Always about Security Patching and Updates

These days I keep coming back to the “security patching and updates” issue. So I am going to add another couple of comments.

The first is about Ripple 20 (here the official link but the news is already wide spread) which carries an impressive number of “CVSS v3 base score 10.0” vulnerabilities. The question is again:

how can we secure all of these Million/Billion vulnerable devices since it seems very likely that security patching is not an option for most of them?

The second one is very hypothetical, that is in the “food for thought” class.

Assume, as some says, that in 2030 Quantum Computers will be powerful enough to break RSA and other asymmetrical cryptographic algorithms, and that at the same time (or just before) Post Quantum Cryptography will deliver us new secure algorithms to substitute RSA and friends. At first sight all looks ok: we will have just to do a lot of security patching/updating of servers, clients, applications, CA certificates, credit cards (hardware), telephone SIMs (hardware), security keys (hardware), Hardware Security Modules (HSM) and so on and on… But what about all those micro/embedded/IoT devices in which the current cryptographic algorithms are baked into? And all of those large devices (like aircrafts but also cars) which have been designed with cryptographic algorithms baked into them (no change possible)? We will probably have to choose between living dangerously or buy a new one. Or we could be forced to buy a new one, if the device will not be able to work anymore since its old algorithm will not be accepted by the rest of the world.

PS. Concerning Quantum Computers,  as far as I know nobody claims that a full Quantum Computer will be functioning by 2030, this is only the earliest possible estimate of arrival, but it could take much much longer, or even never!

PS. I deliberately do not want to consider the scenario in which full Quantum Computers are available and Post Quantum Cryptography is not.

Security and Cryptography do not always go Hand in Hand with Availability

I have been reading this article by Ars Technica on smartphones’ 2FA Authenticator Apps and put it together with some thoughts about Hardware Security Keys (implementing the U2F [CTAP1] standard by the FIDO Alliance). In both scenarios, the security of the Second Factor Authentication (2FA) is based on the confidentiality of a cryptographic private key in the first case hold securely in the smartphone and in the second case in the USB hardware key. In other words, the private key cannot be read, copied or transferred to any other device, as it is also for any smart card (or integrated circuit card, ICC) or any Hardware Security Module (HSM).

Good for Security, but what about Availability?

Consider this very simple (and secure) scenario: my smartphone with a 2FA Authenticator App (or alternatively my U2F USB key) utterly breaks down: I have no way, at least given usual economical and time constraints, to recover it.

Now what about access to all those services which I set up in a very secure way with 2FA?

There is no access and no way immediately available to recover it! (But see below for more complete scenarios.)

The only possibility is to get a new hardware and perform a usually manual and lengthy process to regain access to each account and to configure the new hardware 2FA.

So Availability is lost and it could take quite some time and efforts to regain it.

The article by Ars Technica mentioned above, describes how some 2FA Authenticator Apps provide a solution to this problem: the idea is to install the App on multiple devices and securely copy the secret private key on each one of them. But now the secret private key, even if encrypted itself, is not anymore “hardware protected” since it is possible to copy it and transfer it. So Security/Confidentiality goes down but Availability goes up.

This process is obviously impossible as such with U2F hardware keys. In this case an alternative is to have multiple U2F hardware keys registered with all accounts and services so that if one key breaks one can always use a backup key to access the accounts and services. (For more info, see for example this support page by Google.)

CacheOut: another speculative execution attack to CPUs

It was 2 years ago that we learned about Spectre and Meltdown, the first speculative attacks to CPUs which exploit hardware “bugs” and in particular the speculative and out-of-order execution features in modern CPUs. In the last 2 years a long list of attacks followed these initial two, and CacheOut is the last one.

CacheOut, here its own website and here an article about it, builds and improves over previous attacks and countermeasures like microcode updates provided by the CPUs makers, and Operating System patches. The CacheOut attack allows, in Intel CPUs, to read data from other processes including secret encryption keys, data from other Virtual Machines and the contents of the Intel’s secured SGX enclave.

Besides the effective consequences of this attack and the availability and effectiveness of  software countermeasures, it is important to remember that the only final solution to this class of attacks is the development and adoption of new and redesigned hardware CPUs. This will probably take still a few years and in the meantime we should adopt countermeasures based on risks’ evaluation so to isolate critical data and processes to dedicated CPUs or entire computers.

Privacy and VPN Routers for Personal Security

Though I do not have one nor I tried one, Privacy and VPN routers like InvizBox, Anonabox, NordVPN, TorGuard VPN, and many others from well known brands (see here for example for a review), are becoming more common, easy to use also when travelling, and features loaded.

They typically allow to easily create private or commercial VPNs, establish Tor circuits and implement privacy filters on internet traffic. They are probably not as tight as Tails, but I expect that they are user friendly. 

Though I never felt the need of a commercial VPN service, I would consider using a security and privacy internet router which I can carry with me and easily activate even when travelling.

Recent Results on Information and Security

I recently read two articles which made me think that we still do not understand well enough what “information” is. Both articles consider ways of managing information by “side channels” or through “covert channels”. In other words, whatever we do, produces much more information than what we believe.

The first article is “Attack of the week: searchable encryption and the ever-expanding leakage function” by cryptographer Matthew Green in which he explains the results of this scientific article by P. Grubbs et al. The scenario is an encrypted database, that is a database where column data in a table is encrypted so that whoever accesses the DB has no direct access to the data (this is not the case where the database files are encrypted on the filesystem). The encryption algorithm is such that a remote client, who knows the encryption key, can make some simple kind of encrypted searches (queries) on the (encrypted) data, extracting the (encrypted) results. Only on the remote client data can be decrypted. Now an attacker (even a DB admin), under some mild assumptions, with some generic knowledge of the type of data in the DB and able to monitor which encrypted rows are the result of each query (of which she cannot read the parameters), applying some advanced statistical mathematics in learning theory, is anyway able to reconstruct with good precision the contents of the table. A simple example of this is a table containing the two columns employee_name and salary, both of them with encrypted values. In practice this means that this type of encryption leaks much more information than what we believed.

The second article is “ExSpectre: Hiding Malware in Speculative Execution” by J.Wampler et al. and, as the title suggests, is an extension of the Spectre CPU vulnerability. Also the Spectre and Meltdown attacks have to do with information management, but in these cases the information is managed internally in the CPU and it was supposed not to be accessible from outside it. In this particular article the idea is actually to hide information: the authors have devised a way of splitting a malware in two components, a “trigger” and a “payload”, such that both components appear to be benign to standard anti-virus and reverse engineering techniques. So the malware is hidden from view. When both components are executed on the same CPU, the trigger alters the internal state of the branch prediction of the CPU in such a way to make the payload execute malign code as a Spectre speculative execution. This does not alter the correct execution by the CPU of the payload program, but through Spectre, extra speculative instructions are executed and these, for example, can implement a reverse shell to give external access to the system to an attacker. Since the extra instructions are retired by the CPU at the end of the speculative execution, it appears as if they have never been executed and thus they seem to be untraceable. Currently this attack is mostly theoretical, difficult to implement and very slow. Still it is based on managing information in covert channels as both Spectre and Meltdown are CPU vulnerabilities which also exploit cache information side-channel attacks.

Hardware Enclaves and Security

Hardware enclaves, such as Intel Software Guard Extension (SGX), are hardware security features of recent CPUs which allow the isolated execution of critical code. The typical threat model of hardware enclaves includes the totally isolated execution of trusted code in the enclave, considering all the rest of the code and data, operating system included, un-trusted. Software running in a hardware enclave has limited access to all data outside the enclave, whereas everything else does not have any access to what is inside the enclave, hypervisor, operating system and anti-virus included. Hardware enclaves can manage with very high security applications as password and secret-key managers, crypto-currency wallets, DRM etc.

But what could happen if a malware, for example a ransomware, is loaded in a hardware enclave?

First of all, a malware hidden in a hardware enclave cannot be detected since neither the hypervisor, operating system nor any kind of anti-virus can access it. The software to be loaded in a hardware enclave must be signed by a trusted entity, for example for SGX by Intel itself or by a trusted developer. This makes it more difficult to distribute hardware enclave malware, but not completely impossible. Finally, applications running inside a hardware enclave have very constrained access to the outside resources and it was believed that malware could use a hardware enclave (that is part of it could run in a hardware enclave) but that it was not possible for a malware to fully run inside an enclave without any component outside it.

M. Schwarz, S. Weiser and D. Gruss have instead recently shown in this paper that, at least theoretically, it is possible to create a super-malware run entirely from within a hardware enclave. This super-malware would be undetectable and could act as a normal malware on the rest of the system. At the moment countermeasures are not available, but similarly to the case of Spectre and Meltdown they could require hardware modification and/or have impact on the speed of the CPUs.

Da Multics a Meltdown e Spectre

Ultimamente ho dedicato del tempo alle vulnerabilità Hardware di quest’anno, principalmente Meltdown e Spectre nelle loro molteplici varianti.

Non ho aggiornato questo blog, ma ho pubblicato tre articoli dal titolo “L’Hardware e la sicurezza IT” sulla rivista online ICTSecurity. In questi articoli sono ripartito dagli anni ’60, in particolare da Multics, quando l’architettura e le funzioni di sicurezza dell’Hardware sono stati inizialmente disegnati, per arrivare a Row Hammer, gli attacchi alla Cache, Meltdown e Spectre.

Adesso ho sicuramente le idee un po’ più chiare sul significato ad oggi di queste vulnerabilità, anche se mi è molto meno chiaro cosa possano comportare nel futuro.

Meltdown and Spectre bugs should help improve IT Security

Yes, I want to be positive and look at a bright future. Everybody is now talking about the Meltdown and Spectre bugs (here the official site). I think that these Hardware bugs at the end will help improve the security of our IT systems. But we should not underestimate the pain that they could cause, even if it is too early to say this for certain since patches and countermeasures could be found for all systems and CPUs or, at the opposite, there could appear unexpected exploits.

The central issue is that IT and IT Security in particular, depend crucially on the correctness of the behaviour of the Hardware, first of all of the CPUs. If the foundation of the IT pillar is weak, sooner or later something will break. Let’s then hope that the Meltdown and Spectre bugs will help design more secure IT Hardware and, in the long run, improve IT Security as a whole.

Rowhammer, SGX and IT Security

I am following with interest the developments of the Rowhammer class of attacks and defenses, here there is one of the latest articles. (As far as I know, these are still more research subjects than real-life attacks.)

Already at the time of the Orange Book (or more correctly the “Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria – TCSEC”) in the ’80s, it was clear how important the hardware is in building the chain of trust on which IT Security relies.

Rowhammer attacks follow from a hardware security weakness, even if this weakness is also a hardware strength: the increase in density and decrease in size of DRAM cells, which allows to build memory banks with lower energy consumption and higher capacity. Unfortunately this allows the near-location memory bit-flipping that can give rise to a total compromise of the IT system, that is a Rowhammer attack. It is true that there exist memory banks with Error Correction Codes (ECC) which make the Rowhammer attacks quite hard, but these memory banks are more expensive, a little slower and available only on high-end server computers. One can look at it as a hardware feature which carried within an unexpected security weakness.

As it turns out, it seems very hard to find software measures which can detect, block or prevent Rowhammer attacks. Many different software defences have been proposed, but as of today none is really able to completely stop all Rowhammer types of attacks. A hardware weakness seems to require only hardware countermeasures.

To make the situation even more intriguing, the hardware-based Intel SGX security enclaves can be mixed-in in this scenario. Intel SGX is a hardware x86 instruction-set extension which allows to securely and confidentially execute programs in an isolated environment (called a “security enclave”). Nothing can directly look into a SGX security enclave, not even the Operating System, to the point that data can be computed in it even on systems controlled by an adversary (but SGX security enclaves are not immune from side-channel attacks). Rowhammer attacks cannot be performed from outside against programs running in a SGX security enclave. Vice-versa, a SGX security enclave in some conditions can run, without been detected, a Rowhammer software to attack the hardware and programs running on it. Overall it seems that Intel SGX security enclaves can provide extremely interesting IT security features but at the same time can also be abused to defeat IT security itself.

All of this becomes more worrisome when thinking of Virtual Machines and Cloud Services.

 

Is it truly impossible to separate VMs running on the same HW?

More and more results appear, like this last one, on weaknesses and vulnerabilities of Virtual Machines running on usual (commodity) hardware. The most troublesome results are not due to software vulnerabilities, but rely only on the hardware architecture which supports it. If cryptographic private keys can be stolen and covert channels can be established evading the current isolation mechanisms provided by hardware and virtualization software (see also my previous posts on Clouds), how much can we trust at least the IaaS Cloud Services?