Intel flaw leaves millions at risk

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Millions of PC users are at risk of being hacked after Intel admitted that its new processors contain severe security flaws. The fault is so serious that your antivirus would be powerless to block an attack. The vulnerability appears in Intel’s Skylake (6th generation), Kaby Lake (7th) and Coffee Lake (8th) processors, which have been built into some of the world’s bestselling computers since 2015.

Intel said that hackers could exploit it to install malware on affected computers. Popular models at risk include laptop ranges such as Dell’s Inspiron and Acer’s Latitude, and desktop PCs including Lenovo’s ThinkCentres. All three manufacturers have listed those devices that are affected. The most significant flaws, discovered by researchers at US security firm Positive Technologies, are in the Management Engine (ME) of the processors. IT departments use this to remotely control employees’ computers in order to fix problems and install updates.

Maxim Goryachy from Positive Technologies said it was important to test the security of the ME because it’s “at the core of an enormous number of devices worldwide”. He added that because ME runs on a processor that’s separate to the operating system, a hacker could strike right at the heart of a PC, evading detection by antivirus software. If the hacker installs spyware, running silently in the background, the victim would never know they had been infected. But hackers wouldn’t even need to install malware to harm your computer.

ME has access to almost all data on a computer, allowing an intruder to change sensitive settings, or reinstall the operating system. Intel has published a free tool that checks whether your computer is at risk. It has also released a fix to computer manufacturers, which they can make available as a firmware update. So far only Lenovo has done this, but not for all its machines. Check its site for details.

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COMMENT

While the magnitude of this flaw shouldn’t be downplayed, it’s reassuring to know there are thousands of security researchers eager to make their name by discovering such vulnerabilities. Every time they locate a security hole they actually make computing safer, giving manufacturers the chance to fix it before hackers strike. This is how technology evolves – flaw followed by fix. Problems only arise when the latter takes too long to arrive.

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