Thursday, February 25, 2010

Earth Shattering Attacks on Disk Encryption

Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs) are were the last hope of truly secure distributed computing endpoints. The idea behind TPMs is that they are safe from physical inspection-- resistant to tampering, but we now know that to no longer be true, thanks to some clever research by Christopher Tarnovsky (pictured at left).

Every disk encryption vendor on the planet tries to sell you the impossible: a product that on one hand they claim is impervious to physical access by an adversary, and-- at the same time on the other hand-- a product they conveniently claim is no better than anything else at preventing data loss when physical access is lost to an adversary. What? Does that even make sense?

Of course it doesn't make sense. It makes dollar$.

Yeah, for the great majority of laptop thefts, probably even disk encryption isn't necessary since the thieves are just after hardware, but I never advise anyone risk that. You never know when that casual thief wants to make a quick buck off of hardware sell to a smart, conniving criminal on eBay, for instance, who just might be equipped with the knowledge and intent to steal the data off of the device.

Look at what I wrote back on October 3, 2007 when dealing with PGP Corp's failure to disclose a dangerous encryption bypass feature:
True. It's not a "backdoor" in the sense of 3 letter agencies' wiretapping via a mathematical-cryptographic hole in the algorithm used for either session key generation or actual data encryption, but how can a PGP WDE customer truly disable this "bypass" feature? As long as the function call to attempt the bypass exists in the boot guard's code, then the feature is "enabled", from my point of view. It may go unused, but it may also be maliciously used in the context of a sophisticated attack to steal a device with higher valued data contained within it:
  1. Trojan Horse prompts user for passphrase (remember, PGP WDE synchronizes with Windows passwords for users, so there are plenty of opportunities to make a semi-realistic user authentication dialog).
  2. Trojan Horse adds bypass by unlocking the master volume key with the user's passphrase.
  3. [Optional] Trojan Horse maliciously alters boot guard to disable the RemBypass() feature. [NOTE: If this were to happen, it would be a permanent bypass, not a one-time-use bypass. Will PGP WDE customers have to rely on their users to notice that their installation of Windows boots without the Boot Guard prompting them? Previous experience should tell us that users will either: A) not notice, or B) not complain.]
  4. Laptop is stolen.
I just described the premise behind the Evil Maid attack years before Joanna Rutkowska coined the term.

Then read the cop-out response by Marc Briceno – Director, Product Management of PGP Corp:
No security product on the market today can protect you if the underlying computer has been compromised by malware with root level administrative privileges. That said, there exists well-understood common sense defenses against “Cold Boot,” “Stoned Boot,” “Evil Maid,” and many other attacks yet to be named and publicized.
You can read his full response, but the gist is that he never admits his product has a flawed assumption: that nobody would ever manipulate the PGP BootGuard-- the software that must remain plaintext on the encrypted drive (if wasn't plaintext, the CPU couldn't read the instructions and execute the decryption routine). At least Microsoft's BitLocker, when used with TPMs did not have this vulnerability, although we'll have to see if breaking TPMs is only accomplished by a handful of experts, like Tarnovsky. If it becomes a repeatable task that can be accomplished by inexpensive tools, then BitLocker in TPM mode will be reduced to the lower security status of PGP Whole Disk Encryption.

So which is it, vendors? Are you still letting your marketing people sell encryption products with powerpoint slides that read: "Keeps your data safe when your device is lost or stolen", while having your technical security people say "Well, about that coldboot or evil-maid attack ... well ... all bets are off when you lose physical access to the device."

It's time for vendors to get their stories straight. Stop selling your products to people who are worried about the physical theft of their devices, unless you make it very clear that there are ways around your product that a dedicated and resourceful adversary may be able to defeat-- disk encryption is only good at keeping the casual thieves out.


Anonymous said...

I just wish to add that I value your contribution, time and effort. I work in this sector and it's people like you that keep the vendors on their toes. Thanks.

securology said...

Thanks, anonymous.

This is clearly a spare-time-only hobby for me, but there are days during my for-profit job that I want to pause and write more here. Sales people are sales people-- don't trust them implicitly, even if they claim they are selling you a security product that keeps you safe.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

If "all bets are off" when your computer falls into someone else's hands, then what's the point in encryption software?? The whole idea behind it is that your files are secure WHEN YOU'RE NOT AROUND!!
They promote themselves on this very premise. Now that it turns out they can no longer follow through on this, they hide behind technicalities.

For now, you have to secure your files in the best way that is available to you, and hope in the worst case scenario that it poses too much of an obstacle to a would-be intruder.

securology said...

Thanks, anonymous. You're absolutely correct!