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Intel processor flaw poses security risk

January 3, 2018

A major design flaw has been found in microprocessors produced by Intel and rivals AMD and ARM. Tech experts say it requires updates to operating systems, which are likely to slow down chip operations.

Intel Atom chip
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Intel

Technology firms sought to play down the security risks posed by a newly discovered vulnerability in computer chips amid concerns that hackers could gain access to sensitive data on various devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones as well as entire server networks.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich tried to downplay the threat posed by the security flawImage: Getty Images/J. Sullivan

"Phones, PCs, everything are going to have some impact, but it'll vary from product to product," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in an interview with CNBC.

British technology website The Register reported that the discovered flaw affected the kernel memory on Intel x86 processor chips made over the past decade.

It cited unnamed programmers who had claimed that the defect allowed users of normal applications to discern the layout or content of protected areas on the chips and thus gain acces to privately stored data such as passwords and personal information including credit card details.

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Problem bigger than just Intel

Intel issued a statement in response, labeling the reports as a mere "bug" unique to its products. Shortly after the statement, however, reports surfaced saying that AMD and ARM brand chips were also affected by at least one such security flaw.

AMD stressed that it believed there "is near zero risk to AMD products at this time."

The Register further reported that programmers working on the Linux open-source operating system were already overhauling the affected memory areas, while Microsoft was expected to issue an update with a patch for Windows by next Tuesday.

Google report

Google, meanwhile, released findings from its own security researchers, saying they had found "serious security flaws" in devices powered by Intel, AMD and ARM chips and the operating systems running them.

Google's research team noted that, if exploited, "an unauthorized party may read sensitive information in the system's memory such as passwords, encryption keys, or sensitive information open in applications."

"As soon as we learned of this new class of attack, our security and product development teams mobilized to defend Google's systems and our users' data," Google said in a security blog.

Devices will slow down

But while the security risk may soon be under control, the trouble wouldn't end there. "Crucially, the updates in question to both Linux and Windows will incur a performance hit on Intel products," The Register warned.

"The effects are being benchmarked; however we're looking at a ballpark figure of 5 to 30 percent slowdown, depending on the task and the processor model."

Intel meanwhile commented that these concerns were exaggerated. Regardless of its attempts at damage control, the news about the security risks hit Intel hard, with shares falling initially by 3.4 percent.

Chipping the Swedes

ss,hg/rt  (Reuters, AP, AFP)