NIST Issues a Draft Report on Safe BIOS/UEFI Practices – Attacks Can Render a Completely Unusable Device

Posted by at 10:47 am on August 28, 2012

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has released a report offering advice to PC manufacturers on how they can assist the public good by protecting the BIOS used on servers. The report (PDF) is a draft, and comments can be left with the agency until September 14, 2012. The report follows a similar report urging improvements in laptop and desktop workstations from 2011, in the wake of the Mebromi BIOS-altering malware.

The report cites the “unique and privileged position” of the BIOS as the motivation behind the revised guidelines. Of particular concern, the a BIOS attack “could be part of a sophisticated, targeted attack on an organization—either a permanent denial of service or a persistent malware presence” according to the report.

A migration underway from BIOS implementation to the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) may make it easier for widespread attacks, as the UEFI is based on a universal specification. In order to qualify for the “Designed for Windows 8” program, computers must use UEFI with secure boot enabled. Apple has used UEFI in 32-bit mode until the 64-bit implementation in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, making a cross-operating system attack possible without separate executable branches of code like found in the recent Crisis malware.

To combat the increasing ease of BIOS attacks, NIST recommends that manufactures cryptographically sign their BIOS updates, and starting to think of the BIOS as “the foundation for a secure system,” according to report co-author Andrew Regenscheid.

Only a few of pre-UEFI BIOS-altering malware exist, due to the variety of environments possible. Windows-specific CIH and Chernobyl may be the first examples from the late ’90s. The Mebroni malware from 2011 was very specific, only infecting Award-manufactured BIOS ROM and failing to properly execute with other manufacturers’ chipsets.

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