Intel chipsets for some years have included a Management Engine, a small microprocessor that runs independently of the main CPU and operating system. Various pieces of software run on the ME, ranging from code to handle media DRM to an implementation of a TPM. AMT is another piece of software running on the ME, albeit one that takes advantage of a wide range of ME features.
Active Management Technology
AMT is intended to provide IT departments with a means to manage client systems. When AMT is enabled, any packets sent to the machine’s wired network port on port 16992 will be redirected to the ME and passed on to AMT – the OS never sees these packets. AMT provides a web UI that allows you to do things like reboot a machine, provide remote install media or even (if the OS is configured appropriately) get a remote console. Access to AMT requires a password – the implication of this vulnerability is that that password can be bypassed.
AMT has two types of remote console: emulated serial and full graphical. The emulated serial console requires only that the operating system run a console on that serial port, while the graphical environment requires drivers on the OS side. However, an attacker who enables emulated serial support may be able to use that to configure grub to enable serial console. Remote graphical console seems to be problematic under Linux but some people claim to have it working, so an attacker would be able to interact with your graphical console as if you were physically present. Yes, this is terrifying.
AMT supports providing an ISO remotely. In older versions of AMT (before 11.0) this was in the form of an emulated IDE controller. In 11.0 and later, this takes the form of an emulated USB device. The nice thing about the latter is that any image provided that way will probably be automounted if there’s a logged in user, which probably means it’s possible to use a malformed filesystem to get arbitrary code execution in the kernel. Fun!
The other part of the remote media is that systems will happily boot off it. An attacker can reboot a system into their own OS and examine drive contents at their leisure. This doesn’t let them bypass disk encryption in a straightforward way, so you should probably enable that.
How bad is this
That depends. Unless you’ve explicitly enabled AMT at any point, you’re probably fine. The drivers that allow local users to provision the system would require administrative rights to install, so as long as you don’t have them installed then the only local users who can do anything are the ones who are admins anyway. If you do have it enabled, though…
How do I know if I have it enabled?
Yeah this is way more annoying than it should be. First of all, does your system even support AMT? AMT requires a few things:
1) A supported CPU
2) A supported chipset
3) Supported network hardware
4) The ME firmware to contain the AMT firmware
Merely having a “vPRO” CPU and chipset isn’t sufficient – your system vendor also needs to have licensed the AMT code. Under Linux, if lspci doesn’t show a communication controller with “MEI” in the description, AMT isn’t running and you’re safe. If it does show an MEI controller, that still doesn’t mean you’re vulnerable – AMT may still not be provisioned. If you reboot you should see a brief firmware splash mentioning the ME. Hitting ctrl+p at this point should get you into a menu which should let you disable AMT.
What do we not know?
We have zero information about the vulnerability, other than that it allows unauthenticated access to AMT. One big thing that’s not clear at the moment is whether this affects all AMT setups, setups that are in Small Business Mode, or setups that are in Enterprise Mode. If the latter, the impact on individual end-users will be basically zero – Enterprise Mode involves a bunch of effort to configure and nobody’s doing that for their home systems. If it affects all systems, or just systems in Small Business Mode, things are likely to be worse.
What should I do?
Make sure AMT is disabled. If it’s your own computer, you should then have nothing else to worry about. If you’re a Windows admin with untrusted users, you should also disable or uninstall LSM by following these instructions.
Does this mean every Intel system built since 2008 can be taken over by hackers?
No. Most Intel systems don’t ship with AMT. Most Intel systems with AMT don’t have it turned on.
Does this allow persistent compromise of the system?
Not in any novel way. An attacker could disable Secure Boot and install a backdoored bootloader, just as they could with physical access.
But isn’t the ME a giant backdoor with arbitrary access to RAM?
Yes, but there’s no indication that this vulnerability allows execution of arbitrary code on the ME – it looks like it’s just (ha ha) an authentication bypass for AMT.
Is this a big deal anyway?
Yes. Fixing this requires a system firmware update in order to provide new ME firmware (including an updated copy of the AMT code). Many of the affected machines are no longer receiving firmware updates from their manufacturers, and so will probably never get a fix. Anyone who ever enables AMT on one of these devices will be vulnerable. That’s ignoring the fact that firmware updates are rarely flagged as security critical (they don’t generally come via Windows update), so even when updates are made available, users probably won’t know about them or install them.
Avoiding this kind of thing in future
Users ought to have full control over what’s running on their systems, including the ME. If a vendor is no longer providing updates then it should at least be possible for a sufficiently desperate user to pay someone else to do a firmware build with the appropriate fixes. Leaving firmware updates at the whims of hardware manufacturers who will only support systems for a fraction of their useful lifespan is inevitably going to end badly.
How certain are you about any of this?
Not hugely – the quality of public documentation on AMT isn’t wonderful, and while I’ve spent some time playing with it (and related technologies) I’m not an expert. If anything above seems inaccurate, let me know and I’ll fix it.
 Eh well. They could reboot into their own OS, modify your initramfs (because that’s not signed even if you’re using UEFI Secure Boot) such that it writes a copy of your disk passphrase to /boot before unlocking it, wait for you to type in your passphrase, reboot again and gain access. Sealing the encryption key to the TPM would avoid this.