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"Evil Maid" Attacks on Encrypted Hard Drives

"The real defense here is trusted boot, something Trusted Computing is supposed to enable...BitLocker...can prevent these sorts of attacks if the computer has a TPM module, version 1.2 or later, on the motherboard."

Blog Source:  Bruce Schneier on Security Blog

Earlier this month, Joanna Rutkowska implemented the "evil maid" attack against TrueCrypt. The same kind of attack should work against any whole-disk encryption, including PGP Disk and BitLocker. Basically, the attack works like this:

Step 1: Attacker gains access to your shut-down computer and boots it from a separate volume. The attacker writes a hacked bootloader onto your system, then shuts it down.

Step 2: You boot your computer using the attacker's hacked bootloader, entering your encryption key. Once the disk is unlocked, the hacked bootloader does its mischief. It might install malware to capture the key and send it over the Internet somewhere, or store it in some location on the disk to be retrieved later, or whatever.

You can see why it's called the "evil maid" attack; a likely scenario is that you leave your encrypted computer in your hotel room when you go out to dinner, and the maid sneaks in and installs the hacked bootloader. The same maid could even sneak back the next night and erase any traces of her actions.

This attack exploits the same basic vulnerability as the "Cold Boot" attack from last year, and the "Stoned Boot" attack from earlier this year, and there's no real defense to this sort of thing. As soon as you give up physical control of your computer, all bets are off.

Similar hardware-based attacks were among the main reasons why Symantec's CTO Mark Bregman was recently advised by "three-letter agencies in the US Government" to use separate laptop and mobile device when traveling to China, citing potential hardware-based compromise.

PGP sums it up in their blog.

No security product on the market today can protect you if the underlying computer has been compromised by malware with root level administrative privileges. That said, there exists well-understood common sense defenses against "Cold Boot," "Stoned Boot" "Evil Maid," and many other attacks yet to be named and publicized.

The defenses are basically two-factor authentication: a token you don't leave in your hotel room for the maid to find and use. The maid could still corrupt the machine, but it's more work than just storing the password for later use. Putting your data on a thumb drive and taking it with you doesn't work; when you return you're plugging your thumb into a corrupted machine.

The real defense here is trusted boot, something Trusted Computing is supposed to enable. But Trusted Computing has its own problems, which is why we haven't seen anything out of Microsoft in the seven-plus years they have been working on it (I wrote this in 2002 about what they then called Palladium).

In the meantime, people who encrypt their hard drives, or partitions on their hard drives, have to realize that the encryption gives them less protection than they probably believe. It protects against someone confiscating or stealing their computer and then trying to get at the data. It does not protect against an attacker who has access to your computer over a period of time during which you use it, too.

EDITED TO ADD (10/23): A few readers have pointed out that BitLocker, the one thing that has come out of Microsoft's Trusted Computing initiative in the seven-plus years they've been working on it, can prevent these sorts of attacks if the computer has a TPM module, version 1.2 or later, on the motherboard. (Note: Not all computers do.) I actually knew that; I just didn't remember it.

Full blog post and comments in response to "'Evil Maid' Attacks on Encrypted Hard Drives" can be found on the Schneier on Security Blog.