New cold boot attack affects "nearly all modern computers"

New cold boot attack affects

Attackers need physical access to the computer before they can exploit the weakness. But F-Secure Principal Security Consultant Olle Segerdahl says once achieved, an adversary can successfully perform the attack against even the most hardened, secure computer in about 5 minutes. Shutting your computer all the way off is still the best defense.

In the meantime, he recommends companies prepare themselves for these attacks.

He added that it is not practical on easy targets, but it would be on an attacker's list of options for a "bigger phish, like a bank or large enterprise".

Look at that laptop over there, lid closed and sleeping soundly.

At the heart of this attack is the way computers manage RAM via firmware.

The attacker then plugs in a USB stick containing a Linux operating system and boots the machine from that. Using the Linux command line, he easily retrieves the legitimate user's encryption keys.

The technique was demonstrated today (Sept. 13) at the SEC-T security conference in Stockholm.

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F-Secure's researchers presented their findings at a conference in Sweden on Thursday, and are set to present it again at Microsoft's security conference on September 27. Educating workers, especially executives and employees who travel, about cold boot attacks and similar threats is also important.

They can either reboot the machine immediately from an external disk, or they can take it apart and literally freeze its memory modules with liquid nitrogen or compressed-air dust sprayers to keep the volatile electrical signals on the RAM modules from changing.

Video If you can steal someone's laptop, leave it switched on in sleep mode, crack it open, hook up some electronics to alter settings in the BIOS firmware, restart it and boot into a custom program. you can swipe crypto keys and other secrets from the system.

But Segerdahl and researchers from F-Secure said they've found a way to disable that safety measure and extract data using cold boot attacks. One of these protections was that computers would overwrite the contents of the RAM when power was restored after a cold boot.

"It takes some extra steps compared to the classic cold boot attack, but it's effective against all the modern laptops we've tested", he said in a statement. "We are convinced that anybody tasked with stealing data off laptops would have already come to the same conclusions as us".

F-Secure says that laptops from Apple, Dell and Lenovo are vulnerable to the modified attack, and said it's notified Microsoft, Intel and Apple about the problem so they can get to work on a fix. Cold boot attacks involve rebooting a computer without following a proper shutdown process, then recovering data that remains briefly accessible in the RAM after the power is lost.

Apple responded by pointing to the latest generation of Macs, which have the T2 chip that do the encryption separately from the CPU and makes such an attack more hard to execute.

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