Researchers detail Intel TXT hacks at Black Hat

Trusted Execution Technology flaw 'might affect all recent Intel motherboards and BIOSes'

Two security researchers fleshed out details Wednesday at the Black Hat conference in Washington of a method they disclosed earlier this year for circumventing Intel's new Trusted Execution Technology (TXT) security software.

The two-stage attack against TXT (PDF document), which is designed to protect data on PCs, was disclosed in January by Joanna Rutkowska and Rafal Wojtczuk of security research firm Invisible Things Lab in Poland.

When first disclosed, they said they had discovered a design flaw in TXT and certain implementation errors in some associated Intel system software that allowed them to bypass any of TXT's security protections. They also released proof-of-concept code showing how an attacker could use their method to compromise Intel's implementation of the trusted boot process for Xen and Linux operating systems.

In their presentation at the Black Hat hacker conference Wednesday, the researchers offered more details on their attack method. The also noted that patching BIOS software would address the system software vulnerabilities, but they added that no easy measure was currently available for tackling the TXT problem.

Intel confirmed the problem, which affects mobile, desktop, and server motherboards, "without providing any more details about which exact models are vulnerable," the researches wrote in their presentation. "We suspect it might affect all recent Intel motherboards and BIOSes."

Intel's TXT, previously code-named LaGrande, is a relatively new technology designed to provide a trusted way for loading and launching system software such as an operating system kernel or a Virtualization Machine Monitor on a system.

The technology is expected to greatly reduce the risk of software being compromised by system-level malware threats such as rootkits. Intel's vPro processor platform currently implements TXT, and PCs based on the technology have been shipping for about a year now.

Rutkowska and Wojtczuk said the problems with TXT stem primarily from Intel's implementation of an especially critical software component known as System Management Mode (SMM) Memory. The errors allow an attacker to infect SMM memory and inject shell code of their choice into it, they said. For the proof-of-concept attack, they used shell code that added a back door to Xen hypervisor software.

Because TXT does not validate the SMM memory while software is being loaded, any malware that is hidden in SMM survives TXT's trusted launch process and can compromise the software that has just been launched.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld
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