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Oh, great, now there's a SECOND remote Rowhammer exploit

Send enough crafted packets to a NIC to put nasties into RAM, then the fun really starts

Hard on the heels of the first network-based Rowhammer attack, some of the boffins involved in discovering Meltdown/Spectre have shown off their own technique for flipping bits using network requests.

With a gigabit connection to the victim, the researchers reckon, they can induce security-critical bit flips using crafted quality-of-service packets.

Last week, we reported on research called “Throwhammer” that exploited Rowhammer via remote direct memory access (RDMA) channels.

In separate research, Meltdown/Spectre veterans Daniel Gruss, Moritz Lipp and Michael Schwarz of Graz University of Technology and their team have published a paper describing Nethammer (their co-authors are Lukas Lamster and Lukas Raab, also of Graz; Misiker Tadesse Aga of the University of Michigan; and Clémentine Maurice of IRISA at the University of Rennes).

Nethammer works, they said, without any attacker-controlled code on the target, attacking “systems that use uncached memory or flush instructions while handling network requests. The team explained:

Depending on the location, the bit flip compromises either the security and integrity of the system and the data of its users, or it can leave persistent damage on the system, ie, persistent denial of service.

Here's a quick recap of Rowhammer to help understand how Nethammer works: by rapidly writing and rewriting memory, it induces capacitor errors in DRAM, and the resulting data corruption can be manipulated to gain control over the victim's machine.

In its original form, Rowhammer let an attacker escalate their privilege to kernel level, but you needed access to the victim machine.

Nethammer mounts remote attacks by exploiting the memory used for packet processing, if you can send enough of them.

A hammer and bent screw

'Rowhammer' attack flips bits in memory to root Linux


“Nethammer sends a crafted stream of network packets to the target device to mount a one-location or single-sided Rowhammer attack by exploiting quality-of-service technologies deployed on the device,” the paper explains.

“For each packet received on the target device, a set of addresses is accessed, either in the kernel driver or a user-space application processing the contents.”

In normal circumstances, caching would make an attack difficult, so the Graz team worked out how to bypass the cache and send their attacks “directly into the DRAM to cause the row conflicts required for hammering”.

If the victim's machine is susceptible to single-sided hammering and has DDR2, DDR3 or DDR4 memory installed, the group demonstrated working attacks on personal computers and on virtual machines running in cloud environments.

The good news? The best mitigation is to have systems that defend network connections against traffic spikes, because an attacker needs to fire a lot of packets at the target: “In our experiments, we sent a stream of UDP packets with up to 500 Mbps to the target system. We were able to induce a bit flip every 350 ms”, the paper notes.

Brief spikes at high throughput could get past such defenses, however. ®

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