Don’t let hackers take advantage of holes in firmware. Here’s how to stop them.
Just about every component on a computer system contains firmware. Many people just think of the firmware on the system BIOS on a PC, but network interface cards, embedded controllers, graphics cards, USB sticks, mice, keyboards and of course, routers and switches all have firmware.
Yuriy Bulygin and John Loucaides, security researchers at Intel Security, point out that hackers attack firmware because they know many security and IT managers aren’t paying attention to it. They say security teams are so overwhelmed by the prevailing threat landscape, that they have their hands full just deploying the basics, like firewalls, intrusion prevention systems and sandboxes.
“Hackers are depending on security managers ignoring firmware, which means that spreading awareness that firmware must be protected is very important,” Loucaides says.
Bulygin and Loucaides say hackers attack firmware for three main reasons:
- Persistence. Security mangers can clean up malware on most systems with antivirus software or sandbox it and then remediate with software. Not so with firmware. Compromised firmware could cause malware to keep coming back even after normal remediation actions.
- Stealth. Normal mechanisms for detecting malware do not examine firmware. Therefore, compromised firmware can be used to hide malicious behavior for a long time.
- Full access. If malware can control system firmware, it gains full access to the system. Normal protection mechanisms used by an OS or virtual machine rely on platform characteristics that are controlled by firmware. By altering firmware, malware can usually bypass existing measures.
While much of this may be alarming, there are steps security managers can take to protect their organizations from attacks on firmware. Bulygin and Loucaides outline five tips that help security managers become aware of the issue and offer ways to take steps to plug any potential holes in firmware.
Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio