Tag Archives: Intel

Oracle VirtualBox Zero Day Disclosed

In early November a security researcher publicly disclosed (defined) a zero day (defined) vulnerability within Oracle’s VirtualBox virtualisation software.

How severe is this vulnerability?
In summary; this vulnerability is serious but it could have been worse. In order to exploit it, an attacker would first need to have obtained elevated privileges on your system; root (defined) in the case of Linux and administrator (defined) in the case of Windows. Using this privilege the attacker can leverage the exploit to escape from the confines of the virtual machine (VM)(defined) into the system which hosts the virtual machine (in other words; the system which houses the virtual machine within its physical infrastructure). Once outside of the virtual machine the attacker must then elevate their privileges again since breaking out of the VM only gives them user level/standard privileges and not elevated privileges in the physical system. Thus the attacker would then need to use a separate exploit for another vulnerability (not related to this VirtualBox flaw) to elevate their privileges again to become root/admin within the physical system.

Obviously; the consequences of exploiting this vulnerability on a shared service/cloud infrastructure system would be more serious since multiple users would be affected all at once and the further exploitation of the resulting host systems could potentially provide the attacker with control over all the virtual machines.

How can an attacker exploit this vulnerability?
VirtualBox makes use of the Intel Pro/1000 MT Desktop (82540EM) network adapter to provide an internet connection to the virtual machines it manages. The attacker must first turn off this adapter in the guest (virtualised) operating system. Once complete they can then load a custom Linux kernel module (LKM)(defined) (this does not require a reboot of the system). That custom LKM contains the exploit derived from the technical write up provided. That new LKM loads its own custom version of the Intel network adapter. Next the LKM exploits a buffer overflow (defined) vulnerability within the virtualised adapter to escape the guest operating system. The attack must then unload the custom LKM to re-enable the real Intel adapter to resume their access to the internet.

How can I protect myself from this vulnerability?
While this is a complex vulnerability to exploit (an attacker would need to chain exploits together in order to elevate their privilege on the host system after escaping the VM), the source code needed to do so is available in full from the researcher’s disclosure; increasing the risk of it being used by attackers.

At the time of writing; this vulnerability has not yet been patched by VirtualBox. It affects versions 5.2.20 and earlier when installed on Ubuntu version 16.04 and 18.04 x86-64 guests (Windows is believed to be affected too). While a patch is pending; you can change the network card type to PCnet or Para virtualised Network. If this isn’t an option available or convenient for you; you can an alternative to the NAT mode of operation for the network card.

Thank you.

Retpoline To Improve Windows 10 Performance Following Spectre Vulnerability

Alex Ionescu, a Windows Internals expert and Security Architect with CrowdStrike in mid-October provided new insight into performance improvements coming to the next update of Windows, namely 19H1 or Version 1903:

With performance decreases estimated to be up to 30% in the worst-case scenarios while mitigating the Spectre vulnerabilities earlier this year; the upcoming version of Windows will add Google’s Retpoline instructions to improve performance:

Such instructions are already present in Red Hat, SUSE and Oracle Linux 6 and 7. Ionescu revealed that performance was significantly improved while trusting the newer version of Windows 10. Moreover; Spectre variant 2 (CVE-2017-5715) will now be fully mitigated even if your hardware was not updated to support indirect branch restricted speculation (IBRS); making it more secure. In his words “On systems without IBRS, Windows won’t flush the BPB on kernel->user transitions. This opens up a potential security issue for CPUs without microcode that implements IBRS”.

He also confirmed that Retpoline is enabled on systems with indirect branch prediction barrier (IBPB). This will protect such systems from kernel to user transitions where currently no protection exists. Finally he asked that Retpoline be back ported earlier (but currently supported) versions of Windows since systems without IBRS are “sitting ducks”:

These changes were also announced by a Microsoft engineer, Mehmet Iyigun working within the Windows and Azure kernel team.

In April 2019 we can look forward to a more secure and faster version of Windows. I’m particularly pleased to learn this since my water cooled Intel processor; an 18 core (36 thread) Core i9 7980XE has received full protection from Spectre in the form of IBRS and IBPB from the motherboard vendor. Performance impact has been minimal but any increase in performance is welcomed for my donations to Stanford’s Folding@Home project.

More info on IBRS and IBPB is available from this link. Thank you.

APT28 Group Distributes First in the Wild UEFI Rootkit

In late September; researchers from the security/anti-malware firm Eset discovered the first UEFI (defined) rootkit (defined) being used in the wild (namely being present on computing devices used by the general public in their professional and personal lives).

The APT group known as APT28 (who we discussed before on this blog) has been named as being responsible for this advanced threat being distributed to victim systems located in the Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Why should this threat be considered important?
While this threat is so far limited to targeting systems in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans; it has the potential to set a precedent to dramatically increase the persistence of malware on selected systems. This is due to the fact that to save time malware removal usually involves re-installing the operating system. More advanced users may choose to re-create the MBR/GPT, replace the boot sector and rebuild the BCD. Even more informed users may replace the hard disk to remove the malware. This new threat is significant since all of these steps would not remove it.

Eset researchers discovered that the LoJack anti-theft software which was installed compromised systems was being leveraged to start the attacker’s malware instead by using the Windows registry (defined) to load files with very similar names to that of the legitimate LoJack software. They also located a kernel (defined) driver (defined) being used to write the systems firmware when required. Since this tool was a legitimate tool; it has a valid digital signature. This is significant; otherwise the attacker’s tool would not have worked on a 64 bit Windows system. Should attempts to write to the firmware fail, the malware uses a 4 year old vulnerability CVE-2014-8273 (a race condition (defined)) to bypass the write lock.

Once the firmware has been updated it replaces the original LoJack software files with hijacked versions designed to enable further persistence on the compromised systems, namely a backdoor (defined).

How can I protect myself against this threat?
While it is less likely a threat of this sophistication will become widespread; the steps below will help to defend you against this and similar threats in the future. How this threat establishes an initial foothold on a system was inconclusive by Eset. However exercising caution on the links you click in emails, IMs and social networking should provide some form of prevention. Keeping your system up to date should also prevent a drive by download (defined). However I will detail more specific defensive steps below:

Eset determined that this threat can be prevented from affecting a system by enabling the Secure Boot hardware security feature (if your system has this feature available; most systems manufactured from 2012 onwards do). Any system with a certified Windows 8 or Windows 10 badge on the outside will have Secure Boot enabled with no action required from you. Secure Boot works even better when paired with Intel BootGuard (corporate users are more likely to use/enable this feature).

If the rootkit had affected the system described above it would have then refused to boot due to Secure Boot being enabled. It’s important to clarify that Secure Boot won’t prevent the infection/tampering but it will prevent that tampering from starting the system for use as normal.

Secure Boot was added to Windows 8.0 in 2012 to prevent unsigned components (e.g. rootkits) from affecting a system so early in the boot process that anti-malware software would be unable to detect or prevent that component from obtaining a privileged level of access over the system.


Keeping the UEFI firmware of your system up to date will assist with resolving known vulnerabilities within the firmware. Patching known firmware vulnerabilities makes your system less vulnerable to low level attacks such as this. Please only install UEFI firmware updates from your system vendor. Check the vendor’s website or contact them to determine if you need a UEFI firmware update and how to install it. If possible/available verify the checksum (defined) of the file you download matches the vendors provided checksum. I use the word available above since not all vendors provide checksums of the firmware updates they distribute which would allow you to verify them.

More recent Intel motherboards (defined) are not vulnerable to the race condition by Eset in their paper (more details available here). These modern chipsets feature a Platform Controller Hub (present in Intel’s Series 5 chipsets and later (available circa 2010 onwards).

If you know of a system affected with such a low level threat you may be able to update the UEFI firmware with a known safe version from the vendor but this is not guaranteed to work. Replacing the hardware will be a more reliable alternative.

Thank you.

Vendors Respond to Foreshadow (L1TF) Vulnerabilities

Yesterday, academic and security researchers publically disclosed (defined) 3 new vulnerabilities affecting Intel CPUs (AMD and ARM are not affected).

What are these new vulnerabilities and what can they allow an attacker to do?
The first vulnerability known as Foreshadow or CVE-2018-3615 is used to extract data from an Intel SGX (Software Guard Extensions)(defined) secure enclave (area) by creating a shadow copy of the SGX protected data but that copy does not have the protection of SGX and can be read/accessed by the attacker. The attacker can also re-direct speculative execution into copying further private/sensitive into the shadow copied area while at the same time making it appear that area is genuine and thus has the same protection as the real SGX protected data.

The second vulnerability (part of a wider Foreshadow Next Generation (NG) group of two variants) known as CVE-2018-3620 allows the reading of data copied into the level 1 cache (defined) of a CPU (defined) when that data is in use by a computer operating system e.g. Red Hat Linux, Apple macOS or Microsoft Windows.

The third vulnerability is the second and final variant of the Foreshadow NG group known as CVE-2018-3646.  This affects virtualised environments. If a CPU thread (defined) being directed by an attacker is able to read the level 1 cache of a CPU that is also shared by another thread by a victim user (within another virtualised environment but using the same physical CPU) while that request will be blocked; if the information the attacker is looking to steal is in the level 1 cache they may still get a glimpse of this information.

How can I protect myself from these new vulnerabilities?
For the first and second vulnerabilities; the microcode (defined)/firmware (defined) updates made available earlier this year coupled with the newly released updates for operating systems linked to below will mitigate these two issues.


For the third vulnerability; affecting virtualised (defined) environments there are operating system updates and microcode/firmware updates available that will occasionally clear the contents of the level 1 cache meaning that when the attacker attempts to read it they will not receive any benefit from doing so. Partially removing the usefulness of the cache will have a performance impact from a few percent up to 15 percent in the worst case scenario.

However to completely mitigate this third vulnerability a capability known as Core Scheduling needs to be leveraged. This ensures that only trusted/non attacker controlled virtual machines have access to the same thread (this capability is already available in some virtual machine (hypervisor)(defined) environments).

However in some environments if it cannot be guaranteed that all virtual machines are trustworthy the disabling of Intel Hyper Threading (this means that only 1 thread will work per CPU core)(otherwise known as simultaneous multi-threading (SMT)(defined)) may be necessary and will more significantly impact performance than just the level 1 cache clearing.

In summary for this third vulnerability; depending upon the virtualised environment you are using and the trustworthiness of the virtual machines you are using will determine how many of the these extra security measure you will need to take.

To be clear I am NOT advocating that Intel Hyper Threading/SMT be disabled EN MASSE for security reasons. As per the advice in the linked to advisories (below)(specifically Intel and VMware) ; you MAY wish to disable Intel Hyper Threading/SMT to mitigate the third vulnerability (CVE-2018-3646) depending upon the environment your virtualised machines are operating.

This Ars Technica article explains it very well: “if two virtual machines share a physical core, then the virtual machine using one logical core can potentially spy on the virtual machine using the other logical core. One option here is to disable hyperthreading on virtual-machine hosts. The other alternative is to ensure that virtual machines are bound to physical cores such that they don’t share.”


Please find below links to vendor responses on these vulnerabilities as well as videos that can help in understanding these vulnerabilities:

Thank you.


Foreshadow Vulnerability Official Website:

Intel’s Blog Post:

Intel’s FAQ Page:

Intel’s Security Advisory:

Intel’s Software Developer Guidance:

Red Hat’s Security Advisory:

Linux Kernel Patch:

Oracle’s Security Advisory:

Amazon Web Services’ Security Advisory:

Google Cloud Security’s Blog Post:

Microsoft Windows Azure’s Guidance:

Microsoft’s Windows Security Advisory (high level details):

Microsoft’s Technical Analysis of the Foreshadow Vulnerabilities:

VMware Security Advisories:


Foreshadow Video (explains the first vulnerability very well):

Intel’s Video (explains all 3 vulnerabilities):

Demonstration of the Foreshadow attack:

Red Hat’s Video (explains all 3 vulnerabilities):

Red Hat’s In-depth video of the 3 vulnerabilities:


August 2018 Update Summary

Today Microsoft released updates to resolve 63 vulnerabilities (more formally known as CVEs (defined)).

This month also brings a new set of vulnerabilities affecting only Intel CPUs. I detail these more thoroughly in a separate post. However high level details are provided below.

Compared to previous months updates these have a smaller list of known issues (most of which have workarounds). Links to the relevant knowledge base (KB) articles are provided below:









Adobe also released update for the following products:

Adobe Acrobat and Reader DC (priority 2, 2x CVEs)

Adobe Creative Cloud Desktop (priority 3, 1x CVE)

Adobe Experience Manager (priority 2, 3x CVEs)

Adobe Flash (priority 2, 5x CVEs)

As always if you use any of the above Adobe software, please update it as soon as possible especially in the case of Flash and Acrobat DC/Reader DC. Updates for Google Chrome will be available shortly either via a browser update or their component updater.

Please also review the out of band updates for Photoshop CC and Creative Cloud Desktop and apply them if you use these products.

You can monitor the availability of security updates for most your software from the following websites (among others) or use one of the utilities presented on this page:
US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) (please see the “Information on Security Updates” heading of the “Protecting Your PC” page):


A further useful source of update related information is the Calendar of Updates. News/announcements of updates in the categories of General SoftwareSecurity Software and Utilities are available on their website. The news/announcements are very timely and (almost always) contain useful direct download links as well as the changes/improvements made by those updates (where possible).

If you like and use it, please also consider supporting that entirely volunteer run website by donating.

For this month’s Microsoft updates, I will prioritize the order of installation below:


Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer (multiple versions of Edge and IE affected)

Windows Font Library

Malicious LNK File

Microsoft Exchange

Foreshadow (L1TF) Vulnerabilities: Allow information disclosure via speculative execution; are only locally executable (rather than remotely). This vulnerability may allow one virtual machine to improperly access information from another. More details in my dedicated blog post.

Please install the remaining updates at your earliest convenience.

As usual; I would recommend backing up the data on any device for which you are installing updates to prevent data loss in the rare event that any update causes unexpected issues. I have provided further details of updates available for other commonly used applications below.

Please find below summaries of other notable updates released this month.

Thank you.

Nvidia Geforce Experience Software:
In late August, Nvidia released a security advisory for their Geforce Experience software for Windows. This update resolves 3 high severity vulnerabilities (as per their CVSS base scores). The necessary updates can be obtained from here.

On the final day of August, VideoLAN made available VLC 3.0.4. This appears to be a security update for Apple macOS due to the following entries within the releases notes (however it is unclear if this overflow is exploitable by an attacker):

Text renderer:
* Fix head buffer overflow on macOS with some fonts

For Linux and Windows this version provides fixes numerous non-security issues. Please update to version 3.0.4 to benefit from these improvements.

Wireshark 2.4.9 and 2.6.3
v2.4.9: 3 security advisories

v2.6.3: 3 security advisories

As per standard process Linux distributions can obtain this update using the operating systems standard package manager (if the latest version is not installed automatically using the package manager you can instead compile the source code (v2.6.3) or v2.4.9). This forum thread and this forum thread may also be helpful to you with installing Wireshark on your Linux based system.

For Mac OS X and Windows, the update is available within the downloads section of the Wireshark website. In addition, a detailed FAQ for Wireshark is available here.

In late August; WinSCP version 5.13.1 was released upgrading it’s embedded OpenSSL version to 1.0.2p (which addresses 2x low severity CVEs (Link1 and Link2).

On the 12 June and 16th April 2018; the OpenSSL Foundation issued 2 updates for OpenSSL to address 2x low severity security vulnerabilities as detailed in these security advisories (Link1 and Link2). To resolve these issues please update your OpenSSL installations to 1.1.0i (released 14th August) or 1.0.2o (released 14th August) (as appropriate).

FTP mirrors to obtain the necessary downloads are available from here.

Downloadable Tarballs (compressed/packaged code made for distribution) are available from here.

It should also be possible to use the package manager of a Linux/Unix operating system to update your OpenSSL installation as mentioned within the section titled “Installing updates for Linux distributions” on the “Protecting Your PC” page of this blog.

VMWare issued two security advisories for the following products during August:

Security advisory 1 (addresses 1 vulnerability of Important severity):

  • VMware Horizon 6
  • VMware Horizon 7
  • VMware Horizon Client for Windows
  • VMware Horizon View Agent
  • VMware Horizon Agents Installer (HAI)

Security advisory 2 (addresses 1 vulnerability of Critical severity):

  • VMware Workstation Pro / Player (Workstation)
  • VMware Fusion Pro, Fusion (Fusion)

If you use the above VMware products, please review the security advisories and apply the necessary updates.

SpectreRSB and NetSpectre Vulnerabilities Explained

In late July; security researchers publicly disclosed (defined) a new set of vulnerabilities within Intel CPUs (defined) (and possibly AMD and ARM; which the researchers also notified). These vulnerabilities are collectively referred to as SpectreRSB (Return Stack Buffer). The purpose of an RSB is explained in this document (PDF) but in summary it is a buffer (defined) that stores multiple return addresses while attempting to predict function (a set of instructions that carries out a specific action within a program) return addresses.

A very short time later nearing the end of July; a separate set of researchers released details of another vulnerability known as NetSpectre. This is an evict and reload cache attack that targets systems remotely to extract data.

How could an attacker exploit these vulnerabilities and what is the result?
For SpectreRSB; an attacker could recover data from the speculative execution feature of the CPU by targeting the Return Stack Buffer and predicting the return address which it stores. By manipulating the data it contains by predicting the return address the CPU will access when it completes a task the attacker can influence the address CPU will jump to and thus jump to an address of the attacker’s choosing. Unfortunately; this buffer is shared among the threads (defined) on the same virtual process thus affecting multiple running processes and virtual machines.

The attacker could alter the RSB to expose and gather data from applications running within the CPU. Another form of manipulation by the researchers resulted in them being able to expose data contained within Intel’s Software Guard Extensions (defined)(PDF).


Separately for the NetSpectre vulnerability; if attackers can send specifically crafted packets (defined) to a vulnerable system they can use the responses they receive to infer data from that systems memory. Currently this can only take place at a very low rate; 15 bits per hour. This means 15 times a zero or a one; in other words true or false (I’m not referring to Boolean logic here; just trying to convey a concept) or even simpler on for 1 and off for zero. This increased to 60 bits per hour for an Intel CPU equipped with AVX2 instructions.

With such a low throughput at this time (although I realise an attack can usually be refined and significantly improved within a short time); this attack is not a practical threat but more a theoretical weakness.

How can I protect myself from these vulnerabilities?
The good news for this SpectreRSB subclass of vulnerabilities is that Intel has already created an update but not for all of it’s CPU (Intel Core i7 Skylake (6th Generation Core models) and later CPUs). The researchers are aware of this patch and are recommending it’s use. When I use the word subclass above; my meaning is that SpectreRSB is a subclass of the original Spectre vulnerabilities from January this year. Red Hat also announced they are reviewing these vulnerabilities.

Intel however have stated that existing mitigations from the vulnerabilities disclosed in January will protect against this new subclass. However this is unconfirmed at this time.


While an APT (defined) could leverage the NetSpectre vulnerability over a period of weeks or months to extract useful data; existing mitigations for Spectre variant 1 and variant 2 mitigate this new vulnerability reinforcing my statement above of being a theoretical weakness.

In summary; to protect against both classes of these vulnerabilities; please continue to roll-out the mitigations for the Spectre vulnerabilities from January 2018 (if you have not already completed them).

For any system which cannot be updated (due to performance or end of life constraints e.g. Intel not providing updates for some CPUs); seek to migrate the responsibilities/roles/duties of these systems to newer CPUs which have received updates. A list of patched and un-patched Intel CPUs is available here (PDF).

Thank you.

Protecting Against Spectre 1.1 and 1.2

Earlier this month, 2 security researchers disclosed details of 2 further vulnerabilities within Intel and ARM CPUs that have been named Spectre  1.1 (CVE-2018-3693) and 1.2 (no CVE at this time).

If an attacker exploited these vulnerabilities what would be the outcome?
Fortunately while these vulnerabilities potentially affect billions of CPUs, they rely on an attacker already having access to an affected computer system in order to exploit them. If exploited by an attacker Spectre 1.1 allows an them to retrieve data (which may include sensitive data) from previously secured CPU memory segments by allowing the writing of an execution of malicious code as a result of overflowing (defined) these memory segments.

For Spectre 1.2; exploitation allows normally read only CPU memory segments to be written over. In more detail, the security researchers describe the effects of this as follows “In a Spectre1.2 attack, speculative stores are allowed to overwrite read-only data, code pointers, and code metadata, including vtables, GOT/IAT, and control-flow mitigation metadata. As a result, sandboxing that depends on hardware enforcement of read-only memory is rendered ineffective.”

How can I protect myself from these vulnerabilities?
For ARM CPUs mainly found in smartphones and other smart devices; ARM’s security advisory provides guidance on determining if you have a vulnerable CPU and which vendor to refer to if your CPU is found to be vulnerable.

For Intel CPUs, at this time they are advising to continue to check with the vendors of the operating system for the affected device with the Intel CPU e.g. Apple macOS, Linux and Microsoft.

While such updates are not yet available; in the meantime please continue to exercise standard vigilance; e.g. don’t click on suspicious links received within emails, social media, via chat applications etc. Don’t open attachments you weren’t expecting within an email (even if you know the person; since their email account or device they access their email may have been compromised) and download updates for your software and devices from trusted sources e.g. the software/device vendors.

I will update this post as more information on these vulnerabilities becomes available and as they are resolved by affected vendors.

Thank you.