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Introduction

Until Nehalem (ME version 6) it was possible to remove ME firmware completely. Starting with Nehalem, ME firmware can't be completely removed.

  • If ME firmware is missing, the PC will not boot at all
  • Earlier ME versions left a 30 minute grace period for recovering from a bad flash, but this is no longer true

Three methods to reduce ME's capabilities have been found: neutering, disabling and soft-disabling.

  • Removing non-essential portions of the ME's firmware is commonly referred to as neutering ME
  • Setting a bit in the Flash Descriptor which acts as a kill-switch which tells ME to hang after initialization is usually what we mean by disabling ME

Neutering ME

Neutralizing ME: removing non-essential portions of the ME's firmware

  • Also called "neutering"
  • Not initially designed by Intel

Method discovered by Nicola Corna of the me_cleaner project Removes all modules other than those required for platform init

  • Modules left in ME 6.0 - 10.x: ROMP, BUP
  • Modules left in ME >= 11.x: rbe, kernel, syslib, bup, sometimes also mfs A neutered ME will initialize hardware, then throw an error due to missing firmware

  • This sometimes results in power management issues

    • Therefore it's not recommended in production without extensive testing
  • Functions provided by ME will no longer be operational

ME >= v11.x: Sometimes mfs also needs to be preserved. mfs is responsible for some of the hardware initialization.

Soft-disabling ME

hmrfpo

It's also possible to put ME into a soft-disabled state by sending a HECI SET_ME_DISABLE or HMRFPO_ENABLE message

  • BIOS needs to send these messages
  • ME will stay disabled until a corresponding ENABLE message is sent
  • Functional ME firmware must be present
  • Usually what the "Disable ME" option in some BIOSes does
  • Also offered as an option when buying some laptops (e.g. Dell)

Why is it possible?

  • The FPT is not signed, has just a checksum
  • The partitions are individually signed
  • The offset and size of each partition are saved in each FPT entry

fpt

Source: Intel ME myths and reality, Igor Skochinsky & Nicola Corna

HAP / AltMeDisable bit (aka disabling ME)

Method discovered in 2017 by Positive Technologies. Initially introduced by Intel for government/intelligence purposes.

  • Not even the US government trusts ME entirely!

Also supported by the me_cleaner project Involves setting an undocumented, secret bit in the Flash Descriptor which acts as a kill-switch for the ME

  • AltMeDisable on ME versions < 11.x
  • HAP (High Assurance Platform) on ME versions >= 11.x

Leaves ME in a stopped state, lets it shut down gracefully instead of erroring out - This can help prevent issues with power management that may arise from neutering the ME - Supported by some OEMs

3mdeb official statement

Whenever it is possible 3mdeb try to minimize impact of (CS)ME/SPS/TXE or any other firmware residing on peripheral or built-in CPUs.