HACKING SOFTWARE TO gain access to someone else’s computer could soon become “old school”, according to boffins at the University of Illinois, who say that the next level for hackers is hacking the microprocessor itself.
New research has shown that it is in fact possible to alter chips in such a way as to leave computers helpless to back-door attacks, which would be almost impossible to detect.
To prove their point, researchers set up a demo of such an attack yesterday, in San Francisco, at a security conference called the Usenix Workshop on Large-Scale Exploits and Emergent Threats. The alarming demo showed how a processor running a Linux operating system was left totally vulnerable after a malicious firmware laden chip was given instructions to allow an attacker to log on to the computer without any trouble at all.
Head boffin, Samuel King, who is also an assistant professor in the university of Illinois’s computer science department, reckoned that "This is like the ultimate back door."
He explained that hacking the chip was actually the easy part, requiring changes to only very few of the processor’s circuits. For the demo, King said that his team had tampered with only 1,341 of the chip’s one million logic gates, and that in order to hack the system, all that needed to be done was to send the processor a specially crafted network packet, telling it to let loose its evil load of malicious firmware. "From the software's perspective, the packet gets dropped ... and yet I have full and complete access to this underlying system that I just compromised," said King.
The hard part for any potential pioneering microprocessor hacker, would be the actual logistics of how to get an infected CPU into someone’s computer in the first place. Unlike hacking software, hacking hardware actually requires physical action. King admits that its not the most plausible attack strategy, but then went on to give his tips (or views, if you’re not a hacker) about how it could be done. King reckons that a "mole" developer (no, not a vole developer, a mole) could stick the code into the chip whilst working on it’s design, or an underpaid computer assembly lines-man could bung in the infected chips for a few pieces of silver.
Needless to say, this will just hype up the paranoia at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) , who already issued a warning back in 2005 about how offshore integrated circuit manufacturing could give rise to dangerous security breaches. After all, if you let pesky foreigners handle your chips, who knows what they might do to them. µ
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