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Intel recommends updating to protect processors against critical vulnerability

Researchers found a vulnerability in some Intel processors that allows attackers to access encrypted data and install malicious firmware. When abused, the vulnerability opens the door to break through various security measures on the chip.

Intel is already aware of the issue and advised affected users to download the latest firmware update in order to protect their systems.

intel core i9-11900K

The vulnerability affects older Intel processors, including Intel Pentium, Celeron, and Atom, which are based on the Gemini Lake, Gemini Lake Refresh, and Apollo Lake platforms. Interestingly, it can only be exploited by hackers in physical possession of the chip — online-only access will not compromise the processor.

Due to this security flaw, capable hackers who have the affected chip on hand are allowed to run it in debugging and testing modules that are normally only used by firmware developers. This lets them completely bypass security measures, including Bitlocker and TPM protection, anti-copying blocks, and more.

Accessing developer mode allows the attacker to extract the data encryption key, which on Intel CPUs is normally stored in the TPM enclave. TPM stands for Trusted Platform Module and is a microcontroller used for storing keys, digital certificates, passwords, and other sensitive data. If TPM is being used to protect a Bitlocker key, using the processor in developer mode also lets the attacker breach that final wall of protection.

On top of gaining access to sensitive data, the hacker would also be able to breach the Intel Management Engine and run unauthorized firmware on the chip. The end result could be permanent access to the chip that could potentially go undetected for an undetermined amount of time.

A description of key derivation.
Image credit: Ars Technica Image used with permission by copyright holder

The entire process of gaining access to the processor and overcoming security measures takes just 10 minutes, which means that those with brief access to the chip are able to potentially cause a massive security breach in a very short time.

This vulnerability was first discovered and reported by researchers Mark Ermolov, Dmitry Sklyarov, and Maxim Goryachy. They reported it to Intel and talked about the vulnerability, revealing further details of the possible breach. Ars Technica then reported the situation in more detail.

“We found out that you can extract this key from security fuses. Basically, this key is encrypted, but we also found a way to decrypt it, and it allows us to execute arbitrary code inside the management engine, extract Bitlocker/TPM keys, etc.,” Goryachy told Ars Technica.

This isn’t the first time Intel products have been targeted by various hacking attempts. In 2020, the same research team found a possible vulnerability that allowed attackers to decrypt several Intel updates. There have also been flaws in the Intel Boot Guard and Software Guard Extensions.

Although Intel admits that the latest discovered vulnerability is dangerous and gave it a high severity rating, there have been no reports of users suffering from this security breach. Intel advises the owners of affected processors to simply install the latest firmware update in order to reinforce the security of their CPUs.

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Monica J. White
Monica is a UK-based freelance writer and self-proclaimed geek. A firm believer in the "PC building is just like expensive…
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