Exposure of Sensitive Information caused by Incorrect Data Forwarding during Transient Execution

A processor event or prediction may allow incorrect or stale data to be forwarded to transient operations, potentially exposing data over a covert channel.


Software may use a variety of techniques to preserve the confidentiality of private data that is accessible within the current processor context. For example, the memory safety and type safety properties of some high-level programming languages help to prevent software written in those languages from exposing private data. As a second example, software sandboxes may co-locate multiple users' software within a single process. The processor's Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) may permit one user's software to access another user's data (because the software shares the same address space), but the sandbox prevents these accesses by using software techniques such as bounds checking.

If incorrect or stale data can be forwarded (for example, from a cache) to transient operations, then the operations' microarchitectural side effects may correspond to the data. If an attacker can trigger these transient operations and observe their side effects through a covert channel, then the attacker may be able to infer the data. For example, an attacker process may induce transient execution in a victim process that causes the victim to inadvertently access and then expose its private data via a covert channel. In the software sandbox example, an attacker sandbox may induce transient execution in its own code, allowing it to transiently access and expose data in a victim sandbox that shares the same address space.

Consequently, weaknesses that arise from incorrect/stale data forwarding might violate users' expectations of software-based memory safety and isolation techniques. If the data forwarding behavior is not properly documented by the hardware vendor, this might violate the software vendor's expectation of how the hardware should behave.


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

Faulting loads in a victim domain may trigger incorrect transient forwarding, which leaves secret-dependent traces in the microarchitectural state. Consider this code sequence example from [REF-1391].

void call_victim(size_t untrusted_arg) {

  *arg_copy = untrusted_arg;
  array[**trusted_ptr * 4096];


A processor with this weakness will store the value of untrusted_arg (which may be provided by an attacker) to the stack, which is trusted memory. Additionally, this store operation will save this value in some microarchitectural buffer, for example, the store buffer.

In this code sequence, trusted_ptr is dereferenced while the attacker forces a page fault. The faulting load causes the processor to mis-speculate by forwarding untrusted_arg as the (transient) load result. The processor then uses untrusted_arg for the pointer dereference. After the fault has been handled and the load has been re-issued with the correct argument, secret-dependent information stored at the address of trusted_ptr remains in microarchitectural state and can be extracted by an attacker using a vulnerable code sequence.

Example Two

Some processors try to predict when a store will forward data to a subsequent load, even when the address of the store or the load is not yet known. For example, on Intel processors this feature is called a Fast Store Forwarding Predictor [REF-1392], and on AMD processors the feature is called Predictive Store Forwarding [REF-1393]. A misprediction can cause incorrect or stale data to be forwarded from a store to a load, as illustrated in the following code snippet from [REF-1393]:

void fn(int idx) {

  unsigned char v;
  idx_array[0] = 4096;
  v = array[idx_array[idx] * (idx)];


In this example, assume that the parameter idx can only be 0 or 1, and assume that idx_array initially contains all 0s. Observe that the assignment to v in line 4 will be array[0], regardless of whether idx=0 or idx=1. Now suppose that an attacker repeatedly invokes fn with idx=0 to train the store forwarding predictor to predict that the store in line 3 will forward the data 4096 to the load idx_array[idx] in line 4. Then, when the attacker invokes fn with idx=1 the predictor may cause idx_array[idx] to transiently produce the incorrect value 4096, and therefore v will transiently be assigned the value array[4096], which otherwise would not have been accessible in line 4.

Although this toy example is benign (it doesn't transmit array[4096] over a covert channel), an attacker may be able to use similar techniques to craft and train malicious code sequences to, for example, read data beyond a software sandbox boundary.

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 Design

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

Weakness Base Elements

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