The Mysterious Appearance Of An Anti-Theft ApplicationKaspersky Lab researchers discover on their machines Absolute Software Computrace anti-theft application -- but they had not installed it
KASPERSKY SECURITY ANALYST SUMMIT -- Punta Cana, Dominican Republic -- It started with a Kaspersky Lab researcher noticing unusually slow performance on his home laptop. Vitaly Kamluk, principal security researcher for the firm, did some digging and discovered a commercial software utility on the machine that he had not installed.
Turns out the utility was Absolute Software's Computrace, a legitimate security agent that runs in firmware or the ROM BIOS of desktop and laptop machines for anti-theft purposes and tracking and securing them. But Kamluk, as well as other Kaspersky colleagues who then found the utility running on their personal and corporate machines, had not installed the software, which was running host processes and Internet Explorer on their machines. Kamluk here this week said that somehow the Computrace tool appears to have been hijacked by bad actors using it to monitor victim machines, raising concerns of cyberspying.
Kaspersky researchers estimate that millions of computers worldwide run Computrace, and many of those users may not know it's on their machines. "Usually, we talk about threats to our customers. This is a threat that affected us personally," Kamluk says. "Who had a reason to activate Computrace on all those computers? Are they being monitored by an unknown actor? That is a mystery which needs to be solved."
Kaspersky's findings relate to prior research conducted by Core Security in 2009, where the Core team pinpointed security weaknesses in Computrace and presented those findings at Black Hat 2009. Anibal Sacco, co-founder and researcher at Cubica Labs, who was part of the Core team who conducted the research, describes the Computrace issue as a "latent rootkit."
"In a legitimate installation [of Computrace], a Windows agent is installed and there is no authentication of any kind. There is a big problem with this," Sacco says. He says the software also communicates to the host server via an unencrypted channel and stores information there unencrypted. It flies under the radar because it appears legitimate. So even if you didn't install it, you wouldn't necessarily know it was there. "Every time the machine boots up ... all companies see it as a legitimate product," he says.
Absolute Software yesterday shot down the Kaspersky research as "flawed" and says Computrace uses encryption and authentication to the server, which would prevent the potential attacks that the researchers cite.
"Absolute Software considers Kaspersky's analysis flawed and rejects its conclusions. We've reviewed the report that was published earlier today, and we are unable to determine how Kaspersky was able to reach the conclusions they provide," says Phil Gardner, CTO of Absolute Software. "Most importantly, we want to reassure our customers and partners that the speculation contained within the report has questionable technical merit."
Absolute says any attack would occur only if the endpoint had been compromised. "This must happen before Computrace can be used maliciously. The obstacles to mounting such an attack are considerable and are not achievable via the mechanism outlined in the Kaspersky report," Absolute said in an FAQ.
As for Computrace being installed without the users' knowledge, Absolute says that may be due to "defective implementations ... and/or poor IT practices."
Gardner says the agent won't communicate with a server unless it's authorized, and "will only communicate with mutual authentication of the server and the client."
"Kaspersky has misinterpreted this rebuilding process that -- by design -- will fully resecure the system if the security desired by the legitimate user is disabled or tampered with by a user with access and privilege," he says.
Kaspersky's Kamluk said Computrace could be used to install spyware on the endpoints, noting that millions of users run Computrace, many of which may not know they do. "There is a big mystery in this scene ... why someone installed this on the machines of our colleagues," he says. "And evidence of online messages on the Internet of users claiming they found them [Computrace] on their machines and they had never purchased Absolute."
Kamluk demonstrated a proof-of-concept here showing how an attacker could wage a man-in-the-middle attack against a machine running Computrace. "They would pretend" to be an Absolute server and able to read and change memory in the victim's machine, he says. "Anyone with the power to control your Internet connection could do the same -- a government or an ISP, for example," he says.
The researchers say there is no evidence that the software is being used for attacks, but they believe it could be used by attackers.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio