Jan 3, 2018 - Technology

Massive chip flaw not limited to Intel


Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

A soon-to-be-disclosed and massive chip flaw affects more than just Intel chips, according to both sources familiar with the issue and Intel itself.

The issue, which has to do with how modern chips speculatively execute code, leaves a wide range of processors vulnerable to attack. For now the solution appears to be rewriting devices' operating systems, meaning lots of work for Microsoft, Google, Apple and others. (Update: More info on the vulnerabilities can be found here.)

Why it matters: An already big problem is actually even bigger than previously thought. Already believed to impact nearly all computers, servers and cloud operating systems, it could impact cell phones and other devices as well. However, Intel says that contrary to early reports, the performance impact shouldn't be major for most users.

What's next: At 2 p.m. Intel is holding a conference call and the researchers involved are expected to offer more details on the three specific vulnerabilities. The various tech giants are also expected to detail their plans for software updates.

In its statement, Intel also said

  • It had planned to discuss the flaw next week, when more patches were available.
  • Exploits could get access to sensitive data, but don't believe they should be able to "corrupt modify or delete data"
  • It is working with others in the industry, including rivals AMD and ARM on how to address the issue

ARM, whose chip designs are widely used in cell phones and other devices, confirmed some of its chip architectures are affected, including some of its Cortex-A processors. "This method requires malware running locally and could result in data being accessed from privileged memory," ARM said in a statement to Axios. "Our Cortex-M processors, which are pervasive in low-power, connected IoT devices, are not impacted."

AMD says its chips are vulnerable, but it believes to a lesser degree than those from Intel.

"To be clear, the security research team identified three variants targeting speculative execution," AMD said in a statement to Axios. "The threat and the response to the three variants differ by microprocessor company, and AMD is not susceptible to all three variants. Due to differences in AMD's architecture, we believe there is a near zero risk to AMD processors at this time. We expect the security research to be published later today and will provide further updates at that time."

Microsoft, Google and Apple declined comment. An Amazon representative was not immediately available to comment.

Here is Intel's full statement:

Intel and other technology companies have been made aware of new security research describing software analysis methods that, when used for malicious purposes, have the potential to improperly gather sensitive data from computing devices that are operating as designed. Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data.
Recent reports that these exploits are caused by a "bug" or a "flaw" and are unique to Intel products are incorrect. Based on the analysis to date, many types of computing devices — with many different vendors' processors and operating systems — are susceptible to these exploits.
Intel is committed to product and customer security and is working closely with many other technology companies, including AMD, ARM Holdings and several operating system vendors, to develop an industry-wide approach to resolve this issue promptly and constructively. Intel has begun providing software and firmware updates to mitigate these exploits. Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time.
Intel is committed to the industry best practice of responsible disclosure of potential security issues, which is why Intel and other vendors had planned to disclose this issue next week when more software and firmware updates will be available. However, Intel is making this statement today because of the current inaccurate media reports.
Check with your operating system vendor or system manufacturer and apply any available updates as soon as they are available. Following good security practices that protect against malware in general will also help protect against possible exploitation until updates can be applied.
Intel believes its products are the most secure in the world and that, with the support of its partners, the current solutions to this issue provide the best possible security for its customers.
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