Attackers Expand to Hack Hardware

Cyber attackers and researchers continually evolve, explore, and push the boundaries of finding vulnerabilities.  Hacking hardware is the next step on that journey.  It is important for computing device makers and the IoT industry to understand they are now under the microscope and attackers are a relentless and unforgiving crowd.  Application and operating systems have taken the brunt of attacks and scrutiny over the years, but that may change as the world embraces new devices to enable and enrich our lives.

Vulnerabilities exist everywhere in the world’s technology landscape, but they are not equal and it can take greatly varying levels of effort, timing, luck, and resources to take advantage of them.  Attackers tend to follow the path-of-least-resistance in alignment with their pursuit of nefarious goals.  As security closes the easiest paths, attackers move on to the next available option.  It is a chess game. 

In the world of vulnerabilities there is a hierarchy, from easy to difficult to exploit and from trivial to severe in overall impact.  Technically, hacking data is easiest, followed by applications, operating systems, firmware, and finally hardware.  This is sometimes referred to as the ‘stack’ because it is how systems are architecturally layered. 
Attackers Move Down the Stack.jpg
The first three areas are software and are very portable and dynamic across systems, but subject to great scrutiny by most security controls.  Trojans are a classic example where data becomes modified with malicious payloads and can be easily distributed across networks.  Such manipulations are relatively exposed and easy to detect at many different points.  Applications can be maliciously written or infected to act in unintended ways, but pervasive anti-malware is designed to protect against such attacks and are constantly watchful.  Vulnerabilities in operating systems provide a means to hide from most security, open up a bounty of potential targets, and offer a much greater depth of control.  Knowing the risks, OS vendors are constantly identifying problems and sending a regular stream of patches to shore up weaknesses, limiting the viability of continued exploitation by threats.  It is not until we get to Firmware and Hardware, do most of the mature security controls drop away.   

The firmware and hardware, residing beneath the software layers, tends to be more rigid and represents a significantly greater challenge to compromise and scale attacks.  However, success at the lower levels means bypassing most detection and remediation security controls which live above, in the software.  Hacking hardware is very rare and intricate, but not impossible.  The level of difficulty tends to be a major deterrent while the ample opportunities and ease which exist in the software layers is more than enough to keep hackers comfortable in staying with easier exploits in pursuit of their objectives. 
Some attackers are moving down the stack.  They are the vanguard and blazing a path for others to follow.  Their efforts, processes, and tools will be refined and reused by others.  There are tradeoffs to attacks at any level.  The easy vulnerabilities in data and applications yield much less benefits for attackers in the way of remaining undetected, persistence after actions are taken against them, and the overall level of control they can gain.  Most security products, patches, and services have been created to detect, prevent, and evict software based attacks.  They are insufficient at dealing with hardware or firmware compromises.  Due to the difficulty and lack of obvious success, most vulnerability research doesn’t explore much in the firmware and hardware space.  This is changing.  It is only natural, attackers will seek to maneuver where security is not pervasive.

As investments in offensive cyber capabilities from nations, organized crime syndicates, and elite hackers-for-hire continue to grow, new areas such as IoT hardware, firmware, and embedded OS vulnerabilities will be explored and exploited.

Researchers targeting hardware are breaking new ground which others will follow, eventually leading to broad research in hardware vulnerabilities across computing products which influence our daily lives.  This in turn will spur security to evolve in order to meet the new risks.  So the chess game will continue.  Hardware and firmware hacking is part of the natural evolution of cybersecurity and therefore a part of our future we must eventually deal with.

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Matthew Rosenquist

About Matthew Rosenquist

Matthew Rosenquist is a Cybersecurity Strategist for Intel Corp and benefits from 20+ years in the field of security. He specializes in strategy, measuring value, and developing cost effective capabilities and organizations which deliver optimal levels of security. Matthew helped with the formation of the Intel Security Group, an industry leading organization bringing together security across hardware, firmware, software and services. An outspoken advocate of cybersecurity, he strives to advance the industry and his guidance can be heard at conferences, and found in whitepapers, articles, and blogs.