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Found this rather detailed list of the NSA's latest spyware gadgets, with several different remote bios exploits that once installed are virtually undetectable and can survive reinstall of the OS:

http://leaksource.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/nsas-ant-division-catalog-of-exploits-for-nearly-every-major-software-hardware-firmware/

How does the OS defend against such bios intrusion? Can the NIC be part of such an attack, or do they need to exploit an application running at the OS level?.

I have been using Fortress Linux for awhile now (no affiliation), which is an OS and VPN that was developed to withstand all intrusion and surveillance from any source, even from a default install. For reference: https://www.fortresslinux.org

Assuming there are no vulnerable applications running, is there any other way into the bios over the internet?

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It is possible to at least initiate, if not install BIOS updates from a Windows application. Example being the Dell BIOS update utilities, which are provided in a .exe. Heuristics say that if you can install an update from a .exe, there shouldn't be much, if anything, stopping you from installing malicious BIOS. More so, if you can run an application, maybe you can cause the software to run by exploiting a software bug, such as a buffer overflow, to initiate the installation of your payload, which in this case would be the malicious BIOS installer.

Oh, so I guess to answer your question, if the attacker exploits a vulnerability (documented, or undocumented) then there is no defence.

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