What is the Hertzbleed computer chip hack and should you be concerned?

3D rendering of a computer chip

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Hertzbleed, a newly identified attack that can be used to extract information from computer chips, has caught the attention of technology security researchers and technology news websites. Here’s what you need to know about the story.

What is Hertzbleed?

It is a new computer hack that uses a power saving feature common to modern computer chips to steal sensitive data. It has been demonstrated in the lab and could be used by hackers in the wild.

Most chips use a technique called dynamic frequency scaling or CPU throttling to increase or decrease the speed at which they execute instructions. Running the power of the CPU up and down to meet demand makes them more efficient.

In the past, hackers have shown that they can read these power signatures and learn things about the data being processed. This can give them a foothold to break into a machine.

The team behind Hertzbleed found that you can do something similar remotely by looking closely at how fast a computer completes certain operations, and then using that information to determine how the CPU is currently being throttled. By demonstrating that such attacks can be carried out remotely, the problem becomes much more dangerous because remote attacks can be carried out much more easily by hackers.

What does it mean to you?

Intel declined a request for an interview by: new scientistbut said in a security alarm that all his chips are vulnerable to attack. The company said such an attack “may make it possible to deduce parts of the information through advanced analysis”.

AMD, die shares chip architecture with Intelalso issued a security warning listing several of its mobile, desktop and server chips as: vulnerable to the attack† The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Chipmaker ARM was also approached by: new scientistbut didn’t answer questions about whether it worked to avoid similar problems with its own chips.

A major problem is that even if your personal hardware is not compromised, you can still fall victim to Hertzbleed. Thousands of servers around the world will store and process your information, archive your data, and run the services you use every day. Any of these can run on hardware that is vulnerable to Hertzbleed.

Intel says the attack could take “hours to days” to steal even a small amount of data, so Hertzbleed is more likely to leak small data fragments than large files, email conversations and the like. But if that fragment of data is something like a cryptographic key, its impact could be significant. “Hertzbleed is a real and practical threat to the security of cryptographic software,” say the researchers who discovered the flaw. on their website

How was it discovered?

Hertzbleed was created by a group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington in Seattle. They say they disclosed their discovery to Intel in the third quarter of last year, but the company has asked for it to be kept quiet until May this year — which is a common request designed to allow a company to to fix a bug before it becomes common knowledge.

Intel would then have asked for a delay until June 14, but apparently has not released a solution to the problem. AMD was notified of the issue in the first quarter of this year.

Details of the vulnerability are now published in a newspaper on the researchers’ website and will be presented at the USENIX Security Symposium later this summer.

“Side channel force attacks have been known for a long time, but this is a disturbing evolution of the technique,” says Alan Woodward at the University of Surrey, UK. “The story of its discovery and how it was kept a secret is a cautionary tale of what else could be out there.”

Can it be repaired?

Neither Intel nor AMD are releasing patches to fix the problem, the researchers claim on their website. Neither company responded to inquiries from new scientist

When attacks that look at changes in a chip’s speed or frequency were first discovered in the late 1990s, there was a common solution: write code that uses only “time-invariant” instructions — that is, instructions that take the same amount of time to carry out regardless of what data is being processed. This prevented an observer from gaining knowledge that would help them read data. But Hertzbleed can get around this strategy and can be done remotely.

Since this attack relies on the normal functioning of a chip function and not a bug, it can be difficult to fix. The researchers say one solution would be to disable the CPU throttling feature on all chips worldwide, but warn that doing so would “significantly affect performance” and it may not be possible to completely reverse frequency changes on some chips. stop.

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