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New hardware-agnostic side-channel attack works against Windows and Linux

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A team of five academics and security researchers has published a research paper today detailing a new side-channel attack that effective against operating systems like Windows and Linux.

The novelty in this paper is that unlike many of the previous side-channel attacks [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], this one is hardware-agnostic, and in some cases, it can be carried out remotely.

The attack is also different because it doesn’t target microarchitectural design flaws in CPUs or other computer components, but targets the operating system itself, hence the reason it is hardware-agnostic.

Attack targets OS page caches

More precisely, the attack targets “page caches,” a technical term used to describe a portion of the memory where the operating system loads code that’s currently used by one or more applications, such as executables, libraries, and user data.

These page caches are pure-software caches being controlled at the OS level, rather than classic hardware caches, which are dedicated memory that the CPU can use to improve its computational speed.

“Some of these [page] caches have very specific use-cases, such as browser caches used for website content; other [page] caches are more generic, such as the page cache that stores a large portion of code and data used,” said the research team in their paper.

The side-channel attack described by the research team works by first abusing mechanisms included in the Windows and Linux operating systems that allow a developer/application to check if a memory page is present in the OS page cache. These two mechanisms are the “mincore” system call for Linux and the “QueryWorkingSetEx” system call for Windows.

Researchers then use their ability to interact with the OS (through a malicious process running on the system) to create page cache eviction states that release old memory pages out of the OS page cache. As the OS page cache system writes the evicted data to disk, triggers various errors, or loads new pages into the page cache, researchers say they can deduce what data was being processed in the OS page cache, even by other processes/applications.

Furthermore, another added benefit is that unlike most previous side-channel attacks, this new attack can also recover large quantities of data at a time, making it ideal for real-world attacks.

Researchers say their “side-channel permits unprivileged monitoring of some memory accesses of other processes, with a spatial resolution of 4 kB and a temporal resolution of 2 μs on Linux (restricted to 6.7 measurements per second) and 466 ns on Windows (restricted to 223 measurements per second).”

Translated into lay terms, this “allows capturing more than 6 keystrokes per second, enough to capture keystrokes accurately,” researchers said.

Attack can be hardware-agnostic or remote

The side-channel attack described in their paper can be used to bypass security sandboxes, redress (reshape) user interfaces, and capture keystrokes.

All of the attacks listed above are possible in “local” exploitation scenarios, where an unprivileged process runs malicious code on a targeted computer.

The attack can also be modified to work in a “remote” exploitation scenario, where an attacker bombards a remote PC with malicious code to retrieve data from its memory.

However, remote attacks aren’t as efficient because they can’t bypass sandboxes and because they require fine-tuning based on the victim’s hardware (they are not hardware-agnostic as the local attacks).

Patches for Windows and Linux are in the works

The research team, which includes some of the brightest minds in IT security, including some of the people behind the Spectre/Meltdown vulnerabilities, have contacted OS vendors prior to disclosing their findings.

Microsoft has already fixed the way Windows deals with page cache reads in a Windows Insiders build, while discussions on how to deal with Linux patches are still ongoing. Both OS teams are expected to fix the issues at the heart of this side-channel attack in the future.

“We didn’t test macOS,” Daniel Gruss, one of the researchers told ZDNet in an email today. “We don’t know whether they expose any such interface that we used in our hardware-agnostic attacks, but certainly, as they also use a page cache, they would also be vulnerable to timing-based page cache attacks.”

This article tried to describe this attack in simple terms. For our technical readers, more details about this new side-channel attack are available in the research paper titled “Page Cache Attacks” that was published earlier today on ArXiv.

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Adventist Risk Management Data Protection Infrastructure

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Companies always want to enhance their ability to quickly address pressing business needs. Toward that end, they look for new ways to make their IT infrastructures more efficient—and more cost effective. Today, those pressing needs often center around data protection and regulatory compliance, which was certainly the case for Adventist Risk Management. What they wanted was an end-to-end, best-in-class solution to meet their needs. After trying several others, they found the perfect combination with HYCU and Nutanix, which provided:

  • Ease of deployment
  • Outstanding ROI
  • Overall TCO improvement

Nutanix Cloud Platform provides a software-defined hyperconverged infrastructure, while HYCU offers purpose-built backup and recovery for Nutanix. Compared to the previous traditional infrastructure and data protection solutions in use at Adventist Risk Management, Nutanix and HYCU simplified processes, speeding day-to-day operations up to 75%. Now, migration and update activities typically scheduled for weekends can be performed during working hours and help to increase IT staff and management quality of life. HYCU further increased savings by providing faster and more frequent points of recovery as well as better DR Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) by increasing the ability to do daily backups from one to four per day.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of Nutanix Objects, which provides secure and performant S3 storage capabilities, enhanced the infrastructure by:

    • Improving overall performance for backups
    • Adding security against potential ransomware attacks
    • Replacing components difficult to manage and support

In the end, Nutanix and HYCU enabled their customer to save money, improve the existing environment, and, above all, meet regulatory compliance requirements without any struggle.

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Secure Insight: GigaOm Partners with the CISO Series

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Don’t look now, but GigaOm, the analyst firm that enables smart businesses to future-proof their decisions, is forging new partnerships to extend its reach and better inform busy IT decision makers. On Thursday, the company announced it was teaming with the CISO Series to share content and better support the community of chief information security officers, security practitioners, and security vendors.

“The CISO Series is one we have admired for a while because they have a very similar aim: They help security professionals become more knowledgeable and understand how their roles are changing,” said Ben Book, GigaOm founder and CEO. “We saw a clear common interest and are delighted to be working together.”

The CISO Series brand has built a formidable reputation through its podcasts, blogs, video chats, and live events for the security community. It has added the extremely popular CyberSecurity Headlines podcast to its stable this year, which joins the CISO/Security Vendor Relationship and Defense in Depth podcasts. Every Friday at 10am Pacific Time, the CISO Series hosts its highly engaging and fun weekly live CISO Series Video Chat, which viewers can register for here.

The channel partnership connects two of the strongest, fastest-growing brands in enterprise IT content production. The agreement enables the CISO Series to share exclusive GigaOm reports with its audience ahead of publication, while GigaOm is able to share insights from the CISO Series’ various publications through its social channels and newsletters. The CISO Series joins other media firms, such as The Register and SDXCentral, as official GigaOm Channel Partners.

“We are delighted to be working with GigaOm because we’re not only both addressing the same audience, but we’re also both trying to bring education and understanding to both the security vendor and practitioner communities,” said David Spark, managing editor and executive producer at the CISO Series. “GigaOm is providing some excellent reports that we’re leaning on for our discussions and reporting across all of our shows.”

Spark continued: “We are always tweaking our programming to bring the best and most up-to-date resources and we’re really impressed with both the volume and quality GigaOm is delivering. Not only are we impressed with their editorial work, but we also appreciate their business branding. It’s something we felt comfortable about aligning with the CISO Series brand as well.”

Check out the CISO Series schedule at http://crowdcast.io/cisoseries, or visit cisoseries.com for more information about the CISO Series and its weekly Video Chats.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating Vulnerability Management Tools

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Vulnerability management tools scan your IT estate to help identify and mitigate security risks and weaknesses. These tools can facilitate the development of a more comprehensive vulnerability management program. Leveraging people, processes, and technologies, successful initiatives effectively identify, classify, prioritize, and remediate security threats.

A security vulnerability is a weakness that can compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of information. Attackers are constantly looking to exploit defects in software code or insecure configurations. Vulnerabilities can exist anywhere in the software stack, from web applications and databases to infrastructure components such as load balancers, firewalls, machine and container images, operating systems, and libraries. This includes code used in the CI/CD pipeline as well as the infrastructure-as-code (IAC) that defines the compute, network, and storage infrastructure.

Recent cybersecurity events have exposed widespread vulnerabilities involving the exploitation of zero-day malware and unknown weaknesses. Threat actors continually discover new exploitation tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to take advantage of weaknesses throughout integrated systems. Moreover, identifying breach paths is increasingly complicated due to the widespread adoption of ephemeral services.

Vulnerability management solutions should provide end-to-end visibility of the protect-surface by aggregating both platform and application risks in a single pane of glass, while leveraging prioritized remediation based on business risk and threat context for efficiency. Containerized workloads deployed via DevOps pipelines have unique security requirements that demand a fully integrated vulnerability assessment to be automated into cloud platform services running containerized workloads.

The path to a mature security posture starts with the ability to identify vulnerabilities in software code, third-party libraries, and at runtime. In addition, the cloud platform used to host your applications should be scanned for misconfigurations. This requires the use of policy configuration baselines, benchmarks, and compliance standards that apply to both the infrastructure and the code used to build it. As organizations implement security guardrails early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), they can take advantage of cloud-native culture to ensure network and security tools are used throughout all phases of the SDLC.

This GigaOm report explores the key criteria and emerging technologies that IT decision makers should evaluate when choosing a vulnerability management solution. The key criteria report, together with the GigaOm radar report that evaluates relevant products, provides a framework to help organizations assess the solutions currently available on the market and how these tools fit with their requirements.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:
Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Vendor Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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