Spectre attacks: Exploiting Speculative Execution

Paul Kocher, Jann Horn*, Anders Fogh, Daniel Genkin, Daniel Gruss, Werner Haas, Mike Hamburg, Moritz Lipp, Stefan Mangard, Thomas Prescher, Michael Schwarz, Yuval Yarom

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Modern processors use branch prediction and speculative execution to maximize performance. For example, if the destination of a branch depends on a memory value that is in the process of being read, CPUs will try to guess the destination and attempt to execute ahead. When the memory value finally arrives, the CPU either discards or commits the speculative computation. Speculative logic is unfaithful in how it executes, can access the victim's memory and registers, and can perform operations with measurable side effects. Spectre attacks involve inducing a victim to speculatively perform operations that would not occur during correct program execution and which leak the victim's confidential information via a side channel to the adversary. This paper describes practical attacks that combine methodology from side-channel attacks, fault attacks, and return-oriented programming that can read arbitrary memory from the victim's process. More broadly, the paper shows that speculative execution implementations violate the security assumptions underpinning numerous software security mechanisms, such as operating system process separation, containerization, just-in-time (JIT) compilation, and countermeasures to cache timing and side-channel attacks. These attacks represent a serious threat to actual systems because vulnerable speculative execution capabilities are found in microprocessors from Intel, AMD, and ARM that are used in billions of devices. Although makeshift processor-specific countermeasures are possible in some cases, sound solutions will require fixes to processor designs as well as updates to instruction set architectures (ISAs) to give hardware architects and software developers a common understanding as to what computation state CPU implementations are (and are not) permitted to leak.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-101
Number of pages9
JournalCommunications of the ACM
Volume63
Issue number7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science(all)

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