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Researchers create defense framework to protect against modern attacks

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August 2, 2016

Internet security researchers Cody Pierce, Matt Spisak and Kenneth Fitch have created a new defense system to protect against complex, modern attacks from hackers and other miscreants.

The security team with roots in the HP Zero Day Initiative, the National Security Agency, and the U.S. Department of Defense have extended a hardware protection tool already in use for some Microsoft assets to apply to common and popular user programs.

The trio will demonstrate the processor-based Hardware-Assisted Control Flow Integrity protection system at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas this week with a project they say will "raise the exploitation bar significantly".

Their Intel cross-platform framework moves the focus of defense from increasingly-obsolete post-exploitation return-oriented programming to specific attacks that hit a lot closer to memory.

It introduces runtime performance overheads some three times greater than those that Microsoft endures to apply the protection to Visual Studio on Windows 8.1 and 10.

The trio say in a synopsis of their work that the internet security industry has gone to "great lengths" to complicate exploitation without much effect, pointing their fingers at code re-use attacks such as return-oriented programming.

"But unfortunately, the reality today is that once attackers have control over code execution, it's only a matter of a short period before they can circumvent these defense mechanisms, as the recent rise of EMET bypasses illustrates".

"Our current approach blocks several potential exploits even before they gain execution, preventing the opportunity to bypass mitigations," they added.

And the proof may be in the pudding, as earlier work has already demonstrated the effectiveness of using chip Performance Monitoring Units (PMUs) to detect return-oriented programming attacks.

The research team's work generalizes the same approach to help detect attacks in real time and guard COTS binaries from control-flow hijack attempts stemming from use-after-free and memory corruption security vulnerabilities as well.

To be sure, Pierce, Spisak and Fitch will demonstrate their work defending against various security exploits that otherwise would defeat dated tools like Microsoft's enhanced mitigation toolkit.

Source: The HP Zero Day Initiative.

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