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posted by martyb on Monday June 20 2016, @10:12AM   Printer-friendly
from the One-ring-to-bring-them-all-and-in-the-darkness-bind-them... dept.

From Damien Zammit, we have this fun little tidbit:

Recent Intel x86 processors implement a secret, powerful control mechanism that runs on a separate chip that no one is allowed to audit or examine. When these are eventually compromised, they'll expose all affected systems to nearly un-killable, undetectable rootkit attacks. I've made it my mission to open up this system and make free, open replacements, before it's too late.

The Intel Management Engine (ME) is a subsystem composed of a special 32-bit ARC microprocessor that's physically located inside the chipset. It is an extra general purpose computer running a firmware blob that is sold as a management system for big enterprise deployments.

When you purchase your system with a mainboard and Intel x86 CPU, you are also buying this hardware add-on: an extra computer that controls the main CPU. This extra computer runs completely out-of-band with the main x86 CPU meaning that it can function totally independently even when your main CPU is in a low power state like S3 (suspend).

On some chipsets, the firmware running on the ME implements a system called Intel's Active Management Technology (AMT). This is entirely transparent to the operating system, which means that this extra computer can do its job regardless of which operating system is installed and running on the main CPU.

The purpose of AMT is to provide a way to manage computers remotely (this is similar to an older system called "Intelligent Platform Management Interface" or IPMI, but more powerful). To achieve this task, the ME is capable of accessing any memory region without the main x86 CPU knowing about the existence of these accesses. It also runs a TCP/IP server on your network interface and packets entering and leaving your machine on certain ports bypass any firewall running on your system.

Yeah, and I'm sure they pinky-swear never to allow the NSA access to any computer via it. I'll be using AMD from now on, slower or not, thanks.

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  • (Score: 1) by pTamok on Monday June 20 2016, @10:54AM

    by pTamok (3042) on Monday June 20 2016, @10:54AM (#362817)

    When it is on the CPU die, there are fewer opportunities for hacking your way around it. It is not so easy to put a logic probe on the traces.

    What is at issue here is that the person who buys the PC is not given the option of only allowing firmware they THEY approve of to run. You are in fact prevented from loading your own firmware.

    As many point out, it is easily possible for a hardware switch to be built in that only allows firmware to be written if you have physical access to the PC. Both Intel and AMD have explicitly chosen NOT to implement this. By allowing the firmware to be written at any time, but requiring authentication against a key controlled only by them, it locks the person who bought the PC out from being able to run other firmware. If Intel or AMD have access to that PC via the Internet (or other means), they can write whatever firmware they like.

    This is built in to the die.

    Some may see some parallels with the printer driver issue that started RMS on his journey...

  • (Score: 2) by theluggage on Monday June 20 2016, @03:14PM

    by theluggage (1797) on Monday June 20 2016, @03:14PM (#362918)

    What is at issue here is that the person who buys the PC is not given the option of only allowing firmware they THEY approve of to run.

    If Intel wanted to include a secret feature that let the NSA in to your computer, they'd put a secret feature in. Yeah the "lights out management" system (an idea which has been around for years) might be a good place to hide it, but there's 101 other proprietary firmware blobs to choose from.

    • (Score: 2) by sjames on Tuesday June 21 2016, @09:10AM

      by sjames (2882) on Tuesday June 21 2016, @09:10AM (#363214) Journal

      Most of those blobs are more restricted now than they used to be. At one time, a processor on a PCI card had the run of the system. Now, it is more or less firewalled to access only the memory the OS grants them access to.

  • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 20 2016, @06:42PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 20 2016, @06:42PM (#362999)

    Yeah, but can't I just jab a screwdriver in there and pop the chip out? I'm going to try it on my work computer - let you know how it goes tomorrow.