A New Zealand security researcher has published a software tool allowing attackers to quickly gain access to Windows systems via a Firewire port.
The tool, which can only be used by attackers with physical access to a system, comes shortly after the publication of research on gaining access to encrypted hard drives via physical access to memory.
Researcher Adam Boileau, a consultant with Immunity, originally demonstrated the access tool at a security conference in 2006, but decided not to release the code any further at the time. Two years later, however, nothing has been done toward fixing the problem, so he decided to go public.
"Yes, this means you can completely own any box whose Firewire port you can plug into in seconds," said Boileau in a recent blog entry.
An attacker must connect to the machine with a Linux system and a Firewire cable to run the tool.
The tool, called Winlockpwn, allows users to bypass Windows authorisation, was originally demonstrated at Ruxcon in 2006 at a talk called "Hit By A Bus: Physical Access Attacks With Firewire".
At the time, Boileau also demonstrated some of the malicious uses of the tool, but said he wouldn't be releasing the code for those attacks.
The attack takes advantage of the fact that Firewire can directly read and write to a system's memory, adding extra speed to data transfer. According to Boileau, because this capability is built into Firewire, Microsoft doesn't consider the problem a standard bug.
On the other hand, Boileau said he feels PC users need to be more aware of the fact that their systems can be unlocked via Firewire.
"Yes, it's a feature, not a bug," Boileau stated. "Microsoft knows this. The OHCI-1394 spec knows this. People with Firewire ports generally don't."
Microsoft downplayed the problem, noting that the Firewire attack is just one of many that could be carried out if an attacker already has physical access to the system.
"The claims detailed in the research by Adam Boileau are not software vulnerabilities, but reflect a hardware design industry issue that affects multiple operating systems," Bill Sisk, Microsoft's security response communications manager, told Techworld.
He said Microsoft is looking into ways to "strengthen" the way Windows interfaces with Firewire's Direct Memory Access (DMA).
Firewire has become common on Windows systems in the past few years, and is especially prevalent on laptops.
Researcher Maximillian Dornseif demonstrated a similar exploit on Linux and Mac OS X systems at the CanSec conference in 2005, connecting to those systems via a malicious iPod and Firewire.
According to security researchers, the problem can be remedied by disabling Firewire when not in use.