Entries Tagged "hardware"

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Secure Speculative Execution

We’re starting to see research into designing speculative execution systems that avoid Spectre- and Meltdown-like security problems. Here’s one.

I don’t know if this particular design is secure. My guess is that we’re going to see several iterations of design and attack before we settle on something that works. But it’s good to see the research results emerge.

News article.

Posted on June 25, 2018 at 5:00 AMView Comments

Another Spectre-Like CPU Vulnerability

Google and Microsoft researchers have disclosed another Spectre-like CPU side-channel vulnerability, called “Speculative Store Bypass.” Like the others, the fix will slow the CPU down.

The German tech site Heise reports that more are coming.

I’m not surprised. Writing about Spectre and Meltdown in January, I predicted that we’ll be seeing a lot more of these sorts of vulnerabilities.

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they—and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability—have shown researchers where to look, more is coming—and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown.

I still predict that we’ll be seeing lots more of these in the coming months and years, as we learn more about this class of vulnerabilities.

Posted on May 22, 2018 at 9:38 AMView Comments

Another Branch Prediction Attack

When Spectre and Meltdown were first announced earlier this year, pretty much everyone predicted that there would be many more attacks targeting branch prediction in microprocessors. Here’s another one:

In the new attack, an attacker primes the PHT and running branch instructions so that the PHT will always assume a particular branch is taken or not taken. The victim code then runs and makes a branch, which is potentially disturbing the PHT. The attacker then runs more branch instructions of its own to detect that disturbance to the PHT; the attacker knows that some branches should be predicted in a particular direction and tests to see if the victim’s code has changed that prediction.

The researchers looked only at Intel processors, using the attacks to leak information protected using Intel’s SGX (Software Guard Extensions), a feature found on certain chips to carve out small sections of encrypted code and data such that even the operating system (or virtualization software) cannot access it. They also described ways the attack could be used against address space layout randomization and to infer data in encryption and image libraries.

Research paper.

Posted on March 29, 2018 at 6:23 AMView Comments

Adding Backdoors at the Chip Level

Interesting research into undetectably adding backdoors into computer chips during manufacture: “Stealthy dopant-level hardware Trojans: extended version,” also available here:

Abstract: In recent years, hardware Trojans have drawn the attention of governments and industry as well as the scientific community. One of the main concerns is that integrated circuits, e.g., for military or critical-infrastructure applications, could be maliciously manipulated during the manufacturing process, which often takes place abroad. However, since there have been no reported hardware Trojans in practice yet, little is known about how such a Trojan would look like and how difficult it would be in practice to implement one. In this paper we propose an extremely stealthy approach for implementing hardware Trojans below the gate level, and we evaluate their impact on the security of the target device. Instead of adding additional circuitry to the target design, we insert our hardware Trojans by changing the dopant polarity of existing transistors. Since the modified circuit appears legitimate on all wiring layers (including all metal and polysilicon), our family of Trojans is resistant to most detection techniques, including fine-grain optical inspection and checking against “golden chips”. We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach by inserting Trojans into two designs—a digital post-processing derived from Intel’s cryptographically secure RNG design used in the Ivy Bridge processors and a side-channel resistant SBox implementation­—and by exploring their detectability and their effects on security.

The moral is that this kind of technique is very difficult to detect.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): Apologies. I didn’t realize that this paper was from 2014.

Posted on March 26, 2018 at 9:26 AMView Comments

Spectre and Meltdown Attacks against Microprocessors

The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution—which of course is not a solution—is to throw them all away and buy new ones.

On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world’s computers for the past 15-20 years. They’ve been named Spectre and Meltdown, and they have to do with manipulating different ways processors optimize performance by rearranging the order of instructions or performing different instructions in parallel. An attacker who controls one process on a system can use the vulnerabilities to steal secrets elsewhere on the computer. (The research papers are here and here.)

This means that a malicious app on your phone could steal data from your other apps. Or a malicious program on your computer—maybe one running in a browser window from that sketchy site you’re visiting, or as a result of a phishing attack—can steal data elsewhere on your machine. Cloud services, which often share machines amongst several customers, are especially vulnerable. This affects corporate applications running on cloud infrastructure, and end-user cloud applications like Google Drive. Someone can run a process in the cloud and steal data from every other user on the same hardware.

Information about these flaws has been secretly circulating amongst the major IT companies for months as they researched the ramifications and coordinated updates. The details were supposed to be released next week, but the story broke early and everyone is scrambling. By now all the major cloud vendors have patched their systems against the vulnerabilities that can be patched against.

“Throw it away and buy a new one” is ridiculous security advice, but it’s what US-CERT recommends. It is also unworkable. The problem is that there isn’t anything to buy that isn’t vulnerable. Pretty much every major processor made in the past 20 years is vulnerable to some flavor of these vulnerabilities. Patching against Meltdown can degrade performance by almost a third. And there’s no patch for Spectre; the microprocessors have to be redesigned to prevent the attack, and that will take years. (Here’s a running list of who’s patched what.)

This is bad, but expect it more and more. Several trends are converging in a way that makes our current system of patching security vulnerabilities harder to implement.

The first is that these vulnerabilities affect embedded computers in consumer devices. Unlike our computers and phones, these systems are designed and produced at a lower profit margin with less engineering expertise. There aren’t security teams on call to write patches, and there often aren’t mechanisms to push patches onto the devices. We’re already seeing this with home routers, digital video recorders, and webcams. The vulnerability that allowed them to be taken over by the Mirai botnet last August simply can’t be fixed.

The second is that some of the patches require updating the computer’s firmware. This is much harder to walk consumers through, and is more likely to permanently brick the device if something goes wrong. It also requires more coordination. In November, Intel released a firmware update to fix a vulnerability in its Management Engine (ME): another flaw in its microprocessors. But it couldn’t get that update directly to users; it had to work with the individual hardware companies, and some of them just weren’t capable of getting the update to their customers.

We’re already seeing this. Some patches require users to disable the computer’s password, which means organizations can’t automate the patch. Some antivirus software blocks the patch, or—worse—crashes the computer. This results in a three-step process: patch your antivirus software, patch your operating system, and then patch the computer’s firmware.

The final reason is the nature of these vulnerabilities themselves. These aren’t normal software vulnerabilities, where a patch fixes the problem and everyone can move on. These vulnerabilities are in the fundamentals of how the microprocessor operates.

It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it. In their rush to make computers faster, they weren’t thinking about security. They didn’t have the expertise to find these vulnerabilities. And those who did were too busy finding normal software vulnerabilities to examine microprocessors. Security researchers are starting to look more closely at these systems, so expect to hear about more vulnerabilities along these lines.

Spectre and Meltdown are pretty catastrophic vulnerabilities, but they only affect the confidentiality of data. Now that they—and the research into the Intel ME vulnerability—have shown researchers where to look, more is coming—and what they’ll find will be worse than either Spectre or Meltdown. There will be vulnerabilities that will allow attackers to manipulate or delete data across processes, potentially fatal in the computers controlling our cars or implanted medical devices. These will be similarly impossible to fix, and the only strategy will be to throw our devices away and buy new ones.

This isn’t to say you should immediately turn your computers and phones off and not use them for a few years. For the average user, this is just another attack method amongst many. All the major vendors are working on patches and workarounds for the attacks they can mitigate. All the normal security advice still applies: watch for phishing attacks, don’t click on strange e-mail attachments, don’t visit sketchy websites that might run malware on your browser, patch your systems regularly, and generally be careful on the Internet.

You probably won’t notice that performance hit once Meltdown is patched, except maybe in backup programs and networking applications. Embedded systems that do only one task, like your programmable thermostat or the computer in your refrigerator, are unaffected. Small microprocessors that don’t do all of the vulnerable fancy performance tricks are unaffected. Browsers will figure out how to mitigate this in software. Overall, the security of the average Internet-of-Things device is so bad that this attack is in the noise compared to the previously known risks.

It’s a much bigger problem for cloud vendors; the performance hit will be expensive, but I expect that they’ll figure out some clever way of detecting and blocking the attacks. All in all, as bad as Spectre and Meltdown are, I think we got lucky.

But more are coming, and they’ll be worse. 2018 will be the year of microprocessor vulnerabilities, and it’s going to be a wild ride.

Note: A shorter version of this essay previously appeared on CNN.com. My previous blog post on this topic contains additional links.

Posted on January 5, 2018 at 2:22 PMView Comments

Spectre and Meltdown Attacks

After a week or so of rumors, everyone is now reporting about the Spectre and Meltdown attacks against pretty much every modern processor out there.

These are side-channel attacks where one process can spy on other processes. They affect computers where an untrusted browser window can execute code, phones that have multiple apps running at the same time, and cloud computing networks that run lots of different processes at once. Fixing them either requires a patch that results in a major performance hit, or is impossible and requires a re-architecture of conditional execution in future CPU chips.

I’ll be writing something for publication over the next few days. This post is basically just a link repository.

EDITED TO ADD: Good technical explanation. And a Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (1/5): Another good technical description. And how the exploits work through browsers. A rundown of what vendors are doing. Nicholas Weaver on its effects on individual computers.

EDITED TO ADD (1/7): xkcd.

EDITED TO ADD (1/10): Another good technical description.

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Acoustical Attacks against Hard Drives

Interesting destructive attack: “Acoustic Denial of Service Attacks on HDDs“:

Abstract: Among storage components, hard disk drives (HDDs) have become the most commonly-used type of non-volatile storage due to their recent technological advances, including, enhanced energy efficacy and significantly-improved areal density. Such advances in HDDs have made them an inevitable part of numerous computing systems, including, personal computers, closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, medical bedside monitors, and automated teller machines (ATMs). Despite the widespread use of HDDs and their critical role in real-world systems, there exist only a few research studies on the security of HDDs. In particular, prior research studies have discussed how HDDs can potentially leak critical private information through acoustic or electromagnetic emanations. Borrowing theoretical principles from acoustics and mechanics, we propose a novel denial-of-service (DoS) attack against HDDs that exploits a physical phenomenon, known as acoustic resonance. We perform a comprehensive examination of physical characteristics of several HDDs and create acoustic signals that cause significant vibrations in HDDs internal components. We demonstrate that such vibrations can negatively influence the performance of HDDs embedded in real-world systems. We show the feasibility of the proposed attack in two real-world case studies, namely, personal computers and CCTVs.

Posted on December 26, 2017 at 9:34 AMView Comments

A Hardware Privacy Monitor for iPhones

Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Edward Snowden have designed a hardware device that attaches to an iPhone and monitors it for malicious surveillance activities, even in instances where the phone’s operating system has been compromised. They call it an Introspection Engine, and their use model is a journalist who is concerned about government surveillance:

Our introspection engine is designed with the following goals in mind:

  1. Completely open source and user-inspectable (“You don’t have to trust us”)
  2. Introspection operations are performed by an execution domain completely separated from the phone”s CPU (“don’t rely on those with impaired judgment to fairly judge their state”)
  3. Proper operation of introspection system can be field-verified (guard against “evil maid” attacks and hardware failures)
  4. Difficult to trigger a false positive (users ignore or disable security alerts when there are too many positives)
  5. Difficult to induce a false negative, even with signed firmware updates (“don’t trust the system vendor”—state-level adversaries with full cooperation of system vendors should not be able to craft signed firmware updates that spoof or bypass the introspection engine)
  6. As much as possible, the introspection system should be passive and difficult to detect by the phone’s operating system (prevent black-listing/targeting of users based on introspection engine signatures)
  7. Simple, intuitive user interface requiring no specialized knowledge to interpret or operate (avoid user error leading to false negatives; “journalists shouldn’t have to be cryptographers to be safe”)
  8. Final solution should be usable on a daily basis, with minimal impact on workflow (avoid forcing field reporters into the choice between their personal security and being an effective journalist)

This looks like fantastic work, and they have a working prototype.

Of course, this does nothing to stop all the legitimate surveillance that happens over a cell phone: location tracking, records of who you talk to, and so on.

BoingBoing post.

Posted on September 11, 2017 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.