Intel is taking a new tack with the latest commercial PC chips announced last month: Instead of touting speed and performance, the company emphasized the chip’s security features.
The chip giant has been working with security vendors in recent years to implement hardware-level protections on the chips to protect laptops from ransomware and malware attacks. The new 13th Gen Intel Core vPro processors include under-the-hood improvements at the firmware and operating system levels that boost system protection and management, the company says.
Attackers will find it harder to compromise the firmware through hardware exploits because many of the new upgrades are in the chip’s firmware and BIOS, and the chip’s security layer contains prevention and detection capabilities. For example, there is a better handshake between the firmware and Microsoft’s virtualization technology in Windows 11 to prevent intrusions, says Mike Nordquist, vice president and general manager of Intel Business Client Product Planning and Architecture. He notes that Hyper-V on Windows 11 works with vPro to store secrets and credentials in a virtual container.
“If you only have detection, you keep letting everyone in your front door. You are never really going to address the problem. You have to figure out how to close that front door,” Nordquist says.
Secure Enclaves on Chip
Intel’s vPro now provides the hooks for critical applications running on Windows 11 to be encrypted in memory through a feature called Total Memory Encryption-Multi-Key.
Microsoft provides the ability to encrypt storage drives, but recently added the ability to encrypt data in memory. Intel’s newer Core chips, code-named Raptor Lake, come ready for that feature; they have 16 memory slots in which applications can be encrypted, with separate keys needed to unlock the data.
The feature helps prevent side-channel attacks, which typically involves breaking into a chip and stealing unencrypted data from sources that include memory. Hackers would need a key to unlock the data, and isolating applications in 16 different slots makes it an even bigger challenge to steal data.
Applications are encrypted in virtual machines created in the memory slots, and system administrators can enable or disable the feature.
“We’re not encrypting the entirety of the memory, because if you don’t need to do it, it is basically going to impact performance,” says Venky Venkateswaran, director of client product security and virtualization architecture and definition for Intel’s Client Computing Group.
A new vPro technology to prevent security threats, TDT (threat detection technology), uses libraries baked into the chips to identify abnormal activity and security threats on a PC. The library assesses telemetry coming from CPUs that may be related to abnormal processing activity as a result of a security breach.
For example, the libraries can tell if a cryptocurrency mining application is calling on an abnormally high number of crypto instructions. That information is sent to security applications, which use that data in their engine to triage and stop threats.
The libraries have models tuned to weed out ransomware and other types of attack.
“We have low-level telemetry and an AI engine of sorts that can weed out the noise … you don’t want to have false positives,” Venkateswaran says.
Intel is partnering with several antivirus vendors, including Microsoft, CrowdStrike, Eset, and Check Point Technologies, to integrate TDT features into security software. This way, the vendors get access to hardware telemetry to detect threats in virtual machines. For example, Eset Endpoint Security will be able to detect ransomware through Intel’s performance monitoring unit (PMU), which sits underneath applications in the operating system.
Intel is working with PC makers to bring a standard methodology to patch PCs, and it is not putting all the eggs in one basket when it comes to securing systems. The focus is on establishing islands of security for different hardware components.
“There’s no reason the BIOS needs to be able to have access to the OS memory. There is no value-add in it. So we actually deprivileged that at a base level … and we did an enhanced level where we could really lock it down good. On vPro, that is a little bit better,” Nordquist says.
Attack vectors for PCs are different than servers and require a different security profile, Nordquist says. “Before, PCs were designed to make sure the OS was protected. What if I want to protect something from the OS? What if I do not trust the hypervisor? I need the next level of security to deal with that,” Nordquist says.
Squashing Chip Bugs
As a sign that Intel is serious about making hardware security a priority, the company last year awarded $935,751 in bug bounties to security researchers disclosing security flaws in its chips and firmware. The company has paid a total of $4 million since the inception of the program in 2017, according to its most recent annual security research report.
“These firmware updates are usually released on Intel’s website, and the device vendor is responsible for distributing them. Some of them can be delivered automatically by Microsoft Windows Update, but only limited vendors can update their devices through it,” says Alex Matrosov, founder of Binarly, maker of a firmware security platform that helps people discover and patch hardware vulnerabilities.
“CISOs should start paying more attention to threats and device … security below the operating system. Every mature enterprise organization should invest in firmware security and specifically vulnerability management for their device security pasture,” Matrosov says.
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