CountZero asked this interesting question: Why is CTRL+ALT+DEL required at login on Windows systems?
His perspective was that it adds an extra step before login, so is bad from a usability perspective, so there must be a reason.
This got a lot of attention, but looking at the top answers:
Adnan‘s answer briefly describes the Secure Attention Key – the Windows kernel will only notify the Winlogon process about this key combination, which prevents it being hijacked by an application, malware or some other process. In this way, when you press Ctrl+Alt+Del, you can be sure that you’re typing your password in the real login form and not some other fake process trying to steal your password. For example, an application which looks exactly like the windows login. An equivalent of this in Linux is Ctrl+Alt+Pause
Polynomial‘s comment on the answer further expands on the history of this notification:
As a side note: when you say it’s “wired”, what that actually means is that Ctrl+Alt+Del is a mapped to a hardware defined interrupt (set in the APIC, a physical chip on your motherboard). The interrupt was, historically, triggered by the BIOS’ keyboard handler routine, but these days it’s less clear cut. The interrupt is mapped to an ISR which is executed at ring0, which triggers the OS’s internal handler for the event. When no ISR for the interrupt is set, it (usually) causes an ACPI power-cycle event, also known as a hard reboot.
ThomasPornin describes an attack which would work if the Secure Attention Key didn’t exist:
You could make an application which goes full-screen, grabs the keyboard, and displays something which looks like the normal login screen, down to the last pixel. You then log on the machine, launch the application, and go away until some unsuspecting victim finds the machine, tries to log on, and gives his username and password to your application. Your application then just has to simulate a blue screen of death, or maybe to actually log the user on, to complete the illusion.
The Windows (NT) kernel is designed to reserve the notification of this key combination to a single process: Winlogon. So, as long as the Windows installation itself is working as it should – no third party application can respond to this key combination (if it could, it could present a fake logon window and keylog your password 😉
So there you have it – as long as your OS hasn’t been hacked, CTRL+ALT+DEL protects you.
Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at security.stackexchange.com.