Dell is stepping in to protect the boot layer of PCs, tablets

Dell is deploying a verification tool to ensure the boot layer in PCs and tablets hasn't been hacked

Dell's business laptops and tablets will get an extra layer of protection from hackers with a new security tool being loaded into the company's portable computers.

The new Dell security tool focuses on protecting the boot layer so PC hardware or software don't malfunction. It secures the low-level UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), which sits in a protected layer above the OS. An attack on this firmware can compromise a system at boot time.

Hacking the firmware can cause the OS and hardware components to malfunction. Hackers have shown increasingly sophisticated ways in which the UEFI -- which has replaced the conventional BIOS -- can be infected with malware. 

Recovery from a hacked boot layer isn't as easy as running an anti-virus program. It usually requires a system to be rebooted and firmware to be flashed before loading the OS.

As a hacked UEFI is hard to to fix, Dell's new security tool offers an alternative method. At boot, the tool verifies a UEFI snapshot with an identical copy in the cloud and can notify a user or system administrator of any inconsistency. A copy of the UEFI can then be reloaded on the computer to fix the problem.

That's just a start. The company is working on a feature in which hacked UEFI can "auto-remediate" itself, said David Konetski, executive director in the Client Solutions Office of the CTO at Dell. He did not share when that feature would be in PCs.

Dell has also taken precautions to protect the process of verifying the UEFI with an image in the cloud, Konetski said. A copy of the UEFI image is sent from flash storage to a PC's SRAM, and then data from the SRAM is then sent over a secure channel for verification. The cloud can be set up within a customer's premises, which makes intercepting a UEFI hash even more difficult, Konetski said.

Trying to beat the cloud-based UEFI verification system would require hacking the PC boot layer and the UEFI snapshot in the cloud. The verification tool's design is much like cloud-based anti-virus programs, which are being deployed in more enterprises to protect PCs, tablets and thin clients.

In case of a hack, an original copy of the BIOS can be reloaded on the PC from a server via Microsoft's System Center Configuration or other Windows-based remote system management software. Support for Linux server management software will come soon, Konetski said.

The tool will be loaded in Dell's Precision, OptiPlex and XPS PCs and Venue Pro tablets. Buyers will have to pay extra for the BIOS verification tool. Dell hasn't said how much it will cost.

Intel already provides system management tools to protect the boot layer in PCs. System administrators can remotely start a PC, fix the boot layer, and then shut down the PC. HP also includes secure boot tools in its business PCs, though they are designed for individual users.

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