Intel Corp.s researchers are working to outwit cyber attackers, including those employing stealthy rootkits.
The chip makers Communications Technology Lab, in a project called System Integrity Services, has created a hardware engine to sniff out sophisticated malware attacks by monitoring the way operating systems and critical applications interact with hardware inside computers.
By watching a computers main memory, the System Integrity Services can detect when an attacker takes control of the system—such attacks sever the ties between data loaded into memory by an application and the application itself—and can fool a system so as to avoid detection while potentially allowing for surreptitious pilfering of data or the perpetration of other attacks.
“Our threat model assumes that the attacker gets on the system somehow and has unrestricted access to the system,” said Travis Schluessler, a security architect inside Intels Communications Technology Lab.
System Integrity Services “assumes [the attacker] will modify whats running in memory to fool anti-virus software or change firewall rules…so as to put the system in state where he can do whatever he wants.”
The System Integrity Services hardware, however, can detect those intrusions by monitoring the interactions between the applications and memory.
Once it discovers an intrusion, it can issue an alert. Thus it sets the bar much higher for malware being able to compromise system without being detected, Schluessler said.
Researchers tested the system with a kernel debugger, an application whose behaviors and ability to make system changes are similar to that of a rootkit, to prove its effectiveness, he said.
Although it might not make it to market immediately, Intels anti-malware research comes at a time when anti-virus vendors are struggling to cope with the use of stealth rootkits in malware attacks.
Using rootkit techniques, malware writers are able to gain administrative access to compromised machines to silently run updates to the software or reinstall malicious programs after a user deletes them.
If it were to be put into a product platform, Intels System Integrity Services could be used in conjunction with other elements, including the Intel Active Management Technology for monitoring hardware, and could also be used in concert with other research projects such as Circuit Breaker.
Circuit Breaker, a research project that might also someday find its way into products regulates an infected computers access to a network.
Such a combination might help quickly head off widespread infections, which can cost companies not only in data theft by also in reduced employee productivity due to computer downtime and heavy use of IT resources to clean them up, the Intel researcher said.
Indeed, in one example, “Once System Integrity Services has detected a problem, it can tell Circuit Breaker to turn [a machine] off the primary network and switch it over to a remediation network,” he said.
A Focus on Security
The System Integrity Services project is part of a broader focus on security inside Intels labs.
That focus has been brought about by the chip makers recent shift to designing platforms around devices such as servers or desktop PCs.
Unlike when it sold chips individually, the platform design strategy has Intel creating numerous add-ons, which include features such as virtualization and the Intel Active Management Technology, which are designed to increase the usability and manageability of desktops, notebooks and servers.
Many of Intels more advanced worm and virus detection technology are still at the research stage today—some of Intels other projects include worm signature detectors called autograph and polygraph—but it could easily wind up as features inside Intels future product platforms.
Aside from being used to improve the products for customers, they could also be added to bolster Intels competitiveness versus its rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
The System Integrity Services prototype hardware uses one of Intels Xscale processors, which Schluessler said was overkill, and plugs into a PCI slot.
A future version could potentially be built for a relatively small fee and included with Intel platforms, not unlike the way it packages wireless modules with its processors and chipsets for its Centrino-brand notebooks.
“You can tie this technology in with AMT and the CPU [in each machine] and all of a sudden youve got something thats more than the sum of its parts,” Schluessler said.
Aside from working with Intels own platforms, the technologies could be also tied in with products from Intels close partners, including operating system and application vendors, the companys researchers have said.
“We said, What kind of things can we do to address these challenges? That has driven a lot of the platform thinking, whether its VT [Intel Virtualization Technology] or active management, and how all those things work together,” said Dylan Larson, network security initiatives manager at Intels Communications Technology Lab, in a recent interview with Ziff Davis Internet.
“Weve had security expertise and lots of competency in this space for a long time. Now were looking at this even more from a platform level on how we can bring these things together to drive new value to customers.”
The lab is also working on a projects called Autograph and Polygraph projects, which are designed to help prevent large-scale worm infections altogether by analyzing individual worms and quickly publishing data on how to detect them.
Autograph and Polygraph employ a combination of heuristics and good old sleuthing to track down worms and locate their signatures—or the unique pattern of data required for its particular exploit—and then notify other systems with those signatures so that they can move to identify and block the worm, said Brad Karp, at Intel Research Pittsburg, a lab located on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
Autographs source code has been made available for download via the universitys Web site, and Karp and his team are also working on a Polygraph, a similar program which can sniff out so-called polymorphic worms, which change each time they replicate in an effort to cover up their signatures and thwart the defense used in Autograph.
The next step for the Systems Integrity Services now lies with Intels platform development teams, which will make the call on whether or not to add the technology to its future systems, Schluessler said.