Feeds

Excuse me sir: there's a rootkit in your master boot record

Undetected by most AV apps

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

Security mavens have uncovered a new class of attacks that attach malware to the bowels of a hard drive, making it extremely hard to detect and even harder to remove.

The rootkit modifies a PC's master boot record (MBR), which is the first sector of a storage device and is used to help a PC locate an operating system to boot after it is turned on. The result: the rootkit is running even before Windows loads. There have been more than 5,000 infections in less than a month, researchers say.

"Master boot record rootkits are able to subvert the Windows kernel before it loads, which gives it a distinct stealth advantage over rootkits that load while Windows is running," said Matthew Richard, director of the rapid response team for iDefense, a security provider owned by VeriSign. "It gives it a great stealth mechanism that allows it to persist even after removal." Such rootkits can even survive reinstallation of the operating system, he said.

Because the rootkit lurks deep within the hard drive, well below the operating system, most antivirus programs don't detect the malware. Symantec's antivirus program is an exception, however. It labels the pest Trojan.Mebroot, according to Javier Santoyo, a senior manager for emerging technologies at Symantec.

The new rootkit is part of the arms race between security vendors and malware writers, he said. "We're definitely making it harder and harder for the bad guys to do stuff to the operating system," he said. They respond by attacking new parts of a PC.

Every version of Windows, including Vista, is vulnerable to the rootkit.

About 30,000 websites, mostly located in Europe, are actively trying to install the rootkit by exploiting users who have failed to install Windows updates, Richard says. There were 5,000 infections from December 12 to January 7. The rootkit is being spread by the same group responsible for distributing the Torpig banking Trojans, which are used to steal online banking credentials.

While the number of infections is relatively low, the number could rise quickly if the group expanded the number of exploits it used.

MBR-based attacks date back to the days of MS-DOS, when viruses such as Brain, Stoned, Tequila caused mischief by hiding themselves in a hard drive's primary partition. In 2005, researchers from eEye Digital Security demonstrated a proof of concept that showed how the technique could be extended to the Windows NT domain.

The rootkit comes as a wake-up call, demonstrating that new measures are needed to protect PC security. Many motherboard makers still don't provide functionality that prevents the overwriting of an MBR. But even when such capabilities do exist, the average user has no idea how to enable them. And even when they're enabled, malware writers are likely to target even deeper recesses within a PC.

"We will never win the battle with malware, especially rootkits, without a help from hardware and changes in the *design* of the OSes," Joanna Rutkowska, a researcher specializing in rootkits, wrote in an email. ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Ice cream headache as black hat hacks sack Dairy Queen
I scream, you scream, we all scream 'DATA BREACH'!
Goog says patch⁵⁰ your Chrome
64-bit browser loads cat vids FIFTEEN PERCENT faster!
NIST to sysadmins: clean up your SSH mess
Too many keys, too badly managed
JLaw, Kate Upton exposed in celeb nude pics hack
100 women victimised as Apple iCloud accounts reportedly popped
Scratched PC-dispatch patch patched, hatched in batch rematch
Windows security update fixed after triggering blue screens (and screams) of death
Researchers camouflage haxxor traps with fake application traffic
Honeypots sweetened to resemble actual workloads, complete with 'secure' logins
Attack flogged through shiny-clicky social media buttons
66,000 users popped by malicious Flash fudging add-on
New Snowden leak: How NSA shared 850-billion-plus metadata records
'Federated search' spaffed info all over Five Eyes chums
Three quarters of South Korea popped in online gaming raids
Records used to plunder game items, sold off to low lifes
Oz fed police in PDF redaction SNAFU
Give us your metadata, we'll publish your data
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.