Intel x86s hide another CPU that can take over your machine

Recent Intel x86 processors implement a secret, powerful control mechanism that runs on a separate chip that no one is allowed to audit or examine. When these are eventually compromised, they’ll expose all affected systems to nearly unkillable, undetectable rootkit attacks. I’ve made it my mission to open up this system and make free, open replacements, before it’s too late.

The Intel Management Engine (ME) is a subsystem composed of a special 32-bit ARC microprocessor that’s physically located inside the chipset. It is an extra general purpose computer running a firmware blob that is sold as a management system for big enterprise deployments.

When you purchase your system with a mainboard and Intel x86 CPU, you are also buying this hardware add-on: an extra computer that controls the main CPU. This extra computer runs completely out-of-band with the main x86 CPU meaning that it can function totally independently even when your main CPU is in a low power state like S3 (suspend).

On some chipsets, the firmware running on the ME implements a system called Intel’s Active Management Technology (AMT). This is entirely transparent to the operating system, which means that this extra computer can do its job regardless of which operating system is installed and running on the main CPU.

The purpose of AMT is to provide a way to manage computers remotely (this is similar to an older system called “Intelligent Platform Management Interface” or IPMI, but more powerful). To achieve this task, the ME is capable of accessing any memory region without the main x86 CPU knowing about the existence of these accesses. It also runs a TCP/IP server on your network interface and packets entering and leaving your machine on certain ports bypass any firewall running on your system.

While AMT can be a great value-add, it has several troubling disadvantages. ME is classified by security researchers as “Ring -3”. Rings of security can be defined as layers of security that affect particular parts of a system, with a smaller ring number corresponding to an area closer to the hardware. For example, Ring 3 threats are defined as security threats that manifest in “userspace” mode. Ring 0 threats occur in “kernel” level, Ring -1 threats occur in a “hypervisor” level, one level lower than the kernel, while Ring -2 threats occur in a special CPU mode called “SMM” mode. SMM stands for System-Management-Mode, a special mode that Intel CPUs can be put into that runs a separately defined chunk of code. If attackers can modify the SMM code and trigger the mode, they can get arbitrary execution of code on a CPU.

Although the ME firmware is cryptographically protected with RSA 2048, researchers have been able to exploit weaknesses in the ME firmware and take partial control of the ME on early models. This makes ME a huge security loophole, and it has been called a very powerful rootkit mechanism. Once a system is compromised by a rootkit, attackers can gain administration access and undetectably attack the computer.

On systems newer than the Core2 series, the ME cannot be disabled. Intel systems that are designed to have ME but lack ME firmware (or whose ME firmware is corrupted) will refuse to boot, or will shut-down shortly after booting.

There is no way for the x86 firmware or operating system to disable ME permanently. Intel keeps most details about ME absolutely secret. There is absolutely no way for the main CPU to tell if the ME on a system has been compromised, and no way to “heal” a compromised ME. There is also no way to know if malicious entities have been able to compromise ME and infect systems.

A large portion of ME’s security model is “security through obscurity”, a practice that many researchers view as the worst type of security. If ME’s secrets are compromised (and they will eventually be compromised by either researchers or malicious entities), then the entire ME security model will crumble, exposing every recent Intel system to the worst rootkits imaginable.

Around 2013, we figured out some of the nitty-gritty details regarding how the ME firmware was packaged up into a blob. The ME firmware is verified by a secret boot ROM embedded in the chipset that first checks that the SHA256 checksum of the public key matches the one from the factory, and then verifies the RSA signature of the firmware payload by recalculating it and comparing to the stored signature. This means that there is no obvious way to bypass the signature checking, since the checking is done by code stored in a ROM buried in silicon, even though we have the public key and signature. However, there still might be an exploitable bug in the ROM bootloader.

We also discovered that the critical parts of the ME firmware are stored in a non-standard compressed format, which gets decompressed by a special hardware decompressor. My initial attempts to brute-force the decompression scheme failed miserably. Another group had better success and they have now completed a working decompression routine for all versions of ME up to but not including version 11. Kudos to them!

Our goal is to implement a completely libre software replacement for ME. When the implementation of such a security-critical component is available for scrutiny, it will be peer-reviewed and audited by persons around the world. This generally results in stronger security.

Our goal isn’t to replace Intel’s ME, but to provide a minimal libre alternative firmware for users who choose to use it. Unfortunately, since the firmware is protected by RSA 2048, we currently have no way to execute our own code on the ME hardware because it fails validation. We have no way to move forward, even if we wanted to.

This is scary. Most digital handcuffs are so easy to break that it’s not an issue how to break it, more so an issue of the penalty one might face for actually breaking it. In this case, it is impossible to break unless you have a way to factorize semi-primes with approximately 600 decimal digits in a reasonable time. (At the time of writing this article, pretty much impossible in one human lifetime for anyone with the biggest supercomputer).

So in conclusion, Intel has so far stopped anyone from tinkering with ME firmware in practice, and there is no way to trust the code running on your ME because it’s proprietary. So we are back to the days of the Sony Playstation, but for general purpose computers based on Intel x86. Matters only get worse now that Intel has squeezed a whole system into a chip, SoCs. We have no physical separation between the components that we can trust and the untrusted ME components, so we can’t even cut them off the mainboard anymore.

Below is a highly simplified diagram describing how some of the older ME hardware fits into a system:

Personally, I would like if my ME only did the most basic task it was designed for, set up the bus clocks, and then shut off. This way, it would never be able to talk out of the network card with some of my personal data. I refer to the ME as the Damagement Engine, since it is a hardware add-on that damages your security.

— source boingboing.net by Damien Zammit

Mastodon free social network

Mastodon is a free social network. A decentralized alternative to commercial platforms, it avoids the risks of a single company monopolizing your communication. Pick a server that you trust — whichever you choose, you can interact with everyone else. Anyone can run their own Mastodon instance and participate in the social network seamlessly.

https://mastodon.social/about

— source opensource.com by Seth Kenlon

Most Adults Spend More Time on Their Digital Devices Than They Think

A recent national survey conducted by Common Sense Media, which included nearly 1,800 parents of children aged eight to 18, found that parents spend an average of nine hours and 22 minutes every day in front of various screens—including smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions. Of those, nearly eight hours are for personal use, not work.

Perhaps even more surprising is that 78 percent of parents surveyed believe they are good role models for how to use digital technology. Multimedia are designed to be engaging and habit-forming, so we do not even realize how much time we spend when we heed the siren call of our devices, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect

— source scientificamerican.com

Encrypted Email Service Once Used by Edward Snowden Relaunches

In 2013, Ladar Levison, founder of the encrypted email service Lavabit, took the defiant step of shutting down the company’s service rather than comply with a federal law enforcement request that could compromise its customers’ communications.

The FBI had sought access to the email account of one of Lavabit’s most prominent users — Edward Snowden. Levison had custody of his service’s SSL encryption key that could help the government obtain Snowden’s password. And though the feds insisted they were only after Snowden’s account, the key would have helped them obtain the credentials for other users as well.

Lavabit had 410,000 user accounts at the time.

Rather than undermine the trust and privacy of his users, Levison ended the company’s email service entirely, preventing the feds from getting access to emails stored on his servers. But the company’s users lost access to their accounts as well.

Levison, who became a hero of the privacy community for his tough stance, has spent the last three years trying to ensure he’ll never have to help the feds break into customer accounts again.

“The SSL key was our biggest threat,” he says.

On Friday, he’s relaunching Lavabit with a new architecture that fixes the SSL problem and includes other privacy-enhancing features as well, such as one that obscures the metadata on emails to prevent government agencies like the NSA and FBI from being able to find out with whom Lavabit users communicate. He’s also announcing plans to roll out end-to-end encryption later this year, which would give users an even more secure way to send email.

The new service addresses what has become a major fault line between tech companies and the government: the ability to demand backdoor access to customer data. Last year when the FBI sought access to an iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter, Apple couldn’t get into the phone because the security scheme the company built in to the device prevented it from unlocking the phone without the shooter’s password. (Eventually, the FBI found another way to access the phone’s data, ending the dispute with Apple.)

“This is the first step in a very long journey,” Levison told The Intercept prior to the re-launch. “What we’re hoping for is that by the end of this year we’ll be more secure than any of the other encrypted messaging apps out there on the market.”

A number of encryption services and apps make this claim, but Lavabit has a particular claim to fame: It was an encrypted email service that Snowden used before the shutdown.

Snowden told The Intercept that he plans on reactivating his Lavabit account once it relaunches, “if only to show support for their courage.” But he says he can’t speak for the security of the revamped Lavabit before the service is available.

Today’s launch is only for existing users to reinstate their old accounts under the new architecture so they will work with the end-to-end encryption client software when it’s rolled out. Lavabit is asking account holders to log in over IMAP or POP, so their encrypted passwords, usernames, and keys can be regenerated under the new architecture.

Although Lavabit has some 50 million encrypted email messages on its servers belonging to these users, account holders won’t be able to access their old correspondence. Levison isn’t sure if they will migrate old emails to the new platform, since they’re stored in a different data format.

With the new architecture, Lavabit will no longer be able to hand over its SSL key, because the key is now stored in a hardware security module — a tamper-resistant device that provides a secure enclave for storing keys and performing sensitive functions, like encryption and decryption. Lavabit generates a long passphrase blindly so the company doesn’t know what it is; Lavabit then inserts the key into the device and destroys the passphrase.

“Once it’s in there we cannot pull that SSL key back out,” says Sean, a Lavabit developer who asked to be identified only by his first name. (Many of Lavabit’s coders and engineers are volunteers who work for employers who might not like them helping build a system that thwarts government surveillance.)

If anyone does try to extract the key, it will trigger a mechanism that causes the key to self-destruct.

The hardware security module is a temporary solution, however, until end-to-end encryption is available, which will encrypt email on the user’s device and make the SSL encryption less critical.

Once Lavabit becomes open to new users, customers will have three modes of service to choose from: Trustful, Cautious, and Paranoid.

Trustful is aimed at people who don’t have a lot of risk and want ease of use. It works a lot like the old Lavabit, where the email encryption is done on Lavabit’s server.

Users have to trust that Lavabit has designed the system so the company can’t obtain their password and see their communications. For many, Levison’s decision to shut down his business to defy the feds is enough to earn their trust. But Levison and his team have made the code for their server open source, so users can see how it’s designed and verify the architecture prevents the company from learning their passwords.

If someone doesn’t want Lavabit running the server, they can also download the open-source software and install it on a server of their own.

“What other encrypted messaging system allows you to download the server and use it yourself?” Levison asks.

For people who don’t want to trust Lavabit and don’t want to run their own server, Cautious mode will offer end-to-end encryption. This moves encryption off the server and onto the user’s device. It’s designed for people who want more security and the ability to easily use their account on multiple devices, such as a phone, laptop, and desktop computer.

The user installs Lavabit client software on his or her device to generate an encryption key. That key is encrypted using a passphrase the user chooses and is sent to Lavabit where it’s stored. Lavabit can’t access and decrypt it; only the client software on the user’s device can. If the user installs the client software on another device, the client will obtain the encryption key from Lavabit’s server and the user will unlock it with his or her passphrase and import it into the client software, which will use the key to encrypt the user’s email.

Some people who want more security — like activists, journalists, and whistleblowers — might balk at having their key stored on a third-party server. That’s where Paranoid mode comes in. The key for doing end-to-end encryption remains on the user’s device and never goes to Lavabit’s server. But to use another device, the user has to manually move the key to it. And there’s no way to recover the key if the user loses it or deletes it.

All three modes will use another new architecture feature called Dark Mail to obscure email metadata.

Metadata is the transaction data that includes the “to,” “from,” and “subject” lines. It’s generally not encrypted, even when email content is. Spy and law enforcement agencies can draw connections between people and derive information about someone from metadata.

Dark Mail obscures metadata using a design modeled on Tor — the Onion Router. The metadata is encrypted, and the sender’s ISP knows which account is sending the email but not the destination account, only the destination domain. When it reaches that domain, the server there decrypts the “to” field of the email to deliver it to the right account. The destination domain doesn’t know the account that sent the email, only the domain from which it came.

Given the increasingly crowded landscape of encrypted services and apps, it may be hard for Lavabit to stand out. But its most famous one-time user believes it has at least one major advantage.

Lavabit’s greatest offering is “a proven willingness to shut down the company rather than sell out their users, even if a court makes the wrong call,” says Snowden. “That’s actually a very big deal: They might be the only ones in the world that can claim that.”

— source theintercept.com By Kim Zetter

WordCamp Kochi

For your kind information, the first WordCamp of South India, WordCamp Kochi 2017 will be held at Udyan Convention Centre, Kochi, on the 19th of February, 2017 (Sunday).

It is an event conducted by the WordPress Community, WordCamp Kochi will have talks by reputed speakers and WordPress experts from India, and all across the world. It is an event that covers topics on WordPress development, security, design, and more.

The WordCamp phenomenon has also made its presence felt in India. WordCamp Pune, WordCamp Udaipur, and WordCamp Mumbai are some of the other WordCamps that have been/are being held in India, in 2017.

WordCamp Kochi is for everyone who WordPress, and everyone who should use WordPress. The event brings together authors, artists, bloggers, business owners, consultants, designers, developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, non-profits, photographers, software professionals, web developers and more…

In short, there is something in WordCamp Kochi, for everyone!

WordCamp Kochi will have several informative, and entertaining sessions on several topics are revolving around WordPress, conducted by WordPress experts from India, and all across the world. The sessions are not only meant for a technical audience – they will be equally useful for you, whether you are a WordPress user or a WordPress developer.

Another highlight of WordCamp Kochi is the opportunity for networking.

We are expecting around 300 attendees from all across the world, at WordCamp Kochi. It will be an interesting opportunity for you to meet, connect, and network with some of the best WordPress professionals in the world.

So what are you waiting for, get you tickets confirmed — https://2017.kochi.wordcamp.org/tickets/

#WCKochi

Lenders Are Looking at Your Phone Data

Financial institutions, overcoming some initial trepidation about privacy, are increasingly gauging consumers’ creditworthiness by using phone-company data on mobile calling patterns and locations.

The practice is tantalizing for lenders because it could help them reach some of the 2 billion people who don’t have bank accounts. On the other hand, some of the phone data could open up the risk of being used to discriminate against potential borrowers.

Phone carriers and banks have gained confidence in using mobile data for lending after seeing startups show preliminary success with the method in the past few years. Selling such data could become a more than $1 billion-a-year business for U.S. phone companies over the next decade, according to Crone Consulting LLC.

Fair Isaac Corp., whose FICO scores are the world’s most-used credit ratings, partnered up last month with startups Lenddo and EFL Global Ltd. to use mobile-phone information to help facilitate loans for small businesses and individuals in India and Russia. Last week, startup Juvo announced it’s working with Liberty Global Plc’s Cable & Wireless Communications to help with credit scoring using cellphone data in 15 Caribbean markets.

And Equifax Inc., the credit-score company, has started using utility and telecommunications data in Latin America over the past two years. The number of calls and text messages a potential borrower in Latin America receives can help predict a consumer’s credit risk, said Robin Moriarty, chief marketing officer at Equifax Latin America.

“It turns out, the more economically active you are, the more people want to call you,” Moriarty said. “That level of activity, that level of usage is what’s really most predictive.”

The new credit-assessment methods could allow more people in areas without bank branches to open accounts online. They could also make credit cards and loans more accessible and prevalent in some parts of the world. In the past, lenders mainly relied on bank information, such as savings and past loan repayments, to judge whether to let someone borrow.

Some of the data financial institutions are using come directly from interactions with potential borrowers, while other information is collected in the background. FICO’s partner EFL sends psychological questionnaires of about 60 questions to potential borrowers’ mobile phones. With Lenddo’s technology, FICO can check if users’ phones were physically present at their stated home or work address, and if they are in touch with other good borrowers — or with people with long histories of fooling lenders.

“We see this as a good opportunity to explore that type of data for risk assessment, as a viable means of extending financial inclusion,” David Shellenberger, a senior director at FICO, said in an interview.

Juvo’s Flow Lend mobile app uses data science and games — like letting users earn points — to build real-time subscriber profiles, to let C&W personalize lending criteria and provide immediate credit extensions. Prepaid customers can request credit advances for airtime and data. Denise Williams, a spokeswoman for C&W, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Getting Permission

In most cases, consumers must grant permission for their telecommunications records to be accessed as part of their risk assessment. One reason it’s taken the credit-risk industry some time to work out agreements with phone carriers or their representatives is because of negotiations over how to best protect client privacy.

Companies are also concerned about making sure they don’t make themselves susceptible to claims of bias. By checking phone records to see if a credit applicant associates with people with a poor track record of repaying loans, for example, lenders risk practicing discrimination on people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In addition, to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act in the U.S., a data provider must have a process in place for investigating and resolving consumer disputes in a timely manner — something that telecommunications carriers abroad may not offer.

Several large phone companies contacted by Bloomberg declined to comment about whether they share data with financial institutions, and few of the startups or financial companies were willing to disclose their telecommunications partners.
Mirror of Life

Startup Cignifi, which helps customers like Equifax crunch data on who phone users are calling and how often, works with phone companies like Bharti Airtel Ltd.’s unit in Ghana. Cignifi scores some 100 million consumers in 10 countries each month, said Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Hakim. Banks typically use such assessments alongside other evaluations to decide whether to grant a loan. Airtel didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“The way you use the phone is a proxy for the way you live,” Hakim said. “We are capturing a mirror of the customer’s life.” His company collects phone data — such as whom the potential borrower is calling and how frequently — from partners like Airtel Ghana, and crunches it for customers like Equifax, as well as marketers. It scores some 100 million consumers in 10 countries each month, Hakim said. Banks typically use such assessments alongside other evaluations to decide whether to grant a loan. Cignifi always gets customers’ permission to use data, he said.

EFL’s questionnaire approach is already used by lenders in Spain, Latin America and Africa. More than 700,000 people have received more than $1 billion in loans thanks in part to its data, CEO Jared Miller said in an interview.

EFL’s default rate varies by country, from low single digits in India to low double digits in Brazil, Miller said. To account for the risk, lenders in Brazil charge much higher interest rates, he said.

Startups like Lenddo, Branch and Tala have collected several years’ worth of data to prove that their methods of using mobile-phone data work — and that customers flock to them for help. Started in 2011, Lenddo, for instance, spent 3 1/2 years giving out tens of thousands of loans, in the amount of $100 to $2,000, in the Philippines, Colombia and Mexico to prove out its algorithms. Its average default rate was in the single digits, CEO Richard Eldridge said in an interview.

The company stopped offering lending in 2014, and stepped into credit-related services to financial institutions and banks in early 2015. Embedded into banking mobile apps, it can collect data on users with their consent. The company’s revenue is up 150 percent from last year, Eldridge said.

“The market is changing,” Eldridge said. “More and more people are seeing examples around the world of how non-traditional data can be used to enter into new market segments that couldn’t be served before.”

— source bloomberg.com by Olga Kharif