Hardware

Intel makes CPU benchmark publishing illegal after security patch

Intel
Logo for chip maker Intel
Intel

In what increasingly looks as Chipzilla's acknowledgement of AMD's superiority, which is actually the best case scenario, the company's microcode security patches have been slapped with a non-disclosure agreement on publishing benchmarks.

In case you've been living under an underclocked rock, a report by Google's Project Zero from January 2018 revealed that pretty much all Intel x86, IBM Power and ARM based CPUs produced from 1995 onwards come with inherent vulnerability that poses a significant security risk.

Even though numerous variants of the two vulnerabilities have been found since, they're commonly referred to by the umbrella terms Meltdown and Spectre. Some of the fixes were simple enough and were addressed via patches, in cooperation with OS makers.

Others have proven to be tough cookies, ultimately requiring a few attempts, each with varying degrees of success. Some, however, have proven to be so nasty that the only fix was a hardware redesign of CPU architecture, which is exactly what Intel announced back in March 2018.

As a result, just about every CPU engineer and/or enthusiast started producing actual examples of how exploiting Meltdown and Spectre can harm consumers, proving that no chipmaker is secure. Initially thought to be immune, AMD's Ryzen processors were later confirmed to feature their own variants of similar exploits.

Note however that these were still a drop in the sea of what Intel was facing, in spite of Chipzilla's claims that all chipmakers are equally at risk. Attempts to implicate AMD to an equal extent, coupled with an ethically questionable handling of the matter by CTS Labs, prompted many to suspect a ploy intended to short AMD's stock.

While they ultimately got a few right, many accusations that CTS Labs chucked AMD's way have since proven to be suspicions rather than facts. This indirectly corroborated the stock-shorting suspicions and many prominent industry members were vocal about it, including the likes of Linux champ Linus Torvalds.

Intel have now started rolling out CPU microcode security patches with a newly updated license that states users are legally obliged to not "publish or provide any Software benchmark or comparison test results." Seeing as how the fixes for these exploits were said to cause anywhere between 5 and 30 per cent of reduction in CPU horsepower, it is probably understandable from a shareholder's standpoint.

From customers' viewpoint, myself being one of them, it's despicable because it impedes free speech for fear of losing money. Moreover, Intel is not concerned that we'll be losing horsepower, but that everyone will learn about it.

Many of us consciously chose to overpay for Chipzilla's traditionally overpriced CPUs solely on the basis of performance gain. Losing that performance while not getting anything back isn't something that keeps them awake at night apparently. Preventing us from saying anything about it is just adding insult to injury.

Coincidentally, now that they've shown their colours, people will find out even faster - which is the Streisand Effect 101. That's not to say that publishing benchmarks is smart. If you're thinking about it, you better make sure you have a legal team that can take on Intel. No? Didn't think so.

A blue snakeNot Intel, despite obvious similarities.

It's unlikely that this is the last we hear of it, because such aggressive attempts at containing information, never end well. And for once, I truly hope Intel pays for every sleazy attempt to cover up their sleazy tracks, instead of manning up to facts. We'd have rewarded their transparency with a shrug, which is what grown ups do.

I've done my best to spare you the technical details but if you're interested, you can learn more here.