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MIT Researches Find a New Way to Fix Spectre and Meltdown, Isolation Is Key

The Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities have been a real nightmare throughout this year. Those affected were quick (maybe too much) to mitigate the problems with different solutions, but months later even the most recent Intel chips aren't completely safe. Hardware fixes only work for certain Meltdown variants, while the rest are still mitigated with firmware and OS updates that have certain impact on performance.

Intel will have to redesign certain features on their future processors to finally forget Meltdown and Spectre, but meanwhile others have jumped to give some options. MIT researchers have developed a way to partition and isolate memory caches with 'protection domains'. Unlike Intel's Cache Allocation Technology (CAT), MIT's technology, called DAWG (Dynamically Allocated Way Guard) disallows hits across those protection domains. This is important, because attackers targeting this vulnerabilities take advantage of 'cache timing attacks' and can get access to sensible, private data.

Intel Fixes Spectre & Meltdown on New Desktop Processors, Core-X Will Have to Wait

The new 9th generation Intel Core processors arrived yesterday with a series of improvements made to entice gamers and content creators. These improvements, however, join others that go beyond pure performance. Intel has introduced several architectural changes to fix the infamous Spectre & Meltdown vulnerabilities, and the new processors mitigate most of the variants of these attacks through a combination of hardware, firmware and OS fixes.

The big changes come to two of the six variants of those vulnerabilities. In both "Rogue Data Cache Load" (Meltdown, variant 3) and "L1 Terminal Fault" (Meltdown, Variant 5) vulnerabilities these new processors have hardware fixes that are new and not present on the rest of the current portfolio of Intel chips. This includes the new Xeon W-3175X (Core-X Skylake-X Refresh), which still depend on firmware fixes to mitigate those problems.

Insidious New "NetSpectre" Vulnerability Can Be Exploited Over Network

The "Spectre" family of vulnerability, an exploitation of the speculative execution features of modern processors (mostly Intel), was scary enough. Up until now, running malware that implements Spectre needed one to run the program on a local machine. Running it remotely was limited to well-crafted JavaScript executed on the victim's machine, or cloud hosts made to process infected files. This is about to change. Security researchers from Graz University of Technology, including one of the discoverers of the "Meltdown" vulnerability, Daniel Gruss; have discovered NetSpectre, a fully network-based exploit that can let attackers read the memory of a remote machine without executing any program on that machine.

NetSpectre works by deriving bits and bytes from the memory based on measurements of the time the processor to succeed or recover from failure in speculative execution. As a processor is executing code, it speculates what the next instruction or data is, and stores their outcomes beforehand. A successful "guess" is rewarded with tangible performance benefits, while an unsuccessful guess is penalized with having to repeat the step. By measuring the precise time it takes for the processor to perform either (respond to success or failure in speculative execution), the contents of the memory can be inferred.

Custom BIOSes Harden Intel X58 Motherboards Against Meltdown and Spectre

Legendary soft-modder Regeneration released a vast collection of motherboard BIOS updates for socket LGA1366 motherboards based on Intel X58 Express chipset, because motherboard manufacturers have abandoned the 10-year old platform (yeah, it's been a decade since "Nehalem"!). The BIOSes have been made by transplanting the latest micro-code updates by Intel, which run all the way back to the 1st generation Core micro-architecture.

These are unofficial BIOSes which you use at your own risk, but they've been made by a person with more than two decades of fanfare in the PC enthusiast community, famous for unofficial, performance-enhancing NGO VGA drivers from his now defunct blog NGOHQ.com. Find the links to the BIOS of your X58 motherboard in this thread on TechPowerUp Forums (hosted externally).

ASUS Begins Rolling Out 9-series Chipset Spectre/Meltdown Hardening BIOS Updates

ASUS has silently began rolling out motherboard BIOS updates for its Intel 9-series chipset motherboards, which provide hardening against "Meltdown" and "Spectre" vulnerabilities, through a CPU microcode update. Intel, if you'll recall, released microcode updates for "Haswell" and "Broadwell" processors this March, but you were at the mercy of your motherboard manufacturer to pass them on to you. The BIOS updates pack the latest version 24 microcode for 4th generation "Haswell" and 5th generation "Broadwell" processors in the LGA1150 package.

A small catch here, is that the BIOS updates are marked "beta" by ASUS, because the understanding is that all 9-series motherboards sold through 2014-15 are EOL, and have probably lapsed warranty coverage, so the company is limiting its liabilities in case BIOS updates fail, or if the platform still ends up "vulnerable" somehow. The latest version of InSpectre confirms that the latest BIOS for the Z97-A, one of the more popular motherboards by ASUS based on the Z97 Express chipset, passes hardening against Meltdown and Spectre, coupled with Windows 10 April 2018 Update. You should find the latest BIOS updates in the "Support" tab of the product page of your motherboard on ASUS website. Here's hoping other motherboard manufacturers love their customers as much.

AMD Announces Steps, Resources for Spectre Mitigations

AMD today announced, via a security blog post penned by their own Mark Papermaster, that they're beginning deployment of mitigations and resources for AMD processors affected by the Spectre exploits. In the blog post, AMD reiterates how exploits based on version 1 of Spectre exploits (GPZ 1 - Google Project Zero Flaw 1) have already been covered by AMD's partners. At the same time, AMD reiterates how their processors are invulnerable to Meltdown exploits (GPZ3), and explains how mitigations for GPZ2 (Spectre) will occur.

These mitigations require a combination of processor microcode updates from OEM and motherboard partners, as well as running the current and fully up-to-date version of Windows. For Linux users, AMD-recommended mitigations for GPZ Variant 2 were made available to Linux partners and have been released to distribution earlier this year.

Microsoft Rolling Out New "Speculative Execution" Bug Bounty Program

In a blog post, Microsoft has announced that it has decided to take the matter of finding critical bugs of similar nature to the Spectre/Meltdown flaws into its own hands - at least partially. Adding to its bug bounty programs, the company has now announced that a new pot of up to $250,000 is up for grabs until at least December 31st of this year.

The new bug bounty program is divided into four different severity/compensation tiers, with tier 1 flaws (New categories of speculative execution attacks) granting up to $250,000 in rewards for the "coordinated disclosure" of such vulnerabilities. The idea here is Microsoft is employing the knowledge and will of the capable masses that might find ways of exploiting vulnerabilities, and would choose to disclose them to Microsoft - getting the prize money, helping the tech industry in providing a timely, coordinated defense against these exploits, and saving vast amounts of funding (and time), by not having to do the bug bounty themselves.

Microsoft Pushes New Software-Based Spectre, Meltdown Mitigation Patches

The Spectre/Meltdown road is long and pocked with lawsuits and security holes as it is, and Microsoft is one of the players that's trying to put the asphalt back to tip-top, Autobahn-worth shape. The company has already improved users' security to the Meltdown and Spectre exploits on its OS side; however, hardware patches, and specifically BIOS-editing ones are much harder to deploy and distribute by the PC chain. That may be one of the reasons why Microsoft is now again stepping up with software-based mitigations for Intel-based systems, specifically.

The new updates introduce a software-based CPU microcode revision update, and work at the OS-level to plug some security holes on your Intel processors that might otherwise remain unpatched. The reasons for them remaining unpatched can be many: either Intel taking even more time to deploy patches to the still vulnerable systems; your OEMs not deploying the Intel CPU microcode revisions via a BIOS update; or the good old "I forgot I could do it" user story. Of course, being software based means these Microsoft patches will have to be reapplied should users format their Windows system. The update can for now only be manually downloaded and installed, and can only be applied to version 1709 (Fall Creators Update) and Windows Server version 1709 (Server Core), but that's definitely better than the alternative of forcing less knowledgeable users to try and find their way through BIOS updates. Of course, that is assuming OEMs will ever push BIOS updates to their products.

Intel Finally Ready With Security Microcode Updates for Broadwell, Haswell

Via updated documents on its Microcode Revision guide, Intel has revealed that they have finally developed and started deploying microcode security updates for their Broadwell and Haswell-based microprocessors. The microcode update comes after a flurry of nearly platform-specific updates that aimed to mitigate known vulnerabilities in Intel's CPUs to the exploits known as Spectre and Meltdown.

While that's good news, Intel's patching odyssey still isn't over, by any means. According to Intel's documentation, the Spectre fixes for Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge are still in beta and are being tested by hardware partners, so that's two other architectures that still remain vulnerable. Of course, this discussion of who's vulnerable and isn't really can't be reduced to which architectures Intel has released its updates to. Users have to remember that the trickle-down process from Intel's patch validation and distribution through manufacturers to end users' systems is a morose one, and is also partially in the hands of sometimes not too tech-savy users. Time will tell if these flaws will have any major impact in some users or businesses.

SEC Warns Tech Execs Not to Trade Stock When Investigating Security Flaws

The United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) came down hard on silicon valley executives trading company stock when their companies were investigating security or design flaws that could potentially bring down stock value; as something like that borders on insider-trading, a felony under US law. This comes in the wake of senior executives of credit rating company Equifax, and chipmaker Intel, dumping company stock while their companies were investigating security flaws in their products or services. Intel CEO Brian Kraznich raised quite a stink when reports emerged that he sold $39 million worth Intel stock while the company was investigating the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in its processors (which hadn't been made public while he dumped the stock).

The SEC has come up with a far-reaching new guideline to keep tech execs from exhibiting similar borderline-insider-trading behavior. "Directors, officers, and other corporate insiders must not trade a public company's securities while in possession of material nonpublic information, which may include knowledge regarding a significant cybersecurity incident experienced by the company," the new guideline reads. "There is no doubt that the cybersecurity landscape and the risks associated with it continue to evolve," said SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. "I have asked the Division of Corporation Finance to continue to carefully monitor cybersecurity disclosures as part of their selective filing reviews. We will continue to evaluate developments in this area and consider feedback about whether any further guidance or rules are needed."

Updated Firmware Available for 6th, 7th and 8th Generation Intel Core Processors

Intel today shared in a blog post that they are deploying microcode solutions that have been developed and validated over the last several weeks. These updates aim to patch security vulnerabilities recently found in Intel processors, and will be distributed, mostly, via OEM firmware updates - users who want to have their system hardened against Spectre and Meltdown exploits will have to ensure that their system manufacturer of choice makes these microcode updates available. If they don't do it in a timely fashion, users have no choice but to be vocal about that issue - Intel has now done its part in this matter.

This is the second wave of Intel's patches to mitigate the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, after the first, hasty patch sent users on towards unstable, crashing systems and the inevitable update rollback. Security had already been reinstated, of sorts, for Intel's Skylake processors, but left users of any other affected Intel CPU family out in the cold. Here's hoping this is the one update that actually sticks after thorough testing and validation.

Intel Expands Bug Bounty Program in Wake Of Spectre, Meltdown Flaws

(Editor's Note: This move by Intel aims to expand their bug-bounty program to specifically include side-channel attacks, such as those that can be leverage on the Spectre and Meltdown exploits. The company is also increasing the rewards it will give the researchers who find new flaws, a move that aims to employ the masses' knowledge and ingenuity to try and reach the hard-earned bonus at the end of the vulnerability - all while saving Intel much more money than it's paying to bug hunters.)

At Intel, we believe that working with security researchers is a crucial part of identifying and mitigating potential security issues in our products. Similar to other companies, one of the ways we've made this part of our operating model is through a bug bounty program. The Intel Bug Bounty Program was launched in March 2017 to incentivize security researchers to collaborate with us to find and report potential vulnerabilities. This, in turn, helps us strengthen the security of our products, while also enabling a responsible and coordinated disclosure process.

ASUSTOR Responds to Intel Meltdown and Spectre Vulnerabilities

ASUSTOR Inc. is releasing ADM to version 3.0.5 to fix the Meltdown security vulnerability in Intel CPUs. The models receiving an update are: AS3100, AS3200, AS5000, AS5100, AS6100, AS6200, AS6300, AS6400 and AS7000 series. For the AS6302T and AS6404T NAS devices, ASUSTOR is releasing a BIOS update to patch the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities. Other x86 NAS will be patched as soon as Intel releases a patch.

For ASUSTOR's other models, they will be patched as soon as an updated Linux kernel is released. On non-Intel CPU models, ASUSTOR is also continuing to work with the other relevant CPU manufacturers. ASUSTOR takes security very seriously. When further information is released, customers will be informed through the appropriate channels.

Intel Deploys Microcode Update for Spectre Flaw on Skylake

In another step of our Spectre/Meltdown odyssey, Intel has started deployment of a fixed update for its Skylake processors, which aims to neuter chances of a malicious attacker exploiting the (now) known vulnerabilities. This update, which comes after a botched first update attempt that was causing widespread system reboots and prompted Intel to change its update guidelines, is only for the Skylake platform; other Intel CPUs' updates remain in Beta state, and there's no word on when they might see a final deployment.

The new microcode is being distributed to industry partners, so that they can include it in a new range of firmware updates that will, hopefully, end the instability and vulnerabilities present in current mobile and desktop Skylake implementations. Users of other Intel architectures will still have to wait a while longer before updates for their systems are certified by Intel, distributed to industry partners, and then trickle to end users via firmware updates.

Microsoft Issues Update to Rollback Intel Spectre, Meltdown Problematic Patches

Multiple reports pegged some issues on Intel's rapid-fire, microcode and software response towards addressing the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, with Intel themselves coming forward, admitting to the problems' existence, and urging users not to perform said updates. However, Intel's press release wasn't very clear on whether or not users would be able to rollback changes in order to recover their machines' stability. Microsoft has taken the matter into its own hands, via an out of band update for Windows, KB4078130, that specifically disables only the mitigation against CVE-2017-5715 - "Branch target injection vulnerability."

In Microsoft's testing, this particular update is the one that the company has found to be associated the most with stability issues on host machines, and their out of band update seems to mitigate these completely. Microsoft is also adding the possibility for users to either disable or enable the troublesome mitigation themselves, manually, via registry changes. Microsoft seems to have taken the job of cleaning house on themselves, after Intel's apparent hasty move to restore security to systems based on their CPUs.

US Lawmakers to Pull Up Intel, ARM, Microsoft, and Amazon for Spectre Secrecy

In the wake of reports surrounding the secrecy and selective disclosure of information related to the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities leading up to the eventual January 3 public release, US lawmakers are unhappy with leading tech firms Intel, Microsoft, ARM, Apple, and Amazon. The five companies, among a few unnamed others, are being pulled up by a house committee over allegations of selective access of vital information that caught many American companies off guard on the January 3rd. Barring a few tech giants, thousands of American companies were unaware, and hence unprepared for Meltdown and Spectre until January 3, and are now spending vast resources to overhaul their IT infrastructure at breakneck pace.

In letters such as this one, addressed to CEOs of big tech firms, lawmakers criticized the secrecy and selective disclosure of information to safeguard IT infrastructure, which has left thousands of American companies out in the lurch, having to spend vast amounts of money securing their infrastructure. "While we acknowledge that critical vulnerabilities such as these create challenging trade-offs between disclosure and secrecy, as premature disclosure may give malicious actors time to exploit the vulnerabilities before mitigations are developed and deployed, we believe that this situation has shown the need for additional scrutiny regarding multi-party coordinated vulnerability disclosures," they write.

Intel Warned China of Meltdown and Spectre Before the US Government

It's no surprise that leading Chinese tech companies have close associations with the Chinese Government and the PLA. Intel has waded into controversial waters as reports point to the chipmaker sharing information about its products' vulnerability to Meltdown and Spectre with Chinese tech companies before warning the United States Government, potentially giving the Chinese government either a head-start into securing its IT infrastructure, or exploiting that of a foreign government.

Lenovo and Alibaba were among the first big tech companies to be informed about Meltdown and Spectre; Lenovo is Intel's biggest PC OEM customer, while Alibaba is the world's largest e-commerce platform and cloud-computing service provider. Both companies are known to have close associations with the Chinese government. The United States Government was not part of the first group of companies informed about the deadly vulnerabilities.

Intel Processors to Have "In-silicon" Fixes to Meltdown and Spectre This Year

Intel, which benefited from the post-Q4 public-disclosure of Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in its latest results, is hoping to mitigate its fallout on Q1-2018. The company, along with several other CPU designers, such as AMD and ARM, are firefighting the two devastating security vulnerabilities through OS kernel patches and CPU micro-code updates; which come at a slight expense of performance. In a bid to unnerve investors, company CEO Brian Krzanich announced that Intel is working on "in-silicon" fixes to Meltdown and Spectre.

An "in-silicon" fix would entail a major CPU micro-architecture design that's inherently immune to the two vulnerabilities and yet offers the benefits of modern branch-prediction and speculative execution. Krzanich says processors with in-silicon fixes to the two vulnerabilities will be released to market by the end of 2018.

Intel's Patch for Meltdown, Spectre "Complete and Utter Garbage:" Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, the most popular datacenter operating system, proclaimed Intel's patches for the recent Meltdown and Spectre CPU vulnerabilities "complete and utter garbage." Torvalds continues to work on the innermost code of Linux, and has been closely associated with kernel patches that are supposed to work in conjunction with updated CPU microcode to mitigate the two vulnerabilities that threaten to severely compromise security of data-centers and cloud-computing service providers.

Torvalds, in a heated public chain-mail with David Woodhouse, an Amazon engineer based out of the UK, called Intel's fix "insane" and questioned its intent behind making the patch "toggle-able" (any admin can disable the patch to a seemingly cataclysmic vulnerability, which can bring down a Fortune 500 company). Torvalds also takes issue with redundant fixes to vulnerabilities already patched by Google Project Zero "retpoline" technique. Later down in the thread, Woodhouse admits that there's no good reason for Intel's patches to be an "opt-in." Intel commented on this exchange with a vanilla-flavored potato: "We take the feedback of industry partners seriously. We are actively engaging with the Linux community, including Linus, as we seek to work together on solutions."

Intel Announces Root Cause of Meltdown, Spectre Patch Reboot Issue Identified

Intel has finally come around towards reporting on the state of the reboot issues that have been plaguing Intel systems ever since the company started rolling out patches to customers. These patches, which aimed to mitigate security vulnerabilities present in Intel's chips, ended up causing a whole slew of other problems for Intel CPU deployment managers. As a result of Intel's investigation, the company has ascertained that there were, in fact, problems with the patch implementation, and is now changing its guidelines: where before users were encouraged to apply any issued updates as soon as possible, the company now states that "OEMs, cloud service providers, system manufacturers, software vendors and end users stop deployment of current versions, as they may introduce higher than expected reboots and other unpredictable system behavior." A full transcription of the Intel press release follows.

Skyfall and Solace Could be the First Attacks Based on Meltdown and Spectre?

Out of the blue, a website popped up titled "Skyfall and Solace," which describes itself as two of the first attacks that exploit the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities (it doesn't detail which attack exploits what vulnerability). A whois lookup reveals that the person(s) behind this website may not be the same one(s) behind the Spectre and Meltdown website. The elephant in the room, of course, is that the two attacks are named after "James Bond" films "Skyfall" and "Quantum of Solace." The website's only piece of text ends with "Full details are still under embargo and will be published soon when chip manufacturers and Operating System vendors have prepared patches," and that one should "watch this space for more." We doubt the credibility of this threat. Anyone who has designed attacks that exploit known vulnerabilities won't enter embargoes with "chip manufacturers and operating system vendors" who have already developed mitigation to the vulnerabilities.

AMD Is Served: Class Action Lawsuit Launched Over Spectre Vulnerabilities

Despite the grunt of the media's attention and overall customer rage having been thrown largely at Intel, AMD hasn't moved past the Spectre/Meltdown well, meltdown, unscathed. News has surfaced that at least two law firms have announced their intention of filing a class action lawsuit against AMD, accusing the company of not having disclosed their products' Spectre vulnerability, despite knowledge of said vulnerabilities.

AMD stated loud and clear that their processors weren't affected by the Meltdown flaw. However, regarding Spectre, AMD's terms weren't as clear cut. The company stated that its CPUs were vulnerable to the Spectre 1 flaw (patchable at a OS level), but said that vulnerability to Spectre 2's variant had "near-zero risk of exploitation". At the same time, the company also said that "GPZ Variant 2 (Branch Target Injection or Spectre) is applicable to AMD processors", adding that "While we believe that AMD's processor architectures make it difficult to exploit Variant 2, we continue to work closely with the industry on this threat.

BSODs from Meltdown and Spectre Firmware Updates Are Spreading Like the Plague

Have you ever taken your car to the mechanic shop to fix one thing but end up breaking another? Well, that's how Intel CPU owners are feeling right now. Intel previously confirmed that their Meltdown and Spectre firmware updates are causing irritating reboots on systems with Broadwell and Haswell processors. After analyzing the latest customer reports, they are acknowledging that the updates are also causing BSODs on the Kaby Lake, Skylake, Ivy Bridge, and Sandy Bridge platforms. This shouldn't come as a shocker considering how both the Meltdown and Spectre exploits affect Intel processors over the past 20 years. The possibility of all platforms suffering from the same side effects is extremely high. Fear not, though, as Intel is already working on an updated microcode to fix the constant system reboots. Motherboard vendors should have the beta microcode for validation by next week. Expect a new BIOS revision for your motherboard soon.

Adding Insult to Injury: Fake Spectre, Meltdown Patch Pushes Malware to Users

A Malwarebytes report calls attention to the latest occurrence in the inevitable trend that that ensues a particular security vulnerability being given coverage by the media. As users' attention to the vulnerability is heightened, so is their search for a solution, for a way to reduce the risk of exposition. Hence, users search for patches; and hence, some fake patches surface that take advantage of the more distracted, or less informed, of those who really just want to be left at peace.

Case in point: Malwarebytes has identified a recently-registered domain that is particularly targeting German users (remember: you can be next; it's just a matter of Google translating the page for it be targeting you as well). The website is offering an information page with various links to external resources about Meltdown and Spectre and how it affects processors, and is affiliated with the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) - all good, right?

InSpectre Tool Determines Whether Your PC is Vulnerable to Meltdown and Spectre

During the whole Meltdown and Spectre turmoil, Microsoft released a PowerShell script that lets users assess their system to determine whether it's properly protected against the two CPU exploits. To say that Microsoft's method is non-intuitive is an understatement though. Their procedure involves punching in several lines of commands into the PowerShell prompt only to be presented with an end result of mumbo jumbo. For users who fancy a more straightforward approach, InSpectre might be exactly what the doctor would order. InSpectre is a small tool designed by none other than famous software engineer Steve Gibson to automate Microsoft's time-consuming procedure in a a single click. It also provides results that even non-tech-savvy users can comprehend. However, InSpectre not only scans the user's system but also allows him to enable or disable the Meltdown and Spectre protections.
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