Disable Intel’s Backdoor On Modern Hardware

While the Intel Management Engine (and, to a similar extent, the AMD Platform Security Processor) continues to plague modern computer processors with security risks, some small progress continues to be made for users who value security of the hardware and software they own. The latest venture in disabling the ME is an ASRock motherboard for 8th and 9th generation Intel chips. (There is also a link to a related Reddit post about this project).

First, a brief refresher: The ME is completely removable on some computers built before 2008, and can be partially disabled or deactivated on some computers built before around 2013. This doesn’t allow for many options for those of us who want modern hardware, but thanks to a small “exploit” of sorts, some modern chipsets are capable of turning the ME off. This is due to the US Government’s requirement that the ME be disabled for computers in sensitive applications, so Intel allows a certain undocumented bit, called the HAP bit, to be set which disables the ME. Researchers have been able to locate and manipulate this bit on this specific motherboard to disable the ME.

While this doesn’t completely remove the firmware, it does halt all execution of code in a way that is acceptable for a large governmental organization, so if you require both security and modern hardware this is one of the few ways to achieve that goal. There are other very limited options as well, but if you want to completely remove the ME even on old hardware the process itself is not as straightforward as you might imagine.

Header image: Fritzchens Fritz from Berlin / CC0

Factory Laptop With IME Disabled

Unfortunately not all consumers place high value on the security of their computers, but one group that tends to focus on security are businesses with a dedicated IT group. When buying computers for users, these groups tend to have higher demands, like making sure the Intel Management Engine (IME) has been disabled. To that end, Reddit user [netsec_burn] has outlined a pretty simple method to where “normal people” can purchase one of these IME-disabled devices for themselves.

For those unfamiliar with the IME, it is a coprocessor on all Intel devices since around 2007 that allows access to the memory, hard drive, and network stack even when the computer is powered down. Intel claims it’s a feature, not a bug, but it’s also a source of secret, unaudited code that’s understandably a desirable target for any malicious user trying to gain access to a computer. The method that [netsec_burn] outlined for getting a computer with the IME disabled from the factory is as simple as buying a specific Dell laptop, intended for enterprise users, and selecting the option to disable the IME.

Of course Dell warns you that you may lose some system functionality if you purchase a computer with the IME disabled, but it seems that this won’t really effect users who aren’t involved in system administration. Also note that this doesn’t remove the management engine from the computer. For that, you’ll need one of only a handful of computers made before Intel made complete removal of the IME impossible. In the meantime, it’s good to see that at least one company has a computer available that allows for it to be disabled from the factory.

What You Need To Know About The Intel Management Engine

Over the last decade, Intel has been including a tiny little microcontroller inside their CPUs. This microcontroller is connected to everything, and can shuttle data between your hard drive and your network adapter. It’s always on, even when the rest of your computer is off, and with the right software, you can wake it up over a network connection. Parts of this spy chip were included in the silicon at the behest of the NSA. In short, if you were designing a piece of hardware to spy on everyone using an Intel-branded computer, you would come up with something like the Intel Managment Engine.

Last week, researchers¬†[Mark Ermolov] and [Maxim Goryachy] presented an exploit at BlackHat Europe¬†allowing for arbitrary code execution on the Intel ME platform. This is only a local attack, one that requires physical access to a machine. The cat is out of the bag, though, and this is the exploit we’ve all been expecting. This is the exploit that forces Intel and OEMs to consider the security implications of the Intel Management Engine. What does this actually mean?

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Another Defeat Of The Intel Management Engine

If you have a computer with an Intel processor that’s newer than about 2007, odds are high that it also contains a mystery software package known as the Intel Management Engine (ME). The ME has complete access to the computer below the operating system and can access a network, the computer’s memory, and many other parts of the computer even when the computer is powered down. If you’re thinking that this seems like an incredible security vulnerability then you’re not alone, and a team at Black Hat Europe 2017 has demonstrated yet another flaw in this black box (PDF), allowing arbitrary code execution and bypassing many of the known ME protections.

[Mark Ermolov] and [Maxim Goryachy] are the two-man team that discovered this exploit, only the second of its kind in the 12 years that the ME has been deployed. Luckily, this exploit can’t be taken advantage of (yet) unless an attacker has physical access to the device. Intel’s firmware upgrades also do not solve the problem because the patches still allow for use of older versions of the ME. [Mark] and [Maxim] speculate in their presentation that this might be fixed on the next version of the ME, but also note that these security vulnerabilities would disappear if Intel would stop shipping processors with the ME.

We won’t hold our breath on Intel doing the right thing by eliminating the ME, though. It’s only a matter of time before someone discovers a zero-day (if they haven’t already, there’s no way to know) which could cripple pretty much every computer built within the last ten years. If you’re OK with using legacy hardware, though, it is possible to eliminate the management engine and have a computer that doesn’t have crippling security vulnerabilities built into it. This post was even written from one. Good luck doing anything more resource-intensive with it, though.

Harrowing Story Of Installing Libreboot On ThinkPad

As an Apple user, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned over the past few years. Maybe it’s the spirit of Steve Jobs slowly vanishing from the company, or that Apple seems to care more about keeping up with expensive trends lately rather than setting them, or the nagging notion Apple doesn’t have my best interests as a user in mind.

Whatever it is, I was passively on the hunt for a new laptop with the pipe dream that one day I could junk my Apple for something even better. One that could run a *nix operating system of some sort, be made with quality hardware, and not concern me over privacy issues. I didn’t think that those qualities existed in a laptop at all, and that my 2012 MacBook Pro was the “lesser of evils” that I might as well keep using. But then, we published a ThinkPad think piece that had two words in it that led me on a weeks-long journey to the brand-new, eight-year-old laptop I’m currently working from. Those two words: “install libreboot”.

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