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Lawmakers Raise Questions About Disclosure of CPU Flaws

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday sent letters to several tech giants, raising questions about how the disclosure of the CPU vulnerabilities known as Spectre and Meltdown was handled.

Lawmakers have asked the CEOs of Intel, AMD, ARM, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft to answer a series of questions on how the disclosure of the flaws was coordinated.

Specifically, the tech giants have been asked about why an embargo was imposed and who proposed it, when were US-CERT and CERT/CC notified, the impact of the embargo on critical infrastructure and other technology companies, the resources and best practices used in implementing the embargo, and lessons learned. The targeted companies have been instructed to respond by February 7.

The Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities allow malicious applications to exploit weaknesses in CPU designs and bypass memory isolation mechanisms. An attacker can leverage the flaws to access data as it’s being processed, including passwords, photos, documents, and emails.

The vulnerabilities were discovered independently by researchers at Google and various universities and companies. Major vendors were first notified in June 2017 and the disclosure of the flaws was initially planned for January 9, but some experts figured out that Microsoft and Linux developers had been preparing patches for critical CPU flaws and the disclosure was moved to January 3.

The companies that were notified quickly rolled out patches after information on the Meltdown and Spectre attack methods was made public – some firms released fixes even before disclosure – but some organizations, such as Digital Ocean, were caught off guard by the news and complained about the embargo.

“While we acknowledge that critical vulnerabilities such as these create challenging trade-offs between disclosure and secrecy, as premature disclosure may give malicious actors time to exploit the vulnerabilities before mitigations are developed and deployed, we believe that this situation has shown the need for additional scrutiny regarding multi-party coordinated vulnerability disclosures,” the congressional committee wrote in its letter.

“As more products and services become connected, no one company, or even one sector, working in isolation can provide sufficient protection for their products and users,” the lawmakers added. “Today, effective responses require extensive collaboration not only between individual companies, but also across sectors traditionally siloed from one another. This reality raises serious questions about not just the embargo imposed on information regarding the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, but on embargos regarding cybersecurity vulnerabilities in general.”

While many companies have managed to quickly address the vulnerabilities, mitigations have been found to introduce performance penalties and cause systems to become unstable. Both software and microcode updates caused problems for users, and system manufacturers have decided to halt BIOS updates due to buggy patches provided by Intel.

Related: Industry Reactions to Meltdown, Spectre Attacks

Related: Fake Meltdown/Spectre Patch Installs Malware

Related: Oracle Fixes Spectre, Meltdown Flaws With Critical Patch Update

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.