Researchers predict hardware-specific malware

Malware and virus writers could begin to target specific hardware, according to researchers, who claim to have discovered a way of remotely identifying individual chips and their weaknesses.

Researchers predict hardware-specific malware

Most computer attacks have conventionally targeted computers according to their operating systems – whether it is Windows or, more rarely, Linux or Apple’s Mac OS.

However, researchers at Paris’s Ecole Superiore d’Informatique, Electronique, Automatique believe that – if they know what hardware is being use – hackers could launch highly targeted attacks based on processors.

“In this paper, we consider a different approach and show on a technical basis how easily malware can recognise and target systems selectively, according to the onboard processor chip,” wrote Anthony Desnos and co-authors in their “Processor-Dependent Malware… and codes” report.

The recent case of theStuxNet worm shows that targeted attacks towards components are nowadays a major concern in cyber attacks

According to the researchers, the key to hardware malware is to identify specific processors, which has until now been difficult.

“To design such dependent processor malware, we need to identify the processor as precisely as possible,” the researchers said. “But deriving knowledge about processor internals is tricky and requires a lot of work.

“Instead of analysing processor logic gates architecture, we propose to work at the higher level – to exploit mathematical perfection versus processor reality.”

By examining how each processor deals with specific mathematical problems they will provide a fingerprint that could act as a tell-tale sign for attackers.

As an example, the researcher cited the infamous 1994 floating point bug in Pentium chips that gave out identifiably wrong answers to certain problems, and the researchers say similar weaknesses are common in many processors.

“Critical weapons”

Hardware-based attacks could be a critical weapon in targeted cyberwarfare because the attackers wouldn’t have to know exactly what software was running on the target systems.

“The recent case of theStuxNet worm shows that targeted attacks towards components are nowadays a major concern in cyber attacks,” Desnos said.

“However, while it can be very difficult to forecast and envisage which kind of applications are likely to be present on the target system (it can be a secret information), the variety in terms of hardware is far more reduced due to the very limited number of hardware manufacturers.”

Being able to attack specific sub-groups of processors, the Parisians said, would enable “surgical strikes” on systems that could, for example, freeze systems with processor-specific denial of service attacks.

The researchers claim they can identify processors from AMD, Intel, Sparc, Digital Alpha and Cell.

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