Last week, the Israeli security company CTS Labs published a series of exploits against AMD chips. The publication came with the flashy website, detailed whitepaper, cool vulnerability names — RYZENFALL, MASTERKEY, FALLOUT, and CHIMERA — and logos we’ve come to expect from these sorts of things. What’s new is that the company only gave AMD a day’s notice, which breaks with every norm about responsible disclosure. CTS Labs didn’t release details of the exploits, only high-level descriptions of the vulnerabilities, but it is probably still enough for others to reproduce their results. This is incredibly irresponsible of the company.
Moreover, the vulnerabilities are kind of meh. Nicholas Weaver explains:
In order to use any of the four vulnerabilities, an attacker must already have almost complete control over the machine. For most purposes, if the attacker already has this access, we would generally say they’ve already won. But these days, modern computers at least attempt to protect against a rogue operating system by having separate secure subprocessors. CTS Labs discovered the vulnerabilities when they looked at AMD’s implementation of the secure subprocessor to see if an attacker, having already taken control of the host operating system, could bypass these last lines of defense.
In a “Clarification,” CTS Labs kind of agrees:
The vulnerabilities described in amdflaws.com could give an attacker that has already gained initial foothold into one or more computers in the enterprise a significant advantage against IT and security teams.
The only thing the attacker would need after the initial local compromise is local admin privileges and an affected machine. To clarify misunderstandings — there is no need for physical access, no digital signatures, no additional vulnerability to reflash an unsigned BIOS. Buy a computer from the store, run the exploits as admin — and they will work (on the affected models as described on the site).
The weirdest thing about this story is that CTS Labs describes one of the vulnerabilities, Chimera, as a backdoor. Although it doesn’t t come out and say that this was deliberately planted by someone, it does make the point that the chips were designed in Taiwan. This is an incredible accusation, and honestly needs more evidence before we can evaluate it.
The upshot of all of this is that CTS Labs played this for maximum publicity: over-hyping its results and minimizing AMD’s ability to respond. And it may have an ulterior motive:
But CTS’s website touting AMD’s flaws also contained a disclaimer that threw some shadows on the company’s motives: “Although we have a good faith belief in our analysis and believe it to be objective and unbiased, you are advised that we may have, either directly or indirectly, an economic interest in the performance of the securities of the companies whose products are the subject of our reports,” reads one line. WIRED asked in a follow-up email to CTS whether the company holds any financial positions designed to profit from the release of its AMD research specifically. CTS didn’t respond.
We all need to demand better behavior from security researchers. I know that any publicity is good publicity, but I am pleased to see the stories critical of CTS Labs outnumbering the stories praising it.
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