Intel responds to the CPU kernel bug, downplaying its impact on home users

Intel claimed the patches for the CPU vulnerability, due next week, would bring a negligible performance hit.

Credit: IDG/Gordon Mah Ung

Intel both acknowledged and downplayed a report that attributed a kernel vulnerability to a weakness in its processors. The company, whose products had been a focus of an initial report from The Register, claimed the exploit could be applied to a variety of CPU architectures, and that any performance impact would be insignificant to end users. 

Intel confirmed that several hardware and software vendors were working together to fix or mitigate the effects of the vulnerability on computer users. The companies had planned to make the disclosure next week when the patches became available. Intel said it was commenting in advance because of what it called “current inaccurate media reports,” though nothing in its statement denied those reports.

Intel made three key points in its statement, never using the word “kernel” specifically:

  • ”Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data,” the company said.
  • ”Many types of computing devices—with many different vendors’ processors and operating systems—are susceptible to these exploits,” it added.
  • ”Any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time,” Intel concluded.

What this means: At this point, we know that major chip and operating system vendors are aware of the problem and working to release fixes. The first should arrive as part of Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday. What’s unclear is how many different types of software and CPU architectures the patches will affect, and the amount of performance (if any) that PCs will suffer as a result. It’s a very complicated issue, so we’ve created an Intel CPU kernel bug FAQ that breaks down all the info we know in clear, easy-to-read language to help you wrap your head around it.

What Intel isn’t saying

Probably the most noteworthy element of the statement is what Intel isn’t saying. The company does not directly address that the vulnerability has the potential to allow an attacker to sniff data "leaked" from the operating system kernel, but the statement does not explicitly deny it, either.

"Intel and other technology companies have been made aware of new security research describing software analysis methods that, when used for malicious purposes, have the potential to improperly gather sensitive data from computing devices that are operating as designed," Intel said. "Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data."

Intel apparently has confirmed that the vulnerability is tied to other architectures beyond its own, naming AMD—which denied that its chips are affected—as well as ARM Holdings, the architecture at the heart of most smartphone processors—as additional companies whose products are "susceptible" to these exploits, along with several operating system vendors. (Representatives at Microsoft did not immediately return messages seeking comment.)

Intel sought to explain why it hadn't yet revealed the vulnerability, claiming it was close to having done so before the news broke. “Intel is committed to the industry best practice of responsible disclosure of potential security issues, which is why Intel and other vendors had planned to disclose this issue next week when more software and firmware updates will be available,” Intel said.

Intel's advice is to follow the age-old mantra of patch, patch, patch. “Check with your operating system vendor or system manufacturer and apply any available updates as soon as they are available,” the company said. “Following good security practices that protect against malware in general will also help protect against possible exploitation until updates can be applied.”

The performance issue

More evidence suggests that PC users won’t feel any significant effects from a patch. As our earlier report indicated, tests on several popular games using a patched version of Linux—not Windows—didn’t indicate any frame-rate drops outside a margin of error. The games tested included  Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dawn of War III, F1 2017, and The Talos Principle on a Linux 4.15-rc6 machine with a Core i7-8700K and Radeon Vega 64

None of those ran on Microsoft’s DirectX technology though, which integrates deeply with the Windows operating system. Again, Microsoft hasn’t commented.

So far, most research has focused on the effects of the vulnerability on enterprise systems. According to The Register, which originally reported the story, PC users could be “looking at a ballpark figure of five to 30 percent slow down, depending on the task and the processor model.”

Intel seems to feel that the typical end user won’t suffer any ill effects. “Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time,” Intel said.

Check back with PCWorld for upcoming reports, and see our updated FAQ for a summary of the latest findings.

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