IChannels: Exploiting Current Management Mechanisms to Create Covert Channels in Modern Processors

Covert IChannels in processors


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“To operate efficiently across a wide range of workloads with varying power requirements, a modern processor applies different current management mechanisms, which briefly throttle instruction execution while they adjust voltage and frequency to accommodate for power-hungry instructions (PHIs) in the instruction stream. Doing so 1) reduces the power consumption of non-PHI instructions in typical workloads and 2) optimizes system voltage regulators’ cost and area for the common use case while limiting current consumption when executing PHIs.However, these mechanisms may compromise a system’s confidentiality guarantees. In particular, we observe that multilevel side-effects of throttling mechanisms, due to PHI-related current management mechanisms, can be detected by two different software contexts (i.e., sender and receiver) running on 1) the same hardware thread, 2) co-located Simultaneous Multi-Threading (SMT) threads, and 3) different physical cores.Based on these new observations on current management mechanisms, we develop a new set of covert channels, IChannels, and demonstrate them in real modern Intel processors (which span more than 70% of the entire client and server processor market). Our analysis shows that IChannels provides more than 24× the channel capacity of state-of-the-art power management covert channels. We propose practical and effective mitigations to each covert channel in IChannels by leveraging the insights we gain through a rigorous characterization of real systems.”

J. Haj-Yahya et al., “IChannels: Exploiting Current Management Mechanisms to Create Covert Channels in Modern Processors,” 2021 ACM/IEEE 48th Annual International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA), 2021, pp. 985-998, doi: 10.1109/ISCA52012.2021.00081.

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