The three vulnerabilties are very serious but mitigations are in place and appear to be less costly than reports focused on the worst-case would lead you to believe. Below the fold, I look at the reaction, explain what speculative execution means, and point to the best explanation I've found of where the vulnerabilities come from and what the mitigations do.
Although CPUs from AMD and ARM are also affected, Intel's initial response was pathetic, as Peter Bright reports at Ars Technica:
The company's initial statement, produced on Wednesday, was a masterpiece of obfuscation. It contains many statements that are technically true—for example, "these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify, or delete data"—but utterly beside the point. Nobody claimed otherwise! The statement doesn't distinguish between Meltdown—a flaw that Intel's biggest competitor, AMD, appears to have dodged—and Spectre and, hence, fails to demonstrate the unequal impact on the different company's products.In addition, Intel's CEO is suspected of insider trading on information about these vulnerabilities:
Brian Krzanich, chief executive officer of Intel, sold millions of dollars' worth of Intel stock—all he could part with under corporate bylaws—after Intel learned of Meltdown and Spectre, two related families of security flaws in Intel processors.Not a good look for Intel. Nor for AMD:
AMD's response has a lot less detail. AMD's chips aren't believed susceptible to the Meltdown flaw at all. The company also says (vaguely) that it should be less susceptible to the branch prediction attack.The public release of details about Meltdown and Spectre was rushed, as developers not read-in to the problem started figuring out what was going on. This may have been due to an AMD engineer's comment:
The array bounds problem has, however, been demonstrated on AMD systems, and for that, AMD is suggesting a very different solution from that of Intel: specifically, operating system patches. It's not clear what these might be—while Intel released awful PR, it also produced a good whitepaper, whereas AMD so far has only offered PR—and the fact that it contradicts both Intel (and, as we'll see later, ARM's) response is very peculiar.
Just after Christmas, an AMD developer contributed a Linux patch that excluded AMD chips from the Meltdown mitigation. In the note with that patch, the developer wrote, "The AMD microarchitecture does not allow memory references, including speculative references, that access higher privileged data when running in a lesser privileged mode when that access would result in a page fault."What is speculative execution? Some things a CPU does, such as fetching a cache miss from main memory, take hundreds of clock cycles. It is a waste to stop the CPU while it waits for these operations to complete. So the CPU continues to execute "speculatively". For example, it can guess which way it is likely to go at a branch, and head off down that path ("branch prediction"). If it is right, it has saved a lot of time. If it is wrong the processor state accumulated during the speculative execution has to be hidden from the real program.
Modern processors have lots of hardware supporting speculative execution. Meltdown and Spectre are both due to cases where the side-effects of speculative execution on this hardware are not completely hidden. They can be revealed, for example, by careful timing of operations of the real CPU which the speculative state can cause to take longer or shorter than normal.
The clearest explanation of the three vulnerabilities I've seen is from
- Variant 1 (CVE-2017-5753), “bounds check bypass.” This vulnerability affects specific sequences within compiled applications, which must be addressed on a per-binary basis.
- Variant 2 (CVE-2017-5715), “branch target injection”. This variant may either be fixed by a CPU microcode update from the CPU vendor, or by applying a software mitigation technique called “Retpoline” to binaries where concern about information leakage is present. This mitigation may be applied to the operating system kernel, system programs and libraries, and individual software programs, as needed.
- Variant 3 (CVE-2017-5754), “rogue data cache load.” This may require patching the system’s operating system. For Linux there is a patchset called KPTI (Kernel Page Table Isolation) that helps mitigate Variant 3. Other operating systems may implement similar protections - check with your vendor for specifics.
Sam Varghese at IT Wire reviews the sad history of Intel's PR reaction to hardware bugs, focusing on 1997's FOOF bug:
"Intel's "judo-move response" was to create an information page claiming it dealt with the bug by linking to each of the various x86 OS vendors' bug-fix pages.
The company was effectively saying, "Here, we fixed the grave defect in our CPU by sitting on our asses and letting software coders work around our error," he wrote. "The press, of course, co-operated by simply pointing people to Intel's page and implying that Intel 'developed a fix'. That's what they're going to do this time, too, I'm sure of that."
As if to emphasize how fundamental speculative execution has become, NVIDIA just announced:
"NVIDIA is providing an initial security update to mitigate aspects of Google Project Zero’s January 3, 2018 publication of novel information disclosure attacks that combine CPU speculative execution with known side channels.
The vulnerability has three known variants:
Variant 1 (CVE-2017-5753): Mitigations are provided with the security update included in this bulletin. NVIDIA expects to work together with its ecosystem partners on future updates to further strengthen mitigations.
Variant 2 (CVE-2017-5715): NVIDIA’s initial analysis indicates that the NVIDIA GPU Display Driver is potentially affected by this variant. NVIDIA expects to work together with its ecosystem partners on future updates for this variant.
Variant 3 (CVE-2017-5754): At this time, NVIDIA has no reason to believe that the NVIDIA GPU Display Driver is vulnerable to this variant."
That is, the GPUs are vulnerable to "bounds check bypass", potentially vulnerable to "branch target injection", and not to "rogue data cache load".
Intel's Annus Horribilis continues with yet another vulnerability in their Management Engine:
"power up the target machine, and press CTRL+P during boot. The attacker then may log into Intel Management Engine BIOS Extension (MEBx) using the default password "admin", as this is most likely unchanged on most corporate laptops."
More than raised eyebrows needed here:
"Intel quietly warned computer manufacturers at the end of November that its chips were insecure due to design flaws, according to an internal Chipzilla document.
French tech publication LeMagIT reported this week it had obtained a top-secret Intel memo sent to OEM customers on November 29 under a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement, meaning the hardware makers were banned from discussing the file's contents.
The date of the disclosure to OEMs is likely to raise eyebrows as it happened on the same day Intel chief exec Brian Krzanich sold shares in his company worth $25m before tax."
Lily Hay Newman's Meltdown and Spectre Patching Has Been a Total Train Wreck is a good overview of the ongoing dumpster fire.
Its not just Meltdown & Spectre. Thomas Claburn at The Register has a list of four other major CPU bugs in just the past year:
"In 2015, Microsoft senior engineer Dan Luu forecast a bountiful harvest of chip bugs in the years ahead.
"We’ve seen at least two serious bugs in Intel CPUs in the last quarter, and it’s almost certain there are more bugs lurking," he wrote. "There was a time when a CPU family might only have one bug per year, with serious bugs happening once every few years, or even once a decade, but we’ve moved past that."
Thanks to growing chip complexity, compounded by hardware virtualization, and reduced design validation efforts, Luu argued, the incidence of hardware problems could be expected to increase.
Jean-Louis Gassée's readable Beyond Spectre & Meltdown CPU Bugs points to two useful resources. Eben Upton's explainer of how this class of bugs works (while pointing out that because the ARM cores used in the Raspberry Pi don't speculate, they aren't vulnerable), and a 1995 paper The Intel 80x86 Processor Architecture: Pitfalls for Secure Systems by Olin Sibert, Phillip A Porras and Robert Lindell.
This describes a series of covert signaling channels between two untrusted processes provided by the x86 architecture as it was in 1995. These are different from Spectre and Meltdown in that they involve two processes cooperating to communicate, rather than a malicious and a victim process. It also describes 8 reported flaws that constitute security vulnerabilities, and 9 reported flaws that allow unprivileged code to hang the CPU, in various 386 and 486 versions. The paper makes it clear that, even with CPUs vastly simpler than today's, it was hard to prevent insecurities in both architecture and implementation.
"The Spectre vulnerability is here to stay. Even if you choose to ignore it, the problem still exists. This is potentially a very bad thing for public cloud vendors. It may end up being great for chip manufacturers. It's fantastic for VMware." is the start of an interesting article by Trevor Pott at The Register. He discusses the implications of a known but un-fixable vulnerability allowing a malicious process to spy on other with which it shares a host for cloud providers:
"This isn't exactly good news if you're a public cloud provider that is trying to build enough trust to absorb a significant percentage of the world's regulated workloads. It's one thing for software vulnerabilities to exist, it's another to have known hardware vulnerabilities. That's not good when you're selling the concept of shared infrastructure."
Paul McLellan at Cadence connects the dots:
"I wrote yesterday about the two exploits, Spectre and Meltdown. I think that the most amazing thing about the security weakness exposed is that it has been around for 20 years, in dozens of microprocessors, before coming to light this year. The only equivalent thing that I can remember was when Ken Thompson revealed, in his acceptance for the Turing Award, that "I cannot be trusted."
Paul points out that the same technique Ken may or may not have used to bury an undetectable backdoor in Unix may or may not have been used to bury undetectable backdoors in chips, by compromising the compiler used to build the EDA tools used to design them.
Tip of the hat to Cory Doctorow, who also makes some good points.
"Researchers have discovered more than 130 malware samples designed to exploit the recently disclosed Spectre and Meltdown CPU vulnerabilities. While a majority of the samples appear to be in the testing phase, we could soon start seeing attacks." writes Eduard Kovacs at Security Week.
Red Hat's Jon Masters gave an EE380 talk entitled Exploiting modern microarchitectures: Meltdown, Spectre and other hardware attacks. It is a careful, comprehensive, discussion that starts from the basics of Instruction Set Architectures, through their implementation via a microarchitecture, and the way features of the microarchitecture provide side-channel attacks (including Meltdown and Spectre). The abstract is here, the slides are here.
Brendan Gregg has a very detailed look at the performance impact of KPTI, the Linux fix for Meltdown:
"Practically, I'm expecting the cloud systems at my employer (Netflix) to experience between 0.1% and 6% overhead with KPTI due to our syscall rates, and I'm expecting we'll take that down to less than 2% with tuning: using 4.14 with pcid support, huge pages (which can also provide some gains), syscall reductions, and anything else we find."
Hat tip to Simon Sharwood at The Register.
"Microsoft's new compiler feature will insert an instruction to block speculation in code that the compiler detects as being vulnerable to Spectre." writes Peter Bright at Ars Technica.
But to avoid crippling performance degradation, it uses heuristics:
"unfortunately, Microsoft's heuristics are tightly constrained. They detect some Spectre-vulnerable code patterns, but not all of them. Even small changes to a vulnerable piece of code can defeat Microsoft's heuristics—the code will be vulnerable to Spectre, but the compiler won't add lfence instructions to protect it."
"In a research paper – "MeltdownPrime and SpectrePrime: Automatically-Synthesized Attacks Exploiting Invalidation-Based Coherence Protocols" – out this month, bit boffins from Princeton University and chip designer Nvidia describe variants of Meltdown and Spectre exploit code that can be used to conduct side-channel timing attacks." writes Thomas Claburn at The Register.
AMD allegedly has its own Spectre-like security flaws by Alfred Ng at C|Net reports that:
"CTS-Labs, a security company based in Israel, announced Tuesday that its researchers had found 13 critical security vulnerabilities that would let attackers access data stored on AMD's Ryzen and EPYC processors, as well as install malware on them."
"The researchers gave AMD less than 24 hours to look at the vulnerabilities and respond before publishing the report. Standard vulnerability disclosure calls for 90 days' notice so that companies have time to address flaws properly."
So it isn't clear yet how much credibility to give the announcement.
Intel outlines plans for Meltdown and Spectre fixes, microcode for older chips by Peter Bright at Ars Technica reports:
"Shipping in the second half of this year, the next generation of Xeon Scalable Processors (codenamed Cascade Lake) will contain hardware fixes for the Meltdown attack and certain variants of the Spectre attack."
"Currently, the company is shipping microcode updates for everything with a Sandy Bridge architecture or newer; Sandy Bridge was branded "2nd generation Intel Core," along with various Pentium, Celeron, and Xeon brandings"
Mark Papermaster, CTO of AMD, writes:
"It’s important to note that all the issues raised in the research require administrative access to the system, a type of access that effectively grants the user unrestricted access to the system and the right to delete, create or modify any of the folders or files on the computer, as well as change any settings"
AMD will ship firmware mitigations shortly.
"Researchers from the College of William and Mary, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California Riverside, and Binghamton University have described a security attack that uses the speculative execution features of modern processors to leak sensitive information and undermine the security boundaries that operating systems and software erect to protect important data. ... The new attack, named BranchScope by the researchers, shares some similarity with variant 2 of the Spectre attack, as both BranchScope and Spectre 2 take advantage of the behavior of the processor's branch predictor." according to Peter Bright at Ars Technica. This one:
"leaks information using the direction of the prediction—whether it's likely to be taken or not—which is stored in the pattern history table (PHT)."
"Intel has issued fresh "microcode revision guidance" that reveals it won’t address the Meltdown and Spectre design flaws in all of its vulnerable processors – in some cases because it's too tricky to remove the Spectre v2 class of vulnerabilities." reports Simon Sharwood at The Register.
"A fourth variant of the data-leaking Meltdown-Spectre security flaws in modern processors has been found by Microsoft and Google researchers.
These speculative-execution design blunders can be potentially exploited by malicious software running on a vulnerable device or computer, or a miscreant logged into the system, to slowly extract secrets, such as passwords, from protected kernel or application memory, depending on the circumstances.
Variants 1 and 2 are known as Spectre (CVE-2017-5753, CVE-2017-5715), and variant 3 is Meltdown (CVE-2017-5754). Today, variant 4 (CVE-2018-3639) was disclosed by Microsoft and Google researchers." reports Chris Williams at The Register.
SafeSpec: Banishing the Spectre of a Meltdown with Leakage-Free Speculation by Khaled N. Khasawneh et al introduces:
"a new model (SafeSpec) for supporting speculation in a way that is immune to the side-channel leakage necessary for attacks such as Meltdown and Spectre. In particular, SafeSpec stores side effects of speculation in separate structures while the instructions are speculative."
They describe the additional hardware needed to store the side-effects of speculative execution isolated from the "actual" state of the computation.
"Two security researchers have revealed details about two new Spectre-class vulnerabilities, which they've named Spectre 1.1 and Spectre 1.2. ... a Spectre 1.1 attack uses speculative execution to deliver code that overflows CPU store cache buffers in order to write and run malicious code that retrieves data from previously-secured CPU memory sections.
Spectre 1.1 is very similar to the Spectre variant 1 and 4, but the two researchers who discovered the bug say that "currently, no effective static analysis or compiler instrumentation is available to generically detect or mitigate Spectre 1.1."
As for Spectre 1.2, researchers say this bug can be exploited to write to CPU memory sectors that are normally protected by read-only flags." from Catalin Cimpanu's New Spectre 1.1 and Spectre 1.2 CPU Flaws Disclosed.
The paper is Speculative Buffer Overflows: Attacks and Defenses by Vladimir Kiriansky and Carl Waldspurger.
Chrome's defenses also need Cross-Origin Read Blocking, explained by The Chromium Projects in Cross-Origin Read Blocking for Web Developers .
Spectre rises from the dead to bite Intel in the return stack buffer by Thomas Claiburn reports on a rash of new versions of Spectre disclosed recently:
"Amid a series of mitigations proposed by Intel, Google and others, recent claims by Dartmouth computer scientists to have solved Spectre variant 1, and a proposed chip design fix called SafeSpec, new variants and sub-variants keep appearing.
Only two weeks ago, researchers Vladimir Kiriansky and Carl Waldspurger disclosed new data-stealing exploits, dubbed Spectre 1.1 and 1.2 [PDF].
Now there's another called SpectreRSB that exploits the return stack buffer (RSB), a system in modern CPUs used to help predict return addresses, instead of the branch predictor unit.
In a paper titled Spectre Returns! Speculation Attacks using the Return Stack Buffer, ..., boffins Esmaeil Mohammadian Koruyeh, [et al] detail a new class of Spectre attack"
Revealed: El Reg blew lid off Meltdown CPU bug before Intel told US govt – and how bitter tech rivals teamed up by Iain Thomson at The Register is a fascinating account of the secret six-month effort to come up with mitigations for Meltdown and Spectre:
"Despite having known about the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities for roughly six months, Intel and other chip giants still hadn't warned the US government's cybersecurity nerve-center by the time The Register blew the lid off the design flaws."
Three more data-leaking security holes found in Intel chips as designers swap security for speed by Chris Williams at The Register reports on three new vulnerabilities in Intel chips using speculation:
"Malicious applications may be able to infer the values of data in the operating system memory, or data from other applications.
A malicious guest virtual machine (VM) may be able to infer the values of data in the VMM’s memory, or values of data in the memory of other guest VMs.
Malicious software running outside of SMM may be able to infer values of data in SMM memory.
Malicious software running outside of an Intel SGX enclave or within an enclave may be able to infer data from within another Intel SGX enclave.
Intel has a technical white paper, here, with more information, and an FAQ here."
PortSmash is the latest side-channel attack on state-of-the-art CPUs:
"The nature of the leakage is due to execution engine sharing on SMT (e.g. Hyper-Threading) architectures. More specifically, we detect port contention to construct a timing side-channel to exfiltrate information from processes running in parallel on the same physical core,"
Spectre, Meltdown researchers unveil 7 more speculative execution attacks by Peter Bright describes researchers efforts to systematically explore the space of potential speculation-based attacks:
"A research team—including many of the original researchers behind Meltdown, Spectre, and the related Foreshadow and BranchScope attacks—has published a new paper disclosing yet more attacks in the Spectre and Meltdown families. The result? Seven new possible attacks. Some are mitigated by known mitigation techniques, but others are not. That means further work is required to safeguard vulnerable systems."
Bright does not provide a link to the paper, or to CVEs
The techniqueis interesting; it depends on monitoring the browser's use of the CPU cache, and using machine learning to identify websites from their pattern of memory usage. The only defense is never to open a second tab.
Catalin Cimpanu reports on an improved variant of Spectre V1 called SplitSpectre. Existing Spectre mitigations prevent it too. The paper is Let's Not Speculate: Discovering and Analyzing Speculative Execution Attacks.
Thomas Claiburn reports that:
"Google security researchers have analyzed the impact of the data-leaking Spectre vulnerabilities afflicting today's processor cores, and concluded software alone cannot prevent exploitation.
The paper is titled Spectre is here to stay: An analysis of side-channels and speculative execution."
TOmas Claburn reports on the next vulnerability caused by speculative execution:
"The vulnerability, it appears, cannot be easily fixed or mitigated without significant redesign work at the silicon level.
In a research paper distributed this month through pre-print service ArXiv, "SPOILER: Speculative Load Hazards Boost Rowhammer and Cache Attacks," computer scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the US, and the University of Lübeck in Germany, describe a new way to abuse the performance boost.
The researchers – Saad Islam, Ahmad Moghimi, Ida Bruhns, Moritz Krebbel, Berk Gulmezoglu, Thomas Eisenbarth and Berk Sunar – have found that "a weakness in the address speculation of Intel’s proprietary implementation of the memory subsystem" reveals memory layout data, making other attacks like Rowhammer much easier to carry out.
The researchers also examined Arm and AMD processor cores, but found they did not exhibit similar behavior."
Intel classifies the latest group of four related speculative execution attacks as "Microarchitectural Data Sampling". Peter Bright has the details in New speculative execution bug leaks data from Intel chips’ internal buffers.
I See Dead μops: Leaking Secrets via Intel/AMD Micro-Op Caches by Xida Ren et al from U. VA and UCSD describes how to evade Spectre-like mitigations by using the cache of micro-ops decoded from ISA operations:
"This paper presents a detailed characterization of the micro-op cache in Intel Skylake and AMD Zen microarchitectures, revealing details on several undocumented features. The paper also presents new attacks that exploit the micro-op cache to leak secrets in three primary settings: (a) across the user-kernel boundary, (b) across co-located SMT threads running on the same physical core, but different logical cores, and (c) two transient execution attack variants that exploit the micro-op cache timing channel, bypassing many recently proposed defenses in the literature."
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