Despite Patches, Researchers Warn That Intel Chips Are Still Vulnerable

The New York Times has reported that despite Intel issuing patches for security flaws (that were discovered last year) in its processors, security researchers are alleging that the processors still have some serious vulnerabilities.

What Flaws?

In January 2018, it was discovered that nearly all computer processors made in the last 20 years contained two flaws known as ‘Meltdown’ and ‘Spectre’. The 2 flaws could make it easier for something like a malicious program to steal data that is stored in the memory of other running programs.

Meltdown, discovered by researchers from Google's Project Zero, the Technical University of Graz in Austria and the security firm Cerberus Security in Germany, affects all Intel, ARM, and other processors that use ‘speculative execution’ to improve their performance; i.e. when a computer performs a task that may not be actually needed in order to reduce overall delays for the task (a kind of optimisation).

Meltdown could, for example, leave passwords and personal data vulnerable to attacks, and could be applied to different cloud service providers as well as individual devices. It is believed that Meltdown could affect every processor since 1995, except for Intel Itanium and Intel Atom before 2013.

Spectre, which affects Intel, AMD and ARM (mainly Cortex-A) processors, allows applications to be fooled into leaking confidential information. Spectre affects almost all systems including desktops, laptops, cloud servers, and smartphones.

8 More Flaws Discovered

Then, in May 2018, 8 more security flaws in chips/processors were discovered by several different security teams. The new ‘family’ of bugs were dubbed Spectre Next Generation (Spectre NB).

September 2018

According to reports by The New York Times, the Dutch researchers (at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) also reported a range of security issues about Intel’s processors to the company in September 2018 and provided Intel with a proof-of-concept code to help them to develop fixes

14 Months On – Only Some Fixes

It has been reported that after waiting 8 months to allow Intel enough time to develop fixes (of which only some have issued), and more than a year after providing Intel with a proof-of-concept code, Intel has only just announced the issue of more security updates earlier this week.

More Vulnerabilities

Unfortunately for Intel, just as they announced the issue of new security fixes last week, the researchers notified them of more unfixed flaws, and it has been alleged that Intel asked the researchers to alter the report about the flaws and to effectively stay quiet about them.

MDS

The latest unpatched flaw in Intel processors that the researchers from Amsterdam, Belgium, Germany and Austria have gone public about is a hacking technique, which is a variant of ZombieLoad or RIDL (Rogue In-Flight Data Load). The technique which exploits a flaw in Intel processors is known as microarchitectural data sampling (MDS) and it can enable hackers to carry out several different exploits e.g. running code on the victim’s computer that forces the processor to leak data.

Criticism

The news that there may still be flaws in Intel’s processors after the company appears to have had a long time to fix them has prompted some criticism of Intel online, some of it reported in the New York Times e.g. allegations that there has been a lack of transparency about the issue from Intel, that the company has tried to downplay the problems, and allegations that Intel may not decide to do much to fix the problem until its reputation is at stake.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Bearing in mind that these flaws are likely to exist at the architectural level in the majority of processors, this story is bad news for businesses that have been legitimately trying to make themselves totally compliant with GDPR and as secure as possible from attack.

For the time being, in the short term, and unless processor companies try to completely re-design processors to eliminate the flaws, closing hardware flaws using software patches is the only realistic way to tackle the problem and this can be a big job for manufacturers, software companies, and other organisations that choose to take that step. It is good practice anyway for businesses to install all available patches and make sure that they are receiving updates for all systems, software and devices.

The hope is now that researchers can put enough pressure on processor manufacturers e.g. through bad publicity to make them speed up their efforts to tackle the known security flaws in their products.

Posted by Andrew Sewell,

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