Breaking Kernel Address Space Layout Randomization with Intel TSX


Kernel hardening has been an important topic, as many applications and security mechanisms often consider the kernel as part of their Trusted Computing Base (TCB). Among various hardening techniques, Kernel Address Space Layout Randomization (KASLR) is the most effective and widely adopted defense mechanism that can practically mitigate various memory corruption vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflow and use-after-free. In principle, KASLR is secure as long as no memory leak vulnerability exists and high entropy is ensured.

In this paper, we introduce a novel timing attack against KASLR, called DrK, that can precisely de-randomize the memory layout of the kernel without violating any such assumptions. DrK exploits a hardware feature called Intel Transactional Synchronization Extension (TSX) that is readily available in most modern commodity CPUs. One surprising behavior of TSX, which is essentially the root cause of this security loophole, is that it aborts a transaction without notifying the underlying kernel even when the transaction fails due to a critical error, such as a page fault or an access violation, which traditionally requires kernel intervention. DrK turned this property into a precise timing channel that can determine the mapping status (i.e., mapped versus unmapped) and execution status (i.e., executable versus non-executable) of the privileged, kernel address space. In addition to its surprising accuracy and precision, DrK is universally applicable to all OSes, even on a virtualized environment, and generates no visible footprint, making it difficult to detect in practice.

We demonstrated that DrK could break KASLR of all major OSes (i.e., Windows, Linux, and OS X) with near-perfect accuracy in under a second. Finally, we propose a few potential countermeasures that can effectively prevent or mitigate the DrK attack. We urge our community to be aware of the potential threat of having Intel TSX, which is present in most recent Intel CPUs – 100% in workstation and 60% in high-end Intel CPUs since Skylake – and is even available on Amazon EC2 (X1).

Black Hat USA Briefings 2016