27 September 2023

The chips are down: Intel uncovers security risks in its chips

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Martin Giles* says four new vulnerabilities uncovered by cybersecurity researchers affect almost every chip Intel has made since 2011.

Photo: Slejven Djurakovic

Intel and a group of security researchers from universities and security firms around the world have revealed four security flaws similar to the Spectre and Meltdown holes uncovered last year that affected billions of chips.

There’s no evidence (yet) that the latest set of vulnerabilities have been exploited by hackers, but they could be used to pilfer all kinds of sensitive data.

The not-so-fab four

The flaws make it possible to target computers’ central processing units, or CPUs.

These are the “brains” of the machines, orchestrating their other functions.

To speed things up, CPUs use a process known as “speculative execution,” which means they try to guess ahead of time the processes they will be asked to run and the data needed.

Like Spectre and Meltdown, the new security holes can be used to compromise CPUs engaged in this guesswork.

One called ZombieLoad could let intruders steal information from applications and cloud-based systems.

Another called Rogue In-Flight Data Load could manipulate chips’ memories in ways that expose sensitive information.

The two other flaws, dubbed Fallout and Store-to-leak-forwarding, could be exploited to steal data or compromise operating systems.

What you should do

The best fix would be to rip out all the chips and replace them — but that would be prohibitively expensive.

The next best fix is to apply software patches developed by Intel and others.

Amazon, Apple, and Google have already released patches — so make sure you are updated to the latest version.

Apple says iPhones, iPads, and Watches are not affected.

Some security researchers also recommend disabling hyper-threading, an Intel feature that lets certain core tasks run in parallel on its chips to boost processing speed.

In a statement, Intel pointed out that its latest generations of chips are not affected

The disclosure debate

This new “chipocalypse” will rekindle the debate over how and when hardware vulnerabilities should be disclosed to the public.

Intel has said it discovered the flaws a year ago, but it needed time to work out disclosure plans and develop patches.

However, that means many customers have only just discovered that their machines were more vulnerable to hacking than they thought.

* Martin Giles is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of MIT Technology Review. He tweets at @martingiles.

This article first appeared at www.technologyreview.com.

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