New Vulnerability Affecting Computers Worldwide

Industry researchers and academic researchers uncovered a potentially disruptive hardware flaw that made computers and other devices vulnerable in 2018 around the world.

The researchers called this vulnerability Specter because the flaw was added to modern computing processes that derive their speed from a method called “speculative execution.” In this method, the processor anticipates the instructions that it can execute later and, by following this predicted route, prepares to draw instructions from the memory. In a Specter attack, the processor was tricked into executing instructions on the wrong route. Even if the processor survived this attack and completed its task correctly, hackers could access sensitive data when the processor went in the wrong direction.

The world’s most talented computer scientists, working in industry and academia, have worked on software patches and hardware defenses since the Specter was discovered, and managed to protect vulnerable points in this speculative execution process without slowing down computing speeds too much.

But now they have to go back to the drawing table.

Computer science researchers working at the University of Virginia School of Engineering have uncovered a line of attack that breaks all Specter defenses; So today, billions of computers and other devices around the world are as vulnerable as they were when the Specter was first announced. Notifying the international chipmakers of their discovery in April, the research team will make a presentation on this new challenge at a worldwide information architecture conference to be held in June.

Researchers led by computer science professor Aşiş Venkat have discovered a brand new way for hackers to exploit something called a “micro-op buffer”. By storing simple instructions, speeding up transactions, the micro-op buffer allows the processor to retrieve them quickly and early in the speculative execution process. Micro-op buffers were added to Intel computers manufactured since 2011.

Venkat’s team discovered that hackers can steal data while a computer is pulling instructions through the micro-op buffer.


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