Intel’s’ chips have been struck with yet another significant flaw called ‘Foreshadow’. This flaw, alternatively called as L1 Terminal Fault or L1TF, targets Intel’s Security Guard Extensions (SGX) within its Core chips.
The US government’s body for computer security testified that an attacker could take advantage of this vulnerability in Intel’s chips to obtain sensitive information. This security flaw affects processors released right from 2015. Thankfully, Intel has released a patch to combat the problem. Check the full list of affected hardware on Intel’s website.
While Intel confirmed that they are not aware of reports that any of these methods have been used in real-world exploits, the tech giant is now under scrutiny. This was bound to happen as Intel strikes a hattrick following two similar attacks – Spectre and Meltdown – that were discovered earlier this year in January. Intel confirms that future processors would be built in such a way as to not be affected by Foreshadow.
How does Foreshadow affect your data?
The flaw was first brought to Intel’s notice by researchers from KU Leuven University in Belgium and others from the universities of Adelaide and Michigan.
Foreshadow can exploit various flaws in a computing technique known as speculative execution. It can specifically target a lock box within Intel’s processors. This would let a hacker leak any data desired.
To give you a gist, a processor can run more efficiently by guessing the next operation to be performed. A correct prediction will save resources, while work based on an incorrect prediction gets scrapped. However, the system leaves behind clues like how long it will take the processor to fulfill a certain request. This can be used by an attacker to find weaknesses, ultimately gaining the ability to manipulate what path the speculation takes. Thus, hacking into the data at opportune moments that leaks out of a process’s data storage cache.
Speculative execution is important to guard against, because an attacker could use them to access data and system privileges meant to be off-limits.
The most intriguing part of the story, as stated by hardware security researcher and Foreshadow contributor Jo Van Bulck is, “Spectre is focused on one speculation mechanism, Meltdown is another, and Foreshadow is another”.
“This is not an attack on a particular user, it’s an attack on infrastructure.”
YUVAL YAROM, UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE
After the discovery of Spectre and Meltdown, the researchers found it only too fitting to look for speculative execution flaws in the SGX enclave.
To give you an overview, Security Guard Extensions, or SGX, were originally designed to protect code from disclosure or modification. SGX is included in 7th-generation Core chips and above, as well as the corresponding Xeon generation. It remains protected even when the BIOS, VMM, operating system, and drivers are compromised. Meaning that an attacker with full execution control over the platform can be kept away.
SGX, allows programs to establish secure enclaves on Intel processors. These are regions of a chip that are restricted to run code that the computer’s operating system can’t access or change. The creates a safe space for sensitive data,. Even if the main computer is compromised by malware, the sensitive data remains safe.
That apparently isn’t totally the case. Wired furthers stress on the fact that the Foreshadow bug could break down the walls between virtual machines, a real concern for cloud companies whose services share space with other theoretically isolated processes.
Watch this youtube video for more clarity on how foreshadow works.
The Quick Fix to Foreshadow
Prior to details of the flaw being made public, Intel had created its fix and coordinated its response with the researchers on Tuesday. The fix disables some of chips features that were vulnerable to the attack. Along with software mitigations, the bug will also be patched at the hardware level with Cascade Lake, an upcoming Xeon chip, as well as future Intel processors expected to launch later this year.
This mitigation limits the extent to which the same processor can be used simultaneously for multiple tasks, and hence companies running cloud computing platforms could see a significant hit to their collective computing power. On Tuesday, cloud services companies – Amazon, Google and Microsoft – said they had put in place a fix for the problem. Intel is working with these cloud providers—where uptime and performance is key—to “detect L1TF-based exploits during system operation, applying mitigation only when necessary,” Leslie Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Product Assurance and Security at Intel, wrote.
Individual computer users are advised, as ever, to download and install any software updates available. The research team confirmed that is was unlikely that individuals would see any performance impact.
As long as you’re system is patched up, you should be okay.