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"BadBIOS" features explained (erratasec.com)
90 points by q_no 967 days ago | past | web | 72 comments

There are polite and impolite ways to express skepticism, and I'd encourage anyone to give Ruiu the benefit of the doubt as far as his motivations are concerned, even if you can think of an uncharitable explanation. "Here's some odd behavior I've seen and a possible explanation" is far from a hostile or irresponsible thing to say, especially when there are long histories of state-level and non-state level bad actors engaging in behavior to warp the target's perception relative to observers' of what's going on. [1][2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stasi#Zersetzung

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslighting

As a counterpoint - I would also like to point out that just because someone is "a well-respected researcher for 15 years", that doesn't mean everything they will ever say will be a quality statement above reproach or should be taken as fact at face value. [1]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forbes_Nash,_Jr.#Mental_il...

I will also point out that Dragos is not actually a prominent security researcher. He organizes a security conference. He has never presented research at his own conference, or at any other conference, as far as I can remember.

I only say this because people want us to take these claims on faith, citing a credential that he hasn't actually established. Furthermore, his tweets so far seem to be full of rookie mistakes. I've seen a fair number of "security enthusiasts" do exactly what he is doing.

Agreed, but there are some clues that testing was faulty (removing microphone and speakers), admittedly in a poorly written article. It's possible that the bias to prove the theory corect skewed the testing process.


minus irritating, uneditable typo.

But at the same time, this is Dragos Ruiu, a well-respected researcher for 15 years. If he says he's got an infected BIOS, I'm going to believe him.

My first impression was that badBIOS was an elaborate troll on the part of Ruiu, to make the point that just taking what even a "well-respected researcher" says at face value is NOT good security practice.

Really? My first impression, upon reading the Ars article, was that it was sensationalistic, ham-handed slop, emitted by someone who not only didn't understand what the hell he was talking about, but didn't appear to have bothered even trying. Then I checked the byline, and all became clear: Dan Goodin is a hack of long disrepute [1] [2], barely competent to regurgitate content generated by others, and certainly not up to anything remotely resembling original analysis or reporting.

The surprise is not that, when given a relatively subtle and complex topic such as this, he made such an utter hash of it that the subject of his interview came off like a paranoid schizophrenic. The surprise is instead that Ruiu didn't know better than to give a third-string jackass like Goodin an interview in the first place.

[1] http://search.theregister.co.uk/?author=Dan%20Goodin

[2] http://arstechnica.com/author/dan-goodin/

There are so many people out there who are delusional...the truthers, the "Moon landing hoax" folks; even Nobel prize winners can be susceptible, just recall Pauling and Shockley. Also, Bobby Fischer. This guy could easily have fallen prey to the same kind of brain eater.

It seems telling that unlike most such paranoid fantasists, he hasn't blamed anyone for this yet. Usually such delusions come with accused culprits and the like. I really don't like how people are jumping to labeling as suffering from a mental malady. Maybe he's in error, but why does he have to be ill?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far, I haven't seem him providing the latter.

That's because he isn't making the former. It took a hack [1] like Dan Goodin to make him look as though he were.

His actual claims, as far as I can determine and as corroborated by the Errata Security article, are: (1) that BIOS firmware, and potentially also built-in peripheral device firmware, might serve as a durable reservoir for malware; (2) that buffer overflows and similar sloppy coding practices in USB HID device drivers can serve as infection vectors; (3) that pre-existing malware can use ultrasound as a (buggy, flaky, slow) C&C protocol transport; and, finally and most controversially, (4) that he has live examples, as yet unpublished, of malware which demonstrates all three of these behaviors.

Claim 1 seems not particularly controversial, given that prototypes have been demonstrated at conferences.

Claim 2 has at least one example in the wild, in that a PlayStation 3 jailbreak has successfully used the exact method described as a code injection vector. The PS3, of course, is a static target; how well the method scales to the PC platform is therefore an open question, but given the apparent relative paucity of implementations available, it seems at least plausible as a useful attack vector for malware.

Claim 3 is theoretically valid and, as another HN user pointed out [2] in response to my own skepticism on the subject, has at least one strong proof of concept in the wild.

Claim 4, of course, is unverifiable at this time; given Ruiu's provenance in the field, though, I'm with the Errata Security writer in considering that Ruiu deserves the benefit of the doubt, on the presumption that he'll soon substantiate the claim.

At most, then, his claims are 25% extraordinary, and I argue it took a useless hack like Goodin to make them seem even that much so -- to say nothing of all the recent speculation with regard to Ruiu's mental state, which I can only ascribe to a spectacular failure among HN commenters to consider the source -- specifically, the source of that Ars Technica article, whose lack of credentials should be plain to anyone with the time and interest to examine his journalistic history. What in God's name possessed Ruiu to give a hack like Goodin an interview is entirely beyond me, but that's as close to a sign of poor or impaired judgment as I can see.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6655448

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6650152

And claiming that a well respected long term reliable researcher is crazy or suddenly a paranoid schizophrenic after sharing a few preliminary findings, is indeed extraordinary.

> "even Nobel prize winners can be susceptible, just recall Pauling and Shockley. Also, Bobby Fischer. This guy could easily have fallen prey to the same kind of brain eater."

I've heard this referred to as the "Nobel disease": http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nobel_disease

My first thought when reading was that it was a developer's fictional horror story written for halloween...

Also: Dragos Ruiu is primarily a security conference organizer, not a researcher. I don't mean to impugn his skills, but I'm pretty sure that he's operating far outside his area of expertise here.

I've been thinking of this less as a troll, as possibly elaborate viral marketing for a complex proof-of-concept.

Perhaps if we talk about it enough, someone will actually run with the ideas and create what is described?

I'm still waiting for someone to realize the Tuxissa virus.

Would someone please explain how the firmware dumps of the infected computer are being made?

Is it true that if you control the firmware, then you control what the dumps of that firmware will look like? The only way I can imagine getting a clean dump of that machine is by desoldering the chips and imaging them via some specialized tool. If the machine's firmware is rooted, how can you trust any signal the machine sends, especially firmware dumps? The virus could trivially hide itself by detecting a firmware dump is in progress and sending a decoy (clean) image.

A system's BIOS image is usually written to an EEPROM chip, and they are often removable. So you can either just pop them out, or desolder them in the worst case.

Then you can use an external EEPROM reader that can dump the contents, but is not capable of running the code.

The EEPROM is storage only; it's contents are loaded by the PC at boot. So if it is removed, there is no processing that an occur internally than can mask the data inside of it.

ROM is Read Only Memory. If it's read only, how could it become infected?

EDIT: Sorry for being unclear. I'm aware EEPROM can be overwritten. But presumably that requires special privileges, or a special circumstance (like the user physically holding some button on the motherboard during bootup, or something). The article isn't at all clear how it's possible to write a program that escalates its privileges to such an extent that it can then overwrite EEPROM. Is it really possible? How?


Electronically Erasable Read Only Memory

It's re-programmable (i.e. by re-flashing it).

edit: I should add that motherboard manufacturers could prevent this type of attack by "locking" the BIOS for flashing unless it was explicitly unlocked by changing a setting in the BIOS menu (some have this already, I believe). The problem at the moment is that the BIOS is writable at all times, even when the OS is running. This makes BIOS updates easier (i.e. you can make a Windows application that can do so, for example), but the problem is that this allows ANY process with Admin access to alter the BIOS as well.

The problem at the moment is that the BIOS is writable at all times, even when the OS is running. This makes BIOS updates easier (i.e. you can make a Windows application that can do so, for example), but the problem is that this allows ANY process with Admin access to alter the BIOS as well.

I'm speechless that this horrible idea was ever taken seriously, much less implemented. That answers my question as to how a BIOS could become infected.

I'm seriously sitting here in shock. How could any hardware manufacturer think it was a good idea to let a userspace program permanently alter EEPROM, ever? One does not need to be very intelligent to realize hackers will hack that.

This brings us full circle to the original question, though: Did the security researcher write a program to dump the contents of EEPROM rather than desoldering the chips? if so, then he may have been hoodwinked by the virus.

> How could any hardware manufacturer think it was a good idea to let a userspace program permanently alter EEPROM, ever?

Because most hardware manufactures are selling to consumers and not cypherpunks.

This brings us full circle to the original question, though: Did the security researcher write a program to dump the contents of EEPROM rather than desoldering the chips? if so, then he may have been hoodwinked by the virus.

Is this different than getting a dump of the BIOS before flashing it? Are we talking about different chips on the motherboard?

Flashing BIOS used to require a hardware manipulation - like moving a jumper or a dip switch. I hope this is still the case?

SecureBoot implies that firmware installed by running OS must be signed too.

That may not work if your Secureboot implementation is buggy.

The '80s solution to this problem was way easier, and it worked: a switch on the motherboard required physical access to the machine to flash its firmware.

Physical switches are expensive.

Jumpers are not expensive. You've already got dozens of the same kind of pin inside of every classic IDE and floppy connector on a motherboard.

Not "just" rom, EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable) Read Only Memory.


As the article states, it is a holdover term from a time they were Read only.

The Ars Technica article is nothing short of offensive. It's an article that does not need to exist. We need to sit down and have a nice long talk about the ethics of fear mongering in the security industry, as well as the idea that a "well-respected researcher" would not only hype up his findings, but not even reveal his findings until a conference that he organizes. Talk about a conflict of interest.

I'm willing to give Dragos the benefit of the doubt here and just assume that Dan Goodin has his head so far up his ass he can't see clearly and that Dragos has no intention of misleading people.

But having these issues for 3 years? Let's just say that extraordinary evidence needs to come out fairly quickly now. Or at least a massive correction of the hype here. Surely, in 3 years, someone else would have discovered this thing.

I can't believe how presumptuous every one is here. Let's just wait and see. The idea is completely plausible. I like to operate off of facts and right now we just don't have them.

The idea is completely plausible

I disagree. The definition of plausible is "seeming reasonable or probable".

To say "the idea is completely possible" might be accurate but has a completely different meaning.

A security researcher discovering malware that infects several different BIOS types including on PC and Mac hardware with every major operating system that can spread via USB and communicate via sound between standard speakers and a standard microphone over distance and then going about his normal day-to-day life over the next three years is the very definition of improbable.

That's Google's definition, which in my opinion doesn't capture the word correctly. That definition implies "plausible" suggests "likely". Turning to Webster:

    1 superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious <a plausible pretext>

    2 superficially pleasing or persuasive <a swindler… , then a quack, then a smooth, plausible gentleman — R. W. Emerson>

    3 appearing worthy of belief
To me, an idea is plausible if I can entertain the possibility without suspension of disbelief.

Which, as the parent said, does not seem to describe this bizarre malware. As described, it is so exotic that it requires some serious suspension of disbelief for a lot of people.

Seriously? All I am saying is that it's possible. I think pretty much everyone here will agree to that. Probable? Maybe not, but still possible.

All I am saying is that it's possible

No, all you said is that it's plausible. Plausible != possible.

Thanks troll master. I am so glad you could explain to me what it is I meant. Seems like you would rather aimlessly debate than discuss the topics at hand.

We have been waiting to see for 3 years now. I was at Dragos' conference, CanSecWest, when this first happened and people were whispering about it. He still has not demonstrated his suspicions, not even to himself.

I'm just thankful that China doesn't make computer hardware.

In this day and age, does it really matter if China or US makes the hardware. I think it's been definitively proven that one is not better than the other, when it comes to privacy and hacking.

I'm going to assume this is meant as sarcasm, because that's the only way it can be read.

>With a slightly more expensive dongle that can transmit as well as receive, your laptop can pretend to be a wifi access point or a cell phone tower...

I understand the point being explained here, but is this really accurate? I don't know of any SDR platform, let alone a "dongle" with anywhere near the capacity necessary to operate as a wifi AP.

Maybe I'm wrong here. Looks like bladeRF and USRP B200-series have the bandwidth, sample rate, and data speed to do 802.11b.

Maybe some radio smartperson can clarify?

The USRP B200 sales page actually says it can be used for WiFi. It also says "up to" 56MHz of bandwidth -- if that's actually available in the 2.4 and/or 5GHz bands, it should be able to implement 802.11n which uses 20 or 40MHz channels.

(802.11ac is out of bounds, its channels are 80MHz minimum.)


it's been possible to operate a variety of wifi cards in host AP mode for like 10 years or more. have a search and you'll see this is easily doable.

That paragraph isn't talking about a wifi card, it's talking about a software defined radio.

Internet Connection Sharing could be used with a full-duplex wifi card to enable an AP mode.

For a summary of quite a few of the techniques mentioned in the Ars article, have a look at:

Hardware backdooring is possible - By Jonathan Brossard http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRpilXPv8pU

(This one more recent from nullcon, made a splash from DefCon 20 earlier).

It's not really much of a stretch that an agency (commercial, criminal or government) that dedicated a few man-years of work could come up with something along these lines.

There's really only one-and-a-half "out there" claims: the "half" being networking via audio, the "one" being cross-platform.

It'll be interesting to see if they manage to grab a dump of the malware and we can get more eyes looking at it...

I encourage people to learn about ITP port and JTAG debuggers for processors. It is easy to verify all of this with ITP debugger in no time. I am surprised nobody did it. It is amateurish at least for a 15 years of experience. I'd expect a researcher like that to know about hardware ITP port. How do you think BIOS or UEFI firmware are developed and debugged? The cost of the debugger is 20k USD and you hook directly into the CPU bus and see everything from SMM mode transitions to cache events. Complete transparency without the sci-fi claims anymore and crap publicity.

EDIT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-target_probe

A mild omission in the blog posting: the BIOS continues to run after the OS boots. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System_Management_Mode

A not so mild omission, Macs don't even have a BIOS.

Modern Macs have UEFI, which is a form of BIOS.

(edit: actually called UEFI: EFI is an old name...)

Apple still uses EFI. It's not a form of BIOS, it's a BIOS replacement. They're quite a bit different.

"Basic Input/Output System" fits the bill for me even for (U)EFI.

It doesn't implement PCBIOS APIs (those int10h calls everyone came to lo{ve,athe}), but neither does a PC BIOS implement CP/M BIOS functions.

For the BadBIOS topic (and many other firmware debates), the "UEFI isn't BIOS" thing is useless semantics:

PCBIOS, EFI and UEFI serve the same purpose: They initialize the hardware, load the OS loader, then provide some amount of services to the OS (just through different means).

All of them provide runtime services to the OS (that the OS might or might not use). All of them have extensive control over the OS at all times through SMM, even if the OS decides not to use those runtime services. And all of them make use of these capabilities.

That is: All of them survive the boot process and have a considerable level of control over the hardware at all times.

How would you write an OS that would be encrypted or otherwise inaccessible to the hardware on which it's running? It would be a kind of hypervisor OS, but you might run only 1 VM so you could connect via console and maximize resources, as though it were a standard PC. Or maybe have a small server VM to help your network manage resources.

Are we looking at a future where a standard OS install is a multi-VM situation?

Intel wants to introduce in-CPU encrypted memory regions with its SGX extensions for such uses. That would allow encrypted virtual machines that the VM host (or SMM or TXT or whatever other super privileged mode you control) couldn't analyze.

Of course, you're merely moving your trust anchor from code (verifiable, easy to subvert) to CPU (unverifiable, hard to subvert). Pick your poison.

How could malware jump across an air gap to a clean machine, even theoretically? No uninfected machine would reflash its firmware from what it was hearing on its speaker.

This is driving me insane. Why do people keep asking this question? Even Ars's poorly written article was crystal clear on this. The article you just commented on is crystal clear on it as well. It says:

> Dragos believes that two infected computers can communicate with each other over the audio port

Infected computers. The audio communication is between infected machines. It is not the vector of initial infection.

I am responding to this (quoted from the Ars article):

"We had an air-gapped computer that just had its [firmware] BIOS reflashed, a fresh disk drive installed, and zero data on it, installed from a Windows system CD," Ruiu said. "At one point, we were editing some of the components and our registry editor got disabled. It was like: wait a minute, how can that happen? How can the machine react and attack the software that we're using to attack it? This is an air-gapped machine and all of a sudden the search function in the registry editor stopped working when we were using it to search for their keys."

"Ruiu posited another theory that sounds like something from the screenplay of a post-apocalyptic movie: "badBIOS," as Ruiu dubbed the malware, has the ability to use high-frequency transmissions passed between computer speakers and microphones to bridge airgaps."

I presume the computer that had reflashed BIOS, fresh disk drive, with zero data, installed from a Windows System CD, was uninfected. Then it became infected. Then he mentions a theory that it jumps airgaps with speakers and microphones.

This strongly implies that the claim is of a virus that jumps airgaps from an uninfected machine to an infected one through sound.

Which part of this is incorrect?

(Also, the claim that infected computers communicate via sound to bridge airgaps is not mutually exclusive with the claim that infection can spread over airgaps. So what you quoted does not contradict this claim, which is why I didn't take it as a refutation of my previous reading).

The computer had been infected. They scrubbed everything you would normally scrub, and it was reinfected. The hypothesis being that the infection persisted somewhere, such as the Realtek firmware.

At no point has anyone believed a never-infected computer would become magically infected via audio. You are looking for such a suggestion and finding it in poor writing. In reality, it is not there.

If you want to lambast Ars Technica for shitty writing, go right ahead, but don't criticize Dragos's claims until you are certain you know what they are. And as we all know, such a certainty can never come from the press. You must go to the source. Read Dragos's Google+ page and his Twitter feed. And read them carefully, not hastily and not with the intent of finding fantastical claims where they don't exist.

You've been primed by a sensationalist article to look for something sensational. Be conscious of that.

> You are looking for such a suggestion and finding it in poor writing.

You have crossed from facts which you know into speculation about my mental processes, and in fact you are incorrect about the latter. Without any preconceptions about this whatsoever, I read the Ars article and it strongly suggested to me that the claim was that the infection itself had spread over an air gap.

Otherwise, why even lead from this story into the theory of communicating via sound? If indeed the computer was already infected, then it would be no surprise that it could do something like interfere with running a registry editor. The air gap jumping would be entirely irrelevant to the story.

Why would a never-before-seen-in-the-wild malware technique be irrelevant to a story about the malware implementing in?

Sorry, I was unclear. By "story" I meant the specific story about the machine they attempted to wipe clean but that still remained infected somehow. The theory that the virus could communicate over air gaps would be irrelevent to that specific story, because if we assume that the computer was still infected, jumping air gaps is irrelevant to what was observed in that specific instance.

In other words I'm agreeing with you that the Ars article was misleading. But my initial comment was not meant to be critical of Dragos or anybody else. It was an honest, uncharged question about how my reading of the Ars article would be possible, even theoretically. The answer (it sounds like) is that the Ars article misled me about what Dragos was actually claiming.

I think the point is that anyone with an ounce of technical competence knows that the claim of formerly a normal computer being infected via sound is patently absurd, so even bringing it up is unnecessarily distracting from the discussion at hand.

I am reminded of N rays.


#1 feature: being able to sway large portions of IT-sector opinion, with unsubstantiated fear and security threats, to be pro-internet regulation.

Why internet regulation? This is firmware, so it can be fixed at the firmware level.

However I'd advise to limit the impact UEFI can have on a system (which, right now, is universal). And sometimes I even work on it (https://github.com/pgeorgi/edk2/tree/coreboot-pkg)

Guess I'll be adding a frequency emitter in this range near my air gapped machine.

Doing something easy to get wrong rather than removing the speakers?

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