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83% of Businesses Hit With a Firmware Attack in Past Two Years

A new Microsoft-commissioned report finds less than 30% of organizations allocate security budget toward preventing firmware attacks.

Firmware attacks targeting enterprises are up over the past two years. However, most victims are too preoccupied with patches and upgrades to invest resources into preventing them. 

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The numbers come from Microsoft's new "Security Signals" report, conducted by Hypothesis Group, which polled 1,000 decision-makers involved with security and threat protection at enterprise companies. Of these, 83% had been hit with a firmware attack in the past two years.

Firmware has become a hot target for cybercrime in recent years as software security has improved. The TrickBot malware last year added a module to inspect devices for firmware vulnerabilities that could enable attackers to read, write, or erase the UEFI/BIOS firmware. Last October, a rare firmware rootkit was detected targeting diplomats and nongovernmental organizations. Russian advanced persistent threat group Sednit deployed the first firmware-level rootkit seen in the wild back in September 2018.

The trend is poised to increase, says David Weston, partner director of Enterprise and operating system security at Microsoft. "We see the trend growing linearly. … Every year we're seeing more and more CVEs determined in firmware," he says. In the last 18 months alone, Microsoft has seen at least three different nation-state actors exploiting firmware vulnerabilities, he adds. 

"That's a huge uptick from the previous 18 months, where I don't think we saw more than one," says Weston, noting this is "a substantial increase." 

There are a few reasons why firmware attacks appeal to criminals. For starters, this is where sensitive data, including credentials and encryption keys, are stored in memory. They also afford the intruder longer dwell time because many detection products, as well as general logging, can't see firmware. Attackers also benefit from the ability to remain on a machine after it's wiped.

"Firmware vulnerabilities will allow you, in most cases, to reacquire a machine that's been fully wiped," Weston explains. "Even if you format the machine, if the code is injected in the firmware, you can stay through multiple wipes of the machine, so it's harder to get you out." 

Privilege is another factor, as firmware attacks enable adversaries to go straight to the part of a machine with the most sensitive access. An attacker is invisible and at the heart of defenses.

Defending against these types of attacks is a challenge. Firmware is hard to update; often, organizations have to go to multiple different manufacturers' websites and download updates and then find a way to push them out. This is especially challenging outside the realm of PCs, where companies have made some headway, into the world of connected products.

"When you start to talk about IoT and embedded devices, firmware looks even worse because there is no standardized update mechanisms [and] you're dealing with multiple different hardware and software ecosystems, so that problem is just compounded," Weston explains. 

Microsoft last year released a line of "Secured-Core" Windows 10 PCs as part of a partnership with Intel, Qualcomm, and AMD, to help businesses better defend against attacks that attempt to interfere with the boot process. Last June, it added a UEFI scanner to Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection to assess the security posture inside of a firmware file system. 

However, even though Microsoft working to expose firmware visibility, "I don't think we yet have the total picture," he says, and it's a challenge to observe attacks taking place below the operating system. What's more, not all businesses can shift to new hardware in the near term, and many security teams are juggling too many other issues to prioritize firmware.

"The study showed that current investment is going to security updates, vulnerability scanning, and advanced threat protection solutions," Microsoft's security team writes in a blog post on the report.

While 83% of respondents had experienced a firmware-level attack, and 73% agree they are disruptive, only 29% of respondents have allocated security budget to defending against them.

The majority (82%) of respondents say they don't have the resources to allocate toward high-impact security work because they're spending too much time on manual tasks such as software and patching, hardware upgrades, and mitigating internal and external vulnerabilities. Most (62%) want to spend more time on security strategy and preparing for advanced threats.

"They spend a lot of time remediating very low-grade security issues, things like adware, key generators, or basic ransomware, and a lot of that is linked to the inability to strategically block common attack vectors," Weston says. These low-grade issues continue to be an obstacle because security teams are "on that treadmill" of not being able to block the attack vector. The respondents report only 39% of their security teams' time is spent on preventative measures.

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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