Apple Unveils Security Features in New M1 Chip

Apple M1 chip security features

Apple this week unveiled its new M1 chip and the company has provided a brief description of its security features.

The tech giant told SecurityWeek that it will detail the M1’s security features in the coming weeks. For now, it has only shared limited information, but it was still enough for experts to share some thoughts.

Apple says the M1 is the first system-on-chip (SoC) designed specifically for the Mac. The chip uses 5nm technology, it has 16 billion transistors, and it includes an 8-core CPU, as well as an 8-core GPU, which the company says deliver high performance without consuming a lot of power.

In terms of security features, Apple says the M1 chip includes the latest generation Secure Enclave, a high-performance storage controller with AES encryption hardware, and hardware‑verified secure boot. The company says it has built new security protections “deep into the code execution architecture of M1.”

Security researcher Daniel Gruss told SecurityWeek that the M1 chip does not appear to contain any breakthroughs in terms of security.

Nevertheless, Gruss said, “The M1 is a very interesting and cutting-edge piece of hardware with state-of-the-art security techniques based on the information that has become public so far.”

Gruss is a researcher at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. He is one of the researchers involved in the discovery of Meltdown, Specter and several other significant processor vulnerabilities, including the recently disclosed PLATYPUS attack, which can be used to obtain sensitive data by monitoring a processor’s power consumption.

Jesse Michael, principal researcher at hardware security company Eclypsium, explained that by adding its own AES encryption hardware to the storage controller, Apple doesn’t have to depend on possibly-broken encryption in the SSD itself and it prevents the main CPU from being bogged down due to encryption duties.

“Intel added AES-NI instructions a number of years ago to speed up encryption because dedicated hardware to do the AES operations is faster than doing it only using general-purpose instructions,” Michael told SecurityWeek.

As for hardware-verified secure boot, which is designed to ensure that only Apple-signed code can run on a device (even if an attacker has physical access), the expert pointed out that similar features have been available on Apple’s phones for a while and “it makes sense for them to add those to their laptops and other devices.”

“Many other vendors have been working on adding a hardware-based root of trust for secure boot,” Michael said. “Intel has the BootGuard feature to verify even the first parts of the code that are read out of the SPI flash and close one of the secure boot gaps in Intel platforms, but it’s not deployed everywhere yet. BootGuard is most likely to show up in enterprise laptops, I think.”

As for the Secure Enclave, which is designed to protect highly sensitive information even if the operating system has been compromised, the researcher noted that it’s similar to Intel’s SGX technology, but “Intel’s version is a little more general-purpose than the Apple Secure Enclave.”

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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.

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