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Computer Components Software

Can a Motherboard Have a Virus?

Yes, a motherboard can sometimes have a virus but it’s probably one of the rarest type of virus infections compared to traditional viruses, ransomware and spyware. So as a home user you will probably never have to deal with a motherboard virus directly unless you just happen to be a very important person.

1. BIOS/UEFI Infections

– The most common way a motherboard can be *infected* is through its BIOS or UEFI firmware.

– Malware can infect this low level software that runs before the operating system loads. So that technically makes it a motherboard level virus.

2. Persistence

– These types of infections do survive operating system reinstalls and hard drive replacements. So they’re very pervasive and difficult to get rid of.

– They can also reinfect the system every time it boots. That sounds like a nightmare doesn’t it?

3. Types of Threats

Rootkits: Can hide deep in the system, completely avoiding detection by antivirus software.

Backdoors: Allows remote access to the system as long as you’re connected to the internet. Sometimes the hacker can even turn on your internet through the backdoor to continue the surveillance on your system.

Bootkits: Malware that loads before the operating system, compromising system security from the start.

4. Attack Vectors

– Infected BIOS updates

– Exploiting vulnerabilities in existing BIOS/UEFI firmware

– Physical access to the motherboard

– Secret government developed code that is injected into firmware updates in collaboration with PC manufacturers.

5. Difficulty of Infection

– It’s much more challenging to infect a motherboard compared to regular Windows level infections.

– These require sophisticated methods or actual physical access to the motherboard and the BIOS.

6. Detection and Removal

– Standard antivirus software usually can’t detect these infections.

– To get rid of motherboard viruses you need to flash/update the BIOS/UEFI firmware or throw away the motherboard and buy a new one.

7. Prevention

– Only update the BIOS/UEFI from trusted sources which should ideally only be the manufacturer’s website.

– Keep firmware updated to patch known vulnerabilities

– Use secure boot features if available

8. Will The Motherboard Viruses Ever Impact You Directly?

– Not really, motherboard viruses are not a thing to be scared of in your typical consumer scenario.

– They’re more likely to be used in targeted attacks against high value targets like politicians, VIPs and spies.

9. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

– Motherboard infections are usually part of sophisticated APTs.

– These attacks are usually state sponsored or from highly organized cybercrime groups. A great example is the Pegasus zero day exploiting spyware developed by an Israeli company. With the vulnerabilities they find in Android and iOS they can take control of a phone and surveil everything on the device without the user even having to click any link or open any attachment. The infection happens over the air as long as you’re connected to a cell tower. It’s quite terrifying. I guess the only thing that can make us feel a little more secure is that the creators of Pegasus promised that they won’t approve any surveillance request for targets residing inside a NATO member country.

– These APTs aim for long term access and data exfiltration. A software developer like the Google team or Apple might be months behind releasing an update that patches these vulnerabilities. In the mean time hackers have access to some of the most valuable information in the world.

10. Specific Examples From the Past

LoJax: A UEFI rootkit discovered in 2018, attributed to the Sednit group.

ThunderSpy: An attack exploiting Thunderbolt ports that was compromising computers even when they were locked or asleep.

11. Hardware Based Attacks

– Some attacks target hardware components directly not just the firmware.

– Examples include already infected chips or modified hardware components. That’s why you shouldn’t just blindly drop your computer or phone to your local repair shop and leave it there unsupervised or with complete access to your data. If you have a hardware problem that needs to be fixed you should ideally wipe everything off of the device and then reupload everything back once your repair shop gives you back the device. That way your valuable data won’t be uploaded onto some computer shop’s hard drive. Hunter Biden’s laptop story for example is exactly the same scenario as the one I just described.

12. Supply Chain Attacks

– Hackers and state actors can compromise motherboards during the manufacturing or distribution. This is a massive and growing issue especially with Chinese counterfeit computers and motherboards.

– This can mean widespread infections before the devices even reach you as an end users.

13. Intel Management Engine (ME) Vulnerabilities

– The ME is a separate processor on many Intel motherboards.

– Vulnerabilities in ME have allowed attackers to bypass OS level security in the past.

14. AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP) Vulnerabilities

– Similar to Intel’s ME, AMD’s PSP has had security problems.

– Some of the vulnerabilities have allowed low level system access.

15. Detection Methods

CHIPSEC: An open source framework for analyzing platform security.

– Custom tools developed by security researchers to scan firmware.

– Hardware based detection systems for enterprise environments.

– Secret state level tools developed by 3 letter agencies and other state actors.

16. Firmware Security Features

Secure Boot: Helps guarantee that only signed operating systems can boot.

Intel Boot Guard: Prevents certain firmware modifications that don’t come from specific pieces of software.

AMD Hardware Validated Boot: Similar to Intel’s Boot Guard.

17. Impact on Virtualization

– Motherboard level infections can and have compromised virtual machines before. Again, since this is a BIOS level malware, anything that runs above that level will be controlled.

– This is one of the most significant risks for cloud computing platforms and something big companies like Google and Amazon have invested millions of dollars in trying to mitigate and prevent.

18. Recovery Processes

– In severe cases, physical motherboard replacement is the only way to get rid of a particularly pervasive piece of code. Technically a destructive hacker that only wants to cause damage can fry your motherboard with certain types of pieces of code inside the virus.

– Some organizations especially the ones with security clearances have policies to destroy compromised hardware because of the risk that a lean virus can still be there undetected even after the IT team supposedly wiped it off entirely.

19. Newer and Future Threats

– As IoT devices become more common, firmware attacks on these simpler devices are also more common.

– Quantum computing will bring more threats to current firmware encryption methods because of the sheer amount of computing power.

20. Legal and Ethical Problems

– Some countries have laws restricting the use of certain low level system tools.

– Security researchers will have to deal with some very complex legal landscapes when studying and regulating these threats. The problem is that you can’t regulate the people who don’t follow the law to begin with.

21. Industry Response

– Increased focus on hardware based security features in new motherboard designs.

– Collaboration between hardware manufacturers and security firms to patch as many flaws in the code as possible.

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