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MIT accuses Intel of breaking its SGX security model

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February 1, 2016

Two cryptography researchers at MIT have published a graduate thesis that accuses Intel of breaking its Software Guard Extensions (SGX) security model by using questionable implementation decisions on some of its chips.

To be sure, MIT's Srinivas Devadas and Victor Costan say that the SGX architecture operates by sending symmetric keys over the internet.

Launched three years ago, SGX added a set of CPU commands that allow system programmers to create locked containers, with hardware enforcing access to both the code and the data residing inside the container.

Not everybody agree with Srinivas and Costan, but the long and very detailed analysis of SGX was published at the respected International Association for Cryptologic Research.

What's at issue is that there seems to be a serious gap between how the model works, and how Intel explained how it works to system developers.

Here's what Intel had to say about this-- “The enclave contacts the service provider to have its sensitive data provisioned to the enclave. The platform then produces a secure assertion that identifies the hardware environment and the enclave.”

The “enclave” referred to here by Intel is the protected software container. It's how that "secure assertion" is obtained that's gained the attention of the crypto community, who think it's anti-privacy and insecure, because SGX attestation keys have to be obtained from Intel itself.

As prominent Johns Hopkins University researcher Matt Green says-- “Our concerns are directed to a detailed and technical analysis in Section 5.8 of the whitepaper”.

“Once initialised, an enclave is expected to participate in a software attestation process, where it authenticates itself to a remote server. Upon successful authentication, the remote server is expected to disclose some secrets to an enclave over a secure communication channel”.

The issue is that Intel intends the symmetrical provisioning key to reside both in the SGX-enabled chip and in Intel servers at the same time.

To establish a specific enclave, the software will offer its provisioning key to Intel, and if there's a match in the database, Intel will issue the attestation key that lets SGX set up the enclave.

This happens using a combination of the Intel-issued attestation key, and a Seal Key that's burned into the processor and never leaves it.

The Costan-Devadas whitepaper also notes that SGX places Intel at the centre of the software universe-- “The SGX patents disclose that the Launch Enclave was introduced to ensure that each enclave’s author has a business relationship with Intel, and implements a software licensing system.”

But as a whole, that places Intel in a position of enormous power-- “Intel has a near-monopoly on desktop and server-class processors, and being able to decide which software vendors are allowed to use SGX can effectively put Intel in a position to decide winners and losers in many software markets,” wrote the Costan-Devadas team at MIT.

Source: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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