New Spectre attack enables secrets to be leaked over a network

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When the Spectre and Meltdown attacks were disclosed earlier this year, the initial exploits required an attacker to be able to run code of their choosing on a victim system. This made browsers vulnerable, as suitably crafted…

Enlarge (credit: Pete)

When the Spectre and Meltdown attacks were disclosed earlier this year, the initial exploits required an attacker to be able to run code of their choosing on a victim system. This made browsers vulnerable, as suitably crafted JavaScript could be used to perform Spectre attacks. Cloud hosts were susceptible, too. But outside these situations, the impact seemed relatively limited.

That impact is now a little larger. Researchers from Graz University of Technology, including one of the original Meltdown discoverers, Daniel Gruss, have described NetSpectre: a fully remote attack based on Spectre. With NetSpectre, an attacker can remotely read the memory of a victim system without running any code on that system.

All the variants of the Spectre attacks follow a common set of principles. Each processor has an architectural behavior (the documented behavior that describes how the instructions work and that programmers depend on to write their programs) and a microarchitectural behavior (the way an actual implementation of the architecture behaves). These can diverge in subtle ways. For example, architecturally, a program that loads a value from a particular address in memory will wait until the address is known before trying to perform the load. Microarchitecturally, however, the processor might try to speculatively guess at the address so that it can start loading the value from memory (which is slow) even before it's absolutely certain of which address it should use.

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New Spectre-like attack uses speculative execution to overflow buffers

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When the Spectre and Meltdown attacks were disclosed earlier this year, the expectation was that these attacks would be the first of many, as researchers took a closer look at the way that the speculat…

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

When the Spectre and Meltdown attacks were disclosed earlier this year, the expectation was that these attacks would be the first of many, as researchers took a closer look at the way that the speculative execution in modern processors could be used to leak sensitive information and undermine the security of software running on those processors. In May, we saw the speculative store bypass, and today we have a new variant on this theme: speculative buffer overflows, discovered by Vladimir Kiriansky at MIT and independent researcher Carl Waldspurger.

All the attacks follow a common set of principles. Each processor has an architectural behavior (the documented behavior that describes how the instructions work and that programmers depend on to write their programs) and a microarchitectural behavior (the way an actual implementation of the architecture behaves). These can diverge in subtle ways. For example, architecturally, a program that loads a value from a particular address in memory will wait until the address is known before trying to perform the load. Microarchitecturally, however, the processor might try to speculatively guess at the address so that it can start loading the value from memory (which is slow) even before it's absolutely certain of which address it should use.

If the processor guesses wrong, it will ignore the guessed-at value and perform the load again, this time with the correct address. The architecturally defined behavior is thus preserved. But that faulty guess will disturb other parts of the processor—in particular the contents of the cache. These microarchitectural disturbances can be detected and measured, allowing a malicious program to make inferences about the values stored in memory.

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It’s not just Spectre: Researchers reveal more branch prediction attacks

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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 …

Enlarge (credit: Ed Dunens)

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.

That probably sounds familiar.

The Spectre attacks, published earlier this year, take advantage of the speculative execution features of modern processors to leak sensitive information. 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.

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As predicted, more branch prediction processor attacks are discovered

Enlarge (credit: Ed Dunens)
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 …

Enlarge (credit: Ed Dunens)

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.

That probably sounds familiar.

The Spectre attacks, published earlier this year, take advantage of the speculative execution features of modern processors to leak sensitive information. 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.

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