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Microsoft: Firmware Attacks Outpacing Security Investments

Microsoft is confirming a surge in malicious attacks targeting firmware and the software giant wants to play a role in reducing the attack surface below the operating system.

According to a new Security Signals report released Tuesday by Microsoft, a whopping 80 percent of businesses reported “at least one firmware attack” in the past two years but only 30 percent allocated any budget spend on firmware protection.

Businesses aren’t paying close enough attention to securing this critical layer, says David Weston, Microsoft partner director of OS security.  

Microsoft commissioned a study of 1,000 enterprise security decision makers from around the world and the results confirmed that the bulk of current security spending goes to applying patches, vulnerability scanning, and advanced threat protection products that traditionally miss signs of infections below the operating system.

[ SEE: TrickBot Malware Can Scan Systems for Firmware Vulnerabilities ]

Weston said firmware provides a “fertile ground” to plant malicious code and he said the survey results show growing awareness among defenders to address this class of attacks.

“Firmware is emerging as a primary target because it is where sensitive information like credentials and encryption keys are stored in memory. Many devices in the market today don’t offer visibility into that layer to ensure that attackers haven’t compromised a device prior to the boot process or at runtime below the kernel,” the company said.

The new Security Signals study identified the OS Kernel as “an emerging gap” in defense but it also found that investments in this area remain low.   The study found that only 36% of businesses invest in hardware-based memory encryption and less than half (46%) are investing in hardware-based kernel protections. 

“Security teams are too focused on outdated “protect and detect” models  of security and are not spending enough time on strategic work — only 39% of security teams’ time is  spent on prevention and they don’t see that changing in the next two years. The lack of proactive  defense investment in kernel attack vectors is an example of this outdated model,” according to the Microsoft study.

In addition to firmware attacks, Microsoft said the survey respondents also identified a lack of automation as one reason for the disconnect between threat activity and defender investments.

“The vast majority (82%) reported that they don’t have the  resources to allocate to more high-impact security work because they are spending too much time on lower-yield manual work like software and patching, hardware upgrades, and mitigating internal and  external vulnerabilities,” the company said.

According to the survey, about 20 percent of defenders admitted that their firmware data goes unmonitored today, mostly because of the lack of automation. “Seventy-one percent said their staff spends too much time on work that  should be automated, and that number creeps up to 82% among the teams who said they don’t have  enough time for strategic work. Overall, security teams are spending 41% of their time on firmware patches that could be automated,” the study found.

Microsoft is pushing its own secured-core PC concept, encouraging businesses to to invest in chip-level security and new automation and analytics capabilities.   

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Ryan Naraine is Editor-at-Large at SecurityWeek and host of the popular Security Conversations podcast series. Ryan is a veteran cybersecurity strategist who has built security engagement programs at major global brands, including Intel Corp., Bishop Fox and GReAT. He is a co-founder of Threatpost and the global SAS conference series. Ryan's past career as a security journalist included bylines at major technology publications including Ziff Davis eWEEK, CBS Interactive's ZDNet, PCMag and PC World. Ryan is a director of the Security Tinkerers non-profit, an advisor to early-stage entrepreneurs, and a regular speaker at security conferences around the world. Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanaraine.