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posted by janrinok on Wednesday December 06, @06:49PM   Printer-friendly
from the what-people-want dept.

Submitted via IRC for TheMightyBuzzard

Linux computer vendor System76 announced this week that it will roll out a firmware update to disable Intel Management Engine on laptops sold in the past few years. Purism will also disable Intel Management Engine on computers it sells moving forward. Those two computer companies are pretty small players in the multi-billion dollar PC industry. …

... Intel's Management Engine is a hardware and software system designed to provide some remote management features. But it's come under criticism from privacy advocates, security researchers, and the free and open source software community.

That's because Intel Management Engine is basically a mystery. It's software that runs independently of a computer's operating system, which means that even if you wipe the OS, the Management Engine is still there. And there's no good way to know what it's doing.

The risks aren't just theoretical – Intel recently acknowledged a security vulnerability affecting nearly every PC that shipped with a 6th, 7th, or 8th-gen Intel Core processor. While the company is working with PC makers to roll out updates to patch that vulnerability, it wouldn't even exist if Intel hadn't bundled a feature many users don't need and won't use with its latest chips.

System76 are making a similar move:

System76 is one a handful of companies that sells computers that run Linux software out of the box. But like most PCs that have shipped with Intel’s Core processors in the past few years, System76 laptops include Intel’s Management Engine firmware. Intel recently confirmed a major security vulnerability affecting those chips and it’s working with …

Source: https://liliputing.com/2017/12/dell-also-sells-laptops-intel-management-engine-disabled.html

Source: https://liliputing.com/2017/11/system76-will-disable-intel-management-engine-linux-laptops.html


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  • (Score: 2) by Justin Case on Wednesday December 06, @07:43PM (14 children)

    by Justin Case (4239) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday December 06, @07:43PM (#606328)

    Interesting. Please inform me. (I've been trying to get facts about IME for years, but mostly I hear hand-wavy stuff.)

    How is the firmware update applied? With special hardware and physical access?

    barring bugs

    I find your faith disturbing. :)

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  • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Wednesday December 06, @07:55PM (9 children)

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday December 06, @07:55PM (#606346) Journal

    Let me take what at least amounts to a semi-educated guess as to how it is disabled. They're flashing the BIOS. That is generally how all firmwares have been updated. You have to boot to something - Windows or DrDos or something - and initiate a flash sequence. It would be rather hard to disguise a flash. I'm sure it can be done, but at some point, a savvy user should realize that something unusual is happening. Until informed otherwise, I'll presume that few if any of us are going to click through a malware bios installation. But, the unwashed masses? Yeah, I can see that happening. (Yeah, I realize that new computers don't use the same kind of BIOS that I still use, but basically, same-o-same-o, right?)

    --
    #Hillarygropedme
    • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 06, @08:31PM (5 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 06, @08:31PM (#606372)

      Windows or DrDos or something

      Sigh. It was DR-DOS, not Dr DOS. DR: Digital Research. No medical degrees were involved.

      • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Wednesday December 06, @09:02PM (4 children)

        by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday December 06, @09:02PM (#606399) Journal

        Hey, I didn't STUDY the boot screens. I like DrDos - it looks cool. And, it's close enough that you knew what I meant.

        --
        #Hillarygropedme
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 06, @09:56PM (3 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 06, @09:56PM (#606430)

          Hey, I didn't STUDY the boot screens. I like DrDos

          I liked it, too, enough to buy it to use instead of Microsoft's then-inferior DOS. (Seriously. A fair number of MS-DOS "innovations" were direct feature-copying from DR-DOS.) I'm pretty sure the box, manual and diskette labels all clearly read "Digital Research". No boot-screen studying needed.

          Now you've got me wondering about the boot screens... DR-DOS 7.03 reads "Caldera DR-DOS", but that dates from after Novell and then Caldera owned it. I'll have to dig out my DR-DOS 5 and 6 disks to see what it read back when it was still owned by Digital Research.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, @01:18AM (2 children)

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, @01:18AM (#606513)

            I'll follow you down that rabbit hole. I've got a set of DR DOS 6.0 disks here (note: no hyphen) that are clearly labelled Digital Research. When you boot it up, the copyright notice shown is for DR DOS Release 6.0 and it's copyright Digital Research, Inc.

            • (Score: 2) by Runaway1956 on Thursday December 07, @02:32AM (1 child)

              by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Thursday December 07, @02:32AM (#606572) Journal

              Thank you. I didn't remember the hyphen noted by AC. I did misremember the Dr vs DR. Most DOS's ran their names together, such as TRSDOS and MSDOS, but it seemed to me that DR DOS had a space.

              Looking back, I can't remember how many DOS's there were, or how many of them were just licensed versions of DR DOS, or any other version.

              --
              #Hillarygropedme
              • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, @04:07AM

                by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 07, @04:07AM (#606632)

                You're not alone. I had a couple of friends at the time who would refer to it in speech as Doctor DOS. They were subject to numerous eye-rolls. I remember someone else referring to Microsoft's product as Ms. DOS ("Miz DOS") when Doctor DOS was mentioned.

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by sjames on Wednesday December 06, @10:06PM (2 children)

      by sjames (2882) on Wednesday December 06, @10:06PM (#606436) Journal

      Actually, re-flashing can easily be done silently in the background. It's just that vendors are much too lazy to update their flasher to anything newer than DOS.

      All that is actually necessary is the right pattern of reads and writes to the flash chip. In Windows, that requires kernel level access, so a hacked driver will be involved, but if you can get admin level access, you're in, and even after the system is "cleaned up", you're still in.

      • (Score: 2) by FatPhil on Thursday December 07, @03:16PM (1 child)

        by FatPhil (863) <reversethis-{if.fdsa} {ta} {tnelyos-cp}> on Thursday December 07, @03:16PM (#606812) Homepage
        The IME should be able to block the writes to the flash (it should act as a gatekeeper for all peripheral accesses, which is why it can happily talk on the ethernet without the processor knowing about it). Best of all, it will lie to the OS about such writes, making it think they've worked. If you're paranoid enough to read what you've written back, you'll realise nothing will have changed. At least, that's how the ARM equivalent works, Intel may have designed something less functional than ARM.
        --
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        • (Score: 2) by sjames on Thursday December 07, @07:20PM

          by sjames (2882) on Thursday December 07, @07:20PM (#606951) Journal

          So the "disabled" ME will prevent the firmware update?

          You would definitely notice if the writes are shot down since the flash chip's state engine won't respond appropriately when you read status.

  • (Score: 3, Informative) by The Mighty Buzzard on Wednesday December 06, @09:54PM (3 children)

    It can be done through a USB device (not through the OS, the USB device is essentially a JTAG programmer exploiting a bug in the existing firmware) or via physically clipping on to the chip to program it.

    Not faith, really. Disable the bits that are being disabled and it's stuck with some very narrow attack surfaces that it's genuinely possible there actually are no exploitable bugs in.

    --
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    • (Score: 2) by sjames on Thursday December 07, @01:23AM (2 children)

      by sjames (2882) on Thursday December 07, @01:23AM (#606519) Journal

      That is, as far as we know, needed to modify the firmware without having the signing key. If you have the signing key, you can just flash the BIOS to load the signed image on boot. Presumably, you can load the already signed official firmware with the known security flaws without having the signing key.

      For all we know, the signing key has already leaked. Considering how tight lipped Intel has been, I doubt they'd tell us about such a leak even if they knew.

      Meanwhile, didn't Intel claim the chipset couldn't boot with the ME disabled at one time?

      • (Score: 2) by The Mighty Buzzard on Thursday December 07, @01:59AM (1 child)

        They're not entirely disabling it or it wouldn't boot at all. They're likely combining both approaches used so far. Setting the CIA's "fuck you, Intel" bit and disabling or removing all the modules that would activate after the ones to allow the system to simply boot are run.

        --
        We've got #BieberFever [soylentnews.org]!
        • (Score: 2) by sjames on Thursday December 07, @03:08AM

          by sjames (2882) on Thursday December 07, @03:08AM (#606594) Journal

          That sounds like a somewhat fragile disabling. I wouldn't bet on it being that hard to turn back on.