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Shared memory: Side-channel information leaks / updated 2016-01-24, minor changes 2016-07-20


It is possible to create a high-resolution timer by using shared memory and a worker: the worker runs in a loop that increments a shared cell with an atomic operation, and whatever agent needs a clock just reads the cell. Yossi Oren has measured such a cell to have a 4ns resolution on current (2015) hardware. The clock will be a little noisy as a result of system behavior but probably has much higher resolution in practice than the attenuated timer, which has 5μs resolution.

A number of side channel attacks need a high-resolution timing source to work. (This is why resolution has been reduced.) There are several examples of such attacks in JS, including last-level cache sniffing to extract user behavior or user data [Oren, 1], row hammering to cause bit flips in memory on some types of hardware [Gruss et al, 2], and SVG/CSS attacks that can read pixels using transforms [Stone, 3] [Andrysco et al, 4]. In virtualized server environments, though not yet in JS, it has been possible to extract cryptographic keys for AES and RSA from the cache [Osvik et al, 5] [Inci et al, 6]. Several published papers focus on exfiltration of data as a high-value use of JS, wherein a local attacker process would signal data by accessing its memory and the JS code, having legitimate access to the network from within the browser, would detect those signals and upload the data.

Attacks are also being launched against ARM [Lipp et al, 8] and there are ever-novel attack vectors [Gruss et al, 9]; the relevance of those attacks to JS is hazy, at this time.

In these cases, a precise timer is needed to distinguish a fast operation from a slow operation. For the cache attacks and row hammering this is the time difference between a cache hit and a cache miss; for the SVG/CSS attacks it is the difference between a fast transform (the bit we're reading is set one way) and a slow one (it's set the other way). Without a fast timer these attacks are not effective.

Mitigations and countermeasures

Thread affinity

The only reasonable "hidden" mitigation that's been proposed and that can be implemented by the browser vendors is to make sure that threads that share memory have affinity to the same CPU. In that case, the thread that generates the clock signal does not run in parallel with the thread that reads it, as they are timesliced on the same core. The clock signal is thus destroyed. (Or so the theory goes.)

In favor of that mitigation is that it does not destroy the shared-memory feature; workers can still share memory, and can share the memory with their owning main thread.

However, actual parallel execution is destroyed by setting the affinity in that manner, thus removing one of the main justifications for the feature in JS, and probably making programs that use shared memory less effective than programs that copy memory. In practice, requiring affinity may be a reasonable default if it can be changed easily when needed, or it may be a reasonable option for high-security environments such as Tor [Tor project, 7], but it is not a reasonable mitigation when shared-memory parallelism is actually needed.

The affinity solution has another couple of problems:

  • Thread affinity has real teeth on Windows and Linux but is not well supported on Mac OS X (and may not be well supported on other platforms).
  • Browsers that have a single main thread that is the main thread for all or many tabs (as does Firefox at the moment) will end up forcing many worker threads onto the same core, if shared memory becomes popular on the web and affinity is enabled by default.


At the moment several browsers implement an opt-in scheme for plugin content. It may be possible to implement something similar for shared memory, whereby (say) the shared memory APIs are available but with thread affinity enabled by default, and some user action allows threads to run free on multiple cores. Like the plugin content, it could be a per-domain or per-tab permission, set once and for all or for a shorter duration.

Opt-in is not a great solution because most users will not know what they opt in to, so it will be confusing, and the security will be questionable (most users run all plugins always when prompted). It's also not clear how the need to opt in would be communicated to the page.

(Also, as discussed above, thread affinity is not necessarily controllable, and in practice the default might need to be that the shared-memory feature is not available, or that it is available in some attenuated form.)

How bad is it?

Known and potential impact

We don't really know how bad this attack is. The published attacks in JS are not yet devastating, but attacks only get better. The web is vast; an attack that works against many computers and is delivered via an ad, say, can be very bad. Or the attack can go into a toolbox for targeted attacks (APT).

In general, a web browser runs untrusted code and for that code to be able to steal information from the user is a big deal.

New impact

The thing is, it's not obvious that the attack provides a genuinely new capability to attackers. Consider the existing technologies on the Web that can be used to mount the cache attacks:

  • Flash Player (AS3 has shared memory)
  • Java
  • PNaCl / NaCl
  • browser extensions with native code
    • native messaging in Chrome
    • js-ctypes in Firefox
    • ActiveX in Internet Explorer
    • probably more

In all cases those technologies do not need shared memory at all if they already have a precise clock for the attack, but absent a precise clock all do have shared memory and can build such a clock.

Java and ActiveX were brought up already in 2005 by Osvik in his paper on attacking AES [5].

In addition, several of the published attacks do not appear to need the new clock: the rowhammer.js authors have said that the 5μs throttled clock is not a hindrance to them; Oren states that a 1μs clock is sufficient for cache sniffing, and such a clock can be built (by counting) from the 5μs clock.

The shared-memory clock might affect the SVG/CSS attack, especially as implemented for exploiting subnormal timings, although that attack is not an issue at present. (In Firefox the computation was first made timing-independent and later pushed to the GPU.)

None of the attacks appear to be aided by being able to allocate memory that is merely shared among the threads of the same browser process. (The attacks bring up "shared memory" as an attack vector, but this is in order to play memory mapping tricks.)

Future impact

In the future, if WebAssembly adds shared memory and threads (as it is expected it will) it will inevitably run into the same problem.

Server-side impact

node.js is not all that interesting in this context because it only runs trusted code. Clearly "trusted" is a matter of definition (do you know what you get with "require"?), but at least the code is not downloaded from the web through an ad or a random web page.

The hardware problem

The timing attacks are made possibly by what can only be described as hardware bugs:

  • Rowhammer is ultimately caused by a combination of DDR3 memory weaknesses coupled with aggressive (ie low) BIOS DRAM refresh rates. (Later also demonstrated on some DDR4 memory.)
  • Cache sniffing is arguably a problem with shared caches, a problem that is far from new but has now moved to the L3 cache in virtualized environments. (Later also demonstrated on some L1 caches.)

Rowhammer is being addressed by adjusting the BIOS refresh rates (with a performance penalty) and by more resilient memory types. Cache sniffing is being addressed by cache partitioning (though it's unclear how good current attempts are).

In the past, the cost of denormal floating-point operations has been used for information stealing with SVG filters, an attack that has been mitigated by changing timer resolution in the browsers but also by the CPU manufacturers addressing denormal timing (to some extent), or by having the hardware flush subnormals to zero.

As time goes by, the hardware problems are mitigated, and new ones are introduced, eg, GPUs now support denormals, but they implement operations on denormals in microcode, making them useful timing channels.

We should not let "the hardware problem" be a reason not to take the attacks seriously, but worrying about one particular type of clock, some particular hardware issues, and how they combine to enable these particular side channel leaks feels like a fairly narrow point of view. Other clocks and other hardware bugs will be found. (An experiment shows that a counting clock made from the 5μs timer can get pretty reliable 1μs resolution.) The problem is less the specific nature of these side channels than that sensitive computations are not properly insulated from the rest of the system. Admittedly, insulation often requires hardware and OS changes and not merely careful coding, but it is still where the actual problem is.


[1] Yossef Oren et al, "The Spy in the Sandbox -- Practical Cache Attacks in Javascript"

[2] Daniel Gruss et al, "Rowhammer.js: A Remote Software-Induced Fault Attack in JavaScript"

[3] Paul Stone, "Pixel perfect timing attacks with HTML5"

[4] Marc Andrysco et al, "On Submornal Floating point and abnormal timing

[5] Dag Arne Osvik et al, "Cache Attacks and Countermeasures: the Case of AES"

[6] Mehmet Sinan Inci et al, "Seriously, get off my cloud! Cross-VM RSA Key Recovery in a Public Cloud"

[7] Tor project: "High-precision timestamps in JS"

[8] Moritz Lipp et al, "ARMageddon: Last-Level Cache Attacks on Mobile Devices"

[9] Daniel Gruss et al, "Flush+Flush: A Fast and Stealthy Cache Attack"