CPU Bugs, Patches and Vulnerability

Opinion: CPUs, like software, have always had bugs. The security implications of this are a relatively new problem, and open-source users may be at a disadvantage.

Its not your average bug report and patch. Its your CPU that has a problem, and people are debating how serious it is.

CPU bugs are nothing new. Around 1990 I spent a day with an IBM programmer who worked on the companys DOS versions, and he wouldnt shut up about how buggy some of the Intel CPUs were and how they screamed to Intel about them (to no avail). Its all part of the job of writing an operating system, but the security angle on it is a relatively new one.

The outspoken Theo de Raadts blog on the subject has been widely cited on security lists. de Raadt calls the Core 2 CPU line "buggy as hell" and promises that the problems being patched are not innocuous bugs but security issues that will be exploited, and from userland code at that. This means that an exploit may require local access to run code, but not privileged access.

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Intels "Specification Update" on these processors contains an errata section that has many of the bugs fixed. de Raadt refers to some of the errata as scary. From what I see of them they could lead to processor hangs or "unpredictable system behavior." Lets assume for the moment that Intel is being honest and accurate; these dont seem especially scary to me, even if they are clearly a problem.

As Microsofts Michael Howard recently said about denial-of-service attacks, crashing someones system is like ringing a doorbell and running away. Youve bothered them, but you havent accomplished anything and youre a little twerp for doing it too. I thought the hacking for fame thing was out of style years ago, so why would someone bother to spread such an attack?

The fixes are in the form of microcode for the processors. It turns out (Im just learning this today) that updates to the CPU microcode can be loaded at run-time, although they are not persistent. The usual way they are applied is by the BIOS at boot time, and therefore the CPU updates can be delivered as BIOS flash updates.

But updates can also be applied by the operating system, and in this case Microsoft has done just that. Knowledge Base article 936357 includes links to what it calls a "microcode reliability update" that it says "improves the reliability of systems that use Intel processors."

Yes, as Valdis Kletnieks explains in this message on the funsec list, Intel leaves room in the processor for transient patches to the CPUs microcode.

"About 294K of data, currently 125 chunks. Each chunk is basically: family, model, stepping, checksum, length, <random-looking bytes>. Theres provisions for stripping it down, so if Dell *knows* that a particular laptop may have one of 6 CPUs, and never one of the other 119, it can include only those 6 CPUs in the BIOS. The Microsoft update would of course need to carry all 294K along."

The fact that Microsoft is delivering fixes like this and being so unclear on what its about tells me they think its serious. Well see if the updates show up on Windows Update or Microsoft Update.

Writing a patch like this isnt something that companies like Microsoft can do on their own; microcode is not like regular code, and its apt to change between different versions of the processor or even steppings. Microsoft likely got the various updates from Intel and packaged them up in a single program. Expect similar updates from, for example, Apple, but de Raadt says (and he should know) that "Intel only provides detailed fixes to BIOS vendors and large operating system groups. Open-source operating systems are largely left in the cold."

Im not afraid that processor bugs will turn into a serious vehicle for exploiting real computers. It sounds like a lot of work for what could be a low return. Youre still better off exploiting whatever Microsoft patched last month. But, as de Raadt says, Intel is probably also hiding some errata, and they have a long history of withholding documentation from the public. Who knows how bad the unknown problems are?

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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