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Is there a hidden threat embedded in the Management Engine of your Intel chip?

This blog post is part of our Essential Guide: Neutralizing threats and creating a secure Java software stack

A couple of years ago, Intel invited me to a press luncheon to talk about how great their new chips were. They had new chips that were faster and used less power, and they were selling like hot cakes. The food was good and the new machines were smaller and ran a few minutes longer on batteries than last year’s models. Almost in passing I heard one of their product managers describing a secret operating system buried on enterprise computers, called the Management Engine (ME). They called it a feature, and all I could see was a hidden threat.

They said it only ran on “enterprise computers,” and I remember sleeping a little better at night imagining that this little gremlin did not run inside my consumer laptop at the time. I just found out they have a new test for this hidden threat that can determine if your computer is infested with this incurable disease. Yep, I have it. You probably have it too, along with most of the cloud servers keeping trillions of dollars of enterprise apps secure.

They have also released a so called cure for the symptoms, which is thus far only available from Lenovo. But it is not really a cure in the way an antibiotic eradicates an infection. Its more like those $50,000/year cocktails that manages AIDs, but leaves its hosts at risk of communicating it to others. The fundamental problem is that Intel has thus far not shared much about how this hidden threat works, or whether it can in fact be eradicated. They have just patched some of the vulnerabilities, which thus far are probably not a great danger to cloud apps since someone must physically insert a USB drive to compromise them.

All systems are vulnerable

The fundamental problem in other words is not the news that someone found a vulnerability and patched it. The problem is that Intel has relied on a very flawed theory that something running on virtually every enterprise and cloud server out there is protected because no one outside of Intel knows how it works. This was the same theory that the utility industry relied upon until the US and Israel figured out how Stuxnet could be used to take out the Iranian nuclear program and perhaps an Iranian power plant. But once this attack was shared, all the power infrastructure in the world became vulnerable to Stuxnet’s progeny.

I am sure Intel’s greatest minds did a great job of identifying and mitigating every vulnerability they could dream up at the time. So did the folks that developed SSL, and none of the craftiest minds in the security industry recognized that hidden threat until after the code had been in the public domain for two years.

One of the key developments over the last couple of years has been a move towards DevSecOps, which assumes that all code has vulnerabilities. It’s just that no one has figured out how to exploit them at the time of deployment. Therefore, a mechanism must be in place to quickly and automatically find and update these systems smoothly when a new patch is required. DevSecOps breaks down when it relies on 3rd parties like Lenovo, Dell, and HP to tune the update to their particular configurations.

Its not clear how bad this whole episode will end up being for Intel. Thus far, they have done a pretty good PR job of suggesting that these attacks requiring physical access are not a big deal. This whole thing might blow over by the time they release a new series of chips that leave the little demon out.

The keys to the hidden threat

But then again, the final impact of Intel’s foray into security by obscurity will have to get past the test of the NSA and Joe. The NSA because it seems credible that Intel decided it was important to share such important details to protect American cyber security. We all know that the NSA has the best resources and commitment to protecting these secrets from foreign states, angry contractors, and Wikileaks, so they obviously will never let the secret get out.

No, the real threat is probably someone like Joe. ME runs in a kind of always on mode that allows it to communicate on a network even when the power is off, as long as the computer is plugged in. It is protected by an encryption key. I would like to imagine that the only key to all the Intel computers in the world is locked inside a secret vault with laser beams protecting it from mission impossible style attacks.

It would not be surprising if the reality was much more mundane. Its probably on a little security token that Joe took home one day to debug a few components of the ME server. Joe is probably well meaning, but made a copy of this key one day when management was pushing him to meet an unrealistic software delivery target. Joe’s a good guy and would never do anything deliberately to hurt the company, much less all Intel users around the world.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, Joe has been trading Bitcoins lately. No one will come looking for the key to all the Intel computers when they penetrate his workstation trying to steal his Bitcoin wallet. But some nefarious hacker may see this discovery as a divine omen of his destiny to create a business around penetrating the most sensitive cloud servers in the world by exploiting this hidden threat. And maybe, just maybe, if Joe happens to be reading this, he’ll have the foresight to delete the keys before its too late.

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Why would anyone even want this "management engine" on their hardware? It's only purpose is a backdoor, since you can't use it to manage your system.
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