Exposure of Sensitive Information during Transient Execution

A processor event or prediction may allow incorrect operations (or correct operations with incorrect data) to execute transiently, potentially exposing data over a covert channel.


When operations execute but do not commit to the processor's architectural state, this is commonly referred to as transient execution. This behavior can occur when the processor mis-predicts an outcome (such as a branch target), or when a processor event (such as an exception or microcode assist, etc.) is handled after younger operations have already executed. Operations that execute transiently may exhibit observable discrepancies (CWE-203) in covert channels [REF-1400] such as data caches. Observable discrepancies of this kind can be detected and analyzed using timing or power analysis techniques, which may allow an attacker to infer information about the operations that executed transiently. For example, the attacker may be able to infer confidential data that was accessed or used by those operations.

Transient execution weaknesses may be exploited using one of two methods. In the first method, the attacker generates a code sequence that exposes data through a covert channel when it is executed transiently (the attacker must also be able to trigger transient execution). Some transient execution weaknesses can only expose data that is accessible within the attacker's processor context. For example, an attacker executing code in a software sandbox may be able to use a transient execution weakness to expose data within the same address space, but outside of the attacker's sandbox. Other transient execution weaknesses can expose data that is architecturally inaccessible, that is, data protected by hardware-enforced boundaries such as page tables or privilege rings. These weaknesses are the subject of CWE-1421.

In the second exploitation method, the attacker first identifies a code sequence in a victim program that, when executed transiently, can expose data that is architecturally accessible within the victim's processor context. For instance, the attacker may search the victim program for code sequences that resemble a bounds-check bypass sequence (see Demonstrative Example 1). If the attacker can trigger a mis-prediction of the conditional branch and influence the index of the out-of-bounds array access, then the attacker may be able to infer the value of out-of-bounds data by monitoring observable discrepancies in a covert channel.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

Secure programs perform bounds checking before accessing an array if the source of the array index is provided by an untrusted source such as user input. In the code below, data from array1 will not be accessed if x is out of bounds. The following code snippet is from [REF-1415]:

if (x < array1_size)

  y = array2[array1[x] * 4096];

However, if this code executes on a processor that performs conditional branch prediction the outcome of the if statement could be mis-predicted and the access on the next line will occur with a value of x that can point to an out-of-bounds location (within the program's memory).

Even though the processor does not commit the architectural effects of the mis-predicted branch, the memory accesses alter data cache state, which is not rolled back after the branch is resolved. The cache state can reveal array1[x] thereby providing a mechanism to recover the data value located at address array1 + x.

Example Two

Some managed runtimes or just-in-time (JIT) compilers may overwrite recently executed code with new code. When the instruction pointer enters the new code, the processor may inadvertently execute the stale code that had been overwritten. This can happen, for instance, when the processor issues a store that overwrites a sequence of code, but the processor fetches and executes the (stale) code before the store updates memory. Similar to the first example, the processor does not commit the stale code's architectural effects, though microarchitectural side effects can persist. Hence, confidential information accessed or used by the stale code may be inferred via an observable discrepancy in a covert channel. This vulnerability is described in more detail in [REF-1427].

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Resource Lifecycle Management

Weaknesses in this category are related to resource lifecycle management.

Memory and Storage Issues

Weaknesses in this category are typically associated with memory (e.g., DRAM, SRAM) and storage technologies (e.g., NAND Flash, OTP, EEPROM, and eMMC).

Core and Compute Issues

Weaknesses in this category are typically associated with CPUs, Graphics, Vision, AI, FPGA, and microcontrollers.

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

Weaknesses Introduced During Design

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during design.

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