Architecture and Tools

By Paul F. Roberts  |  Posted 2006-01-26 Print this article Print

  • Architecture: Though its name suggests otherwise Intels CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) architecture is easier to audit for security holes than the RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer)–based chips from Motorola, said Lurene Grenier, a software vulnerability researcher and Mac PowerBook user in Columbia, Md. "With Complex Instruction Set instructions, there are more of them, and they do more for you. Its just simpler to read and write to CISC systems and get them to do something," she said.
    Those differences make it easier for vulnerability experts and exploit writers to understand and write exploit code for systems that use the Intel architecture, and removes a big barrier to writing exploits for Mac systems, analysts agree.
    "OS X will become more popular as prices drop. I think you have a variety of malicious folks who know the Intel chip set and instruction set. Now that Mac OS X runs on that, people can port their malware and other things over to OS X quickly and easily," said David Mackey, director of security intelligence at IBM. "If I want to pop some box, Mac on a Motorola chip is a barrier," says Josh Pennell, president and CEO of IOActive Inc. in Seattle. The population of individuals who can reverse-engineer code and read and write Assembly language is small, anyway. To read more details about Apples Intel-based Macs, click here. Within that tiny population, there are far more who can do it for CISC as compared to RISC-based systems, Grenier said. "There are payloads and shell code written for PowerPC, but there are far fewer people who can or care to write it," Grenier said.
  • Tools: Hackers need tools to help them in their work, and more of them exist for machines using Intels x86 than Motorolas PowerPC, experts agree. Popular code disassembly tools like IDA Pro work for programs that run on both Intel and PowerPC, but theres a richer variety of tools such as shell code encoders and tools for scouring code that work with the Intel platform than for PowerPC, Grenier said. "There are tools that are not written for PowerPC because theres not the user base or the interest," she said. Windows, Linux and Unix all use the x86 architecture, and exploit writers interested in those platforms have developed more tools to help them over the years. Those tools, in turn, speed development of exploit code for buffer overflows and other kinds of vulnerabilities that require knowledge of the underlying architecture, Grenier said. "I dont think [Intel] will make Mac more or less secure. But there will be a ton more exploits coming out for Mac," Grenier said. Next Page: Other factors.


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