Uncorrectable freedom and security issues on x86 platforms

Tobias Platen tobias at platen-software.de
Mon Apr 4 16:42:16 UTC 2016

Half a year ago I baught a libreboot machine from Minifree, which is now 
my main computer. I own several ARM based computers, with processors 
from Texas Instruments and Allwinner, which I use for various other 
tasks. I'm also interested in PowerPC, as a replacement for Intel. Ive 
heard about a PowerPC notebook[1] as a community effort.

Tobias Platen

[1] http://www.powerpc-notebook.org/en/

On 04/04/2016 05:06 PM, Timothy Pearson wrote:
> Hash: SHA1
> All,
> It has recently come to my attention that many in the free software
> movement are unaware of a relatively new development on x86 platforms
> that permanently removes the ability to use these platforms without also
> continually executing signed, proprietary code at the highest possible
> privilege level.  All post-2013 (AMD) and virtually all post-2009
> (Intel) systems contain this mandatory technology, and therefore, by
> design, can never be converted to run using pure FOSS.  Prior to these
> changes projects such as coreboot could be used to replace the boot
> firmware with a FOSS alternative.
> The technologies in question are the Intel Management Engine (ME) and
> the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP).  Both serve effectively the
> same purpose; to ensure that the physical owner of the machine never has
> full control of said machine.  These technologies, in turn, are used to
> implement various forms of remote control and Digital Rights Management
> (DRM) technologies, including Secure Boot, which even now requires FOSS
> users to purchase a license from Microsoft to boot FOSS on affected
> machines that lack an appropriate Secure Boot override.  This includes,
> for example, many newer laptops.  Major distributions have worked around
> this issue by purchasing a signing key from Microsoft for their binary
> packages, but the end user is unable to modify the signed software
> without a license from Microsoft, even though they have the source code
> available to them under the GPL.
> Furthermore, these signed, proprietary, binary-only firmware blobs must
> execute on the service processor(s) before the main x86 CPU cores are
> even released from reset (AMD), or will hard reset the entire system
> after around 30 minutes of non-operation (Intel).  These blobs continue
> to operate on the service processor(s) as long as the system is powered
> on, and in the case of the Intel ME they also continue to operate while
> the system is powered off but still has access to power (e.g. plugged in
> or charged battery attached).  These services processors have full
> access to system memory and all system peripherals, effectively giving
> the binary blobs executing on them a higher privilege level than even
> the operating system kernel.  Due to the ability to access system
> peripherals, these proprietary blobs could easily contain code to
> exfiltrate encryption keys, remotely activate microphones and cameras,
> plant unwanted data, or simply remotely disable the ability of the
> machine to boot FOSS operating systems entirely.  Finally, the Intel ME
> firmware can be forcibly updated by a remote entity; it is unknown
> whether the AMD PSP contains similar functionality at this time.
> So, what can an average user do?  The obvious answer is to simply switch
> away from using the x86 architecture entirely.  As Intel owns all rights
> to the x86 architecture, there will never be any new manufacturers
> licensed to make x86 chips, and therefore there will never be any
> competition to remove these DRM-laden antifeatures.  There are numerous
> alternative architectures available, especially for those already using
> software with the source code available (i.e. FOSS), all of which can be
> licensed by other manufacturers should the need arise.
> ************************************************************************
> General Overview of Alternate Architectures
> ************************************************************************
> === ARM ===
> While the ARM architecture may be more wildly known for locked-down
> computing products, there are several ARM devices on the market that
> allow full FOSS replacement of the boot firmware.  Generally these are
> laptops, tablets, and embedded systems, with one example laptop being
> the ASUS C201 Chromebook:
> https://libreboot.org/docs/install/c201.html
> Using ARM in a mobile form factor also provides advantages of low cost
> and long battery life, albeit at the expense of overall system performance.
> === POWER ===
> IBM has recently released their high-performance POWER8 architecture for
> third party licensing, and has also released a small treasure trove of
> firmware and documentation for these devices.  POWER is the only
> architecture currently competitive with Intel in terms of raw
> performance, and boots using a fully FOSS firmware with no DRM
> antifeatures embedded.  The primary disadvantage of power is cost, as it
> is currently targeted at the server and datacenter markets.  We are
> attempting to bring POWER to the high-end workstation market in a
> FOSS-friendly form via the Talos™ Secure Workstation, but need
> additional interest to make this a reality:
> https://raptorengineeringinc.com/TALOS/prerelease.php
> === MIPS ===
> Less well known than ARM, and with less vendor choice, MIPS is often
> overlooked.  However, China has revived this architecture for general
> purpose computing with the Loongson core, and several machines are
> available using this processor.  As a niche processor it has far worse
> performance than even a low-end ARM processor, but marginally better
> energy efficiency.  Not recommended in light of ARM and POWER8:
> http://www.lemote.com/html/product/atx/2015/1227/8.html
> === RISCV ===
> While this architecture is extremely limited in performance, price, and
> performance per watt compared to x86, ARM, or POWER, it is also one of
> the only fully open source CPU architectures available outside of an
> FPGA. and may eventually be competitive with MIPS in terms of raw
> performance.  Currently there are no RISCV SoCs in production, however
> projects such as lowRISC aim to change that:
> http://www.lowrisc.org/
> ************************************************************************
> So, what are your thoughts on the current x86 proprietary software
> situation?  Are you willing to continue to use FOSS software inside the
> ever-shrinking x86 "software jail", or are you possibly willing to give
> up some cost or performance advantages in order to retain full control
> of the software running on your hardware?  This is a question that will
> need to be answered soon; the long-term consequences of a fully
> TiVo-ized computing world are not to be taken lightly, and thus far the
> free software community has put up very little resistance to the
> antifeatures being forced into modern x86 platforms.  I hope to provoke
> wider discussion on these topics via this message.
> Thank you for your attention!
> - --
> Timothy Pearson
> Raptor Engineering
> +1 (415) 727-8645 (direct line)
> +1 (512) 690-0200 (switchboard)
> http://www.raptorengineeringinc.com
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Sent from my Libreboot X200

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