Hard Drive Rootkit Is Frighteningly Persistent

There are a lot of malware programs in the wild today, but luckily we have methods of detecting and removing them. Antivirus is an old standby, and if that fails you can always just reformat the hard drive and wipe it clean. That is unless the malware installs itself in your hard drive firmware. [MalwareTech] has written his own frightening proof of concept malware that does exactly this.

The core firmware rootkit needs to be very small in order to fit in the limited memory space on the hard drive’s memory chips. It’s only a few KB in size, but that doesn’t stop it from packing a punch. The rootkit can intercept any IO to and from the disk or the disk’s firmware. It uses this to its advantage by modifying data being sent back to the host computer. When the computer requests data from a sector on the disk, that data is first loaded into the disk’s cache. The firmware can modify the data sitting in the cache before notifying the host computer that the data is ready. This allows the firmware to trick the host system into executing arbitrary code.

[MalwareTech] uses this ability to load his own custom Windows XP bootkit called TinyXPB. All of this software is small enough to fit on the hard drive’s firmware. This means that traditional antivirus cannot detect its presence. If the owner of the system does get suspicious and completely reformats the hard drive, the malware will remain unharmed. The owner cannot even re-flash the firmware using traditional methods since the rootkit can detect this and save itself. The only way to properly re-flash the firmware would be to use an SPI programmer, which would be too technical for most users.

There are many more features and details to this project. If you are interested in malware, the PDF presentation is certainly worth a read. It goes much more in-depth into how the malware actually works and includes more details about how [MalwareTech] was able to actually reverse engineer the original firmware. If you’re worried about this malicious firmware getting out into the wild, [MalwareTech] assures us that he does not intend to release the actual code to the public.