Virtually every computing device in the world is made unsafe by the latest disclosures on Central Processing Unit (CPU) vulnerabilities.
Overview of the CPU and its functions
The CPU is most often described as the "brain" of any computing device. It is a hardware chip that executes the step-by-step instructions laid out in any computer program that is running on the device and orchestrates the rest of the hardware in the device to achieve the intent of the program. The operating system and applications that run on it are all computer programs that depend on the CPU to carry out their instructions. The CPU is also depended on to provide the separation necessary to ensure that an application (that may be rogue) cannot steal data from the operating system kernel or other applications.
It is like putting each application into its own container with opaque walls, so that a misbehaving application is not able to “see” or affect what other applications are doing. Should such a separation be broken down, malware can then read the memory contents of the operating system or other applications and can potentially get access to critical data such as encryption keys, passwords, and transaction information. Going back to the container analogy, it is like having peepholes in the separation walls, allowing a rogue application to observe what other applications are doing, and thereby obtaining information that it is not supposed to have.
CPU vulnerabilities “Meltdown” and “Spectre”
The first vulnerability, Meltdown, breaks down the memory barrier between the operating system and the applications that run on it. This enables malware to access data from the operating system memory, including sensitive data from other applications. As Meltdown affects Intel chips released since 2010, millions of PCs, laptops, cloud servers, and smartphones are vulnerable to it.
Spectre includes two different vulnerabilities that make use of a CPU optimization technique called speculative execution. Almost all modern CPUs use speculative execution to achieve higher performance. As a result, Spectre has a wider impact than Meltdown. Intel, AMD, and ARM chips are known to be affected by it. This pretty much covers the entire population of computing devices in the world. Although Spectre is technically different from Meltdown, the effect is similar - memory isolation between applications is broken down, allowing malware to access data that is leaked from other applications.
So far, although there have been no known cases of criminals making use of these CPU vulnerabilities, it does not mean that we are safe because the nature of the vulnerabilities makes it difficult to detect such attacks. Another thing to note is that these vulnerabilities, in the context of a cloud service provider, can allow malware affecting one cloud customer to gain access to data of other cloud customers, as long as the cloud instances are served by the same underlying CPU.
Security Tips for readers
SingCERT, like many other similar organizations around the world, has recommended that software updates be applied to mitigate the CPU vulnerabilities. These software patches can come in three levels. The first is the CPU or processor level, which can come in the form of a firmware update from CPU vendors such as Intel. The second is the operating system level, which can be a Windows patch for laptops or an Android upgrade for smartphones. The third is the application level, for applications and browsers. So, for best protection against the vulnerabilities, users and companies should apply all the patches as they are released.
However, there is a downside to applying these patches as the effectiveness of the CPU optimizations may then be reduced, resulting in computer slowdowns of 5% to 30%. The actual amount of performance degradation will depend on the processor and other characteristics of the machine, as well as the operating system and applications.
The importance of a virtual secure element
How the virtual secure element technology is protecting millions of customers in Singapore against such CPU vulnerabilities
Do these mean that consumers should refrain from performing banking or payment transactions while waiting for software updates to be made available by the respective vendors? Fortunately, consumers in Singapore can be re-assured that cutting-edge technology is securing most of their critical banking, payment, and government applications against such attacks.
Many of these apps already have critical personal data and encryption keys stored and processed within a virtual vault that is also known as a "virtual secure element". Within the context of the application container analogy, this is like introducing a safe within each application, so that critical data can be kept in the safe, without worrying that other applications can observe the data through peepholes.
As an example, some mobile banking apps today have the ability to generate one-time passwords (OTPs) for two-factor authentication, doing away with the need to send OTPs via SMS or to key in the OTP displayed on a hardware token. These apps make use of the virtual secure element to securely store the secret key that is used for OTP generation. The virtual secure element ensures that this secret key will not be leaked to any malware exploiting the Meltdown or Spectre vulnerabilities.
The same virtual secure element technology is also used by mobile banking apps to store secret keys and confidential data for payment transactions. When payments are made, the most critical processing is done within the virtual secure element, which makes it secure regardless of whether there are vulnerabilities in the underlying operating system or CPU.
As a result, many mobile banking apps in Singapore like DBS digibank and UOB Mighty already enjoy strong security with the virtual secure element technology provided by V-Key that stands up to most malicious hacks. Besides the secret key for OTP generation, other sensitive data and cryptographic keys for payments are also similarly protected. Users can safely perform banking transactions as usual without fear of critical data being stolen by malware, as long as they continue to be vigilant about social engineering attacks such as phishing and baiting.
Traditionally, security vulnerabilities were mostly found in software, creating a wrong impression that hardware is more secure than software. These latest vulnerability disclosures show that hardware can be vulnerable too, and the impact is immeasurable. Most security practitioners advocate multi-layered security defence. Security vulnerabilities will continue to be discovered and patched at all levels. With the use of novel technologies such as virtual secure element, anti-tampering, and obfuscation, users and organizations do not have to totally rely on the security of the underlying operating system or hardware processor and can remain protected against single points of weaknesses.