memory

Physical memory attacks via Firewire/DMA - Part 1: Overview and Mitigation (Update)

Firewire cables

This is part 1 of a series on articles about the Firewire security issues mentioned below.

For many years now, attacks via Firewire / i.LINK / IEEE 1394 have been a known security issue. Basically, if you gain physical access to a PC or laptop which has Firewire ports (or PCMCIA/Cardbus/ExpressCard, more on that later) you can

  • read arbitrary RAM contents from the victim's system,
  • overwrite arbitrary RAM contents with whatever you want,
  • and perform many, many severe attacks based on the two issues above. Examples include grabbing a full RAM dump via Firewire (takes only a few minutes), grabbing ssh-agent keys, grabbing screen contents, modifying screen contents, bypassing login/password screens, and many, many more...

All of this is done by exploiting a "feature" of the Firewire spec (OHCI-1394) (PDF), namely that it allows read/write access to physical memory (via DMA) for external Firewire devices. Worse, as this is DMA, the CPU/OS will not even know what's going on. Even worse, this works regardless of whether you have locked your screen with a password-protected screensaver, or xlock, or vlock, or whatever. As long as the system is running, you're vulnerable.

In this article, I intend to give a fairly complete overview of the available papers published on this issue, tools for testing the attacks, as well as mitigation techniques for various OSes. If I'm missing some important papers or tools, please post a comment!

Papers, Attacks, and Tools

Over the years a number of presentations and papers have been released with information about these Firewire issues.

Maximilian Dornseif et. al.

The first publication that I know of was done by Maximilian Dornseif, Michael Becher, and Christian Klein. They gave a number of talks on various security conferences on this topic:

They also released a number of tools, Firewire libraries for Mac OS X and Linux, as well as small demo scripts which use those libs:

Adam Boileau

In 2006 Adam Boileau (a.k.a. Metlstorm) gave a talk called Hit by a Bus: Physical Access Attacks with Firewire (PDF) at Ruxcon 2006. In 2008 he then released a set of tools:

  • pythonraw1394-1.0.tar.gz: Python bindings for libraw1394 (Linux). Tools: businfo, romtool, 1394memimage
  • winlockpwn: Python script which can circumvent a locked Windows XP screen (an arbitrary password will log you in)
  • bioskbsnarf: Grabs/shows the BIOS keyboard buffer via Firewire (which often contains your BIOS password)

Peter Panholzer

As of early 2008 Peter Panholzer from sec-consult.com published a two-page whitepaper which says they were able to run a winlockpwn-like attack on Windows Vista via Firewire. There's not much information in the PDF unfortunately, and no tools were released, as far as I know.

David R. Piegdon

The most recent toolset and papers I know of are from David R. Piegdon (a.k.a. IosTrace), who gave a number of talks in 2007/2008 about the issue, and also released a toolset called SEAT1394.

I'll go into much more detail on how the tools are used and what they can do in another follow-up article.

Mitigation

There are ways to eliminate or at least mitigate these attack vectors. The simplest and most secure way is to not have any Firewire ports installed (don't put Firewire PCI/PCIe cards in your PC, don't use Firewire PCMCIA/Cardbus/ExpressCard cards). Now, if you have a laptop with built-in Firewire ports, you have a problem, of course. In that case you could still physically destroy the port (by opening the laptop and cutting/desoldering stuff, or by putting glue/epoxy in the port in order to prevent any Firewire cables being attached). These are slightly drastic (but effective!) measures.

Note: Even if you don't have any Firewire ports, you're not automatically safe and secure. If your laptop has a PCMCIA/Cardbus/ExpressCard slot, an attacker can simply insert a PCMCIA Firewire card (for instance) in that slot. Chances are, that your OS will automatically load the driver for that card and also the Firewire drivers you'll need if you want to use the card for attaching Firewire devices. Game over. Your "secure" laptop is now vulnerable...

If you cannot (or don't want to) remove/destroy/disable your Firewire ports, the next best thing is to ensure that nobody except yourself ever gets physical access to your PC/laptop. This is hard to do for a PC, and almost impossible for a laptop, mind you.

Finally, there are some software measures you can use to prevent at least physical DMA access for Firewire devices:

Mitigation: Linux

Pretty much every Linux system with the "old" Firewire drivers loaded (kernel module ohci1394 et. al.) is vulnerable to these issues. Newer kernels now also ship with a new Firewire stack called "juju" (kernel module firewire_ohci et. al.) which may or may not have the same issues (not fully tested by me so far, will report back later).

Per default, all recent kernels, e.g. 2.6.26, are vulnerable, but see below.

Under Linux, simply using a kernel which doesn't have any Firewire support (neither built-in, nor as a module) is the most secure option. If you must have Firewire support you can load the ohci1394 module with the phys_dma=0 parameter to at least disable physical DMA support:

  $ rmmod ohci1394
  $ modprobe ohci1394 phys_dma=0

I have personally tested this on some boxes and I can confirm that it renders the currently published tools useless.

If you don't use Firewire at all, you can simply rmmod ohci1394, and (for a permanent fix) add the following lines in /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist and then (important!) run update-initramfs -u afterwards!

  # Prevent automatic loading of the ohci1394 module.
  blacklist ohci1394
  # Prevent manual loading of the ohci1394 module.
  install ohci1394 false
  # Iff we should ever load the ohci1394 module, force the use of the 'phys_dma=0' option.
  options ohci1394 phys_dma=0

As for the new "juju" Firewire stack, I'm not so sure. A few quick tests showed that the currently available tools don't work with the new stack, but you shouldn't feel too secure! AFAIK the new stack does support (or will support soon) physical DMA for Firewire, so it's probably just a matter of adapting the tools a bit (I'll do some testing/research on this later, as time permits).

Mitigation: Mac OS X

On Mac OS you might also be able to completely remove Firewire support from the kernel (but I don't know if/how that can be done, not sure if you can easily recompile Mac OS kernels, and/or if you even have buildable source code and toolchains for that). However, you can at least remove the Firewire support in the default Mac OS installation by unloading AppleFWOHCI.kext:

  $ sudo kextunload /System/Library/Extensions/IOFireWireFamily.kext/Contents/PlugIns/AppleFWOHCI.kext

Thanks to a Daniel Reutter for letting me abuse his MacBook via Firewire and for finding the above kextunload command line. We have successfully tested that after unloading AppleFWOHCI.kext the current tools won't work anymore.

The tests were done on a Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) with all recent security updates applied. Please leave a comment if you can test other versions of Mac OS X...

Mitigation: Windows

As for Windows, well, I guess you're screwed. While Windows XP does implement sort of "protection" in that it only allows physical DMA access via Firewire to devices which "deserve it", e.g. iPods (or any other Firewire mass storage device, I guess) this can be easily defeated by having your attack PC/laptop pretend to be an iPod (see the romtool Python script by Adam Boileau).

The only remaining option I know of (short of removing/destroying Firewire ports or preventing physical access alltogether) is to disable the Firewire ports/drivers in the device manager (untested by me so far). If you do that, remember to also disable all PCMCIA/Cardbus/ExpressCard controllers, of course (see above).

So far I've tested Windows XP SP2 successfully with Adam Boileau's winlockpwn. Windows XP SP3 doesn't seem to work, though (winlockpwn likely needs tweaking). I haven't yet been able to test Windows 95/98/Vista, if you can verify one of them, please leave a comment.

Mitigation: OpenBSD/FreeBSD/NetBSD/OpenSolaris/...

On OpenBSD you're likely not vulnerable as OpenBSD doesn't have any Firewire drivers at all, as far as I know ;-)

As for FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenSolaris, and other OSes I don't have any information. I might be able to test one or two of them in the nearer future, but please leave a comment if you have some information about whether they are vulnerable and/or how you can secure your system...

Further Resources

Conclusion

That's it for now. I hope you now have a good overview of these issues and how to protect. I can only urge you to take this problem seriously! Three or four minutes of leaving your laptop unattended are fully sufficient for an attacker to get a full forensic image of all your RAM contents for later analysis. This is at least as critical as the Cold Boot attacks, if not worse.

I will follow-up with more articles about some more interesting details on these Firewire issues, how to use the above tools, and I'll report on some of the stuff I was able to find in RAM dumps gathered via Firewire...

Update 2008-08-15: Added information on how to blacklist the Firewire modules on Linux (for permanent mitigation).
Update 2008-08-16: Added links to further articles. Windows XP SP3 doesn't seem to work with winlockpwn.

How to dump your BIOS/LILO/root password as plain text [Update]

This is old news by now, but still interesting IMHO. Jonathan Brossard has posted an article on BugTraq which gives a pretty good introduction to the inner workings of the BIOS (with lots of links to more detailed resources) as well as known vulnerabilities of the BIOS password mechanism.

The most interesting part is when he explains that the BIOS doesn't seem to erase its own keyboard buffer before it hands over control to the operating system. Also, current OSes (Linux, Windows, *BSD, etc.) don't seem to clear that buffer either.

This may not sound dangerous, but it actually allows anyone who can read the contents of your RAM, starting from address 0x041e, to view the keyboard buffer contents. And this buffer contains the BIOS password you type in when booting your machine (if you set/use a BIOS password, of course).

This one-liner (executed as root) should let you view your password as plain text:

dd if=/dev/mem bs=512 skip=2 count=1 | hexdump -C | head

(Only every second character belongs to the password, the rest are key scan codes, I think).

I also noticed that this same buffer also contains your LILO password, too! The same is probably true for passwords of other boot loaders such as GRUB, but I didn't test that.

Yes, reading this part of the RAM usually requires root privileges in Unix-like OSes, but as the security problem is OS-independant other OSes (e.g. DOS, or older Windows versions) might be directly affected.

But even on more secure OSes this plain-text storage of the BIOS/boot loader passwords might be a problem. Combine this with some Firewire insecurities and attackers with physical access to your machine (e.g. your unattended laptop, while you are on the toilet) might be able to read your BIOS/LILO passwords even though you locked your machine. I haven't yet tried this, but I'm pretty sure it's possible. Please post the results here if you try this.

(via Stefan 'Sec' Zehl)

Update 2006-01-09: It seems that when you use software suspend (swsuspend2) the RAM area can/will also contain your root password! Thanks nelson for reporting.

Why you should read your log messages from time to time [Update]

I didn't notice this for months. I was only able to use ca. 900 MB of my 1024 MB of RAM. It only happened accidentally that I read through my logs and noticed this:

Dec 26 19:33:37 localhost kernel: Warning only 896MB will be used.
Dec 26 19:33:37 localhost kernel: Use a HIGHMEM enabled kernel.
Dec 26 19:33:37 localhost kernel: 896MB LOWMEM available.

After setting the "High Memory Support" kernel option to 4GB and a quick kernel recompile, I can now use my full RAM. Nice, eh?

Update 2005-12-31: Thanks a lot to all the people pointing out (via comments in the blog and emails) that there's a better way to do this!

Flickr + Memory = Memry

Memry Screenshot

OMFG! Only yesterday I said there's no really nice Flash website out there. I might have to reconsider.

I just found Memry, a memory game written in Flash, which uses flickr images tagged with a given keyword. Very nice idea. Ahh, I like open APIs and the creative things people do with them...

(via Manuela Hoffmann)

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