Non-Transparent Sharing of Microarchitectural Resources

Hardware structures shared across execution contexts (e.g., caches and branch predictors) can violate the expected architecture isolation between contexts.


Modern processors use techniques such as out-of-order execution, speculation, prefetching, data forwarding, and caching to increase performance. Details about the implementation of these techniques are hidden from the programmer's view. This is problematic when the hardware implementation of these techniques results in resources being shared across supposedly isolated contexts. Contention for shared resources between different contexts opens covert channels that allow malicious programs executing in one context to recover information from another context.

Some examples of shared micro-architectural resources that have been used to leak information between contexts are caches, branch prediction logic, and load or store buffers. Speculative and out-of-order execution provides an attacker with increased control over which data is leaked through the covert channel.

If the extent of resource sharing between contexts in the design microarchitecture is undocumented, it is extremely difficult to ensure system assets are protected against disclosure.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

On some processors the hardware indirect branch predictor is shared between execution contexts, for example, between sibling SMT threads. When SMT thread A executes an indirect branch to a target address X, this target may be temporarily stored by the indirect branch predictor. A subsequent indirect branch mis-prediction for SMT thread B could speculatively execute instructions at X (or at a location in B's address space that partially aliases X). Even though the processor rolls back the architectural effects of the mis-predicted indirect branch, the memory accesses alter data cache state, which is not rolled back after the indirect branch is resolved.

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Violation of Secure Design Principles

Weaknesses in this category are related to violation of secure design principles.

ICS Communications: Frail Security in Protocols

Weaknesses in this category are related to the "Frail Security in Protocols" category from the SEI ETF "Categories of Security Vulnerabilities in ICS" as published in ...

ICS Communications: Zone Boundary Failures

Weaknesses in this category are related to the "Zone Boundary Failures" category from the SEI ETF "Categories of Security Vulnerabilities in ICS" as published in March...

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