Category Archives: Programmable logic

Four cool new jobs

We’re advertising for four people to join the security group from October.

The first three are for two software engineers to join our new cybercrime centre, to develop new ways of finding bad guys in the terabytes and (soon) petabytes of data we get on spam, phish and other bad stuff online; and a lawyer to explore and define the boundaries of how we share cybercrime data.

The fourth is in Security analysis of semiconductor memory. Could you help us come up with neat new ways of hacking chips? We’ve invented quite a few of these in the past, ranging from optical fault induction through semi-invasive attacks generally. What’s next?

The CHERI capability model: Revisiting RISC in an age of risk (ISCA 2014)

Last week, Jonathan Woodruff presented our joint paper on the CHERI memory model, The CHERI capability model: Revisiting RISC in an age of risk, at the 2014 International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA) in Minneapolis (video, slides). This is our first full paper on Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions (CHERI), collaborative work between Simon Moore’s and my team composed of members of the Security, Computer Architecture, and Systems Research Groups at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, Peter G. Neumann’s group at the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International, and Ben Laurie at Google.

CHERI is an instruction-set extension, prototyped via an FPGA-based soft processor core named BERI, that integrates a capability-system model with a conventional memory-management unit (MMU)-based pipeline. Unlike conventional OS-facing MMU-based protection, the CHERI protection and security models are aimed at compilers and applications. CHERI provides efficient, robust, compiler-driven, hardware-supported, and fine-grained memory protection and software compartmentalisation (sandboxing) within, rather than between, addresses spaces. We run a version of FreeBSD that has been adapted to support the hardware capability model (CheriBSD) compiled with a CHERI-aware Clang/LLVM that supports C pointer integrity, bounds checking, and capability-based protection and delegation. CheriBSD also supports a higher-level hardware-software security model permitting sandboxing of application components within an address space based on capabilities and a Call/Return mechanism supporting mutual distrust.

The approach draws inspiration from Capsicum, our OS-facing hybrid capability-system model now shipping in FreeBSD and available as a patch for Linux courtesy Google. We found that capability-system approaches matched extremely well with least-privilege oriented software compartmentalisation, in which programs are broken up into sandboxed components to mitigate the effects of exploited vulnerabilities. CHERI similarly merges research capability-system ideas with a conventional RISC processor design, making accessible the security and robustness benefits of the former, while retaining software compatibility with the latter. In the paper, we contrast our approach with a number of others including Intel’s forthcoming Memory Protection eXtensions (MPX), but in particular pursue a RISC-oriented design instantiated against the 64-bit MIPS ISA, but the ideas should be portable to other RISC ISAs such as ARMv8 and RISC-V.

Our hardware prototype is implemented in Bluespec System Verilog, a high-level hardware description language (HDL) that makes it easier to perform design-space exploration. To facilitate both reproducibility for this work, and also future hardware-software research, we’ve open sourced the underlying Bluespec Extensible RISC Implementation (BERI), our CHERI extensions, and a complete software stack: operating system, compiler, and so on. In fact, support for the underlying 64-bit RISC platform, which implements a version of the 64-bit MIPS ISA, was upstreamed to FreeBSD 10.0, which shipped earlier this year. Our capability-enhanced versions of FreeBSD (CheriBSD) and Clang/LLVM are distributed via GitHub.

You can learn more about CHERI, BERI, and our larger clean-slate hardware-software agenda on the CTSRD Project Website. There, you will find copies of our prior workshop papers, full Bluespec source code for the FPGA processor design, hardware build instructions for our FPGA-based tablet, downloadable CheriBSD images, software source code, and also our recent technical report, Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions: CHERI Instruction-Set Architecture, and Jon Woodruff’s PhD dissertation on CHERI.

Jonathan Woodruff, Robert N. M. Watson, David Chisnall, Simon W. Moore, Jonathan Anderson, Brooks Davis, Ben Laurie, Peter G. Neumann, Robert Norton, and Michael Roe. The CHERI capability model: Revisiting RISC in an age of risk, Proceedings of the 41st International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA 2014), Minneapolis, MN, USA, June 14–16, 2014.

Job ad: pre- and post-doctoral posts in processor, operating system, and compiler security

The CTSRD Project is advertising two posts in processor, operating system, and compiler security. The first is a research assistant position, suitable for candidates who may not have a research background, and the second is a post-doctoral research associate position suitable for candidates who have completed (or will shortly complete) a PhD in computer science or a related field.

The CTSRD Project is investigating fundamental improvements to CPU architecture, operating system (OS) design, and programming language structure in support of computer security. The project is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and SRI International, and part of the DARPA CRASH research programme on clean-slate computer system design.

These positions will be integral parts of an international team of researchers spanning multiple institutions across academia and industry. Successful candidate will provide support for the larger research effort by contributing to low-level hardware and system-software implementation and experimentation. Responsibilities will include extending Bluespec-based CHERI processor designs, modifying operating system kernels and compiler suites, administering test and development systems, as well as performing performance measurements. The position will also support and engage with early adopter communities for our open-source research platform in the UK and abroad.

Candidates should have strong experience with at least one of Bluespec HDL, OS kernel development (FreeBSD preferred), or compiler internals (LLVM preferred); strong experience with the C programming language and use of revision control in large, collaborative projects is essential. Some experience with computer security and formal methods is also recommended.

Further details on the two posts may be found in job ads NR27772 and NR27782. E-mail queries may be sent directly to Dr Robert N. M. Watson.

Both posts are intended to start on 8 July 2013; applications must be received by 9 May 2013.

Notes on FPGA DRM (part 1)

For a while I have been looking very closely at how FPGA cores are distributed (the common term is “IP cores”, or just “IP”, but I try to minimize the use of this over-used catch-all catch phrase). In what I hope to be a series of posts, I will mostly discuss The problem (rather than solutions), as I think that that needs to be addressed and adequately defined first. I’ll start with my attempt at a concise definitions of the following:

FPGA: Field Programmable Gate Arrays are generic semiconductor devices comprising of interconnected functional blocks that can be programmed, and reprogrammed, to perform user-described logic functions.

Cores: ready-made functional descriptions that allow system developers to save on design cost and time by purchasing them from third parties and integrating them into their own design.

The “cores distribution problem” is easy to define, but challenging to solve: how can a digital design be distributed by its designer such that he can a) enable his customer to evaluate, simulate, and integrate it into its own, b) limit the amount of instances that can be made of it, and c) make it run only on specific devices. If this sounds like “Digital Rights Management” to you, that’s exactly what it is: DRM for FPGAs. Despite the abuse of some industries that made a bad name for DRM, in our application there may be benefits for both the design owner and the end user. We also know that enabling the three conditions above for a whole industry is challenging, and we are not even close to a solution.

Continue reading Notes on FPGA DRM (part 1)

The dinosaurs of five years ago

A project called NSA@home has been making the rounds. It’s a gem. Stanislaw Skowronek got some old HDTV hardware off of eBay, and managed to create himself a pre-image brute force attack machine against SHA-1. The claim is that it can find a pre-image for an 8 character password hash from a 64 character set in about 24 hours.

The key here is that this hardware board uses 15 field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are generic integrated circuits that can perform any logic function within their size limit. So, Stanislaw reverse engineered the connections between the FPGAs, wrote his own designs and now has a very powerful processing unit. FPGAs are better at specific tasks compared to general purpose CPUs, especially for functions that can be divided into many independently-running smaller chunks operating in parallel. Some cryptographic functions are a perfect match; our own Richard Clayton and Mike Bond attacked the DES implementation in the IBM 4758 hardware security module using an FPGA prototyping board; DES was attacked on the FPGA-based custom hardware platform, the Transmogrifier 2a; more recently, the purpose-built COPACOBANA machine which uses 120 low-end FPGAs operating in parallel to break DES in about 7 days; a proprietary stream cipher on RFID tokens was attacked using 16 commercial FPGA boards operating in parallel; and finally, people are now in the midst of cracking the A5 stream cipher in real time using commercial FPGA modules. The unique development we see with NSA@home is that it uses a defunct piece of hardware.

Continue reading The dinosaurs of five years ago