NSA Malware for BIOS attacks

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Un-named PC maker sought help to defeat un-named nation's PC-bricking plan

By Simon Sharwood, 16th December 2013

Senior National Security Agency (NSA) officials have told US news magazine program “60 Minutes” that a foreign nation tried to infect computers with a BIOS-based virus that would have enabled them to be remotely destroyed.

NSA Director General Keith Alexander and Information Assurance Director Debora Plunkett both appeared on the program in an attempt to defend the many unsettling domestic espionage programs revealed by Edward Snowden.

During the interview, the transcript of which can be found here, the pair made the following allegations:

  • A foreign country developed BIOS malware “disguised as a request for a software update” that would have turned PCs into “a brick.” Plunkett said “The NSA working with computer manufacturers was able to close this vulnerability”. 60 Minutes names China as the culprit
  • The NSA is listening to “Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. Persons,” according to Alexander
  • The NSA prefers to look at metadata rather than intercept communications, as the former is felt to be the “least intrusive” way of snooping
  • Before 9/11 the USA lacked the capability to match metadata from multiple carriers that would allow understanding of conversations between two parties and it is felt the lack of such an ability helped the 9/11 plotters to evade detection

The segment appears to have been far from a terrifying experience for the interviewees: the tone is that the NSA is a misunderstood entity doing its best to defend the USA against terrorism and worse. It therefore includes lots of soft stuff about the super-clever folks who work at the NSA and the cryptographic feats performed by its interns. There's also a quick primer on social engineering and how the bad guys use it to get the good guys clicking on bad things.

How much weight to give to “revelations” like the BIOS attack is therefore hard to assess. One thing seems certain: the NSA has decided it needs to play harder in the battle for hearts and minds in the USA and beyond. 60 Minutes seems to have decided to play along. ®



  • etomcat
    etomcat Posts: 147 Superuser



    As far as I understand, it is not possible to fully destroy computers via BIOS-wrecking, even if the physical EEPROM chip is inseparably soldered onto the motherboard.


    That's because every BIOS has a read-only "brain stem" area. It is a very primitive function: if the BIOS "main mass" does not boot for whatever reason, start reading the first and only file on the floppy disk and overwrite the BIOS with it.


    Of course, the end-user or service tech guy would have to get the correct .rom or .hex file from the manufacturer's website to be able to do this revival trick (and maybe also obtain a USB-port floppy drive for use the more modern computers that lack a built-in FDD, as I don't know if the BIOS "brain stem" function includes support for optical drives or pendrives).


    Best Regards: Tamas Feher, Hungary.

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