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New Zealand hacker releases source code to utility that reads password directly from memory

Exploiting a little known feature built into Firewire port specifications, Adam Boileau released the source code to a utility authored in 2006 that allows anyone to bypass the Windows Authentication dialog box on any PC with a Firewire port.

The tool is a simple, 200-line script written in the Python programming language exploits features built into Firewire that allow direct access to a computer’s memory.  By targeting specific places that Windows consistently stores its vital authentication functions, Boileau’s tool is able to overwrite Windows’ secured code with patches that skip Windows’ password check entirely.

Boileau says he decided to release the script now, two years after it was initially unveiled, because Microsoft had not acted to patch the vulnerability. Boileau considers his tool a “party-trick demo script thats been lying around my [home folder] for two years gathering dust,” and considers it “a pity to write code and have no one use it.”

“Besides,” says Boileau, “according to Microsoft's definition, it never was a Security Vulnerability anyway – screensavers and login prompts are … about the Feeling of Security.”

Boileau also notes that he’s seen others successfully modify the script to hack Windows Vista’s password-check code, as well as use a laptop’s PCMCIA port to plug in a Firewire card and attack the laptop after Windows auto-installed the card’s drivers.

It’s important to note that Firewire’s provisions for direct memory access, called DMA, are useful in other contexts, like in the use of software debuggers. Nowadays, a sizable percentage of the world’s software checks for the presence of programs monitoring memory directly – which is what a debugger does – and will frequently act differently or refuse to start up if it detects their presence.

Firewire ports are therefore usable as high-speed debugging devices, allowing developers and hackers alike to passively monitor anywhere in a computer’s memory and make changes where needed, whether its reprogramming a password check or seeding buggy software with correct data. It might also allow forensic investigators to grab an encrypted hard drive’s decryption key directly from memory, while the computer is running.

Also important is that the same technique has been known to work on other operating systems, including Mac OS X and Linux – and in fact some people have used modified iPods to run Firewire DMA attacks on the fly.

Common security thought dictates that a computer is essentially lost if it is in your opponent’s possession, and that security on a physical machine will be subverted with time: for computers equipped with Firewire, the thought couldn’t be more true.

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Physical Control of Computer
By TomZ on 3/8/2008 7:38:40 AM , Rating: 4
If a hacker has physical control of your computer, i.e., they can plug something into the FireWire port, then you don't really have security, do you?

After all, that person could also use all other kinds of attacks on the machine, such as boot disks, cloning the HDD, or even stealing the computer.

Bottom line, you need to have physical control of your computer in order to have any kind of security.

RE: Physical Control of Computer
By walk2k on 3/8/2008 12:03:51 PM , Rating: 3
right... if they can get close enough to stick something in the fw port they could just smash it with a hammer or take a wizz in the cdrom hole or something.

RE: Physical Control of Computer
By mcmilljb on 3/8/2008 9:27:55 PM , Rating: 2
Actually you can disable the use of usb and firewire in a Active Directory environment(locally too but that's fun to do for lots of computers). Plus I don't need that tool to control that computer, I use the tool to get the password. Getting the password is important. Physical access control is the key to controlling your computer's security because you can do lots of things to a computer when it's in your hands.

By mindless1 on 3/8/2008 10:07:44 PM , Rating: 2
Security is a set of practices meant to deter based upon risk, never an absolute.

Using a firewire port is far faster and easier than a boot disk, HDD clone, or stealing the computer. It might be the data thieves ideal method to get in, copy, get out fast with either no detection or at least to have acquired the target and be leaving the area.

It doesn't have to be the only way to get into a system, just a way someone else didn't anticipate. because in the real world, most computers that have a certain level of security are not guarded at Fort Knox.

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