The Intel CPU Flaw

Sometimes the news gets it all wrong and overhypes a bad situation into one that raises unnecessary worry and even hysteria. Need proof? Look at the title of this article shown in this screen shot from CNN:


Meltdown and Spectre are really bad vulnerabilities that affect Intel, AMD, and ARM chipsets but they do not affect the average consumer, business user, or even executive unless they are worried about their cloud resources or virtualized environments. Yes, I know that is a lot of people, businesses, and governments, but for CNN and other news organizations to scare the average user is just too much. Let us get our facts straight so we understand why.

The Intel CPU Flaw

In simple terms, the flaw itself is in how a microprocessor (the brain of any electronic device abbreviated by CPU [Central Processing Unit]) accesses memory for storage. There is a flaw in the design that allows a malicious program running on the same system to look into the memory of another program and steal information. The technique is much more sophisticated in that it predicts where in memory a program will write information and allows the “bad program” to guess the location and read anything that is there.

The Intel CPU Risk

This flaw is really important to understand in detail for security and technology professionals. The vulnerability cannot execute a new program and cause havoc like ransomware. It is truly read-only. On a standalone computer, the flaw only allows access into other applications running on the same host. Other malware running as administrator or system can potentially do the same thing (with some limitations due to other defenses). In the cloud or in a virtualized environment, the risk is very real (near critical; I will explain why) and a significant problem.

So why the heck is CNN calling out Apple? They are not a vendor that plays in the cloud or virtualized environment space like Microsoft, Citrix, Amazon, Google, or even Oracle. In this security professionals’ opinion, this is really bad hype for a technology discipline that is only moderately affected by this flaw. Yes, the problem needs to be fixed but the news needs to focus on who will be affected and not just pick on a vendor that uses the same CPU’s too.

The Intel CPU Mitigation

While the only true fix is to replace all the affected CPU’s, that is not possible. There are too many of them and the cost is too high. In addition, newer models are just not compatible with many legacy systems. So, the only viable short term mitigation is to patch our operating systems and hypervisors at the lowest level (kernel) to prevent inappropriate memory calls that can leak information from an application or virtual machine. This is why we have seen a flurry of emergency patches come out from Microsoft and Redhat.

And, if anyone is running these operating systems in the cloud or virtualized, they should apply them immediately. (See our blog from yesterday that identifies what audits we’ve published in Retina.) If you are running them on your home computer (including MacOS) or laptop at work, there is plenty of other threats that should take a priority and not scare the end user (subtle jab at CNN).

The Conclusion

Unfortunately, we are still missing one critical point in this entire story. In order to exploit this vulnerability, a malicious program needs to be executing on a host to compromise the flaw in the CPU and memory. Someone must install the application or daisy chain the request through a browser drive-by attack. This means web surfing to a web site that has been compromised or hosting malicious code. Good cyber security hygiene includes some form of application control, privileged access, and anti-malware defenses. These, when operating properly, will stop the malicious program in the first place that exploits the vulnerability.

This threat is not like WannaCry or other ransomware that infects the computer even when the user is not present (i.e. a remote privileged exploit). A user must do something to allow a new program to run, and it must run with sufficient privileges to exploit the flaw. This is why the threat is not critical to the average user and a much higher risk for cloud providers and virtualized environments. A threat actor with the ability to stand up a new virtual machine can exploit this flaw to see into other environments, including ones that are not their own. That is the risk; not your iPhone and much less to an Apple MacBook Pro.

For my peers in the industry, thank you for covering this objectively and helping understand the risk. For mainstream media, talk to us nerds first before publishing something so dire and downright scary. It is not; it is just large in scope. And, for all the business users out there of BeyondTrust solutions, privilege access management can restrict these malicious applications from executing in the first place and our appliances are hardened to prevent the execution of any third party application too. Retina has new audits as well to help find any OS that is not patched to make sure it cannot be leverage in itself against the rest of the environment. If you need more information, please contact us today. We would be happy to help.