Foreshadow: Researchers discover another Intel processor vulnerability

Two international teams of security researchers have independently and concurrently discovered “,” a new variant of the known as “” that was announced earlier this year. Meltdown can be exploited to bypass Intel processors’ secure regions to access memory and data.

The Foreshadow vulnerability affects Intel’s Software Guard Extension (SGX) technology, a feature in modern Intel CPUs that enables computers to protect users’ data within a secure “fortress” even if the entire system falls under an attacker’s control. Foreshadow is similar to Spectre and Meltdown, both hardware-based attacks that shook the computer security world in early 2018 when researchers were able to break several security features that are present in most Intel-based machines.

As a group effort, researchers from the University of Michigan, the Belgian research group imec-Distrinet, Technion Israel Institute of Technology, the University of Adelaide (Australia), and Data61 (Canberra, Australia) published a report (foreshadowattack.eu/foreshadow-NG.pdf) about the vulnerability, which causes the complete collapse of the SGX ecosystem and compromises users’ data.

“SGX can be used by developers to enable secure browsing to protect fingerprints used in biometric authentication or to prevent content being downloaded from video streaming services,” says Yuval Yarom of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)’s Data61 and the University of Adelaide’s School of Computer Science. “Foreshadow compromises the confidentiality of the ‘fortresses,’ where this sensitive information is stored; once a single fortress is breached, the whole system becomes vulnerable.”

Intel was alerted about the vulnerability earlier this year. The company’s own investigation led it to discover a new variant of Foreshadow, called Foreshadow-NG, which affects nearly all Intel servers used in computing. The NG type targets the Intel-based environments used by cloud computing giants Amazon and Microsoft to create thousands of virtual PCs on a single large server.

Foreshadow-NG essentially breaks the digital wall that keeps individual cloud customers’ virtual PCs isolated from one another on large servers. This breakdown could enable a malicious virtual machine running in to read data belonging to other virtual machines, according to the researchers. The virtualization code is present in every Intel-based computer manufactured since 2008.

“Foreshadow-NG could break the fundamental security properties that many cloud-based services take for granted,” says Baris Kasikci, a University of Michigan assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

Foreshadow-NG is theoretically capable of bypassing the earlier fixes for Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, potentially re-exposing millions of computers across the globe to attacks.

Both variants of the vulnerability gain access to the victim’s machine via a side channel attack. These attacks infer information about a system’s inner workings by observing patterns in seemingly innocuous information – such as how long it takes the processor to access the machine’s memory. This information can be used to gain access to the inner workings of the machine.

The attack then confuses the system’s processor by exploiting a feature called speculative execution, which is used in all modern CPUs: It speeds processing by enabling the processor to essentially guess what it will be asked to do next and plan accordingly.

The attack feeds in false information that leads speculative execution into a series of wrong guesses. Akin to a driver following a faulty GPS, the processor becomes hopelessly lost. This confusion is then exploited to cause the victim’s machine to leak sensitive information. In some cases, the researchers say that it can even alter information on the victim’s machine.

While these vulnerabilities are caught before causing major damage, Ofir Weisse, a University of Michigan graduate student research assistant involved in the work, points out that such gaps expose the fragility of secure enclaves and virtualization technologies. He believes that the key to keeping technologies secure is to make designs open and accessible to researchers so that they can identify and repair vulnerabilities quickly.

“The SGX feature is widely used by developers and businesses globally, and this opens them up to a data breach that can potentially affect their customers as well,” says Data61’s Yarom. “Intel will need to revoke the encryption keys used for authentication in millions of computers worldwide to mitigate the impact of Foreshadow. Their discovery of the Foreshadow-NG variant is even more severe, but will require further research to gauge the full impact of the vulnerability.”

Intel has since released software and microcode patches to protect against both varieties of attack. Cloud providers will need to install updates to guard their machines and, on an individual level, the owners of every SGX-capable Intel PC manufactured since 2016 will need an update to protect their SGX.

Researchers are now exploring whether similar flaws exist in other manufacturers’ processors.