New computer chip ‘flaw’ sparks security debate as tech firms try to play down risks

Security flaws allow hackers to access sensitive data on most modern systems.

| Updated on: Jan 04 2018, 14:40 IST
Time to hit the panic button?
Time to hit the panic button? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Time to hit the panic button?
Time to hit the panic button? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A newly discovered vulnerability in computer chips has raised new concerns that hackers could access sensitive data on most modern systems, as technology firms sought to play down the security risks.

Chip giant Intel issued a statement responding to a flurry of warnings surfacing after researchers discovered the security hole which could allow privately stored data in computers and networks to be leaked.

Intel labeled as incorrect reports describing a "bug" or "flaw" unique to its products.

Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich told CNBC that "basically all modern processers across all applications" use this process known as "access memory," which was discovered by researchers at Google and kept confidential as companies work on remedies.

Google, meanwhile, released findings from its security researchers who sparked the concerns, saying it made the results public days ahead of schedule because much of the information had been in the media.

The security team found "serious security flaws" in devices powered by Intel, AMD and ARM chips and the operating systems running them and noted that, if exploited, "an unauthorized party may read sensitive information in the system's memory such as passwords, encryption keys, or sensitive information open in applications."

"As soon as we learned of this new class of attack, our security and product development teams mobilized to defend Google's systems and our users' data," Google said in a security blog.

"We have updated our systems and affected products to protect against this new type of attack. We also collaborated with hardware and software manufacturers across the industry to help protect their users and the broader web."

- Spectre and Meltdown -

The Google team said the vulnerabilities, labeled "Spectre" and "Meltdown," affected a number of chips from Intel as well as some from AMD and ARM, which specializes in processors for mobile devices.

Intel said it was working with AMD and ARM Holdings and with the makers of computer operating software "to develop an industry-wide approach to resolve this issue promptly and constructively."

"Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data."

Jack Gold, an independent technology analyst, said he was briefed in a conference call with Intel, AMD and ARM on the issue and that the three companies suggested concerns were overblown.

"All the chips are designed that way," Gold said. "Every modern architecture takes advantage of that design to make things run faster," Gold said.

The companies were working on remedies after "some researchers found a way to use existing architecture and get into protected areas of computer memory and read some of the data," Gold said.

Microsoft said in a statement it had no information suggesting any compromised data. The company said it is "releasing security updates today to protect Windows customers against vulnerabilities affecting supported hardware chips from AMD, ARM, and Intel."

AMD and ARM did not immediately respond to AFP requests for comment.

- Slowdown? -

Earlier this week, some security researchers said any fix -- which would need to be handled by software -- could slow down computer systems, possibly by 30 percent or more.

Intel's statement said these concerns, too, were exaggerated.

"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," the company statement said.

Earlier Wednesday, Tatu Ylonen, security researcher at SSH Communications Security, noted that the flaw, if exploited, could allow hackers to gain access to private data, including passwords, banking data and encrypted or classified information.

The patch "will be effective" but it will be critical to get all networks and cloud services upgraded, Ylonen said.

"There are thousands of small cloud providers and all of them will need to upgrade," he said.

British security researcher Graham Cluley also expressed concern "that attackers could exploit the flaw on vulnerable systems to gain access to parts of the computer's memory which may be storing sensitive information. Think passwords, private keys, credit card data."

Cluley said in a blog post that it was "good news" that the problem had been kept under wraps to allow operating systems such as those from Microsoft and Apple to make security updates before the flaw is maliciously exploited.

"The bad news is that no-one likes to make such low level security updates, particularly under such time-sensitive conditions," Cluley said.

"Inevitably some businesses will find themselves disrupted by the process."

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First Published Date: 04 Jan, 14:39 IST