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Wednesday, 23 May 2018 08:06

Two variants of Spectre flaw found in numerous processors

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Two new variants of the processor vulnerability known as Spectre, that was announced in January, have been announced by Google and Microsoft.

The new flaws affect processors made by Intel, ARM, AMD and IBM. They are caused by the same process of speculative execution — where actions are taken ahead of the actual instructions being read in order to gain a speed boost — that were the cause of the Meltdown and Spectre bugs which came to light earlier this year.

The four companies, along with Microsoft, Red Hat and Ubuntu, have published advice on how to mitigate the effects of these flaws.

According to a Microsoft advisory, one of the new flaws, dubbed speculative store bypass or Variant 4 — given that it is a variant of the earlier Spectre vulnerability — affects AMD, ARM and Intel processors to varying degrees. This flaw can be exploited remotely.

"An attacker who has successfully exploited this vulnerability may be able to read privileged data across trust boundaries," the advisory said.

"Vulnerable code patterns in the operating system or in applications could allow an attacker to exploit this vulnerability."

Intel executive vice-president and general manager of Product Assurance and Security, Leslie Culbertson, said: "Variant 4 uses speculative execution, a feature common to most modern processor architectures, to potentially expose certain kinds of data through a side channel.

"In this case, the researchers demonstrated Variant 4 in a language-based runtime environment. While we are not aware of a successful browser exploit, the most common use of runtimes, like JavaScript, is in Web browsers."

She added that new microcode patches would be released to fix the flaw.

The other vulnerability, dubbed Variant 3a or rogue system register read, is also due to speculative execution. Processors that perform speculative reads of system registers may allow unauthorised disclosure of system parameters to an attacker with local user access.

According to Microsoft, an attacker who exploits this vulnerability could then bypass Kernel Address Space Layout Randomisation protections.

In order to carry out an exploit, local access is required, with an attacker having to log on and then run a specially crafted application.

"The mitigation for this vulnerability is exclusively through a microcode/firmware update, and there is no additional Microsoft Windows operating system update," the company said.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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