Five or so years ago, Intel rolled out something horrible. Intel’s Management Engine (ME) is a completely separate computing environment running on Intel chipsets that has access to everything. The ME has network access, access to the host operating system, memory, and cryptography engine. The ME can be used remotely even if the PC is powered off. If that sounds scary, it gets even worse: no one knows what the ME is doing, and we can’t even look at the code. When — not ‘if’ — the ME is finally cracked open, every computer running on a recent Intel chip will have a huge security and privacy issue. Intel’s Management Engine is the single most dangerous piece of computer hardware ever created.
Researchers are continuing work on deciphering the inner workings of the ME, and we sincerely hope this Pandora’s Box remains closed. Until then, there’s now a new way to disable Intel’s Management Engine.
Previously, the first iteration of the ME found in GM45 chipsets could be removed. This technique was due to the fact the ME was located on a chip separate from the northbridge. For Core i3/i5/i7 processors, the ME is integrated to the northbridge. Until now, efforts to disable an ME this closely coupled to the CPU have failed. Completely removing the ME from these systems is impossible, however disabling parts of the ME are not. There is one caveat: if the ME’s boot ROM (stored in an SPI Flash) does not find a valid Intel signature, the PC will shut down after 30 minutes.
A few months ago, [Trammell Hudson] discovered erasing the first page of the ME region did not shut down his Thinkpad after 30 minutes. This led [Nicola Corna] and [Frederico Amedeo Izzo] to write a script that uses this exploit. Effectively, ME still thinks it’s running, but it doesn’t actually do anything.
With a BeagleBone, an SOIC-8 chip clip, and a few breakout wires, this script will run and effectively disable the ME. This exploit has only been confirmed to work on Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors. It should work on Skylake processors, and Haswell and Broadwell are untested.
Separating or disabling the ME from the CPU has been a major focus of the libreboot and coreboot communities. The inability to do so has, until now, made the future prospects of truly free computing platforms grim. The ME is in everything, and CPUs without an ME are getting old. Even though we don’t have the ability to remove the ME, disabling it is the next best thing.