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New BIOS security standards aimed at fighting rootkit attacks

NIST changes come in response to discovery in the wild of BIOS malware Mebromi

By , Network World
August 22, 2012 02:15 PM ET

Network World - There's a growing threat of attacks on computer basic input/output system (BIOS) firmware, and to deter it, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is putting in place new security guidelines for updating the BIOS. And in doing this, NIST is getting high-tech manufacturing to raise the bar on security.

"Last September, the first BIOS-based rootkit in the wild was discovered, called Mebromi," notes Andrew Regenscheid, math researcher and project leader in NIST's computer security division. While criminals creating malware have spent far more time over the years targeting Windows applications and operating systems (OS), the potential for wreaking serious havoc by subverting the BIOS, which typically works to do jobs such as load the OS, is of growing concern.

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So through new security guidelines that will influence what computers the federal government buys in the future, NIST is setting standards that require authentication of BIOS update mechanisms.

Just this week NIST put out for public comment its proposed federal standard, "BIOS Protection Guidelines for Servers," with comment sought through mid-September. The intent is to stop any cyberattack related to "unauthorized modification of BIOS firmware by malicious software."

The NIST document basically says government buyers of servers in the future -- whether these are basic servers, managed servers or blade servers -- will be checking to see if gear they are thinking of getting has any way to "authenticate BIOS update mechanism," "secure local update mechanisms," and if there's "firmware integrity protection" and "non-bypassability features."

Encryption-based digital signatures and public-key certificates, among other techniques, are viewed as means of creating these security controls, but NIST isn't dictating specific processes, according to Regenscheid.

He says the concern is that manufacturers haven't uniformly applied strong security controls over BIOS in the past. This may be because BIOS updates tend to occur far less often than other kinds of computer software updates. But with the malware threat growing, it's time to focus on the BIOS, Regenscheid points out.

NIST already issued BIOS security standards for desktops and laptops in April 2011, and the Department of Homeland Security has told federal agencies to use them as a basis for purchasing laptops and desktops, starting this October. The U.S. Department of Defense has issued similar instructions, says Regenscheid. Manufacturers are aware of NIST's direction in all this and are responding. "Microsoft Windows 8 has BIOS protection for the desktop," he points out.

Security for server BIOS may be more complicated and call for support from OEM manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo. "We're proposing a tightly controlled update process," says Regenscheid. Proposed standards from NIST typically are approved and take effect within six months.

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