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Cache Leak Detector

This tool allows to detect instruction cache leaks in modular exponentiation software with instruction-level granularity. It is based on a simple, yet effective leakage test, which captures linear relations between the Hamming weight of the exponent and the number of executions per instruction. To obtain the instruction executions, the exponentiation software is monitored during runtime using dynamic binary instrumentation (DBI).

In its current version, the cache leak detector can be used to find leaking instructions in any modular exponentiation implementation (as long as an interface is provided). For example, the tool allows to test RSA, DSA or Diffie-Hellman key exchange implementations for instruction cache leaks. The paper Automated Detection of Instruction Cache Leaks in Modular Exponentiation Software provides a comprehensive leakage analysis of RSA implementations found in widely used cryptographic libraries. The analysis includes BoringSSL, cryptlib, Libgcrypt, LibreSSL, MatrixSSL, mbed TLS, Nettle, OpenSSL, and wolfSSL.

Table of Contents

Tool Description

The cache leak detector has a modular architecture. It consists of a target program, an extension to Intel's DBI framework Pin, called pintool, and report scripts.

The target program is implemented in C and interfaces a self-written RSA decryption function (called simplersa) that uses the BIGNUM library within OpenSSL. In every execution it triggers one decryption in a dedicated thread. Everything within this thread is instrumented, while preparation and clean-up tasks executed by the main thread are omitted. This improves the measurement quality for the leakage test. The target program writes the exponents used during decryption to an output file, which must be passed to the report scripts. Note that the target program can be extended to interface any other implementation of modular exponentiation or generally any other software that should be tested for instruction cache or execution flow leaks.

Intel Pin is used to instrument the target implementation and count the number of executions for all active instructions. Extensions to Intel Pin are commonly referred to as pintools and are written in C++. They can access any of the instrumentation capabilities offered by Pin. To count the number of executions per instruction, the currently implemented pintool tracks the instruction pointer and maintains counters for all addresses within all images that are loaded by the target program. In other words, any shared library that is used by the target implementation is instrumented and hence all leaks are captured. After the target program is done, the pintool writes all non-zero counters together with infos about all loaded images to an output file. This file must also be passed to the report scripts. Note that any other DBI framework that supports tracking the instruction pointer can be used as well, e.g., valgrind or DynamoRIO.

The report scripts parse the output files of the target program and the pintool, perform the leakage test and report any leaking instructions. The scripts are implemented in Python (version 3). The tonumpy script parses and merges the output files into one Numpy file. This is done to save storage space, because especially the output file of the pintool might grow to several MB and even GB. After the conversion, the original output files are not needed anymore and can be deleted. The report script then reads the Numpy file and calculates the leakage results for all instructions. An instruction is said to leak, if its correlation coefficient is above the significance threshold. This threshold depends on the confidence level with which the significance shall be determined and the number of performed measurements. More details about the threshold are given in the paper. If an instruction leaks, the report script tries to gather more information about it from the image it is contained in. It uses pyelftools to retrieve symbol and section infos and Capstone to disassemble the image and get instruction infos. Eventually, the report script prints all leaking instructions and all gathered information about them.

So far, there is no complete understanding of how many bits of information a leaking instruction reveals to an adversary that observes the instruction cache. However, it is intuitively clear that any execution flow dependency on input data should be avoided, if said input is sensitive or secret. Therefore it is recommended to fix all leaks that the cache leak detector reports.


Folder Description
doxygen HTML documentation of the source code
example Working directory of the example presented below
paper Related publication at the CARDIS 2016 conference
pintool Extension of the Pin DBI framework
report Python scripts for post-processing and leakage reports
target Instrumentation target that executes RSA decryptions


In order to use cache leak detector and generate its documentation, the following software packages are required:

Under Debian/Ubuntu, the following commands should simplify the installation process:

sudo apt-get install build-essential
sudo apt-get install libssl1.0.0 libssl-dev
sudo apt-get install python3 python3-pip
sudo pip3 install numpy scipy capstone pyelftools docopt
sudo apt-get install doxygen

The current version of cache leak detector has been tested under Ubuntu 14.04 with gcc v4.8.4, Make v3.81, OpenSSL v1.0.1f, Pin v3.2, Python v3.4.3, numpy v1.12.0, scipy v0.19.0, pyelftools v0.24, capstone v3.0.4, docopt v0.6.2, and doxygen v1.8.6.


The entire project contains Makefiles that can be used to build the source code and clean up the build files afterwards. By issuing


in the project root directory, the target program and the pintool extension are compiled. Building the pintool requires that the source code directory of Pin is available through an environment variable called PIN_ROOT.

The project documentation can be generated with doxygen by using the command

make doc

The documentation can subsequently be viewed in a web browser by opening the index.html in the doxygen directory. All build and documentation files are deleted with

make clean

Note that PIN_ROOT must also be defined when cleaning the build files of the pintool.


The target program already contains an example implementation of RSA decryption. It requires an existing RSA key file to avoid generating a new key for every program run. Within this key the target program then replaces the existing private exponent with a random one. An example key is already included.

The Makefile in the project root directory implements additional commands for an automated example run of the cache leak detector. To execute decryptions and instrument the example implementation, type

make measure

Note that the Pin binary must be available under the command pin. To obtain robust leakage results, multiple measurements should be done. To repeat the measurement command N times, type

make measure loops=N

After taking a sufficient number of measurements, the output files of the target program and the pintool can be converted to a Numpy file with

make convert

The final leakage results can be obtained from the Numpy file with

make report

The report is written to example/report.txt. All output files, including the Numpy file, are also written to the example directory. The executed commands including all arguments can be viewed in the root directory Makefile.

Since the cache leak detector is designed to be run automatically, all of the commands above can be executed in one run with

make detect

This will perform N = 10 measurements, followed by the Numpy conversion and the report generation.


Currently, the generated report.txt displays leaking instructions in the following way:

Significance Threshold: 0.9738

Image: /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/
Active Instructions: 3468
Detected Leaks: 1426 (41.12% of active)

  0x0005e9f0:    Corr.:  0.9753    Section: .plt     Symbol: -          / -             Instr. (len=06):    jmp qword ptr [rip + 0x36e732]
  0x00095940:    Corr.:  0.9996    Section: .text    Symbol: BN_usub    / 0x00000110    Instr. (len=04):    sub rax, 8
  0x00095944:    Corr.:  0.9996    Section: .text    Symbol: BN_usub    / 0x00000114    Instr. (len=05):    cmp qword ptr [rax + 8], 0
  0x00095949:    Corr.:  0.9996    Section: .text    Symbol: BN_usub    / 0x00000119    Instr. (len=02):    jne 0x95950

This is an excerpt of the example report after make detect. The significance threshold is printed at the beginning of the file. For each image the report provides the file path, the number of active instructions during decryption, the number of leaking instructions and their percentage of all active ones. For each leaking instruction, the following properties are printed:

| Offset within Image | Corr. Coeff. | Image Section | Image Symbol | Offset within Symbol | Instr. Length | Instr. Disassembly |
| ------------------- | ------------ | ------------- | ------------ | -------------------- | ------------- | ------------------ |
| 0x00095949          | 0.9996       | .text         | BN_usub      | 0x00000119           | 02            | jne 0x95950        |

For any info that could not be retrieved from the image, a dash is printed.


When looking at the entire example report, it becomes obvious that the example implementation exhibits massive instruction cache leaks. This is because it relies on a square-and-multiply modular exponentiation algorithm, which by design comes with substantial exponent-dependent execution flow variations. Square-and-multiply as well as sliding window exponentiation (SWE) algorithms are generally not recommended for security critical software, as both have inherent execution flow dependencies. Better choices are square-and-multiply-always, Montgomery ladder or fixed window exponentiation (FWE) algorithms. Yet, a significant fraction of the cryptographic libraries tested here still implements SWE algorithms.

With the example run of the cache leak detector, everyone can debunk the vulnerable square-and-multiply implementation in about 30s (tested on an Intel i7).

Securing Software

The cache leak detector is intended to be used by anyone developing or releasing security critical software. Its modular design and automated leakage test facilitate the integration into existing development and release processes.

The analysis of cryptographic libraries in the paper revealed an execution flow leak in wolfSSL v3.8.0, although the library implements modular exponentiation using a Montgomery ladder. This clearly shows that instruction cache leakage detection is important, even for software that should be protected in theory. Experience simply shows that bugs can always be introduced in practice.

As a response to the paper, wolfSSL fixed the leak in v3.10.0 and v3.10.2. This is also documented under CVE-2017-6076. In addition, MatrixSSL switched to a fixed window exponentiation implementation in v3.9.0.


For questions, remarks, and bugs please use the contact information provided in the paper or source code files. If you want to contribute to cache leak detector, we always welcome ideas and improvements of any kind.


This project is released under the MIT License.



Instruction cache leakage detection tool for modular exponentation software.







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