CrossTalk: Speculative Data Leaks Across Cores Are Real

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Recent transient execution attacks have demonstrated that attackers may leak sensitive information across security boundaries on a shared CPU core. Up until now, it seemed possible to prevent this by isolating potential victims and attackers on separate cores. In this paper, we show that the situation is more serious, as transient execution attacks can leak data across different cores on many modern Intel CPUs.

We do so by investigating the behavior of x86 instructions, and in particular, we focus on complex microcoded instructions which perform offcore requests. Combined with transient execution vulnerabilities such as Micro-architectural Data Sampling (MDS), these operations can reveal internal CPU state. Using performance counters, we build a profiler, CrossTalk, to examine the number and nature of such operations for many x86 instructions, and find that some instructions read data from a staging buffer which is shared between all CPU cores.

To demonstrate the security impact of this behavior, we present the first cross-core attack using transient execution, showing that even the seemingly-innocuous CPUID instruction can be used by attackers to sample the entire staging buffer containing sensitive data – most importantly, output from the hardware random number generator (RNG) – across cores. We show that this can be exploited in practice to attack SGX enclaves running on a completely different core, where an attacker can control leakage using practical performance degradation attacks, and demonstrate that we can successfully determine enclave private keys. Since existing mitigations which rely on spatial or temporal partitioning are largely ineffective to prevent our proposed attack, we also discuss potential new mitigation techniques.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings
PublisherInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Jun 2021

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