New year, new vulnerabilities: Spectre & Meltdown

Two new vulnerabilities “Spectre” and “Meltdown” were recently discovered, affecting millions of systems worldwide. Please find our security advisory below.

spectre                                                     meltdown 

Spectre and Meltdown are hardware vulnerabilities in the microprocessors (CPUs) that, when exploited, allow an attacker to read the content of memory he/she is not allowed to access. Some key things to know about these vulnerabilities:

  • Proof of concept code for Meltdown demonstrates that a low privilege user process can read all kernel memory from major operating systems on Intel CPUs;
  • Proof of concept code for Spectre demonstrates that a low privilege user process can read memory from other processes on all major operating systems on CPUs from all major vendors;
  • Spectre and Meltdown attacks can be used to break through security boundaries implemented by operating systems to steal confidential data, including passwords and secret keys;
  • Patches are already available for the mitigation of Meltdown;
  • Long-term solution will consist of redesigning the CPU infrastructure by the vendors.

How does it work?
Both vulnerabilities rely on exploiting side-effects of “out-of-order execution” and “speculative execution”.

  • Out-of-order execution is a performance feature of CPUs that allows for non-sequential execution of machine instructions. Instead of executing machine instructions step by step in the order specified by the program (like old fashioned CPUs do), CPUs nowadays speed up execution of programs by simultaneously executing several machine instructions of the program, but not necessarily in the order specified by the program (this is called out-of-order execution).
  • Speculative-execution takes this concept further, and executes instructions that may actually not have to be executed. The instructions are executed before it is known that they have to be executed (this is done to maximize the utilization of the CPU). The implication is that machine instructions are being executed that ultimately should not have been executed, for example because a conditional branch is taken. The results of these “unnecessary” machine instructions are discarded.

The Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities leverage these discarded results.

The Spectre vulnerability (CVE-2017-5715 and CVE-2017-5753) is actually a class of vulnerabilities in CPUs that implement speculative-execution, and more precisely branch-prediction (Meltdown is considered to be a particular case of Spectre). Branch-prediction is implemented by the CPU circuits that try to predict which branch of a conditional execution will be executed. The branch with the highest probability of execution is executed via out-of-order execution. Exploiting Spectre relies on the fact that the branch-prediction circuitry can be manipulated (by exploit code) to assign a higher probability on a chosen branch. Spectre exploits will search for branches that access memory that is outside of the security context of the running exploit (hence not allowed to be read), and then manipulate the branch-prediction algorithms to execute these branches out-of-order. But because the results of these instructions are discarded (the branches would not have been executed in a sequential execution), Spectre exploits have to use side-channels attacks to recover the discarded results. A side effect of out-of-order execution is that memory content is loaded into cache-lines. The side-channel attack relies on the timing of instructions to determine what data was loaded into the cache-lines: an instruction will execute faster if the data it requires is already in the cache-line.

The exploitation of the Meltdown vulnerability (CVE-2017-5754) relies on a privilege escalation vulnerability in Intel CPUs (this privilege escalation vulnerability exists in most Intel CPUs since 1995). An exploit for the Meltdown vulnerability will execute an instruction that causes a trap. Because of this trap, the results of instructions that were executed out-of-order are discarded. Next, the exploit will use an Intel privilege escalation vulnerability to access the results of the discarded instructions. In proof of concepts, the discarded instructions are used to read kernel memory. This should not be allowed by code running inside a user-land process, but this security decision is only taken after the out-of-order execution. Consequently, the combination of a trap and privilege escalation can be used to read memory that is normally not accessible to the code.

What is the impact?
Meltdown impacts workstations, laptops, servers (also cloud servers) running Linux, Windows or macOS.

Spectre impacts workstations, laptops, servers (also cloud servers), smartphones, tablets,… Virtually any device that runs on vulnerable CPUs from Intel, AMD and ARM.

What should we do?
At the time of writing this advisory, there are no patches available to mitigate the Spectre vulnerability.

Patches have been released for Windows, Linux and MacOS to mitigate the Meltdown vulnerability in Intel CPUs. These are patches for the kernel that implement Kernel Page-Table Isolation (KPTI, also known as KAISER). KPTI mitigates the Meltdown vulnerability by completely separating user-space and kernel-space page tables. Before this patch, user-space and kernel-space page tables were not separated for performance reasons. Reports exists that KPTI impacts performance, some speculating up to 30% loss in CPU performance.

We recommend to execute performance tests with these patches on high-load machines before deploying these patches in production.

NOTE: Microsoft published information that some anti-virus products are not compatible with their patches, and may cause a BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death). So before installing updates, check with your AV vendor first. (

Exploiting the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities requires code execution on vulnerable CPUs. Until these vulnerabilities have been completely addressed, strict control of code execution (like application whitelisting) can help mitigate attacks for these vulnerabilities. Be aware that proof of concepts are already available for Spectre and Meltdown, written in JavaScript. Control of code execution must not only address binary executables, but also scripting.

Ultimately, the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities have to be addressed by redesigning CPU architectures. As a typical CPU release cycle takes 18 months, this implies that it will take several years before new CPUs are produced and widely deployed.

Update 05/01/2018:

There are now 2 tools available to check Windows systems for these vulnerabilities. Microsoft has released a PowerShell script (SpeculationControl) and Alex Ionescu has released a Windows executable (SpecuCheck).

Here is the output of Get-SpeculationControlSettings on an unpatched machine:

Here is the output of Get-SpeculationControlSettings on an patched machine (Windows patches):

As you can see, mitigation for the Meltdown vulnerability (CVE-2017-5754) is present in the OS and activated, and (partial) mitigation of the Spectre vulnerability (CVE-2017-5715) is present in the OS but not activated. It can only be activated when a required firmware updated has been installed. You will need to get this firmware update from your OEM (provided they plan to release a firmware update for your machines).

Update 09/01/2018:

Microsoft did not release microcode updates (to update your CPU) with their monthly patches. You will have to do this with a firmware update from your OEM (several OEMs have already released new firmware). Red Hat did release a microcode update for CVE-2017-5715.

More information?
NVISO analysts are still working on additional research and will update this blogpost with any results.

Should you require additional support, please don’t hesitate to contact our 24/7 hotline on +32 (0)2 588 43 80 or

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One thought on “New year, new vulnerabilities: Spectre & Meltdown

  1. Pingback: Week 1 – 2018 – This Week In 4n6

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