OpenSSL Blog

Spectre and Meltdown Attacks Against OpenSSL

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The OpenSSL Technical Committee (OTC) was recently made aware of several potential attacks against the OpenSSL libraries which might permit information leakage via the Spectre attack.1 Although there are currently no known exploits for the Spectre attacks identified, it is plausible that some of them might be exploitable.

Local side channel attacks, such as these, are outside the scope of our security policy, however the project generally does introduce mitigations when they are discovered. In this case, the OTC has decided that these attacks will not be mitigated by changes to the OpenSSL code base. The full reasoning behind this is given below.

The Spectre attack vector, while applicable everywhere, is most important for code running in enclaves because it bypasses the protections offered. Example enclaves include, but are not limited to:

The reasoning behind the OTC’s decision to not introduce mitigations for these attacks is multifold:

  • Such issues do not fall under the scope of our defined security policy. Even though we often apply mitigations for such issues we do not mandate that they are addressed.

  • Maintaining code with mitigations in place would be significantly more difficult. Most potentially vulnerable code is extremely non-obvious, even to experienced security programmers. It would thus be quite easy to introduce new attack vectors or fix existing ones unknowingly. The mitigations themselves obscure the code which increases the maintenance burden.

  • Automated verification and testing of the attacks is necessary but not sufficient. We do not have automated detection for this family of vulnerabilities and if we did, it is likely that variations would escape detection. This does not mean we won’t add automated checking for issues like this at some stage.

  • These problems are fundamentally a bug in the hardware. The software running on the hardware cannot be expected to mitigate all such attacks. Some of the in-CPU caches are completely opaque to software and cannot be easily flushed, making software mitigation quixotic. However, the OTC recognises that fixing hardware is difficult and in some cases impossible.

  • Some kernels and compilers can provide partial mitigation. Specifically, several common compilers have introduced code generation options addressing some of these classes of vulnerability:

    • GCC has the -mindirect-branch, -mfunction-return and -mindirect-branch-register options
    • LLVM has the -mretpoline option
    • MSVC has the /Qspectre option

  1. Nicholas Mosier, Hanna Lachnitt, Hamed Nemati, and Caroline Trippel, “Axiomatic Hardware-Software Contracts for Security,” in Proceedings of the 49th ACM/IEEE International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA), 2022.