Process-level security is not a particularly great way to enforce DRM when users own their own hardware.

Recently, I discussed the basics of the new “process-level security” mechanism introduced with Windows Vista (integrity levels; otherwise known as “mandatory integrity control“, or MIC for short).

Although when combined with more conventional user-level access control, there is the potential to improve security for users to an extent, MIC is ultimately not a mechanism to lock users out of their own computers.

As you might have guessed by this point, I am speaking of the rather less savory topic of DRM. MIC might appear to be attractive to developers that wish to deploy a DRM system, but it really doesn’t provide a particularly effective way to stop a computer owner (administrator) from, well, administering their system.

MIC (and process-level security), on the surface, may appear to be a good way to accomplish this goal. After all, the process-level security model does allow for securable objects (such as processes) to be guarded against other objects – even of the same user sid, which is typically the kind of restriction that a software-based DRM system will try to enforce (i.e. preventing you from debugging a program).

However, it is important to consider that the sort of restrictions imposed by process-level security mechanisms are designed to protect programs from other programs. They are not supposed to protect programs from the user that controls the computer on which they run (in other words, the computer administrator or whatever you wish to call it).

Windows Vista attempts to implement such a (DRM) protection scheme, loosely based on the principals of process-level security, in the form of something called “protected processes“.

If you look through the Vista SDK headers (specifically, winnt.h), you may come across a particularly telling comment that would seem to indicate that protected processes were originally intended to be implemented via the MIC scheme for process-level security in Vista:

#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_LABEL_AUTHORITY       {0,0,0,0,0,16}
#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_UNTRUSTED_RID         (0x00000000L)
#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_LOW_RID               (0x00001000L)
#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_MEDIUM_RID            (0x00002000L)
#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_HIGH_RID              (0x00003000L)
#define SECURITY_MANDATORY_SYSTEM_RID            (0x00004000L)

// that can be set by a usermode caller.


As it would turn out, protected processes (as they are called) are not actually implemented using the integrity level/MIC mechanism on Vista; instead, there is another, alternate mechanism that provides a way to mark protected processes are “untouchable” by “normal” processes (the lack of flexibility in the integrity level ACE system, as far as specifying which access rights are permitted, is the likely reason. If you read the linked article and the paper it includes, there are a new set of access rights defined specially for dealing with protected processes, which are deemed “safe”. These access rights are requestable for such processes, unlike the standard access rights, and there isn’t a good way to convey this with the set of “allow/deny read/write/execute” options available with an integrity level ACE on Vista.)

The end result is however, for the most part, the same; “protected processes” are essentially to high integrity (or lower) processes as high (or medium) integrity processes are to low integrity processes; that is, they cannot be adversely affected by a lesser-trusted process.

This is where the system begins to break down, though. Process integrity is an interesting way to attempt to curtail malware and exploits because the human at the computer (presumably) does not wish such activity to occur. On the other hand, DRM attempts to prevent the human at their computer from performing an action that they (ostensibly) do in fact wish to perform, with their own computer.

This is a fundamental distinction. The difference is that the malware or exploit code that process level security is designed to defend against doesn’t have the benefit of a human with physical (or administrative) access to the computer in question. That little detail turns out to make a world of difference, as we humans aren’t necessarily constrained by the security system like a program would be. For instance, if some evil exploit code running as a low integrity process on a computer wants to gain administrative access to the box, it just can’t do so (excepting the possibility of local privilege escalation exploits or trying to social-engineer the user into giving the program said access – for the moment, ignore those attack vectors, though they are certainly real ones that must be dealt with at some point).

However, if I am a human sitting at my computer, and I am logged on as a “plain user” and wish to perform an administrative task, I am not so constrained. Instead, I simply either log out and log back in as an administrative user (using my administrative account password), or type my password into an elevation prompt. Problem solved!

Now, of course, the protected process mechanism in Vista isn’t quite that dumb. It does try to block administrators from gaining access to protected processes; direct attempts will return STATUS_ACCESS_DENIED. However, again, humans can be a bit more clever here. For one, a user (and by user, I mean a person with full control over their computer) that is intent on bypassing the protected process mechanism could simply load a driver designed to subvert the protected process mechanism.

The DRM system might then counter that attack by then requiring kernel mode code to be signed, on the theory that for wide-scale violations of the DRM system in such a manner, a “cracker” would need to obtain a code-signing cert that would make them more-easily identifiable and vulnerable to legal attack.

However, people are clever (and more specifically, people with physical / administrative access to a computer are not so necessarily constrained by the basic “rules” of the operating system). One could imagine somebody doing something like patching out the driver signing checks on disk, or any number of other approaches. The theoretical counters to attacks like that would be some sort of hardware support to verify the boot process and ensure that only trusted, signed (and thus unmodified by a “cracker”) code can boot the system. Even that is not necessarily foolproof, though; what’s to say that nobody has compromised the task-offload engine on the system’s NIC to run custom code with full physical memory access, outside the confines of the operating system entirely? Free reign over something capable of performing DMA to physical memory means that kernel code and data can be freely rewritten.

Now, where am I going with all of this? I suppose that I am just frustrated that certain people seem to want to continue to invest significant resources into systems that try to wrest control of a computer from an end user, which are simply doomed to fail by the very nature of the diverse and uncontrolled systems upon which that code will run (and which sometimes compromise the security of customer systems in the process). I don’t think the people behind the protected processes system at Microsoft are stupid, not by any means. However, I can’t help but feel that they have know they’re fighting a losing battle, and that their knowledge and expertise would be better spent on more productive things (like working to improve the next release of Windows, or what-have-you).

Now, a couple of parting shots in an effort to quell several potential misconceptions before they begin:

  • I am not advocating that people bypass DRM. This is probably less than legal in many places. I am, however, trying to make a case for the fact that trying to use security models originally designed to protect users from malware as a DRM mechanism is at best a bad idea.
  • I’m also not trying to downplay the negative impact of theft of copyrighted materials, or anything of that sort. As a programmer myself, I’m well aware that if nobody will buy your product because it’s pirated all over the world, then it’s hard to eke out a living. However, I do believe that it is a fallacy to say that it’s impossible to make money out of software or content in the Internet age without layer after layer of customer-unfriendly DRM.
  • I’m not trying to knock the rest of the improvements in Vista (or the start of process-level security being deployed to joe end user, even though it’s probably not yet perfect). There’s a lot of good work that’s been done with Vista, and despite the (ill-conceived, some might say) DRM mechanisms, there is real value that has been added with this release.
  • I’m also not trying to say that Microsoft is devoting so much of its time to DRM that it isn’t paying any attention to adding real value to its products. However, in my view – most of the time spent on DRM is time that could be better spent adding that “real value” instead of doing the dance of security by obscurity (as with today’s systems, that is really all you can do, when it comes down to it) with some enigmatic idea of a “cracker” out there intent on stealing every piece of software or content they get their hands on and redistributing it to every person in the world for free.
  • I’m also not trying to state that the kernel mode code signing requirements for x64 Vista are entirely motivated by DRM (or that all it’s good for is an attempt to enforce DRM), but I doubt that anyone could truthfully say that DRM played no part in the decision to require signed drivers on x64 Vista either. Regardless, there remain other reasons for ostensibly requiring signed code besides trying to block (or at least hold accountable) attempts to bypass the protected process system.

3 Responses to “Process-level security is not a particularly great way to enforce DRM when users own their own hardware.”

  1. Alex Ionescu says:

    Excellent post, I have been waiting for more people to speak out against such rubbish measures being implemented. At least they could keep them out of the kernel. I can’t wait to see what nice “improvements” Hypervisor will add to PatchGuard and other such “features” which will “improve user experience” in Win 7.

  2. Matt says:

    “Free reign over something capable of performing DMA to physical memory means that kernel code and data can be freely rewritten.”

    The “traditional” way to do this is with an IEEE1394 device; cf. Maximillian Dornseif, “All Your Memory are Belong to Us” [], with more details at Matasano [], plus discussion of Joanna Rutkowska’s countermeasures [].

  3. Samuel Bronson says:

    Yeah, there are a lot of people on Freenet discussing the most reliable ways to prevent Firewire DMA to a system, though they are more concerned with preventing anyone from extracting TrueCrypt encryption keys from a live system using a particular, not-very-expensive gadget that can do this. Mentioned were glue/resin in the port, removing drivers, and reconfiguring drivers and/or BIOS to disable DMA, among others. Of course, plugging up any extant Firewire ports doesn’t work if there are other ports that an attacker-installed Firewire controller could potentially do DMA through…

    P.S.: did you know that tinfoil hats are only effective against 76% of mind-rays on the Corellian black market? Yeah, me either :-).