Practical Mitigations Against Memory Corruption and Transient Execution Attacks

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Virginia Tech


Memory corruption attacks have existed in C and C++ for more than 30 years, and over the years many defenses have been proposed. In addition to that, a new class of attacks, Spectre, has emerged that abuse speculative execution to leak secrets and sensitive data through micro-architectural side channels. Many defenses have been proposed to mitigate Spectre as well. However, with every new defense a new attack emerges, and then a new defense is proposed. This is an ongoing cycle between attackers and defenders. There exists many defenses for many different attack avenues. However, many suffer from either practicality or effectiveness issues, and security researchers need to balance out their compromises. Recently, many hardware vendors, such as Intel and ARM, have realized the extent of the issue of memory corruption attacks and have developed hardware security mechanisms that can be utilized to defend against these attacks. ARM, in particular, has released a mechanism called Pointer Authentication in which its main intended use is to protect the integrity of pointers by generating a Pointer Authentication Code (PAC) using a cryptographic hash function, as a Message Authentication Code (MAC), and placing it on the top unused bits of a 64-bit pointer. Placing the PAC on the top unused bits of the pointer changes its semantics and the pointer cannot be used unless it is properly authenticated. Hardware security features such as PAC are merely mechanisms not full fledged defences, and their effectiveness and practicality depends on how they are being utililzed. Naive use of these defenses doesn't alleviate the issues that exist in many state-of-the-art software defenses. The design of the defense that utilizes these hardware security features needs to have practicality and effectiveness in mind. Having both practicality and effectiveness is now a possible reality with these new hardware security features. This dissertation describes utilizing hardware security features, namely ARM PAC, to build effective and practical defense mechanisms. This dissertation first describes my past work called PACTight, a PAC based defense mechanism that defends against control-flow hijack- ing attacks. PACTight defines three security properties of a pointer such that, if achieved, prevent pointers from being tampered with. They are: 1) unforgeability: A pointer p should always point to its legitimate object; 2) non-copyability: A pointer p can only be used when it is at its specific legitimate location; 3) non-dangling: A pointer p cannot be used after it has been freed. PACTight tightly seals pointers and guarantees that a sealed pointer cannot be forged, copied, or dangling. PACTight protects all sensitive pointers, which are code pointers and pointers that point to code pointers. This completely prevents control-flow hijacking attacks, all while having low performance overhead. In addition to that, this dissertation proposes Scope-Type Integrity (STI), a new defense policy that enforces pointers to conform to the programmer's intended manner, by utilizing scope, type, and permission information. STI collects information offline about the type, scope, and permission (read/write) of every pointer in the program. This information can then be used at runtime to ensure that pointers comply with their intended purpose. This allows STI to defeat advanced pointer attacks since these attacks typically violate either the scope, type, or permission. We present Runtime Scope-Type Integrity (RSTI). RSTI leverages ARM Pointer Authentication (PA) to generate Pointer Authentication Codes (PACs), based on the information from STI, and place these PACs at the top bits of the pointer. At runtime, the PACs are then checked to ensure pointer usage complies with STI. RSTI overcomes two drawbacks that were present in PACTight: 1) PACTight relied on a large external metadata for protection, whereas RSTI uses very little metadata. 2) PACTight only protected a subset of pointers, whereas RSTI protects all pointers in a program. RSTI has large coverage with relatively low overhead. Also, this dissertation proposes sPACtre, a new and novel defense mechanism that aims to prevent Spectre control-flow attacks on existing hardware. sPACtre is an ARM-based defense mechanism that prevents Spectre control-flow attacks by relying on ARM's Pointer Authentication hardware security feature, annotations added to the program on the secrets that need to be protected from leakage and a dynamic tag-based bounds checking mechanism for arrays. We show that sPACtre can defend against these attacks. We evaluate sPACtre on a variety of cryptographic libraries with several cryptographic algorithms, as well as a synthetic benchmark, and show that it is efficient and has low performance overhead Finally, this dissertation explains a new direction for utilizing hardware security features to protect energy harvesting devices from checkpoint-recovery errors and malicious attackers.



Hijacking, Data Oriented Attacks, Hardware Security Features, Speculative Execution, Compiler-enabled Defenses, Practical Design, System Software, Control-flow Spectre