Several people asked me recently what I though about DeepSafe. So, below I present my opinion...

First, for any AV system (or Host IPS, or Personal Firewall, etc) to work effectively, there are three problems that must be addressed:
  1. How to protect the AV agent (code and data) from tampering (from the rest of the OS)?
  2. How can the AV agent get reliable access to (sensitive pieces of) the system memory and registers, and/or provide reliable memory protection for the (sensitive pieces of) the OS.
  3. What are those "sensitive pieces of” memory that should be monitored or protected?
From reading various PR materials, it seems like the #1 above is the primary differentiation factor for DeepSafe (DS). So, let's consider this problem in the context of e.g. a Windows OS. In order to protect its code and data, DS uses, as it is heavily advertised, Intel VT-x virtualization technology. Now, that sounds really secure -- after all what can be more secure than a hardware virtualization, right? ;)

But VT-x (including EPT) is only about CPU virtualization, which in our case translates to protecting the DS memory and registers from CPU-originating accesses. But, as every regular to this blog knows, there is also another method of accessing memory on any PC system, and this is through DMA transactions from devices. The OS (so also the kernel malware) is free to program one of the many devices in the system to issue DMA reads or writes to any physical memory it wants...

Now, in order to protect some portion of the system memory (DRAM, cache) against DMA accesses, we have the Intel VT-d technology... So, one would think that DS must be also using VT-d in order to protect itself.

Very well, let's assume then that the DeepSafe is not a total ripoff, and that it implements also VT-d protection for its agent, although I haven't found this mentioned in any of the public papers or press materials I found on the web...

This, however, would be a bit complex to do correctly, because the OS (so, also the kernel malware) still has a full control over the chipset (MCH), which is the entity... that controls the VT-d.

Now, in order to prevent the OS (or the kernel malware) from playing with the chipset for fun and profit, and e.g. disabling VT-d protection, DS would have to virtualize the chipset.

If you look at some consumer VMMs, such as VMware or Xen/Qemu, you would see that they all virtualize the chipset for their guests (of course), but that the chipset they provide this way is some kind of an ancient Pentium MCH. I don't think any of the consumers would be especially happy if they found out that after installing DS on their brand new 2012 laptop, Windows suddenly see a Pentium-era chipset... And this is not without a reason – chipsets, specifically MCHs, are one of the most complex devices, perhaps only beaten by GPUs in this category. There are virtually hundreds of configuration registers exposed by the chipset, some of them control the VT-d, some other control system memory maps and permissions, PCIe configuration, and many other things that I even have no idea about, and this all makes virtualizing the chipset a very challenging task.

So, it's either that McAfee and Intel found some interesting way of how to securely virtualize the chipset while preserving all of its (very rich) functionality, or that they... don't bother with VT-d protection and chipset virtualization at all, assuming that even without VT-d, DeepSafe is good enough and “rises the bar” anyway (sarcasm intended).

(Can somebody from McAfee or Intel confirm in the comments below what does DP really do?)

Anyway, let's assume they dohave VT-d protection and they do virtualize the chipset somehow...

Now, we're moving on to the #2 point from the list of tasks above -- about the reliable
memory access or reliable protection.

So, let say that the DS agent decided that some part of the system memory, e.g. the IDT table, is sensitiveand should be monitored/protected. So it sets up EPT traps to trigger an VT-x/EPT intercept on any access to that memory (or IDT base register), in order to find kernel malware that tried to modify IDT. That sounds really nice, but what if the malware uses DMA to modify IDT? DS would not be able to catch such access! (So far we considered the, hypothetical, use of VT-d only to protect the DS agent code).

One might think that DS is programming VT-d to sandbox each and every device in the system (so including GPU, USB controllers, NICs, SATA, etc) so they never be allowed to touch any of those sensitive parts of the system, such as IDT. Let's assume they do it this way...

And here we've arrived to the last point from the list at the beginning: which of the system memory constitutes those "sensitive pieces" that should be protected/monitored? IDT? Sure. What about all the code sections of the all the kernel modules? Yes. Are we fine now? Well, no, because the malware can hook some pointers other than the well known IDT. Some public NDIS data structure? Ok, we can add those to the protected areas. But, what about some undocumented NDIS structures? And this is just NDIS subsystem, one of the many subsystems in the Windows kernel... When we think about it, it should be intuitively obvious that in a general purpose Operating System like Windows, it is not possible (at least for 3rd party) to make a satisfactory list of all the sensitive pieces of memory that should be monitored/protected, in order to detect all the system compromises.

Greg Hoglund, Jamie Butler, Alex Tereshkin, and myself, have been researching this area actively in the early years of this millennium. In addition to the Alex's paper linked above, you might also check out one of my last slides from this period.

I don't think anything has changed since that time. It was also the reason why I gave up on writing Windows compromise detectors, or forensic tools, and moved on to researching other ways to secure OSes, which finally gave birth to Qubes OS, many years later.

So, back to DS -- in order to provide a somehow satisfactory protection level for your general purpose OS, such as Windows, it would need to:
  1. Use VT-d to protect its own memory,
  1. Virtualize the chipset, at least some (sensitive) parts of it,
  1. Program VT-d permissions for each device to exclude all the sensitive areas in the system that should be protected, and also protect one device from DMAing into/from another device memory (e.g. NIC stealing GPU framebuffer, or inserting instructions to the GPU instruction buffer, or keystrokes to USB controller buffer). Ideally, this could be done by programming VT-d to grant each device only access to its own DMA buffer, but as far as I know, this would be very hard to implement, if not impossible for a 3rd party, on a Windows OS (in contrast to Linux, which mostly support this model). Please correct me, if the recent Windows version allows for such use of VT-d.
  1. Finally, and the most hard thing to solve, how to define all the "sensitive pieces of memory" in the system that should be protected and/or monitored? Although this is a somehow more generic problem, not specific to DS, but applying to any A/V, HIPS, or forensic tool.
So, is DeepSafe another piece of crap not worth any special attention, or has McAfee and Intel came up with some novel methods, e.g. for chipset virtualization, and other problems? Unless I see some technical info to backup the latter, I would have to assume, unfortunately, the former. But I would like to be mistaken – after all DeepSafe seems to be just a new incarnation of my Bluepill ;)