Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Riverside

UC Riverside Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Riverside

Architectural Support for Securing Systems Against Software Vulnerabilities


Cyberattacks are the fastest growing crime in the U.S., and they are increasing in size, sophistication, and cost. These attacks use vulnerabilities to compromise systems to leak Information (Yahoo 2016, Marriott 2018, and Facebook 2019), steal identity information (Equifax 2017), or even effecting politics (by attacking the governmental election process). Traditionally, security researchers and practitioners have viewed security as a software problem -- originating in software and to be solved by software. Recently, the Spectre and Meltdown attacks have shown that hardware should also be considered when evaluating the system security. Conversely, because many aspects of security are computationally expensive, hardware can play a role in promoting software security through computational support as well as the development of new abstractions that promote security. Under this general umbrella, the research in this dissertation pursues two research directions that demonstrate how hardware can promote software security, and how we can design hardware that is secure against Spectre and Meltdown attacks.

In the first direction, security exploits and ensuant malware pose an increasing challenge to computing systems as the variety and complexity of attacks continue to increase. In response, software-based malware detection tools have grown in complexity, thus making it computationally difficult to use them to protect systems in real-time. Against this drawback, hardware-based malware detectors (HMDs) are a promising new approach to defend against malware. HMDs collect low-level architectural features and use them to classify malware from normal programs. With simple hardware support, HMDs can be always on, operating as a first line of defense that prioritizes the application of more expensive and more accurate software-detector. In this dissertation, our goal is to make HMDs practical for deployment in two ways:

(1) Improving the detection accuracy of HMDs: We use specialized detectors targeted towards a specific type of malware to improve the detection of each type. Next, we use ensemble learning techniques to improve the overall accuracy by combining detectors. We explore detectors based on logistic regression (LR) and neural networks (NN). The proposed detectors reduce the false-positive rate by more than half compared to using a single detector, while increasing their sensitivity. We develop metrics to estimate detection overhead; the proposed detectors achieve more than 16.6x overhead reduction during online detection compared to an idealized software-only detector, with an 8x improvement in relative detection time. NN detectors outperform LR detectors in accuracy, overhead (by 40\%), and time-to-detection of the hardware component (by 5x). Finally, we characterize the hardware complexity by extending an open-core and synthesizing it on an FPGA platform, showing that the overhead is minimal.

(2) Make them resilient to evasion attacks: we explore the question of how well evasive malware can avoid detection by HMDs. We show that existing HMDs can be effectively reverse-engineered and subsequently evaded, allowing malware to hide from detection without substantially slowing it down (which is important for certain types of malware). This result demonstrates that the current generation of HMDs can be easily defeated by evasive malware. Next, we explore how well a detector can evolve if it is exposed to this evasive malware during training. We show that simple detectors, such as logistic regression, cannot detect the evasive malware even with retraining. More sophisticated detectors can be retrained to detect evasive malware, but the retrained detectors can be reverse-engineered and evaded again. To address these limitations, we propose a new type of Resilient HMDs (RHMDs) that stochastically switch between different detectors. These detectors can be shown to be provably more difficult to reverse engineer based on resent results in probably approximately correct (PAC) learnability theory. We show that indeed such detectors are resilient to both reverse engineering and evasion, and that the resilience increases with the number and diversity of the individual detectors. Our results demonstrate that these HMDs offer effective defense against evasive malware at low additional complexity.

In the second direction, the recent Spectre and Meltdown attacks show that speculative execution, which is used pervasively in modern CPUs, can leave side effects in the processor caches and other structures even when the speculated instructions do not commit and their direct effect is not visible. Therefore, they utilize this behavior to expose privileged information accessed speculatively to an unprivileged attacker. In particular, the attack forces the speculative execution of a code gadget that will carry out the illegal read, which eventually gets squashed, but which leaves a side-channel trail that can be used by the attacker to infer the value. Several attack variations are possible, allowing arbitrary exposure of the full kernel memory to an unprivileged attacker. In this dissertation, we introduce a new model (SafeSpec) for supporting speculation in a way that is immune to the side- channel leakage necessary for attacks such as Meltdown and Spectre. In particular, SafeSpec stores side effects of speculation in separate structures while the instructions are speculative. The speculative state is then either committed to the main CPU structures if the branch commits, or squashed if it does not, making all direct side effects of speculative code invisible. The solution must also address the possibility of a covert channel from speculative instructions to committed instructions before these instructions are committed (i.e., while they share the speculative state). We show that SafeSpec prevents all three variants of Spectre and Meltdown, as well as new variants that we introduce. We also develop a cycle accurate model of modified design of an x86-64 processor and show that the performance impact is negligible (in fact a small performance improvement is achieved). We build prototypes of the hardware support in a hardware description language to show that the additional overhead is acceptable. SafeSpec completely closes this class of attacks, retaining the benefits of speculation, and is practical to implement.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View