Design flaw in Intel processors opens door to rootkits, researcher says

The vulnerability was introduced in 1997, but has remained hidden until now

A design flaw in the x86 processor architecture dating back almost two decades could allow attackers to install a rootkit in the low-level firmware of computers, a security researcher said Thursday. Such malware could be undetectable by security products.

The vulnerability stems from a feature first added to the x86 architecture in 1997. It was disclosed Thursday at the Black Hat security conference by Christopher Domas, a security researcher with the Battelle Memorial Institute.

By leveraging the flaw, attackers could install a rootkit in the processors System Management Mode (SMM), a protected region of code that underpins all the firmware security features in modern computers.

Once installed, the rootkit could be used for destructive attacks like wiping the UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) the modern BIOS or even to re-infect the OS after a clean install. Protection features like Secure Boot wouldnt help, because they too rely on the SMM to be secure.

The attack essentially breaks the hardware roots of trust, Domas said.

Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to Domas, the chip maker is aware of the issue and has mitigated it in its latest CPUs. The company is also rolling out firmware updates for older processors, but not all of them can be patched, he said.

To exploit the vulnerability and install the rootkit, attackers would need to already have kernel or system privileges on a computer. That means the flaw cant be used by itself to compromise a system, but could make an existing malware infection highly persistent and completely invisible.

Domas only tested the exploit successfully on Intel processors, but noted that x86 processors made by AMD should in theory be vulnerable as well.

Even if BIOS/UEFI updates are made available by computer manufacturers, their rate of adoption is likely to be very low, especially among consumers.

Unfortunately theres not much users can do, except try not to become infected by malware in the first place that could gain kernel privileges to deploy such a rootkit.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags securityblack hatBattelle Memorial InstituteAMDExploits / vulnerabilitiesintelmalware

More about AMDIntel

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place