Home Business IT Security 'Secure' boot: Apple came first, says A-V expert

Is the process of "secure" boot, that Microsoft plans to regulate through the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, a reaction to the real-world presence of boot-time malware?

Or is it simply a case of Microsoft again copying Apple which has locked in users of its iPhone and iPad devices?

Good questions, and both raised by Paul Ducklin, an anti-virus expert from Sophos. He was responding to questions from iTWire.

Microsoft has mandated that all PCs that run Windows 8 will have to include a "secure" boot process. This means that the bootloader will be authenticated by the means of keys. Windows 8 will be released on October 26, according to an announcement made overnight by Microsoft.

In the case of the x86 platform, there will be a mechanism to turn off the secure boot option so that one can boot other operating systems. Microsoft has a monopoly in this market and obviously does not want to raise anti-competitive concerns, having been convicted of monopolistic practices in the 1990s.

But in the case of ARM, any Windows 8 device will be able to run only that operating system. There will be no means of turning off secure boot. In this market, Microsoft is not the dominant player and hence there are no concerns about anti-competitive practices.

"There's certainly a case to be made for securing your boot loader, based on widespread real-world malware that uses pre-OS code to subvert the OS's own bootstrap process," Ducklin said.

He pointed to two examples that have gained some press in the last year: Popureb (PDF) and TDL/TDSS. Neither is indestructible as has been claimed in some quarters but the average or even somewhat more experienced Windows user would find it extremely difficult to clean up after being infected by either of these.

Ducklin pointed out that Apple's iDevice hardware had proprietary chipset support for boot protection. "And you'll hear it said that this improves security by preventing jailbreaking. Of course, it also reduces choice, locks you in and protects revenue by preventing you from shopping for software other than at the App Store.

"Which came first? The chicken of security or the egg of lock-in?"

Ducklin said the good news for the Microsoft approach for Windows PCs was that the chipset protection on x86 would not be mandatory and inflexible like it is on Apple iDevices.

"You will be able to turn off the 'secure boot' protection altogether, albeit at your own risk, or tell the chipset to authorise other vendors to be allowed to offer a boot loader of their own."

Two GNU/Linux distributions have outlined procedures whereby they will be able to run on x86 devices which have secure boot turned on. Red Hat and Canonical outlined steps for booting the Fedora and Ubuntu distributions.

Ducklin said that there were also questions about the cryptographic keys that would be used in the process of secure booting.

"As you suggest, they'll mostly provide protection, but with some huge caveats," he said. "As Stuxnet (stolen code signing certificate), Flame (same thing), Diginotar (certificates issued during a hack by the hacker to himself), and other security disasters proved, sometimes a digital signature isn't worth the paper it isn't printed on."

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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