Looks like we the IT people have gotten more New Year presents than expected for 2018! The year has barely started, but we already have two massive security problems on our hands, vulnerabilities that dwarf anything discovered previously, even the notorious Heartbleed bug or the KRACK weakness in WiFi protocols. Discovered back in early 2017 by several independent groups of researchers, these vulnerabilities were understandably kept from the general public to give hardware and operating system vendors time to analyze the effects and develop countermeasures for them and to prevent hackers from creating zero-day exploits.
Unfortunately, the number of patches recently made for the Linux kernel alone was enough to raise suspicion of many security experts. This has led to a wave of speculations about the possible reasons behind them: has it something to do with the NSA? Will it make all computers in the world run 30% slower? Why is Intel’s CEO selling his stock? In the end, the researchers were forced to release their findings a week earlier just to put an end to wild rumors. So, what is this all about after all?
Technically speaking, both Meltdown and Spectre aren’t caused by some bugs or vulnerabilities. Rather, both exploit the unforeseen side effects of speculative execution, a core feature present in most modern processors that’s used to significantly improve calculation performance. The idea behind speculative execution is actually quite simple: every time a processor must check a condition in order to decide which part of code to run, instead of waiting till some data is loaded from memory (which may take hundreds of CPU cycles to complete), it makes an educated guess and starts executing the next instruction immediately. If later the guess proves to be wrong, the processor simply discards those instructions and reverts its state to a previously saved checkpoint, but if it was correct, the resulting performance gain can be significant. Processors have been designed this way for over 20 years, and potential security implications of incorrect speculative execution were never considered important.
Well, not any more. Researchers have discovered multiple methods of exploiting side effects of speculative execution that allow malicious programs to steal sensitive data they normally should not have access to. And since the root cause of the problem lies in the fundamental design in a wide range of modern Intel, AMD and ARM processors, nearly every system using those chips is affected including desktops, laptops, servers, virtual machines and cloud services. There is also no way to detect or block attacks using these exploits with an antivirus or any other software.
The only way to fully mitigate all variants of the Spectre exploit is to modify every program explicitly to disable speculative execution in sensitive places. There is some consolation in the fact that exploiting this vulnerability is quite complicated and there is no way to affect the operating system kernel this way. This cannot be said about the Meltdown vulnerability, however.
Apparently, Intel processors take so many liberties when applying performance optimizations to the executed code that the same root cause gives hackers access to arbitrary system memory locations, rendering (“melting”) all memory isolation features in modern operating systems completely useless. When running on an Intel processor, a malicious code can leak sensitive data from any process or OS kernel. In a virtualized environment, a guest process can leak data from the host operating system. Needless to say, this scenario is especially catastrophic for cloud service providers, where data sovereignty is not just a technical requirement, but a key legal and compliance foundation for their business model.
Luckily, there is a method of mitigating the Meltdown vulnerability completely on an operating system level, and that is exactly what Microsoft, Apple and Linux Foundation have been working on in the recent months. Unfortunately, to enforce separation between kernel and user space memory also means to undo performance optimizations processors and OS kernels are relying on to make switching between different execution modes quicker. According to independent tests, for different applications these losses may be anywhere between 5 and 30%. Again, this may be unnoticeable to average office users, but can be dramatic for cloud environments, where computing resources are billed by execution time. How would you like to have your monthly bill suddenly increased by 30% for… nothing, really.
Unfortunately, there is no other way to deal with this problem. The first and most important recommendation is as usual: keep your systems up-to-date with the latest patches. Update your browsers. Update your development tools. Check the advisories published by your cloud service provider. Plan your mitigation measures strategically.
And keep a cool head – conspiracy theories are fun, but not productive in any way. And by the way: Intel officially states that their CEO selling stocks in October has nothing to do with this vulnerability.