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Thunderclap flaws impact how Windows, Mac, Linux handle Thunderbolt peripherals

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Logo: Markettos et al. // Composition: ZDNet

Windows, Mac, Linux, and FreeBSD systems are all impacted by a new vulnerability that was disclosed this week at the NDSS 2019 security conference.

The vulnerability –named Thunderclap– affects the way Thunderbolt-based peripherals are allowed to connect and interact with these operating systems, allowing a malicious device to steal data directly from the operating system’s memory, including highly sensitive information.

The research team behind this vulnerability says that “all Apple laptops and desktops produced since 2011 are vulnerable, with the exception of the 12-inch MacBook.”

Similarly, “many laptops, and some desktops, designed to run Windows or Linux produced since 2016 are also affected,” as long as they support Thunderbolt interfacing.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is the name of a hardware interface designed by Apple and Intel to allow the connection of external peripherals (keyboards, chargers, video projectors, network cards, etc.) to a computer.

These interfaces became wildly popular because they combined different technologies into one single cable, such as the ability to transmit DC power (for charging purposes), serial data (via PCI Express), and video output (via DisplayPort).

The technology was initially available for Apple devices but was later made available for all hardware vendors, becoming ubiquitous nowadays, especially thanks to the standard’s latest version, Thunderbolt 3.

But according to the research team, all Thunderbolt versions are affected by Thunderclap. This means Thunderbolt 1 and 2 (the interface versions that use a Mini DisplayPort [MDP] connector) and Thunderbolt 3 (the one that works via USB-C ports).

What is Thunderclap?

Thunderclap is a collection of flaws in the way the Thunderbolt hardware interface has been implemented on operating systems.

At the core of this vulnerability, researchers say they are exploiting an OS design issue where the operating system automatically puts faith in any newly connected peripheral, granting it access to all of its memory –a state known as Direct Memory Access (DMA).

Thunderclap flaws allow attackers to create malicious, but fully-working peripherals that when connected via a Thunderbolt-capable port can perform their normal operations, but also run malicious code in the operating system’s background without any restriction from the operating.

This makes the Thunderclap attack highly dangerous, as it can be easily hidden inside any peripheral.

The Thunderclap vulnerabilities are even capable of bypassing an OS security feature known as Input-Output Memory Management Units (IOMMUs) that hardware and OS makers have created in the early 2000s to counter malicious peripherals that abuse their access to the entire OS memory (in what’s known as a DMA attack).

The reason why Thunderclap vulnerabilities work against IOMMU is either because operating systems disable this feature by default, or, in cases the feature has been enabled by the user, the OS leaves user data in the same memory space where the malicious peripheral runs its exploit code, making IOMMU useless.

What’s being done about it?

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, Rice University, and SRI International discovered the Thunderclap issues back in 2016, and they’ve been working with hardware and OS versions for three years in complete silence to have them fixed.

However, despite the almost three-year warning, OS makers have been slow to react, with most of the Thunderclap attack variations described in a research paper published today still working. Here’s the current state of patches, according to researchers:

Windows – “Microsoft have enabled support for the IOMMU for Thunderbolt devices in Windows 10 version 1803, which shipped in 2018. Earlier hardware upgraded to 1803 requires a firmware update from the vendor. This brings them into line with the baseline for our work, however the more complex vulnerabilities we describe remain relevant.”

macOS – “In macOS 10.12.4 and later, Apple addressed the specific network card vulnerability we used to achieve a root shell. However the general scope of our work still applies; in particular that Thunderbolt devices have access to all network traffic and sometimes keystrokes and framebuffer data.”

Linux – “Recently, Intel have contributed patches to version 5.0 of the Linux kernel (shortly to be released) that enable the IOMMU for Thunderbolt and prevent the protection-bypass vulnerability that uses the ATS feature of PCI Express.”

FreeBSD – “The FreeBSD Project indicated that malicious peripheral devices are not currently within their threat model for security response. However, FreeBSD does not currently support Thunderbolt hotplugging.”

As the table below shows, most Thunderclap flaws are still unpatched.

Thunderclap flaws still working

Image: Markettos et al.

In the meantime, users are advised to disable Thunderbolt ports via BIOS/UEFI firmware settings and to avoid plugging in peripherals from untrusted sources.

Technical details about the Thunderclap flaws are available in a research paper entitled “Thunderclap: Exploring Vulnerabilities in Operating System IOMMU Protection via DMA from Untrustworthy Peripherals,” available for download in PDF format from here and here, with more details here.

The research team also released the “Thunderclap platform” on GitHub, which is a collection of ready-made proof-of-concept code to create malicious Thunderclap peripherals.

Extra details are also available on a dedicated website and in this blog post.

As a closing note, Thunderclap vulnerabilities can also be exploited by compromised PCI Express (PCIe) peripherals, such as plug-in cards or chips soldered to the motherboard, but these attacks require compromising the peripheral’s firmware, making the attack much harder to pull off than just plugging in a charger or video projector via a Thunderbolt interface.

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GigaOm Radar for DDoS Protection

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With ransomware getting all the news coverage when it comes to internet threats, it is easy to lose sight of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks even as these attacks become more frequent and aggressive. In fact, the two threats have recently been combined in a DDoS ransom attack, in which a company is hit with a DDoS and then a ransom demanded in exchange for not launching a larger DDoS. Clearly, a solid mechanism for thwarting such attacks is needed, and that is exactly what a good DDoS protection product will include. This will allow users, both staff and customers, to access their applications with no indication that a DDoS attack is underway. To achieve this, the DDoS protection product needs to know about your applications and, most importantly, have the capability to absorb the massive bandwidth generated by botnet attacks.

All the DDoS protection vendors we evaluated have a cloud-service element in their products. The scale-out nature of cloud platforms is the right response to the scale-out nature of DDoS attacks using botnets, thousands of compromised computers, and/or embedded devices. A DDoS protection network that is larger, faster, and more distributed will defend better against larger DDoS attacks.

Two public cloud platforms we review have their own DDoS protection, both providing it for applications running on their public cloud and offering only cloud-based protection. We also look at two content delivery networks (CDNs) that offer only cloud-based protection but also have a large network of locations for distributed protection. Many of the other vendors offer both on-premises and cloud-based services that are integrated to provide unified protection against the various attack vectors that target the network and application layers.

Some of the vendors have been protecting applications since the early days of the commercial internet. These vendors tend to have products with strong on-premises protection and integration with a web application firewall or application delivery capabilities. These companies may not have developed their cloud-based protections as fully as the born-in-the-cloud DDoS vendors.

In the end, you need a DDoS protection platform equal to the DDoS threat that faces your business, keeping in mind that such threats are on the rise.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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GigaOm Radar for Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) Solutions

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The security information and event management (SIEM) solution space is mature and competitive. Most vendors have had well over a decade to refine their products, and the differentiation among basic SIEM functions is fairly small.

In response, SIEM vendors are developing advanced platforms that ingest more data, provide greater context, and deploy machine learning and automation capabilities to augment security analysts’ efforts. These solutions deliver value by giving security analysts deeper and broader visibility into complex infrastructures, increasing efficiency and decreasing the time to detection and time to respond.

Vendors offer SIEM solutions in a variety of forms, such as on-premises appliances, software installed in the customers’ on-premises or cloud environments, and cloud hosted SIEM-as-a-Service. Many vendors have developed multi-tenant SIEM solutions for large enterprises or for managed security service providers. Customers often find SIEM solutions challenging to deploy, maintain, or even operate, leading to a growing demand for managed SIEM services, whether provided by the SIEM vendor or third-party partners.

SIEM solutions continue to vie for space with other security solutions, such as endpoint detection and response (EDR), security orchestration automation and response (SOAR), and security analytics solutions. All SIEM vendors support integrations with other security solutions. Many vendors also offer tightly integrated solution stacks, allowing customers to choose the solutions they need most, whether just a SIEM, a SIEM and a SOAR, or some other combination. Other vendors are incorporating limited EDR- or SOAR-like capabilities into their SIEM solutions for customers who want the extra features but are not ready to invest in multiple solutions.

With so many options, choosing a SIEM solution is challenging. You will have to consider several key factors, starting with your existing IT infrastructure. Is an on-premises SIEM the right choice for you, or do you want a cloud-based or hybrid solution? Which systems and devices will be sending data to your SIEM, and how much data will it need to collect, correlate, analyze, and store? You should also consider the relative importance of basic capabilities and advanced features, bearing in mind that the basic capabilities may be considerably easier to deploy, maintain, and operate. Will your IT and security teams be able to deploy, maintain, and operate the solution on their own, or should you look for managed services to handle those tasks?

This GigaOm Radar report details the key SIEM solutions on the market, identifies key criteria and evaluation metrics for selecting a SIEM, and identifies vendors and products that excel. It will give you an overview of the key SIEM offering and help decision-makers evaluate existing solutions and decide where to invest.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Solution

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Although ransomware is making all the headlines today, it’s not the only kind of attack that can intrude between you and your customers. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which a target website is overwhelmed with spurious traffic, have become increasingly common.

Websites and online applications have become critical to how businesses communicate with their customers and partners. If those websites and applications are not available, there is a dollars and cents cost for businesses, both directly in business that is lost and indirectly through loss of reputation. It doesn’t matter to the users of the website whether the attacker has a political point to make, wants to hurt their victim financially, or is motivated by ego—if the website is unavailable, users will not be happy. Recent DDoS attacks have utilized thousands of compromised computers and they can involve hundreds of gigabits per second of attack bandwidth. A DDoS protection platform must inspect all of the traffic destined for the protected site and discard or absorb all of the hostile traffic while allowing legitimate traffic to reach the site.

Often the attack simply aims vast amounts of network traffic at the operating system under the application. These “volumetric” attacks usually occur at network Layer 3 or 4 and originate from compromised computers called bots. Few companies have enough internet bandwidth to mitigate this much of an attack on-premises, so DDoS protection needs to be distributed to multiple data centers around the world to be effective against these massive attacks. The sheer scale of infrastructure required means that most DDoS platforms are multi-tenant cloud services.

Other attacks target the application itself, at Layer 7, with either a barrage of legitimate requests or with requests carefully crafted to exploit faults in the site. These Layer 7 attacks look superficially like real requests and require careful analysis to separate them from legitimate traffic.

Attackers do not stand still. As DDoS protection platforms learn to protect against one attack method, attackers will find a new method to take down a website. So DDoS protection vendors don’t stand still either. Using information gathered from observing all of their protected sites, vendors are able to develop new techniques to protect their clients.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

Continue Reading

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