Trouble at the BIOS Level: LightEater Malware Proof of Concept Shows Major Security Risk

As security threats go, the LightEater malware contains some of the worst possible elements. It’s easy enough to be used by everyday people, exploits a vulnerability common in the majority of computer systems and can have an effect in about two minutes.

At the CanSecWest security conference taking place in Vancouver, Canada, this week, researchers Xeno Kovah and Corey Kallenberg presented research showing how they discovered basic holes in BIOS chips. This allowed them to infect machines with the LightEater malware, a bootkit that could hit many systems at the same time and gain high levels of access to steal passwords or other data. Wired noted the malicious code could persist even on PCs that were wiped and given a new operating system.

It is important to note here that the LightEater malware is a proof of concept that hasn’t actually been used for criminal purposes. However, in an interview with Threatpost, the researchers said the vulnerability stems from the open-source code within the BIOS of most computers and could allow third parties to hack into the System Management Mode and take over various hardware controls.

In this case, compromising systems via the BIOS would require the attackers to already have remote access to a machine. However, BetaNews observed that similar vulnerabilities have already been exploited by the U.S. National Security Agency. The difference here is that the LightEater malware takes advantage of flaws that are widespread and relatively simple to find.

In theory, the threat disclosed in the CanSecWest presentation could affect anyone, from home users to businesses and governments. However, FierceCIO suggested a great deal of the risk could be mitigated if IT departments simply become more proactive about applying patches and updates to the BIOS. That seems to be the overall message the researchers are trying to convey, too.

A final but critical point was made by SC Magazine, which posited that something like the LightEater malware might be better described as an advanced persistent threat, potentially making it an even higher priority for those aiming to better protect their data from cybercriminal activity. After all, a BIOS is not only central to nearly all hardware, but even a hypothetical illustration of an attack should be taken as seriously as the real thing.

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Shane Schick

Writer & Editor

Shane Schick is a writer, editor and speaker who focuses on how information technology creates business value. He lives...