xIoT ChatGPT & Me: Firmware Visibility & Vulnerability Management

Firmware security veteran Trevin Mowery shares an AI-assisted conversation he had with ChatGPT about firmware visibility and vulnerability management.

Today I decided to have a conversation with ChatGPT, which I suppose is only slightly less embarrassing than saying “I decided to have a conversation with myself”, although both have been known to happen. An interesting detail about this conversation is that I used ChatGPT v3.5, which is two years old, outlining the fact that although this is not a new problem, it still hasn’t been given responsible attention.

Luckily, the firmware security issues outlined in this chat are becoming even more top of mind for device manufacturers and enterprises today. People seem to finally be starting to understand the massive risk inherent in XIoT device firmware. Good for us, bad for threat actors.

Me: Should companies know what software components exist in the firmware of their devices?

ChatGPT: Yes, companies should have a clear understanding of the software components that exist in the firmware of their devices. Knowing the software components in firmware is essential for several reasons:

  1. Security: Firmware vulnerabilities can be exploited by malicious actors to compromise devices and systems. By knowing the software components within the firmware, companies can identify potential security risks and take proactive measures to mitigate them through regular updates, patches, and security audits.
  2. Vulnerability Management: Understanding the software components helps in vulnerability management. Companies can monitor for known vulnerabilities in those components, stay updated with security patches, and respond swiftly to newly discovered issues.
  3. Compliance: In various industries, regulatory compliance often mandates keeping track of all software components and ensuring they meet security standards. Understanding firmware contents helps ensure adherence to relevant compliance requirements.
  4. Supply Chain Security: Companies need to ensure the integrity of the supply chain and prevent malicious or vulnerable software components from being introduced during the manufacturing or distribution process. Being aware of the firmware components assists in maintaining the supply chain's security.
  5. Support and Maintenance: Knowing the software components within the firmware enables companies to provide better support and maintenance for their devices. When customers encounter issues or need updates, having a comprehensive understanding of the firmware components allows for faster and more effective responses.
  6. Intellectual Property Protection: Companies need to protect their intellectual property and ensure that unauthorized or counterfeit software components are not included in their firmware.

To achieve this understanding, companies should implement appropriate firmware analysis and management practices. This may include using specialized tools and conducting regular assessments to identify the software components, dependencies, and potential vulnerabilities. Companies can also establish partnerships with security experts or firms specializing in firmware analysis to ensure comprehensive security and maintain a strong defense against potential threats.

All great use cases for creating, enhancing, and maintaining a Software Bill of Materials (SBOM) for devices, for both the owners of these devices and their manufacturers. As it relates to number 4, the NetRise platform was built in such a way that we can integrate with your CI/CD pipeline to ensure the most secure product is built prior to being delivered to your customers.

Number 2 is the way we make life easy for device owners. Whenever the next Log4J happens, imagine being able to search all of your SBOMs — whether or not the NetRise platform created them, you created them, or you received them from the vendor — for a given vulnerable software component across your entire environment. Remember when it took you months to answer that question and you still couldn’t do it accurately? I do, and I’d have loved to avoid that painful process. I know of many vacations that were ruined when Log4J was announced, including one of my own.

Let’s dive deeper into the vulnerability management of these devices a bit more.

Me: Why is vulnerability management in firmware important?

ChatGPT: Vulnerability management in firmware is crucial for several reasons, as outlined below:

  1. Security Risks: Firmware serves as the low-level software that operates hardware components in devices. Vulnerabilities in firmware can provide attackers with direct access to these components, enabling them to compromise the entire system. Attackers can use firmware vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access, execute malicious code, or extract sensitive data, leading to potential data breaches or system disruptions.
  2. Prevalence of Firmware: Firmware is present in a wide range of devices, including routers, IoT devices, embedded systems, and even some computer peripherals. Its widespread use makes it an attractive target for attackers, as exploiting firmware vulnerabilities can yield a significant impact.
  3. Difficulty of Detection: Firmware vulnerabilities can be challenging to identify and address. Traditional security tools might not effectively scan firmware, making it easier for attackers to go undetected. This underscores the importance of specialized firmware analysis tools and skilled security professionals to identify and patch vulnerabilities.
  4. Long Lifecycle: Firmware often has a longer lifecycle than traditional software applications. Devices may receive firmware updates infrequently or may not receive updates at all after a certain period. This means that even if a vulnerability is discovered, it might remain unpatched for an extended period, leaving the device and its users at risk.
  5. Proliferation of IoT Devices: The Internet of Things (IoT) has brought an explosion of interconnected devices, many of which run on firmware. The lack of standardization, coupled with a rush to market, has led to security oversights in many IoT devices. Vulnerability management in firmware is essential to mitigate potential risks and protect the broader network from IoT-based attacks.
  6. Regulatory Compliance: In many industries, compliance with specific security standards and regulations is mandatory. Failing to manage firmware vulnerabilities adequately can result in non-compliance, leading to legal and financial consequences for organizations.
  7. Reputation and Trust: A data breach or security incident caused by firmware vulnerabilities can severely damage an organization's reputation and erode the trust of its customers. Proactively managing firmware vulnerabilities helps demonstrate a commitment to security and customer safety.

In summary, vulnerability management in firmware is vital to ensure the security and integrity of devices, protect sensitive data, maintain regulatory compliance, and safeguard an organization's reputation. Regularly updating firmware, applying security patches, and implementing best practices are essential components of an effective firmware vulnerability management strategy.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Firmware is everywhere and almost no one is looking at it, except NetRise, of course. Regardless of how new your devices are, there’s a better-than-good chance they are made up of components with exploit code from 5, 10, or even 15+ years ago — the equivalent of still running Windows XP on employee laptops. This is simply unacceptable from a security and risk perspective, why should this kind of long-outdated security posture be acceptable for all your non-IT devices?  The more visibility we provide, the more hope we all have of putting pressure on large device manufacturers to ship more secure products.

Me: Are there cyber-attacks that exist which leverage firmware vulnerability exploits?

ChatGPT: Yes, cyber attacks that leverage firmware vulnerability exploits do exist, and they can pose significant threats to organizations and individuals. Firmware vulnerabilities are particularly appealing to attackers because they provide a level of control and persistence that can be challenging to achieve with software-based exploits alone. Here are some examples of cyber attacks that target firmware vulnerabilities:

  1. Bootkits and Rootkits: Attackers can exploit firmware vulnerabilities to install malicious code at a low level, such as in the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) or UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). These types of malware are known as bootkits or rootkits and allow attackers to control the system before the operating system loads, making them difficult to detect and remove.
  2. IoT Device Exploitation: Many Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as smart cameras, routers, and smart home devices, run on firmware. Attackers can identify and exploit vulnerabilities in IoT device firmware to gain unauthorized access, spy on users, or use the compromised devices to launch larger-scale attacks.
  3. Firmware Worms: Similar to traditional software worms, firmware worms can exploit vulnerabilities in the firmware of network devices and spread from one vulnerable device to another, rapidly infecting an entire network. Firmware worms can be challenging to detect and remove, leading to significant disruptions.
  4. Firmware Backdoors: In some cases, firmware vulnerabilities might be deliberately introduced by threat actors to create backdoors, allowing unauthorized access to the affected devices or networks.
  5. Supply Chain Attacks: Firmware vulnerabilities can be introduced at various points in the supply chain, from the manufacturing process to software updates. Threat actors might tamper with firmware during the manufacturing process or compromise the update mechanism to deliver malicious firmware to devices.
  6. Hardware Implants: In some sophisticated attacks, adversaries might physically implant malicious firmware or hardware on a device, giving them covert access and control over the compromised system.

Mitigating these threats requires a proactive approach to firmware vulnerability management, including regular updates and patching, using secure boot mechanisms, employing secure supply chain practices, and monitoring for signs of compromise. Organizations and users should be vigilant in safeguarding their firmware to protect against potential attacks exploiting firmware vulnerabilities.

It shouldn’t be news to our readers that firmware attacks are real and happening more and more frequently. There are more IoT devices than endpoints now, which means more unmanaged devices for attackers to compromise. In another blog we discuss Software Supply Chain Security Best Practices, including a discussion on the importance of this level of visibility and how to reduce your supply chain risk.

Me: Last question, what threat actors are using firmware level vulnerabilities in their attacks?

ChatGPT: As of my last update in September 2021, various threat actors have been known to use firmware-level vulnerabilities in their attacks. These include:

  1. Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Groups: Nation-state sponsored APT groups often have sophisticated capabilities and resources to conduct targeted attacks. Some APT groups have been known to use firmware-level vulnerabilities to gain long-term access and control over high-value targets, such as government agencies, critical infrastructure, and large corporations.
  2. Cybercrime Groups: Some cybercriminal organizations use firmware-level vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to devices and systems, steal sensitive data, or deploy ransomware. Firmware-based attacks can be lucrative for cybercriminals as they provide deep persistence and make it harder for victims to detect and remove malware.
  3. Hacktivists: Hacktivist groups with ideological motivations may use firmware-level vulnerabilities to compromise devices and networks to promote their messages or disrupt services of organizations they target.
  4. Insider Threats: Malicious insiders with access to hardware or firmware development might exploit vulnerabilities to carry out attacks from within an organization.
  5. Supply Chain Attackers: Threat actors involved in supply chain attacks may target firmware to compromise devices before they reach end-users. By tampering with firmware during manufacturing or distribution, they can introduce backdoors or vulnerabilities that remain undetected until deployed in the field.
  6. Industrial Espionage: Corporate espionage actors may exploit firmware-level vulnerabilities to gain access to proprietary information or intellectual property from targeted organizations.

It's important to note that the threat landscape is continually evolving, and new actors and attack techniques may emerge over time. Firmware-level vulnerabilities can be particularly concerning due to their potential to remain undetected and provide attackers with deep control over devices and systems.

Organizations should be vigilant in monitoring their devices, implementing security best practices, and regularly updating firmware to mitigate potential risks. Additionally, they should stay informed about the latest threats and work with cybersecurity experts to bolster their defense against firmware-based attacks.

Once again, a great answer. The scariest part is the length of time that firmware attacks typically go unnoticed because of the lack of visibility into them.  

Not sure how to start your firmware visibility and security journey? Or have you already begun your journey and are looking for the tools and partners to help you along the path? Either way, reach out to us and we’ll show you how the NetRise Platform empowers organizations to achieve their firmware and software component security goals.