Intel responds to reports claiming design flaw in chipsets; says it is working with tech companies to resolve the issue

Intel processors have a major design flaw affecting even 10 year old processors, and leaving a large numbers of machines at risk

  • Updated: January 4, 2018 10:59 AM IST
Intel Processor

Intel’s processors have been found to have a security flaw that has led to a redesign of Linux and Windows kernels. A hardware bug in Intel CPUs could allow attackers exploit the security weaknesses and gain access to security keys, passwords and even files cached from a disk.

For the past two months, programmers have been busy patching the Linux kernel’s virtual memory system in order to ensure protection against the hardware bug. Software updates are required for both Windows and Linux systems, reports The Register which could affect the performance of a machine.

The security bug could be present on Intel processors manufactured over the past 10 years, which means a large numbers of machines need to be patched. The information regarding the specific bug has been kept confidential between software and hardware vendors. Report suggests the patches for the Linux kernel include comments that have been edited to prevent attackers from discovering the vulnerability in Intel processors.

The chipmaker has responded after reports about design flaw emerged. The company, in a press release said, “Intel and other technology companies have been made aware of new security research describing software analysis methods that, when used for malicious purposes, have the potential to improperly gather sensitive data from computing devices that are operating as designed. Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data.”

The bug discovered in Intel’s chip architecture is related to the way that regular apps and programs discover the contents of protected kernel memory areas. Kernel is the key part of an operating system that has complete control over the system and acts as a connecting dot between processor, application, memory and other hardware devices. The flaw could let attackers bypass kernel access protections and allow regular apps to read the contents of kernel memory. In order to mitigate, Linux programmers are separating the kernel’s memory from user processes as evident from the current state of kernel page-table isolation.

The software fix to a hardware bug is resulting in some programmers reporting performance hit after systems are patched. The Register adds that the slowdown in performance could be anywhere between 5-30 percent depending upon the Intel processor powering the system. The Linux patch for the issue has been rolling out over the past month, but a Windows 10 patch is not available yet.

Intel added saying, “Based on the analysis to date, many types of computing devices — with many different vendors’ processors and operating systems — are susceptible to these exploits. Intel is committed to product and customer security and is working closely with many other technology companies, including AMD, ARM Holdings and several operating system vendors, to develop an industry-wide approach to resolve this issue promptly and constructively.”

Microsoft has already started separating the NT kernel memory with Windows 10 beta builds suggesting the patch will become available as part of Patch Tuesday. The bug is seen to impact common virtualization environments including Amazon EC2 and Google Compute Engine.

AMD has confirmed that its own processors are not affected by this security bug. “AMD processors are not subject to the types of attacks that the kernel page table isolation feature protects against,” Tom Lendacky, an AMD engineer explained in a blog post. Intel has not spoken publicly about the issue, and security researchers are believed to be working under an embargo to patch the affected system.

Intel has also started offering software and firmware updates to mitigate these exploits. Talking about performance, Intel said that average computer user won’t feel much of an impact, and it “will be mitigated over time.”

Update – The story has been updated with Intel’s response.

  • Published Date: January 3, 2018 10:13 PM IST
  • Updated Date: January 4, 2018 10:59 AM IST