Exposure of Sensitive Information in Shared Microarchitectural Structures during Transient Execution

A processor event may allow transient operations to access architecturally restricted data (for example, in another address space) in a shared microarchitectural structure (for example, a CPU cache), potentially exposing the data over a covert channel.


Many commodity processors have Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) features that protect software components from one another. These features can include memory segmentation, virtual memory, privilege rings, trusted execution environments, and virtual machines, among others. For example, virtual memory provides each process with its own address space, which prevents processes from accessing each other's private data. Many of these features can be used to form hardware-enforced security boundaries between software components.

Many commodity processors also share microarchitectural resources that cache (temporarily store) data, which may be confidential. These resources may be shared across processor contexts, including across SMT threads, privilege rings, or others.

When transient operations allow access to ISA-protected data in a shared microarchitectural resource, this might violate users' expectations of the ISA feature that is bypassed. For example, if transient operations can access a victim's private data in a shared microarchitectural resource, then the operations' microarchitectural side effects may correspond to the accessed data. If an attacker can trigger these transient operations and observe their side effects through a covert channel [REF-1400], then the attacker may be able to infer the victim's private data. Private data could include sensitive program data, OS/VMM data, page table data (such as memory addresses), system configuration data (see Demonstrative Example 3), or any other data that the attacker does not have the required privileges to access.


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

Some processors may perform access control checks in parallel with memory read/write operations. For example, when a user-mode program attempts to read data from memory, the processor may also need to check whether the memory address is mapped into user space or kernel space. If the processor performs the access concurrently with the check, then the access may be able to transiently read kernel data before the check completes. This race condition is demonstrated in the following code snippet from [REF-1408], with additional annotations:

1 ; rcx = kernel address, rbx = probe array
2 xor rax, rax                # set rax to 0
3 retry:
4 mov al, byte [rcx]          # attempt to read kernel memory
5 shl rax, 0xc                # multiply result by page size (4KB)
6 jz retry                    # if the result is zero, try again
7 mov rbx, qword [rbx + rax]  # transmit result over a cache covert channel

Vulnerable processors may return kernel data from a shared microarchitectural resource in line 4, for example, from the processor's L1 data cache. Since this vulnerability involves a race condition, the mov in line 4 may not always return kernel data (that is, whenever the check "wins" the race), in which case this demonstration code re-attempts the access in line 6. The accessed data is multiplied by 4KB, a common page size, to make it easier to observe via a cache covert channel after the transmission in line 7. The use of cache covert channels to observe the side effects of transient execution has been described in [REF-1408].

Example Two

Many commodity processors share microarchitectural fill buffers between sibling hardware threads on simultaneous multithreaded (SMT) processors. Fill buffers can serve as temporary storage for data that passes to and from the processor's caches. Microarchitectural Fill Buffer Data Sampling (MFBDS) is a vulnerability that can allow a hardware thread to access its sibling's private data in a shared fill buffer. The access may be prohibited by the processor's ISA, but MFBDS can allow the access to occur during transient execution, in particular during a faulting operation or an operation that triggers a microcode assist.

More information on MFBDS can be found in [REF-1405] and [REF-1409].

Example Three

Some processors may allow access to system registers (for example, system coprocessor registers or model-specific registers) during transient execution. This scenario is depicted in the code snippet below. Under ordinary operating circumstances, code in exception level 0 (EL0) is not permitted to access registers that are restricted to EL1, such as TTBR0_EL1. However, on some processors an earlier mis-prediction can cause the MRS instruction to transiently read the value in an EL1 register. In this example, a conditional branch (line 2) can be mis-predicted as "not taken" while waiting for a slow load (line 1). This allows MRS (line 3) to transiently read the value in the TTBR0_EL1 register. The subsequent memory access (line 6) can allow the restricted register's value to become observable, for example, over a cache covert channel.

Code snippet is from [REF-1410]. See also [REF-1411].

1 LDR X1, [X2] ; arranged to miss in the cache
2 CBZ X1, over ; This will be taken
3 MRS X3, TTBR0_EL1;
4 LSL X3, X3, #imm
5 AND X3, X3, #0xFC0
6 LDR X5, [X6,X3] ; X6 is an EL0 base address
7 over

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Resource Lifecycle Management

Weaknesses in this category are related to resource lifecycle management.

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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