Intel is developing a way to notify users if they inadvertently download a rootkit like the XCP (extended copy protection) software found on CDs shipped by Sony.
The future involves relieving humans of serving as the gatekeepers for reams of information flowing between computers and people, said David Tennenhouse, vice president of Intel's Technology Group and director of research at the company.
"We need to connect the computers directly to the data, so the human beings don't have to be the I/O channel, and elevate the role of the human being to a more supervisory role," Tennenhouse said.
One interesting project involves placing a small chip on a PC's motherboard to constantly monitor programs for modifications that might be the result of a malicious attack, said Travis Schluessler, a researcher with Intel.
Sony's XCP software implemented copy-protection policies with rootkit software. Rootkits are pieces of software designed to access a system and make changes or implement policies without being detected by the operating system or anti-virus software. Security experts say malicious hackers might have used Sony's rootkit software to launch undetectable attacks.
Security vendors recently admitted that Sony's XCP rootkit caught them by surprise, even though it had been installed on thousands of systems for months before an independent researcher identified it, and their products need significant upgrades to detect rootkits.
The idea behind the Intel project is to protect systems from malicious programs that make their way onto a system and attack application software running in the system's memory, Schluessler said. Many modern worms and viruses, such as the Slammer and Blaster worms, attempt to disable programs running in memory or alter those programs to run the attacker's code and then propagate themselves across a network, he said.
The succinctly named "OS Independent Run-Time System Integrity Services" project attempts to limit memory-resident attacks by detecting changes in application code as they happen, allowing IT administrators to take immediate action, Schluessler said. Under this scenario, an "integrity measurement manager" running on a chip outside of the main CPU or memory would identify a rootkit or malware that started to make changes to the program in memory. That detection would trigger any number of responses set by the IT department.
For example, an infected PC could be set to immediately detach from the network when an alert is triggered, preventing the worm or attack from spreading beyond that PC, Schluessler said. The alert could also send an e-mail or pop-up message to the network administrator informing them of the intrusion.
Intel doesn't expect its project to take the place of anti-virus or anti-spyware software, but believes it could supplement them, Schluessler said. Malware often attempts to shut down or alter anti-virus software to make way for future attacks, and this project could back up the anti-virus software, or "check the checker," he said.
However, Intel's project is a long way from appearing in new PCs. The project is tentatively scheduled to become part of Intel's products around 2008 or 2009, Schluessler said.