Open Source Intelligence

A new vulnerability in Intel processor’s allows attackers to leak out sensitive protected data including passwords and encryption keys from other processes running in the same CPU core with simultaneous multi-threading feature enabled. 


The vulnerability codenamed PortSmash (CVE-2018-5407)[1] has been categorized as a side-channel vulnerability similar to Meltdown and Spectre.  Researchers from Finland originally discovered the vulnerability.  The vulnerability resides in Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, the company's implementation of Simultaneous MultiThreading (SMT).  Simultaneous MultiThreading is a performance feature that works by splitting up each physical core of a processor into virtual cores, known as threads, allowing each core to run two instruction streams at once.  Since SMT runs two threads in two independent processes alongside each other in the same physical core to boost performance, it is possible for one process to see a surprising amount of what the other is doing. Thus, an attacker can run a malicious PortSmash process alongside the victim process on the same CPU core, allowing the PortSmash code to snoop on the operations performed by the other process by measuring the precise time taken for each operation. In a statement by Intel:

“This issue is not reliant on speculative execution, and is therefore unrelated to Spectre, Meltdown or L1 Terminal Fault.  We expect that it is not unique to Intel platforms. Research on side-channel analysis methods often focuses on manipulating and measuring the characteristics, such as timing, of shared hardware resources. Software or software libraries can be protected against such issues by employing side channel safe development practices. Protecting our customers’ data and ensuring the security of our products is a top priority for Intel and we will continue to work with customers, partners and researchers to understand and mitigate any vulnerabilities that are identified.”

A proof of concept was released on Github[2] by the team. The researchers tested the PortSmash attack against OpenSSL (version <= 1.1.0h) cryptography library and were successfully able to steal the private decryption key using a malicious process running on the same physical core as the OpenSSL thread.  While the researchers have only tested this vulnerability against Intel Skylake and KabyLake processors, they also expect it to work on AMD Ryzen processors.

Prevention and Mitigation Strategies

The only way to mitigate this attack is to disable SMT/Hyper-threading on a computer, which OpenBSD has already done by default since this summer when another timing attack was released called TLBleed.

Intel has already removed hyper-threading from their new 9th generation gaming CPUs in order to offer hardware protection from Meltdown v3 and the L1 Terminal Fault vulnerabilities.  Fixes for this attack have already been added to OpenSSL 1.1.1 and for those who need an older version, patches are available for versions >= 1.1.0i. Our customers are advised to upgrade or apply these patches as soon as possible.



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