Experts found an undocumented Kill Switch in Intel Management Engine

Pierluigi Paganini August 29, 2017

Security researchers at Positive Technologies have discovered an undocumented configuration setting that disables the Intel Management Engine.

Security researchers at Positive Technologies have discovered an undocumented configuration setting that disables the CPU control mechanism Intel Management Engine 11.

The Intel Management Engine consists of a microcontroller that works with the Platform Controller Hub chip, in conjunction with integrated peripherals, it is a critical component that handles data exchanged between the processor and peripherals.

For this reason, security experts warned in the past of the risks for Intel Management Engine vulnerabilities. An attacker can exploit a flaw in the Intel ME to establish a backdoor on the affected system and gain full control over it.

In May, security experts discovered a critical remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability, tracked as CVE-2017-5689, in the remote management features implemented on computers shipped with Intel Chipset in past 9 years.

The vulnerability affects the Intel Management Engine (ME) technologies such as Active Management Technology (AMT), Small Business Technology (SBT), and Intel Standard Manageability (ISM) and could be exploited by hackers to remotely take over the vulnerable systems.

An unofficial workaround dubbed ME Cleaner can bypass Intel ME, but it is not able to turn off it.

“Intel ME is a coprocessor integrated in all post-2006 Intel boards, for which this Libreboot page has an excellent description. The main component of Intel ME is Intel AMT, and I suggest you to read this Wikipedia page for more information about it. In short, Intel ME is an irremovable environment with an obscure signed proprietary firmware, with full network and memory access, which poses a serious security threat. Even when disabled from the BIOS settings, Intel ME is active: the only way to be sure it is disabled is to remove its firmware from the flash chip.” reads the project description.

Now the experts from Positive Technologies (Dmitry Sklyarov, Mark Ermolov, and Maxim Goryachy) discovered a way to disable the Intel Management Engine 11 via an undocumented mode.

The researchers discovered that it is possible to turn off the Intel ME by setting the undocumented high assurance platform (HAP) bit to 1 in a configuration file.

Intel Management Engine

The experts discovered that the security framework was developed by the US National Security Agency … yes the NSA!

“One of the fields, called “reserve_hap”, drew our attention because there was a comment next to it: “High Assurance Platform (HAP) enable.” continues the analysis. “Googling did not take long. The second search result said that the name belongs to a trusted platform program linked to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). A graphics-rich presentation describing the program can be found here.”

Below the statement released by Intel in response to a request for comment.

“In response to requests from customers with specialized requirements we sometimes explore the modification or disabling of certain features,” Intel’s spokesperson said. “In this case, the modifications were made at the request of equipment manufacturers in support of their customer’s evaluation of the US government’s ‘High Assurance Platform’ program. These modifications underwent a limited validation cycle and are not an officially supported configuration.”

Positive Technologies also noted that the HAP affect on Boot Guard, Intel’s boot process verification system, is still undocumented.

“We also found some code in BUP that, when HAP mode is enabled, sets an additional bit in Boot Guard policies. Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in finding out what this bit controls.” concluded the experts.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Intel Management Engine, hacking)

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