Protecting computers at start-up: New NIST guidelines

December 21, 2011

A new draft computer security publication from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides guidance for vendors and security professionals as they work to protect personal computers as they start up.

The first software that runs when a computer is turned on is the "Basic Input/Output System" (). This fundamental system software initializes the hardware before the starts. Since it works at such a low level, before other protections are in place, unauthorized changes—malicious or accidental—to the BIOS can cause a significant security threat.

"Unauthorized changes in the BIOS could allow or be part of a sophisticated, targeted attack on an organization, allowing an attacker to infiltrate an organization's systems or disrupt their operations," said Andrew Regenscheid, one of the authors of BIOS Integrity Measurement (NIST Special Publication 800-155). In September, 2011, a security company discovered the first malware designed to infect the BIOS, called Mebromi.* "We believe this is an emerging threat area," said Regenscheid. These developments underscore the importance of detecting changes to the BIOS code and configurations, and why monitoring BIOS integrity is an important element of security.

SP 800-155 explains the fundamentals of BIOS integrity measurement—a way to determine if the BIOS has been modified—and how to report any changes. The publication provides detailed guidelines to hardware and software vendors that develop products that can support secure BIOS integrity measurement mechanisms. It may also be of interest to organizations that are developing deployment strategies for these technologies.

This publication is the second in a series of BIOS documents. BIOS Protection Guidelines (NIST SP 800-147) was issued in April, 2011.** It provides guidelines for computer manufacturers to build in features to secure the BIOS against unauthorized modifications. The detection mechanisms in SP 800-155 complement the protection mechanisms outlined in SP 800-147 to provide greater assurance of the security of the BIOS.

NIST requests comments on draft SP 800-155 by January 20, 2012. Copies of the publication can be downloaded from http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/drafts/800-155/draft-SP800-155_Dec2011.pdf . Please submit comments to 800-155comments[at]nist.gov with "Comment SP 800-155 in the subject line.

Explore further: Wake-up call: Draft security pub looks at cell phones, PDAs

More information: * Information on Mebromi: www.symantec.com/security_response/writeup.jsp?docid=2011-090609-4557-99
** See the May 10, 2011, Tech Beat article "Build Safety into the Very Beginning of the Computer System" at www.nist.gov/public_affairs/tech-beat/tb20110510.cfm#bios

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kevinrtrs
2 / 5 (3) Dec 21, 2011
The first step would be to make the BIOS read-only, I'd imagine.
Not many people perform updates on their bios anyway and in any case manufacturers would rather have you buy a new pc than upgrade your bios firmware. Would be tough if there's a buggy version that needs to be replaced in your new PC though.
Mike_Syzygy
not rated yet Dec 21, 2011
Wouldn't having a password on your bios serve to prevent any write-access without that password being entered first?
Argiod
1 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2011
We could make the BIOS chips read-only and do what we did back in the early days; when the BIOS has been updated, we went out and bought a new BIOS chip and replaced the old one. It was inexpensive, and secure. For better security I would not mind a few extra dollars for a new BIOS chip. It would certainly be better than the hundreds I spend on a/v software now, and I STILL GET HACKED on occasion, with viruses that turn off the a/v programs. I also like the notion of hard drives that automatically encrypt their contents in the background. I don't mind memorizing a few passwords, or keeping a list on my person.

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