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Microsoft Confirms New Windows CPU Attack Vulnerability, Advises All Users To Update Now

A security vulnerability that affects Windows computers running on 64-bit Intel and AMD processors could give an attacker access to your passwords, private conversations, and any other information within the operating system kernel memory. Users are advised to update Windows in order to mitigate against this new CPU “SWAPGS attack” risk.

What is the SWAPGS attack?

“We call this the SWAPGS attack because the vulnerability leverages the SWAPGS instruction,” Bogdan Botezatu, director of threat research and reporting at Bitdefender, says “an under-documented instruction that makes the switch between user-owned memory and kernel memory.” Botezatu also says that, at this point, “all Intel CPUs manufactured between 2012 and today are vulnerable to the SWAPGS attack.” Which means every Intel chip going back to the “Ivy Bridge” processor is vulnerable if inside a machine running Windows.

However, it appears it is not just Intel CPUs that are affected by the SWAPGS attack vulnerability. According to a Red Hat advisory published August 6th, the threat “applies to x86-64 systems using either Intel or AMD processors.” Something that AMD itself disputes.

An AMD spokesperson pointed me in the direction of a public statement online: “AMD is aware of new research claiming new speculative execution attacks that may allow access to privileged kernel data. Based on external and internal analysis, AMD believes it is not vulnerable to the SWAPGS variant attacks because AMD products are designed not to speculate on the new GS value following a speculative SWAPGS. For the attack that is not a SWAPGS variant, the mitigation is to implement our existing recommendations for Spectre variant 1.”

That same Red Hat advisory stated that “based on industry feedback, we are not aware of any known way to exploit this vulnerability on Linux kernel-based systems.” During my briefing with Botezatu, he noted that “Linux machines are also impacted,” however, due to the operating system architecture they are “less prone to this type of attack, as it is less reliable.” Botezatu says that other operating system vendors are not impacted at this point, “but are still investigating similar attack avenues leveraging the SWAPGS attack.”

As already mentioned, Bitdefender researchers have been working with Intel for more than a year to address the risk from this new “side-channel” attack that, the company said, “bypasses all known mitigations implemented after the discovery of Spectre and Meltdown in early 2018.”

However, it has waited until now to disclose the information as Microsoft has issued a fix to address the vulnerability as part of the July 9 “Patch Tuesday” updates. Even so, despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, Bitdefender admitted that “it is possible that an attacker with knowledge of the vulnerability could have exploited it to steal confidential information.”

A Microsoft spokesperson provided me with the following statement: “We’re aware of this industry-wide issue and have been working closely with affected chip manufacturers and industry partners to develop and test mitigations to protect our customers. We released security updates in July, and customers who have Windows Update enabled and applied the security updates are protected automatically.”

I understand that as soon as Microsoft became aware of the issue, it worked quickly to address it and release an update as soon as possible. Microsoft works closely with both researchers and industry partners to make customers more secure, and as such did not publish details until August 6 as part of a coordinated vulnerability disclosure.

Red Hat has stated that “there is no known complete mitigation other than updating the kernel and rebooting the system. This kernel patch builds on existing Spectre mitigations from previous updates.”

So, to address the issue for Linux machines requires updates to the Linux kernel in combination with microcode updates. “Red Hat customers running affected versions of the Red Hat products are strongly recommended to update them as soon as errata are available,” Red Hat advises, “customers are urged to apply the appropriate updates immediately and reboot to mitigate this flaw correctly.”

Meanwhile, an Intel spokesperson provided the following statement via email:

“On August 6th, researchers from Bitdefender published a paper entitled “Security Implications of Speculatively Executing Segmentation Related Instructions on Intel CPUs.” As stated in their paper, Intel expects that exploits described by the researchers are addressed through the use of existing mitigation techniques. We believe strongly in the value of coordinated disclosure and value our partnership with the research community. As a best practice, we continue to encourage everyone to keep their systems up-to-date.”

How is the SWAPGS attack related to Spectre?

Like the Spectre vulnerability which dominated the headlines for so long, this new side-channel exploit takes advantage of the speculative execution functionality of modern processors. Simply put, that functionality speeds up the CPU by enabling it to make a bunch of educated guesses as to the instructions that will come at it next. Thomas Brewster has a good primer on these side-channel attacks in this Forbes article from May 22, 2018.

Where SWAPGS differs is in the attack methodology as it combines that speculative execution of instructions with the use of that previously mentioned SWAPGS instruction by Windows operating systems within a gadget.

How easily can this attack be executed?

The chances of falling victim to a SWAPGS attack now that the details have been disclosed have increased, so users are advised to apply available updates as a matter of urgency if they have not already done so. However, it should be remembered that, as Botezatu admits, “this is not your run of the mill attack against regular computers, as running the SWAPGS attack is time-consuming.”

Your average threat actor would instead rely on lucrative, and easy to execute, attack methodologies such as phishing. “On the other side, exploiting this bug from a threat actor perspective brings significant advantages,” Botezatu warns “it circumvents anti-malware defenses and would leave no traces on the compromised system.”

The scary firmware attack surface explained

Ian Thornton Trump, head of cybersecurity at Amtrust International, knows what this “BIOS and firmware” attack surface looks like. “To understand why it’s so scary comes down to one simple concept,” Thornton-Trump tells me, “if the firmware, BIOS and microcode layers of a computer are insecure than it is impossible to put a secure operating system on top of that.”

Indeed, when the original Spectre threat story first broke, I recall Thornton-Trump speculating that the modern CPU is actually an operating system unto itself; concluding that architectural and procedural vulnerabilities will be aggressively explored by security researchers.

“Now we have a new development in this story,” Thornton-Trump says, “inserting code into speculative execution can yield an exploit for a component of the 64-bit Windows Kernel.” What does this mean? “It means the Operating System is no longer secure because the CPU is not secure,” and the result of that is a leak of user mode data.

Which users are at most real-world risk from SWAPGS?

“Criminals with knowledge of these attacks would have the power to uncover the most vital, best-protected information of both companies and private individuals around the world, and the corresponding power to steal, blackmail, sabotage and spy,” Gavin Hill, vice-president for datacenter and network security products at Bitdefender warned.

“I don’t think this is going to be leveraged into a Wannacry or Notpetya level of attack,” Thornton-Trump says, “and I don’t think it will be adopted by cyber-criminals with financial motivations.” These are the sort of vulnerabilities that “Government Cloud” and “Military Mega-Cloud” projects should be aware of, according to Thornton-Trump.  “For people with sensitive data in virtual environments these sorts of exploits need to be considered in the threat model,” he concludes, “for the rest of us, we have far worse issues to deal with.”

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

I’m a three-decade veteran technology journalist and have been a contributing editor at PC Pro magazine since the first issue in 1994. A three-time winner of the BT Security Journalist of the Year award (2006, 2008, 2010) I was also fortunate enough to be named BT Technology Journalist of the Year in 1996 for a forward-looking feature in PC Pro called ‘Threats to the Internet.’ In 2011 I was honored with the Enigma Award for a lifetime contribution to IT security journalism. Contact me in confidence at davey@happygeek.com if you have a story to reveal or research to share.

Source: Microsoft Confirms New Windows CPU Attack Vulnerability, Advises All Users To Update Now

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Asus Just Gave You 1 Million Reasons To Switch From Windows To Linux

Cyber-security and antivirus company Kaspersky dropped a bomb on Asus laptop users this week, revealing that malware was distributed through the Asus Live Update utility. It masqueraded as a legitimate security update, and even boasted a “verified” certificate — hosted on Asus servers — to make it appear valid. Kaspersky has deemed this attack “one of the biggest supply-chain incidents ever.” Such attacks spiked 78% between 2017 and 2018. This shouldn’t raise alarms for just Asus users. It should prompt you to seriously consider whether you want Windows on your PC. Because the possibility of this ever happening on a desktop Linux OS like Ubuntu is minuscule.

My own Asus Republic of Gamers laptop — now running Linux

Jason Evangelho

How Serious Is ShadowHammer?

In the long tradition of scary codenames for such attacks, Kaspersky has labeled the attack “ShadowHammer.” The company says that according to its statistics, more than 57,000 users of Kaspersky Lab products (such as Kaspersky Anti-Virus) have already installed it. However, they estimate that its true reach extends to 1 million Asus computers.

To my knowledge this is only eclipsed by the infamous CCleaner attack, which was distributed to 2.7 million Windows PCs.

The motivations for the malware attack are unclear, but it apparently targeted only 600 specific MAC addresses. Once found, the attack would escalate to install more software to further compromise the system. There doesn’t seem to be a reason that the attackers couldn’t have activated this on every single computer affected.

For an informative and detailed discussion on this attack, listen to TechSnap Episode 400.

What’s even more frightening is that Kaspersky discovered the same type of technique used against the Asus Live Update software was also leveraged against three other vendors. The company promised to reveal more substantial information at an upcoming Security Analyst Summit in Singapore.

When contacted by Kaspersky, The Verge reports that Asus evidently denied the attack originated from its servers. In a follow-up press release, however, Asus did acknowledge that this was a “sophisticated attack” on its Live Update servers.

No apology was issued. This is not how you build trust. (Especially since this is far from being the first security blunder Asus has made.)

Asus has since patched the Live Update software and issued a tool for users to determine if they owned one of the specific computers targeted. Given the circumstances, I’m not even going to link to it, but it’s available via this press release page.

An FAQ posted alongside the press release has a stinging piece of advice for users who were affected by the malware attack: “Immediately run a backup of your files and restore your operating system to factory settings,” it states. “This will completely remove the malware from your computer. In order to ensure the security of your information, ASUS recommends that you regularly update your passwords.”

What really rattles my cage about this situation is the fact that Kaspersky uses the word “teaser” in the URL associated with its ShadowHammer post, as if this is some kind of movie trailer. Then the company warns that three other Asia-based software vendors were attacked using the same method without revealing who they are.

But all of this information is just background for the real point I’m trying to make.

Why Ubuntu (And Linux In General) Is Safer

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Dell put forth considerable effort into making the popular XPS 13 the perfect Ubuntu laptop

Jason Evangelho

Consider how many companies have independent control over the software and hardware inside your Windows PC. Intel, AMD, Dell, Nvidia, Realtek among several others. The vast majority of the code they use running on your computer is not open source. That means it’s not subject to inspection by the hundreds of millions of people using it. The code can’t be independently verified. The code comes from multiple locations across multiple update utilities.

On Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, my firmware updates, software updates and security updates come from a single source: the operating system’s built-in software center.

This next part is important: only a select few individuals at Asus are responsible for ensuring the software and firmware being sent through the Asus Live Update utility is safe. And it’s almost certain no one at Microsoft saw the code before it before it went out to those 1 million Asus laptop users.

Rather than base my entire argument about Linux being safer on personal experience or subjective opinions, I reached out to Alex Murray at Canonical. Murray is the Security Tech Lead for Ubuntu, a Linux distribution used by hundreds of millions. It powers everything from IoT devices to home desktops; supercomputers to the web servers delivering the majority of your experiences on the internet. Netflix is powered by Ubuntu, as is Amazon Web Services. Outside your home, Lyft and Uber are powered by Ubuntu.

My question for Murray was straightforward. Can something like ShadowHammer happen on Linux?

Murray admits that while this sort of attack is a possibility on Linux, it would be a lot harder to pull off.

Ubuntu is based on Debian, one of the the largest and most mature Linux distributions available. “Many of our source packages originate from Debian where we add Ubuntu-specific patches on top,” Murray says.

As such, Murray explains that there are “many, many people who can detect any possible malicious changes to a software package.” That’s the beauty of open source. Changes are submitted publicly, and every line of code can be scrutinized.

Of course, there needs to be a more elaborate system of checks and balances that doesn’t rely solely on community.

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Alex Murray, Ubuntu Tech Lead at Canonical Ltd.

Alex Murray

“Various teams of Canonical employees are responsible for maintaining the packages in the ‘main’ section of the Ubuntu software archive, and as such we provide further review and oversight of the source code in these packages,” Murray says. “Importantly, only trusted individuals are allowed to publish software package updates, which again raises the bar to prevent this kind of attack. Finally, we have a strong and dedicated community of developers and users who help to provide an even further level of ‘community’ oversight as well – which gives us a good defense in depth approach to detecting this kind of attack.”

In a nutshell, this means even if a trusted developer is compromised, there are various other individuals who will likely take notice.

But even that isn’t enough, so Canonical takes things a step further.

“From an end-user point of view, Ubuntu uses a signed archive approach where each package is cryptographically hashed and the list of hashes signed in such a manner that our package manager will not install packages which fail the signature and integrity checks,” Murray explains.

This means that even if an Ubuntu mirror (an external software source not directly managed by Canonical) was compromised and someone uploaded malicious copies of packages there, it would fail the signature check and would not be installed.

“We offer digital signatures to verify the integrity of the installation ISO images as well,” Murray says. “So together with the repository signatures, users can be confident that the software they are downloading and installing is what is published by Ubuntu, and with all the various reviews outlined above, we have many opportunities to detect any possible malicious changes to the software packages being published.”

Beyond these methods of ensuring security for its users, I’d recommend this article which explains in detail how Ubuntu delivers system updates and why it’s a more elegant and less frustrating experience than on Windows.

Securing Firmware Through The Blockchain

Firmware updates are an often overlooked — but easily manipulated — potential attack source. One of my favorite Linux distributions, Pop!_OS, uses the power of blockchain to ensure that the firmware updates being delivered to its users have no possible way of being manipulated. And they take an amazing approach to their server setup.

“Firmware updates are delivered using a build server, which contains the new firmware, and a signing server, which verifies that the new firmware came from inside the company,” writes parent company System76. “The two servers are only connected via a serial cable. The lack of a network between the two means that one server cannot be accessed if entry is achieved through the other server.”

System76 sets up multiple build servers alongside that primary one. For a firmware update to be verified, it must be identical on all servers. “If even one build server contains a compromised firmware update, this update cannot proceed to signing and will not be delivered to our customers,” System76 says.

This is very similar to how cryptocurrency mining works, and is arguably a more useful and forward-thinking implementation of blockchain.

Choose Linux

The bottom line is that Windows has too many potential attack points, most of which are not directly overseen by the very company who develops the operating system. The vast majority of the code cannot be audited by the community. There are less checks and balances in place to ensure that these attacks are prevented. After seeing how Ubuntu and various other Linux distributions ensure the security of their users, the Microsoft Windows approach starts to seem a lot less sane.

And if you’re wary of Linux because you think its archaic and not user-friendly, here are some articles that may change your mind, including one to help find the perfect OS to suit your needs:

Since joining Forbes in 2012, I’ve contributed to gaming and technology features on PCWorld and Computer Shopper. You can also find me on Jupiter Broadcasting where I h…

Source: Asus Just Gave You 1 Million Reasons To Switch From Windows To Linux

How to Find and Fix Bugs in Commercial Software on Windows

According to Wikipedia, “A software bug is an error, flaw, failure or fault in a computer program or system that causes it to produce an incorrect or unexpected result, or to behave in unintended ways, eventually crashing the application. The process of fixing bugs is termed “debugging” and often uses formal techniques or tools to pinpoint bugs […].”

Source: How to Find and Fix Bugs in Commercial Software on Windows

Avoid Windows 10 October Update Until You Do One Thing – Jason Evangelho

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Microsoft’s big Windows 10 Update version 1809 is here and it brings a wealth of welcome features like less interruptions and update nags during gaming (something Alienware nailed years ago by the way). It also takes an ambitious step toward making your PC and Android phone best friends. But (isn’t there always a “but?”) it’s also causing a serious problem. One that can’t be reversed. If you’re not enthusiastic about potentially losing every scrap of data in your user folder such as music, photos and documents, please read on…….

Read more: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonevangelho/2018/10/05/avoid-windows-10-october-update-until-you-do-one-thing/#1a75bfa33e79

 

 

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