Dont Hold Out Hopes For Anti-Rootkit Chips

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-12-16 Print this article Print

Opinion: What can a chip really know about application/OS interaction in order to identify it as malware? Not much.

When a term like "rootkit" gets enough buzz that the local Sunday paper mentions it you just have to expect vendors to blurt out that they have a solution for it, whether they do or not.

I think this is what happened with Intels recent announcement that they are working on anti-rootkit hardware, a magical rootkit-busting chip.
The technology they describe is certainly interesting and useful, but its not about fighting rootkits.

Intel has two papers I found on their site about the technology, Runtime Integrity and Presence Verification for Software Agents and OS Independent Run-time System Integrity Services. The latter paper is longer and more detailed.

SIS (System Integrity Services), as the name implies, is about protecting the integrity of the system. Thus the purpose of the hardware is to monitor specific code and data areas in the system for activities deemed to be suspicious. While there are some references in the longer paper to rootkits, its clear that the technique was designed not so much to protect operating systems as security programs. Its common for malware to attempt to terminate or otherwise interfere with security programs, and Intels SIS would detect this. SIS would also detect buffer overflows in monitored programs attempting to cause arbitrary code execution. SIS uses the Intel IA-32 System Management Mode (SMM) that was designed for the SL processors almost 15 years ago for reasons, if I remember correctly, to do with power management. Anti-spyware battles rootkits with rootkit tactics. Click here to read more. In a sense it acts something like a hardware ICE (In-Circuit Emulator), the gold standard in hardware debugging, to gain absolute control over the use of hardware in the PC. In this way it can block many software attacks in a clean and tamper-proof way. And because of SMM, it can also monitor for certain hardware-based attacks, such as a malicious device that attempted to inject attack code in the system through DMA (Direct Memory Access), which bypasses the CPU and would therefore bypass any software-based protections.

Next page: Rootkits versus SIS: And the winner Is...

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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