falling for the average computer user?

No! The sky has actually fallen many years ago… Default users with admin privileges, monolithic kernels everywhere, most software unsigned and downloadable over plaintext HTTP — these are the main reasons we cannot trust our systems today. And those pathetic attempts to fix it, e.g. via restricting admin users on Vista, but still requiring full admin rights to install any piece of stupid software. Or selling people illusion of security via A/V programs, that cannot even protect themselves properly…

It's also funny how so many people focus on solving the security problems by "Security by Correctness" or "Security by Obscurity" approaches — patches, patches, NX and ASLR — all good, but it is not gonna work as an ultimate protection (if it could, it would worked out already).

On the other hand, there are some emerging technologies out there that could allow us to implement effective "Security by Isolation" approach. Such technologies as VT-x/AMD-V, VT-d/IOMMU or Intel TXT and TPM.

So we, at ITL, focus on analyzing those new technologies, even though almost nobody uses them today. Because those technologies could actually make the difference. Unlike A/V programs or Patch Tuesdays, those technologies can change the level of sophistication required for the attacker dramatically.

The attacks we focus on are important for those new technologies — e.g. today Intel TXT is pretty much useless without protection from SMM attacks. And currently there is no such protection, which sucks. SMM rootkits sound sexy, but, frankly, the bad guys are doing just fine using traditional kernel mode malware (due to the fact that A/V is not effective). Of course, SMM rootkits are just yet another annoyance for the traditional A/V programs, which is good, but they might not be the most important consequence of SMM attacks.

So, should the average Joe Dow care about our SMM attacks? Absolutely not!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Attacking SMM Memory via Intel® CPU Cache Poisoning

As promised, the paper and the proof of concept code has just been posted on the ITL website here.

A quote from the paper:
In this paper we have described practical exploitation of the CPU cache poisoning in order to read or write into (otherwise protected) SMRAM memory. We have implemented two working exploits: one for dumping the content of SMRAM and the other one for arbitrary code execution in SMRAM. This is the third attack on SMM memory our team has found within the last 10 months, affecting Intel-based systems. It seems that current state of firmware security, even in case of such reputable vendors as Intel, is quite unsatisfying.

The potential consequence of attacks on SMM might include SMM rootkits [9], hypervisor compromises [8], or OS kernel protection bypassing [2].
Don't worry, the shellcode we use in the exploit is totally harmless (have really no idea how some people concluded we were going to release an SMM rootkit today?) — it only increases an internal counter on every SMI and jumps back to the original handler. If you want something more fancy, AKA SMM rootkits, you might want to re-read Sherri's and Shawn's last year's Black Hat paper and try writing something they describe there.

The attack presented in the paper has been fixed on some systems according to Intel. We have however found out that even the relatively new boards, like e.g. Intel DQ35 are still vulnerable (the very recent Intel DQ45 doesn't seem to be vulnerable though). The exploit attached is for DQ35 board — the offsets would have to be changed to work on other boards (please do not ask how to do this).

Keep in mind this is a different SMM attack than the one we mentioned during our last month's Black Hat presentation on TXT bypassing (the VU#127284). We are planning to present that other attack at the upcoming Black Hat Vegas. Hopefully this will not be the only one thing that ITL will entertain you with in Vegas — Alex and Rafal are already working now on something even cooler (and even lower level) for the show, so cross your fingers!

And good luck to Loic with his presentation that is about to start just now...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Independent Attack Discoveries

Next week's Thursday, March 19th, 1600 UTC, we will publish a paper (+ exploits) on exploiting Intel® CPU cache mechanisms.

The attack allows for privilege escalation from Ring 0 to the SMM on many recent motherboards with Intel CPUs. Interestingly, the very same attack will be presented by another researcher, Loic Duflot, at the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver, Canada, on... Thursday 19th, 1600 UTC. BTW, this is a different SMM-targeting attack than the one we mentioned during our recent TXT talk and that is scheduled to be presented later this year.

Here's the full story (there is also a moral at the end) …

Just after our presentation at the Black Hat last month, we (i.e. Rafal and I) have been independently approached by some person (or two different persons — we haven't figured that out actually — there were some ca. 30 people willing to ask us questions after the talk, so it's hard to remember all the faces), who was very curious about our SMM attacks (whose details we haven't discussed, of course, because Intel is still working on a fix). This person(s) started asking various questions about the attacks and one of the questions, that was asked to both me and Rafal, was if the attack used caching. Later that day, during a private ITL dinner, one of us brought this issue, and we started thinking if it was indeed possible to perform an SMM attack via CPU caching. By the end of the dinner we have sketched out the attack, and later when we got back to Poland, Rafal implemented a working exploit with code execution in SMM in a matter of just a few hours. (I think I used way too many parenthesis in this paragraph).

So, being the good and responsible guys that we are, we immediately reported the new bug to Intel (actually talking to Intel's PSIRT is getting more and more routined for us in the recent months ;). And this is how we learnt that Loic came up with the same attack (back then there was no talk description at the conference website) — apparently he approached Intel about this back in October 2008, so 3-4 months before us — and also that he's planning to present it at the CanSecWest conference in March. So, we contacted Loic and agreed to do coordinated disclosure next Thursday.

Interestingly, however, none of us was even close to being the first discoverer of the underlying problem that our attacks exploit. In fact, the first mention of the possible attack using caching for compromising SMM has been discussed in certain documents authored as early as the end of 2005 (!) by nobody else than... Intel's own employees. Stay tuned for the details in our upcoming paper.


If there is a bug somewhere and if it stays unpatched for enough time, it is almost guaranteed that various people will (re)discover and exploit it, sooner or later. So, don't blame researchers that they find and publish information about bugs — they actually do a favor to our society. Remember the guy who asked us if our attack used caching? I bet he (or his associates) also have had exploits for this caching bug, but apparently didn't notify the vendor. Hmm, what they might have been doing with the exploit? When was the last time you scanned your system for SMM rootkits? ;)

Anyways, congrats to Loic for being the first one who wrote exploits for this bug. Also congrats to Intel employees who originally noticed the problem back in 2005.