A Systematic Evaluation of Transient Execution Attacks and Defenses

Modern processor optimizations such as branch prediction and out-of-order execution are crucial for performance. Recent research on transient execution attacks including Spectre and Meltdown showed, however, that exception or branch misprediction events may leave secret-dependent traces in the CPU’s microarchitectural state. This observation led to a proliferation of new Spectre and Meltdown attack variants and even more ad-hoc defenses (e.g., microcode and software patches). Unfortunately, both the industry and academia are now focusing on finding efficient defenses that mostly address only one specific variant or exploitation methodology. This is highly problematic, as the state-of-the-art provides only limited insight on residual attack surface and the completeness of the proposed defenses.
In this paper, we present a sound and extensible systematization of transient execution attacks. Our systematization uncovers 7 (new) transient execution attacks that have been overlooked and not been investigated so far. This includes 2 new Meltdown variants: Meltdown-PK on Intel, and Meltdown-BR on Intel and AMD. It also includes 5 new Spectre mistraining strategies. We evaluate all 7 attacks in proof-of-concept implementations on 3 major processor vendors (Intel, AMD, ARM). Our systematization does not only yield a complete picture of the attack surface, but also allows a systematic evaluation of defenses. Through this systematic evaluation, we discover that we can still mount transient execution attacks that are supposed to be mitigated by rolled out patches.