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Intel Management Engine Has a Big Problem

Intel's Management Engine has a vulnerability that could allow an attacker to own your entire system. And they aren't planning to fix it.

Larry Loeb

November 29, 2017

3 Min Read

Intel has finally 'fessed up that their Management Engine (ME) —- which is the computer that runs on top of your computer that uses Intel chips -— has a few vulnerabilities in it.

Nothing to be worried about, but they did find that attackers could gain unauthorized access to systems using the ME as well as the third-party secrets protected by the Management Engine (ME), Server Platform Service (SPS), or the Trusted Execution Engine (TXE). After that they could just light your code on fire using torches held aloft by sticks, just like in the movies.

Intel says that attackers can impersonate the ME/SPS/TXE, "thereby impacting local security feature attestation validity." Like running it into the ground and smashing it kind of impacting.

Not only that, attackers could "load and execute arbitrary code outside the visibility of the user and operating system and cause a system crash or system instability."

Wee doggies, that's some nasty impacting going on there. And it gets worse.

There's something called Active Management Technology (AMT) that runs on top of ME, which is already on top of what you think is your computer system. Some of the vulnerabilities target AMT. They can enable remote administration, remote display viewing/scraping, injecting human interface device (HID) events, and disabling the secure boot configuration. Some of what it can attack may not require the main operating system to be running or even the main system to be powered on. It just has to be plugged in to be exposed.

While there are no known, active or malicious exploits for these vulnerabilities at this time don't be lulled into a sense of ease. Yes, local system access is required to exploit most of them. But Intel admits that if the "management" Ethernet port is available, attackers may be able to combine older vulnerabilities along with the new weaknesses to access the ME/AMT components without having to be directly on the attacked systems.

There's a detection tool that can be run to see if the machine is at risk. (Apple's computers aren't at risk, btw.)

Intel's strategy for mitigation here is to let the manufacturers come up with patches for their own machines. And you, of course, have to find a way to manage updating and patching every doggone machine on your network. All of them.

The only other option is to buy all new machines. Which you hope have been factory fixed before you buy them.

This whole affair is majorly disruptive. Both time and money that could have been gainfully used elsewhere will end up being funneled to deal with it. Worse, there is a very low awareness of the scope of the problem among IT people.

But you know about it now. Start running.

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— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.

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About the Author(s)

Larry Loeb

Blogger, Informationweek

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange. His first Mac had 128 KB of memory, which was a big step up from his first 1130, which had 4 KB, as did his first 1401. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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