Last month, researchers working out of Austria’s Graz University of Technology uncovered a wide-ranging security flaw in Intel microchips. The data scientists found the component vulnerability in the speculative execution CPU function. Under the right circumstances, hackers can use the “ZombieLoad” attack to access a wealth of sensitive user data. Disturbingly, the Graz team revealed the processor flaw affects virtually every Intel chip made since 2011.
How ZombieLoad Works
The term “zombie load” refers to a hardware error were a processor can’t understand a particular segment of data. However, the affected CPUs store all data currently being processed while performing that function. To fix the problem, the core pings the processor’s microcode, which causes a cross-system data leak. With the proper malware, hackers can collect sensitive user data such as login and access token information from an affected system.
Intel designed the CPU function to execute speculative execution, a process that increases system performance by anticipating application and operating system needs. The firm made the feature part of its cores eight years ago, so the bug affects laptops, desktops, and cloud-based virtual machines made since 2011. As opposed to a software bug or malware infection, antivirus programs are unlikely to detect ZombieLoad.
The ZombieLoad Patch has a Catch
The Austrian Researchers informed Intel of their security flaw in April, and the firm promptly released a microcode patch. Because of the widespread nature of the CPU vulnerability, a host of big tech firms have also released critical software updates addressing the problem. On May 14, Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla put out patches that will prevent microarchitecture data sampling (MDS) exploits.
The Silicon Valley software makers have deployed patches for affected web browsers and cloud-based servers. But users should make sure their operating systems have implemented all recent security updates.
While organizations and individuals should patch such a severe software flaw, they should also know it comes with a cost. Intel revealed their microcode update could slow down consumer hardware by as much as three percent. The firm also noted data center customers could experience a nine percent performance decline post update.
Furthermore, Apple stated it expects most Mac users won’t experience a drop off in processor power after implementing the fix. But, the corporation noted some of its computers might suffer a 40 percent performance reduction once the patch is applied.
The Austrian researchers, Intel, and the software suppliers said they had no record of successful attacks using the chip vulnerability.
A Worrying Trend
ZombieLoad is only the most recent significant chipset security flaws to be uncovered by data scientists. In January 2018, researchers found two critical vulnerabilities called Meltdown and Spectre. The pair of bugs allowed unauthorized operators to access privileged CPU data via a parallel process exploit.
Like Zombieland, the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities affect a wide range of machines. Researchers said mobile devices, servers, and laptops with Intel or AMD processors made in the last 20 years were affected. Computer manufacturers and software companies issued patches for the bugs and found they had little effect on processor performance.
In May 2018, Google and Microsoft disclosed their discovery of another MDS flaw. The two tech giants released firmware updates addressing the problem that had a 2-8 percent impact on performance.
As MDS vulnerabilities are a new kind of data security risk, researchers haven’t had time to determine how wide-ranging they are. To be safe, mobile electronic device and PC users should prioritize installing all new software security updates.