Wednesday, April 1, 2015 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Exploiting the DRAM Rowhammer Bug to Gain Kernel Privileges

Mark Seaborn (via Collin Allen):

“Rowhammer” is a problem with some recent DRAM devices in which repeatedly accessing a row of memory can cause bit flips in adjacent rows. We tested a selection of laptops and found that a subset of them exhibited the problem. We built two working privilege escalation exploits that use this effect. One exploit uses rowhammer-induced bit flips to gain kernel privileges on x86-64 Linux when run as an unprivileged userland process. When run on a machine vulnerable to the rowhammer problem, the process was able to induce bit flips in page table entries (PTEs). It was able to use this to gain write access to its own page table, and hence gain read-write access to all of physical memory.

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History has shown that issues that are thought to be “only” reliability issues often have significant security implications, and the rowhammer problem is a good example of this. Many layers of software security rest on the assumption the contents of memory locations don't change unless the locations are written to.

The public discussion of software flaws and their exploitation has greatly expanded our industry’s understanding of computer security in past decades, and responsible software vendors advise users when their software is vulnerable and provide updates. Though the industry is less accustomed to hardware bugs than to software bugs, we would like to encourage hardware vendors to take the same approach: thoroughly analyse the security impact of “reliability” issues, provide explanations of impact, offer mitigation strategies and — when possible — supply firmware or BIOS updates.

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