HardFails: Insights into Software-Exploitable Hardware Bugs


Ghada Dessouky and David Gens, Technische Universität Darmstadt; Patrick Haney and Garrett Persyn, Texas A&M University; Arun Kanuparthi, Hareesh Khattri, and Jason M. Fung, Intel Corporation; Ahmad-Reza Sadeghi, Technische Universität Darmstadt; Jeyavijayan Rajendran, Texas A&M University


Modern computer systems are becoming faster, more efficient, and increasingly interconnected with each generation. Thus, these platforms grow more complex, with new features continually introducing the possibility of new bugs. Although the semiconductor industry employs a combination of different verification techniques to ensure the security of System-on-Chip (SoC) designs, a growing number of increasingly sophisticated attacks are starting to leverage cross-layer bugs. These attacks leverage subtle interactions between hardware and software, as recently demonstrated through a series of real-world exploits that affected all major hardware vendors.

In this paper, we take a deep dive into microarchitectural security from a hardware designer’s perspective by reviewing state-of-the-art approaches used to detect hardware vulnerabilities at design time. We show that a protection gap currently exists, leaving chip designs vulnerable to software-based attacks that can exploit these hardware vulnerabilities. Inspired by real-world vulnerabilities and insights from our industry collaborator (a leading chip manufacturer), we construct the first representative testbed of real-world software-exploitable RTL bugs based on RISC-V SoCs. Patching these bugs may not always be possible and can potentially result in a product recall. Based on our testbed, we conduct two extensive case studies to analyze the effectiveness of state-of-the-art security verification approaches and identify specific classes of vulnerabilities, which we call HardFails, which these approaches fail to detect. Through our work, we focus the spotlight on specific limitations of these approaches to propel future research in these directions. We envision our RISC-V testbed of RTL bugs providing a rich exploratory ground for future research in hardware security verification and contributing to the open-source hardware landscape.

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@inproceedings {236236,
author = {Ghada Dessouky and David Gens and Patrick Haney and Garrett Persyn and Arun Kanuparthi and Hareesh Khattri and Jason M. Fung and Ahmad-Reza Sadeghi and Jeyavijayan Rajendran},
title = {{HardFails}: Insights into {Software-Exploitable} Hardware Bugs},
booktitle = {28th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 19)},
year = {2019},
isbn = {978-1-939133-06-9},
address = {Santa Clara, CA},
pages = {213--230},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity19/presentation/dessouky},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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