[ISN] Can a Rootkit Be Certified for Vista?

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Thu Mar 15 2007 - 22:22:08 PST


By Lisa Vaas
March 15, 2007

NEW YORK - Forget what Microsoft says about Vista being the most secure 
version of Windows yet. More to the point, what do the hackers think of 

In a nutshell, they think it's an improvement, but at the end of the 
day, it's just like everything else they dissectthat is, breakable.

"Not all bugs are being detected by Vista," pointed out famed hacker 
H.D. Moore. "Look at how a hacker gets access to the driver: Right now 
I'm working on Microsoft's automated process to get 
Metasploit-certified. It [only] costs $500."

Moore is the founder of the Metasploit Project and a core developer of 
the Metasploit Frameworkthe leading open-source exploit development 
platform - and is also director of security research at BreakingPoint 
Systems. The irony of his statement lies in the idea that Vista trusts 
Microsoft-certified programsprograms that can include a hacker exploit 
platform that walks through the front door for a mere $500 and a 
conveyor-belt approval process.

Moore was one of a handful of white-hat hackers in the audience of a 
session on Vista security here at Ziff Davis Enterprise's 2007 Security 
Summit on March 14. The session, titled "Vista: How Secure Are We?," was 
presented by David Tan, co-founder and chief technology officer at CHIPS 
Computer Consulting.

By Moore's side were equally prestigious hackers Joanna Rutkowska - 
security researcher at COSEINC - and Jon "Johnny Cache" Ellch, author of 
"Hacking Exposed Wireless."

For her part, Rutkowska granted that yes, one way to own a Vista system 
is by getting a rootkit certified, but if you want a compromised system, 
you don't even have to waste your time and money with certification" - 
It can be a graphics card with a stupid bug," she said. "You can't do 
anything about it. You can't sue the vendor for introducing a bug. You 
can't prove it was done intentionally."

Until Microsoft or some security vendor concocts a black list for buggy 
drivers, Rutkowska said, Vista is potential toast. Of course, bugs can 
always be detected in memory, right? Except -- oops! - Rutkowska 
demonstrated a few weeks ago at Black Hat that exploits can in fact 
tinker with memory to hide their footprints.

But before the hackers, and Tan himself, pointed out Vista's security 
weak points, Tan outlined the improvements to the new operating system's 
security features. He praised Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing 
initiative and the company's reshaped development cycle for the 
"phenomenal effort" that has produced products such as SQL Server 2005
- a version of the database that to date hasn't had a single major 
vulnerability or exploit attached to it. "Microsoft deserves to be 
applauded for that," he said.

In keeping with that improved attention to security, Microsoft has added 
a slew of security features to Vista in the two areas you need to worry 
about in a client operating system, Tan said: namely, protecting the 
system and protecting data.

Those features include UAC (User Access Control), a feature that forces 
users to work in restricted accounts instead of with the rights of 
system administrators that they had traditionally been granted in 
previous Windows versions. UAC is active by default for all 
usersalthough it can be turned offand even administrator accounts only 
get medium-integrity level rights in Vista.

UAC has been criticized on the basis of the debatable annoyance level 
pertaining to its warning boxes, which pop up in colors (orangey-red for 
caution, bluish-green for safe) and ask users if they really want to 
proceed with given actions. Rutkowska kicked off the criticism of UAC 
when she wrote in her blog that, although UAC is "the most important 
security mechanism introduced in Vista," it "can be bypassed in many 

Rutkowska's observations were soon followed by Symantec research 
scientist Ollie Whitehouse's Feb. 20 posting titled "An Example of Why 
UAC Prompts in Vista Can't Always Be Trusted," due to the ease in which 
social engineering can be used to trick users into approving illicit 
user privilege escalation.

During his presentation, Tan voiced concern that frequent UAC consent 
dialog boxes will blend together to create a "click here to get work 
done" attitude. "Frequent UAC consent dialog boxeswill this force users 
to turn off the function?" he said. "Users will eventually get annoyed 
with it if it impacts their normal day-to-day activity."

However, Rutkowska said she was bewildered at the frequent arguments 
that the boxes are annoying. "I've been using Vista two months now," she 
said, and within a few days of installation, she's rarely presented with 
a UAC dialog box. "I think UAC, from a technical point of view, is a 
very good thing," she said. "For normal users, this is [a good security 

One thing Rutkowska said she doesn't like, however, is Microsoft's 
attitude. After the UAC criticisms started making the rounds, Microsoft 
began to stress that UAC is not a hard security boundary, like a 
firewallrather, it's more of a guidance tool.

Unfortunately, that attitude means that Microsoft won't consider 
potential avenues of attack to be bugs, Rutkowska pointed out. 
"[Illicitly] elevating from low- to high-level [user privileges] won't 
be considered a security bug," she saidwhen in fact such escalation is a 
good indication that a machine has been compromised.

Another feature that protects the system in Vista is Windows Defender, 
included previously as a separate Windows download. Defender detects and 
removes any unwanted application, actively monitoring protected areas. 
The feature is integrated with group policy and thus works with Active 

Another system-protecting feature is Vista's new Windows Firewall, which 
expands on the firewall included in Windows XP SP2 but improves on it by 
offering two-way protection. The earlier version didn't offer outbound 
infectionan omission that meant an infected machine wouldn't be stopped 
from spreading a virus outside of the network.

The final system protection feature added to Vista is Windows Security 
Center, which checks and displays the status of the Firewall, automatic 
updates, malware protection (Windows Defender) and other security 
settings, including third-party security software such as anti-virus 

Tan also criticized Vista's recognition of installation programs, which 
checks compatibility databases, heuristics and a program's embedded 
manifestwhich declares to an operating system what it is. The potential 
dangers of Vista's handling of installers, Tan said, is that all 
installers run with administrative privileges, have full access to the 
file system and registry, and have the ability to load kernel drivers.

"As soon as you click OK, that application has complete administrative 
capabilities, including downloading and installing rootkits," he said.

Tan also criticized Internet Explorer 7 for its lack of Protected Mode 
in the version that runs on Vista. Protected Mode makes the browser run 
in a sandbox - i.e., it has limited read access to system components and 
can't download Trojans or spyware from malicious sites.

That accounts for new system protection in Vista. As for data 
protection, the new operating system comes with BitLocker Drive 
Encryptiona feature that encrypts the entire Windows volume, protecting 
against data being stolen when a laptop is stolen or lost. Tan's only 
criticism of that feature was that it's available in only the Enterprise 
and Ultimate versions of Vista and is lacking in the Business version.

Other data protection features in Vista include EFS (Encrypting File 
System), used to encrypt files and folders; Rights Management Services, 
used to encrypt files persistently so they can't be e-mailed outside of 
the organization without proper server permissions; and Device Control, 
which enables better management of plug-and-play devices such as USB 

Tan also touched on PatchGuard, which locks down the kernel completely 
but also locks out some third-party applications, including anti-virus 
programs. Besides the ire that this drew from security software vendors, 
PatchGuard was actually cracked soon after Vista's introduction.

Other flawed security solutions in Vista include Windows Defender's 
lackluster performance, blocking a mere 47 percent of spyware in 
quick-scan mode in anti-virus testing. OneCare also fell "well short" in 
Virus Bulletin's VB100 test and flunk AV-Comparative's test altogether.

"So Microsoft definitely still has some work to do in those areas," Tan 
said. Besides all that, a critical remote code execution bug in Vista's 
vector markup language was released on Jan. 9; in testing of Vista's 
strength against legacy exploits, Vista was found to have exploits that 
would survive exploits in every category except rootkits; key 
enhancements to Vista security are only available on 64-bit platforms; 
and you need new hardware platforms to fully support Vista, Tan said.

Cumulatively, it sounds bad, Tan said, but hackers and Tan agreed: 
significant strides have been made in securing Vista. "It's a security 
evolution, not a revolution," Tan said. "Vista is not a security 
solution - it is a more a secure version of Windows."

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