Secure Says Almost All Computers Are Vulnerable to New Cold Boot Attack

Relying on computer memory's remanence behavior, security researchers figured out a way to extract sensitive data from RAM, such as encryption keys, even after the loss of power.

But security researchers from Finnish cyber-security firm F-Secure discovered that they could disable this feature by modifying firmware settings and steal data from a computer's RAM after a cold reboot.

The attack works against nearly all Macs and Windows PCs and requires several minutes of physical access to a machine left in sleep mode, which maintains enough power to keep data from the most recent active session "alive" in system memory.

"It's not exactly easy to do, but it's not a hard enough issue to find and exploit for us to ignore the probability that some attackers have already figured this out", Olle Segerdahl, one of the F-Secure researchers who developed the attack, said in a statement released this morning (Sept. 13).

Known for its volatility in data retention when out of power, RAM (Random Access Memory) can preserve information for a longer time - even minutes, under low-temperature conditions.

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

Ordinary computer users don't need to worry about this attack. But it could be a problem for corporate executives and government officials, whose encrypted computers often contain highly valuable information. "And since this type of threat is primarily relevant in scenarios where devices are stolen or illicitly purchased by attackers, it's the kind of thing an attacker will have plenty of time to execute", said Segerdahl.

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In the case of BitLocker, if it is configured for pre-boot authentication with a PIN, the attack has only one shot to be successful because the code is mandatory for extracting the encryption keys into the RAM.

"It's the kind of thing that attackers looking for bigger phish, like a bank or large enterprise, will know how to use", he added.

A video posted on YouTube by F-Secure shows a user typing out his encryption passwords in a Word document. After that, the attacker can boot from an external device to read the contents of the system's RAM from before the device went to sleep.

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.

Encryption keys and other sensitive information can then be stolen from memory and full access gained to the system. One of these protections was that computers would overwrite the contents of the RAM when power was restored after a cold boot. Most modern computers overwrite RAM when they are powered down to prevent unauthorised access to data during a cold boot attack, but the researchers have found a way to disable the process.

As reported by ZDNet, F-Secure's findings say that contemporary security measures are enough to prevent the theft caused by the new flaw. According to Cupertino, Macs fitted with an Apple T2 chip are not at risk, and older machines can be protected by setting a firmware password.

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