Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” This law remains unassailable. However, recent claims have called into question a black box hidden deep inside every Intel chipset produced in the last decade.
Yesterday, on the Semiaccurate blog, [Charlie Demerjian] announced a remote exploit for the Intel Management Engine (ME). This exploit covers every Intel platform with Active Management Technology (AMT) shipped since 2008. This is a small percentage of all systems running Intel chipsets, and even then the remote exploit will only work if AMT is enabled. [Demerjian] also announced the existence of a local exploit.
Intel’s ME and AMT Explained
Beginning in 2005, Intel began including Active Management Technology in Ethernet controllers. This system is effectively a firewall and a tool used for provisioning laptops and desktops in a corporate environment. In 2008, a new coprocessor — the Management Engine — was added. This management engine is a processor connected to every peripheral in a system. The ME has complete access to all of a computer’s memory, network connections, and every peripheral connected to a computer. The ME runs when the computer is hibernating and can intercept TCP/IP traffic. Management Engine can be used to boot a computer over a network, install a new OS, and can disable a PC if it fails to check into a server at some predetermined interval. From a security standpoint, if you own the Management Engine, you own the computer and all data contained within.
The Management Engine and Active Management Technolgy has become a focus of security researchers. The researcher who finds an exploit allowing an attacker access to the ME will become the greatest researcher of the decade. When this exploit is discovered, a billion dollars in Intel stock will evaporate. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the Managment Engine is a closely guarded secret, it’s based on a strange architecture, and the on-chip ROM for the ME is a black box. Nothing short of corporate espionage or looking at the pattern of bits in the silicon will tell you anything. Intel’s Management Engine and Active Management Technolgy is secure through obscurity, yes, but so far it’s been secure for a decade while being a target for the best researchers on the planet.
In yesterday’s blog post, [Demerjian] reported the existence of two exploits. The first is a remotely exploitable security hole in the ME firmware. This exploit affects every Intel chipset made in the last ten years with Active Management Technology on board and enabled. It is important to note this remote exploit only affects a small percentage of total systems.
The second exploit reported by the Semiaccurate blog is a local exploit that does not require AMT to be active but does require Intel’s Local Manageability Service (LMS) to be running. This is simply another way that physical access equals root access. From the few details [Demerjian] shared, the local exploit affects a decade’s worth of Intel chipsets, but not remotely. This is simply another evil maid scenario.
Should You Worry?
The biggest network security threat today is a remote code execution exploit for Intel’s Management Engine. Every computer with an Intel chipset produced in the last decade would be vulnerable to this exploit, and RCE would give an attacker full control over every aspect of a system. If you want a metaphor, we are dinosaurs and an Intel ME exploit is an asteroid hurtling towards the Yucatán peninsula.
However, [Demerjian] gives no details of the exploit (rightly so), and Intel has released an advisory stating, “This vulnerability does not exist on Intel-based consumer PCs.” According to Intel, this exploit will only affect Intel systems that ship with AMT, and have AMT enabled. The local exploit only works if a system is running Intel’s LMS.
This exploit — no matter what it may be, as there is no proof of concept yet — only works if you’re using Intel’s Management Engine and Active Management Technology as intended. That is, if an IT guru can reinstall Windows on your laptop remotely, this exploit applies to you. If you’ve never heard of this capability, you’re probably fine.
Still, with an exploit of such magnitude, it’s wise to check for patches for your system. If your system does not have Active Management Technology, you’re fine. If your system does have AMT, but you’ve never turned it on, you’re fine. If you’re not running LMT, you’re fine. Intel’s ME can be neutralized if you’re using a sufficiently old chipset. This isn’t the end of the world, but it does give security experts panning Intel’s technology for the last few years the opportunity to say, ‘told ‘ya so’.