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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Intel: More Than 90% of Our Vulnerabilities Found via Research

Internal research and external bug-bounty programs combined to discover the vast majority of reported security issues in the company's software.

For the second year in a row, the vast majority of vulnerabilities — 92% — found in Intel's products came from the company's security investments, specifically internal research efforts and external bug bounties, the company stated in a new report, published today. 

Of the 231 vulnerabilities reported in Intel products in 2020, 109 issues (47%) were found by Intel employees, while 105 (45%) were reported by external researchers participating in a bug-bounty program, according to the company's "2020 Product Security" report. While the company did not detail how much it invested in the different programs, Intel did say the company paid out an average of $800,000 a year for bug bounties.

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The company plans to continue its multiprong approach to security, says Jerry Bryant, director of security communication in the Intel Platform Assurance and Security (PAS) group.

"Security isn't a one-time investment thing," he says. "You have to think about it more broadly from good security development practices, baking that into the mindset across your company, investing in vulnerability management processes and the ongoing security research into your products, both prerelease and shipping." 

The report highlights the growing importance of bug-bounty programs for application and software developers. Not even five years ago, many companies continued to debate the efficacy of bug-bounty programs, but most have come to value their relationships with external researchers. 

Intel started its own bug-bounty program in 2018, when the company also launched its Product Assurance and Security group. The effort has paid off. While about the same number of vulnerabilities were disclosed in the past two years through internal programs and external bug bounties, 2020 had a third more vulnerabilities reported through the bug-bounty program — 105, versus 70 in 2019. 

External researchers typically focused on software drivers, as opposed to looking for the more complex firmware or hardware vulnerabilities that tend of have more impact for the processing, networking, and graphics platforms at the heart of Intel's business. The company's internal researchers found 69% of firmware-related security issues and 57% of hardware issues, the report stated.

"[T]he bulk of externally found issues were in software consisting mainly of software utilities and software drivers for graphics, networking, and Bluetooth components," Intel stated in the report. "While these are important issues to address, our product firmware forms the basis of trust in our platforms and the data shows this is the primary focus of our internal security research."

Only 17 vulnerabilities were reported by researchers not with Intel or part of a bug-bounty program. Those researchers include Intel partners, customers, and organizations that could not seek bounty payments, the company said. 

The most vulnerabilities, 93, occurred in drivers and other software components, while 66 occurred in the firmware, and 58 affected a combination of firmware and software. The smallest number of vulnerabilities, 14, affected hardware, such as processors. Hardware vulnerabilities, such as the Spectre and Meltdown design flaws caused by overlooked issues in the branching speculative execution, are very hard to patch or mitigate after the product has been produced.

Overall, graphics components accounted for the largest portion of vulnerabilities, 22, with nearly half ranking as high severity. The most critical vulnerabilities occurred in the Intel Converged Security and Management Engine (CSME), which forms the basis of any Intel-based computing platform's root of trust, isolating its functions from the central processing unit (CPU), firmware or BIOS, and the operating system. 

In total, Intel platforms and software had six critical, 80 high, 131 medium, and 14 low-severity vulnerabilities in 2020. Intel found two of the critical and slightly more than half of the highly rated vulnerabilities, the report stated.

Intel plans to continue to invest in security, but the company did not have specific budget targets for its programs. Considering the increase in the number of vulnerabilities reported through bug bounties, the company may need to plan for rising external payments to researchers. 

"We don't think of it in terms of budget but in terms of more capability — whatever we need to scale to," Bryant says. "The Intel product assurance and security group is focused on things like SDL, offensive security research, vulnerability management. Things like that. Budget is not part of the report because it moves."

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

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