6 types of attack: learning from Supermicro, State Actors and silicon

… it could have happened, and it could be happening now.

Last week, Bloomberg published a story detailing how Chinese state actors had allegedly forced employees of Supermicro (or companies subcontracting to them) to insert a small chip – the silicon in the title – into motherboards destined for Apple and Amazon.  The article talked about how an investigation into these boards had uncovered this chip and the steps that Apple, Amazon and others had taken.  The story was vigorously denied by Supermicro, Apple and Amazon, but that didn’t stop Supermicro’s stock price from tumbling by over 50%.

I have heard strong views expressed by people with expertise in the topic on both sides of the argument: that it probably didn’t happen, and that it probably did.  One side argues that the denials by Apple and Amazon, for instance, might have been impacted by legal “gagging orders” from the US government.  An opposing argument suggests that the Bloomberg reporters might have confused this story with a similar one that occurred a few months ago.  Whether this particular story is correct in every detail, or a fabrication – intentional or unintentional – is not what I’m interested in at this point.  What I’m interested in is not whether it did happen in this instance: the clear message is that it could have happened, and it could be happening now.

I’ve written before about State Actors, and whether you should worry about them.  There’s another question which this story brings up, which is possibly even more germane: what can you do about it if you are worried about them?  This breaks down further into two questions:

  • how can I tell if my systems have been compromised?
  • what can I do if I discover that they have?

The first of these is easily enough to keep us occupied for now [1], so let’s spend some time on that.  First, let’s first define six types of compromise, think about how they might be carried out, and then consider the questions above for each:

  • supply-chain hardware compromise;
  • supply-chain firmware compromise;
  • supply-chain software compromise;
  • post-provisioning hardware compromise;
  • post-provisioning firmware compromise;
  • post-provisioning software compromise.

This article doesn’t provide sufficient space to go into detail of these types of attack, and provides an overview of each, instead[2].

Terms

  • Supply-chain – all of the steps up to when you start actually running a system.  From manufacture through installation, including vendors of all hardware components and all software, OEMs, integrators and even shipping firms that have physical access to any pieces of the system.  For all supply-chain compromises, the key question is the extent to which you, the owner of a system, can trust every single member of the supply chain[3].
  • Post-provisioning – any point after which you have installed the hardware, put all of the software you want on it, and started running it: the time during which you might consider the system “under your control”.
  • Hardware – the physical components of a system.
  • Software – software that you have installed on the system and over which you have some control: typically the Operating System and application software.  The amount of control depends on factors such as whether you use proprietary or open source software, and how much of it is produced, compiled or checked by you.
  • Firmware – special software that controls how the hardware interacts with the standard software on the machine, the hardware that comprises the system, and external systems.  It is typically provided by hardware vendors and its operation opaque to owners and operators of the system.

Compromise types

See the table at the bottom of this article for a short summary of the points below.

  1. Supply-chain hardware – there are multiple opportunities in the supply chain to compromise hardware, but the more hard they are made to detect, the more difficult they are to perform.  The attack described in the Bloomberg story would be extremely difficult to detect, but the addition of a keyboard logger to a keyboard just before delivery (for instance) would be correspondingly more simple.
  2. Supply-chain firmware – of all the options, this has the best return on investment for an attacker.  Assuming good access to an appropriate part of the supply chain, inserting firmware that (for instance) impacts network performance or leaks data over a wifi connection is relatively simple.  The difficulty in detection comes from the fact that although it is possible for the owner of the system to check that the firmware is what they think it is, what that measurement confirms is only that the vendor has told them what they have supplied.  So the “medium” rating relates only to firmware that was implanted by members in the supply chain who did not source the original firmware: otherwise, it’s “high”.
  3. Supply-chain software – by this, I mean software that comes installed on a system when it is delivered.  Some organisations will insist in “clean” systems being delivered to them[4], and will install everything from the Operating System upwards themselves.  This means that they basically now have to trust their Operating System vendor[5], which is maybe better than trusting other members of the supply chain to have installed the software correctly.  I’d say that it’s not too simple to mess with this in the supply chain, if only because checking isn’t too hard for the legitimate members of the chain.
  4. Post-provisioning hardware – this is where somebody with physical access to your hardware – after it’s been set up and is running – inserts or attaches hardware to it.  I nearly gave this a “high” rating for difficulty below, assuming that we’re talking about servers, rather than laptops or desktop systems, as one would hope that your servers are well-protected, but the ease with which attackers have shown that they can typically get physical access to systems using techniques like social engineering, means that I’ve downgraded this to “medium”.  Detection, on the other hand, should be fairly simple given sufficient resources (hence the “medium” rating), and although I don’t believe anybody who says that a system is “tamper-proof”, tamper-evidence is a much simpler property to achieve.
  5. Post-provisioning firmware – when you patch your Operating System, it will often also patch firmware on the rest of your system.  This is generally a good thing to do, as patches may provide security, resilience or performance improvements, but you’re stuck with the same problem as with supply-chain firmware that you need to trust the vendor: in fact, you need to trust both your Operating System vendor and their relationship with the firmware vendor.
  6. Post-provisioning software – is it easy to compromise systems via their Operating System and/or application software?  Yes: this we know.  Luckily – though depending on the sophistication of the attack – there are generally good tools and mechanisms for detecting such compromises, including behavioural monitoring.

Table

 

Compromise type Attacker difficulty Detection difficulty
Supply-chain hardware High High
Supply-chain firmware Low Medium
Supply-chain software Medium Medium
Post-provisioning hardware Medium Medium
Post-provisioning firmware Medium Medium
Post-provisioning software Low Low

Conclusion

What are your chances of spotting a compromise on your system?  I would argue that they are generally pretty much in line with the difficulty of performing the attack in the first place: with the glaring exception of supply-chain firmware.  We’ve seen attacks of this type, and they’re very difficult to detect.  The good news is that there is some good work going on to help detection of these types of attacks, particularly in the world of Linux[6] and open source.  In the meantime, I would argue our best forms of defence are currently:

  • for supply-chain: build close relationships, use known and trusted suppliers.  You may want to restrict as much as possible of your supply chain to “friendly” regimes if you’re worried about State Actor attacks, but this is very hard in the global economy.
  • for post-provisioning: lock down your systems as much as possible – both physically and logically – and use behavioural monitoring to try to detect anomalies in what you expect them to be doing.

1 – I’ll try to write something on this other topic in a different article.

2 – depending on interest, I’ll also consider a series of articles to go into more detail on each.

3 – how certain are you, for instance, that your delivery company won’t give your own government’s security services access to the boxes containing your equipment before they deliver them to you?

4 – though see above: what about the firmware?

5 – though you can always compile your own Operating System if you use open source software[6].

6 – oh, you didn’t compile your compiler yourself?  All bets off, then…

7 – yes, “GNU Linux”.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

One thought on “6 types of attack: learning from Supermicro, State Actors and silicon”

  1. I’m not sure that I agree with your table:

    Compromise type Attacker difficulty Detection difficulty
    Supply-chain hardware High High
    Supply-chain firmware Low Medium

    I think that hardware is much lower than you think. Consider: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN8ilnn20yA

    I think that Detection difficulty of a Supply-chain firmware attack could very well be high. Consider if someone slipped something into the firmware of a server’s BMC or did something untoward in Intel’s SMI mode. How would you detect that?

    Like

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