Preventing the Next Target* Breach with Trusted Computing

* Replace Target with your favorite retail chain.

Alon Nafta

Alon Nafta

The recent news that Target, Neiman Marcus and perhaps three other retailers suffered breaches involving large volumes of data pilfered is raising concerns among retail security professionals.  While details are sketchy and there are plenty of unknowns, it appears that “memory scraping” (also called “RAM scraping”) malware might have played a part in the compromise. There is plenty of research and alerts around memory scraping malware found here, here and here.  This sort of malware has been around a while – check out this Dark Reading article from 2009 and this 2009 Verizon Data Breach Investigations piece.

What is memory-scraping malware?  What we have seen to date has affected retail point-of-sale (POS) systems and potentially backend systems that are processing various types of payment cards (credit cards, debit cards, prepaid cards, etc.). While standards like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) call for encrypting cardholder information while at rest (storage) and in transit (in motion on the network), cardholder information is typically unencrypted while in use (memory).  If you can access the POS system or server memory, you can extract its contents including the cardholder information.

The data format of such information is clearly defined (see ISO/IEC 7813 and 7816), so attackers can simply implement suitable algorithms in malware which is then installed on the POS machines to harvest cardholder information in memory with those formats in mind.

How can you protect against this sort malware? Antivirus is certainly a necessary component required by PCI DSS for systems handling cardholder information, but AV has been demonstrated to be less than effective in stopping sophisticated threats and updating AV on isolated networks is cumbersome.

One promising countermeasure is attestation. Attestation protects against persistent malware on immutable, “gold” base software images, and ensures – using cryptographic principles and components – that both hardware and software are unchanged.  Attesting to the integrity of server and POS systems would validate that the machine (hardware and software) is clean of malware. If a machine was infected, it would fail attestation and could be examined and remediated. Proper attestation supported by strong cryptography would eliminate any chance for otherwise undetected malware persisting.

Naturally, there could be some infection that occurs after attestation that could exploit vulnerabilities, but periodically attested systems (which would typically require a reboot) minimize this window of vulnerability (or opportunity, depending on your perspective). In this situation, malware could infect a machine after it was attested in a known, good state, but that malware would be wiped away the moment the system reboots and that would be validated when the system re-attests.

A normal, stateful machine suffers from malware that can use its hard-drive, or other components, to persist. A stateless machine that relies on a locked-down, base software image and is periodically attested avoids malware that might try burrow its way into a stateful component.  POS systems, as well as transaction processing backend systems, are not intended to run arbitrary code.  Validating (attesting) such systems against a known, good software image would dramatically reduce the window of opportunity for attackers.

Security measures typically require some change in technology and processes. One change of periodically attesting systems is that it would require downtime as systems reboot and applications restart.  The impact of this change could be minimized by rebooting during off hours for POS machines and this could be done in a round-robin fashion among a high-availability (HA) server cluster for mission-critical servers. POS systems are natural candidates for being stateless as they handle stateless data.

No security countermeasure is going to stop all attacks all the time – technology is extremely complex and attackers are very clever.  While details of the exact circumstances around the breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus, and other retailers are still unknown, my speculation is that attesting systems would have reduced the chance of a successful attack and minimized the damage of any successful attack by reducing the attack duration.

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