Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

11/17/2010
03:54 PM
Connect Directly
Google+
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Possible New Threat: Malware That Targets Hardware

Researchers demonstrate proof-of-concept for developing malware that attacks specific hardware processors with 'surgical' precision

French researchers say it's possible to write malware that attacks specific hardware processors rather than operating systems or applications.

Anthony Desnos, Robert Erra, and Eric Filiol, of Ecole Suprieure d'Informatique Electronique Automatique (ESIEA) in Paris, have developed a proof-of-concept for hardware-specific malware, which they consider a step up from Stuxnet and a potentially key weapon in cyberwarfare. The malware can easily identify and target specific hardware systems based on the on-board processor chip, the researchers say.

They used the so-called floating point arithmetic (FPA) to help identify processors, including AMD, Intel Dual-Core and Atom, SPARC, Digital Alpha, Cell, and Atom. Hardware malware doesn't exploit vulnerabilities in hardware -- it preys on actual features: "We just exploit differences in processor features. There will be always such differences," Filiol says.

In order to pinpoint the type of processor, the malware would see how a processor handles certain mathematical calculations. This breed of malware is not any more difficult to create than malware that targets software vulnerabilities, Filiol says. "The malware algorithm is the same. You just have to know which processor-specific information to use to trigger the attack," he says. The tricky part is that information is often a closely held secret, he says.

The researchers maintain that targeted attacks like Stuxnet are a major threat, but it's not always so simple for the attacker to be sure what software is running on a targeted machine. "While it can be very difficult to forecast and envisage which kind of applications is likely to be present on the target system (it can be a secret information), the variety in terms of hardware -- and especially as far as processors are concerned -- is far more reduced due to the very limited number of hardware manufacturers," the researchers wrote in their paper on the malware research.

Hardware malware gives cyberwarfare another weapon. "You can arrange things in such a way that effectively Iran buys a set of computers with Intel processor of a given type and family. Then you can strike them selectively -- and only these computers -- whatever Iran has installed on those computers, [whether it's] Linux, Windows, or any application," Filiol says.

Marc Maiffret, chief technology officer at eEye Digital Security, says he doesn't see hardware malware posing a major threat anytime soon. "While it is interesting to perform this sort of processor fingerprinting, malware will still need to look at other factors to make sure it is hitting the right target, as there is plenty of overlap in systems and what processors they use," Maiffret says. "To put it another way, I think we will continue to see targeting happening more in the way that Stuxnet did it than via processor fingerprinting."

Filiol, meanwhile, says he and his colleagues decided to publish part of their research to raise awareness about this threat. "Even rogue countries and bad guys are doing research. So attacks using those techniques can strike our own countries. That is why we have decided to publish part of our research: to make people aware of the threat," he says.

The malware could be used to wage Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) and any other attack software malware can execute. The idea is for "far more precise and targeted attacks, at a finer level (surgical strikes) in a large network of heterogeneous machines but with generic malware," the research paper says.

There's no way for a processor manufacturer to mitigate such a targeted attack by "patching," either, "unless manufacturers would accept to use the same computation techniques and the same processor designs," he says. But that's obviously not a realistic option, he says.

A full copy of the research is available here (PDF) for download.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. 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 ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Mobile Banking Malware Up 50% in First Half of 2019
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  1/17/2020
Active Directory Needs an Update: Here's Why
Raz Rafaeli, CEO and Co-Founder at Secret Double Octopus,  1/16/2020
New Attack Campaigns Suggest Emotet Threat Is Far From Over
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  1/16/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: I've never actually seen the corporate ladder before.
Current Issue
The Year in Security: 2019
This Tech Digest provides a wrap up and overview of the year's top cybersecurity news stories. It was a year of new twists on old threats, with fears of another WannaCry-type worm and of a possible botnet army of Wi-Fi routers. But 2019 also underscored the risk of firmware and trusted security tools harboring dangerous holes that cybercriminals and nation-state hackers could readily abuse. Read more.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How Enterprises are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
Organizations have invested in a sweeping array of security technologies to address challenges associated with the growing number of cybersecurity attacks. However, the complexity involved in managing these technologies is emerging as a major problem. Read this report to find out what your peers biggest security challenges are and the technologies they are using to address them.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-5216
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-23
In Secure Headers (RubyGem secure_headers), a directive injection vulnerability is present in versions before 3.9.0, 5.2.0, and 6.3.0. If user-supplied input was passed into append/override_content_security_policy_directives, a newline could be injected leading to limited header injection. Upon seei...
CVE-2020-5217
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-23
In Secure Headers (RubyGem secure_headers), a directive injection vulnerability is present in versions before 3.8.0, 5.1.0, and 6.2.0. If user-supplied input was passed into append/override_content_security_policy_directives, a semicolon could be injected leading to directive injection. This could b...
CVE-2020-5223
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-23
In PrivateBin versions 1.2.0 before 1.2.2, and 1.3.0 before 1.3.2, a persistent XSS attack is possible. Under certain conditions, a user provided attachment file name can inject HTML leading to a persistent Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability. The vulnerability has been fixed in PrivateBin v1.3...
CVE-2019-20399
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-23
A timing vulnerability in the Scalar::check_overflow function in Parity libsecp256k1-rs before 0.3.1 potentially allows an attacker to leak information via a side-channel attack.
CVE-2020-7915
PUBLISHED: 2020-01-22
An issue was discovered on Eaton 5P 850 devices. The Ubicacion SAI field allows XSS attacks by an administrator.