The Null Device

Malicious Processors

Several researchers at UIUC have written a paper on how one could insert general-purpose back doors into a CPU, allowing those in the know to pwn any machine running on it, almost undetectably:
We present the design and implementation of Illinois Malicious Processors (IMPs). There is a substantial design space in malicious circuitry; we show that an attacker, rather than designing one specific attack, can instead design hardware to support attacks. Such flexible hardware allows powerful, general purpose attacks, while remaining surprisingly low in the amount of additional hardware. We show two such hardware designs, and implement them in a real system. Further, we show three powerful attacks using this hardware, including login backdoor that gives an attacker complete and highlevel access to the machine. This login attack requires only 1341 additional gates: gates that can be used for other attacks as well. Malicious processors are more practical, more flexible, and harder to detect than an initial analysis would suggest.
And here are some details:
Our memory access mechanism provides hardware support for unprivileged malicious software by allowing access to privileged memory regions. Malicious software triggers the attack by forcing a sequence of bytes on the data bus to enable the memory access circuits. This sequence can be arbitrarily long to avoid false positives, and the particular sequence must be agreed upon before deployment. Once the sequence is observed, the MMU in the data cache ignores CPU privilege levels for memory accesses, thus granting unprivileged software access to all memory, including privileged memory regions like the operating system’s internal memory. In other words, loading a magic value on the data bus will disable protection checking. We implement this technique by modifying the data cache of our processor to include a small state machine that looks for the special sequence of bytes, plus some additional logic in the MMU to ignore privilege levels when malicious software enables the attack.
Using the shadow mode mechanism, we implement a malicious service that acts as a permanent backdoor into a system (Figure 2). To initiate the attack, an attacker sends an unsolicited network packet to the target system and the target OS inspects the packet to verify the UDP checksum. The act of inspecting the packet (necessary to decide if it should be dropped) triggers the trojaned hardware, and the malicious service interprets the contents of the packet as new firmware that it loads into the processor invisibly. The target operating system then drops the unsolicited packet and continues operation, oblivious to the attack.
And there's more, including ways of stealing passwords.

And if civilian security researchers have just discovered this, it's not unlikely that ones in intelligence agencies have had such techniques for a while. I wouldn't be surprised if the NSA had similar back doors in all US-designed CPUs likely to end up on the export market, just in case, or if the Chinese government had similarly altered CPUs (or other strategic components) being manufactured on Chinese production lines, or indeed if other intelligence agencies had managed to get their own hooks into the silicon.

There are 1 comments on "Malicious Processors":

Posted by: Greg Sat Oct 18 02:41:41 2008

This is reminiscent of the ATM story from a few days ago. There's a fine line between government and organized crime.

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