Friday, January 05, 2018

Spectre and Meltdown from a CNO Perspective

Longtime readers know that I have no problem with foreign countries replacing American vendors with local alternatives. For example, see Five Reasons I Want China Running Its Own Software. This is not a universal principle, but as an American I am fine with it. Putting my computer network operations (CNO) hat on, I want to share a few thoughts about the intersection of the anti-American vendor mindset with the recent Spectre and Meltdown attacks.

There are probably non-Americans, who, for a variety of reasons, feel that it would be "safer" for them to run their cloud computing workloads on non-American infrastructure. Perhaps they feel that it puts their data beyond the reach of the American Department of Justice. (I personally feel that it's an over-reach by DoJ to try to access data beyond American borders, eg Microsoft Corp. v. United States.)

The American intelligence community and computer network operators, however, might prefer to have that data outside American borders. These agencies are still bound by American laws, but those laws generally permit exploitation overseas.

Now put this situation in the context of Spectre and Meltdown. Begin with the attack scenario mentioned by Nicole Perlroth, where an attacker rents a few minutes of time on various cloud systems, then leverages Spectre and/or Meltdown to try to gather sensitive data from other virtual machines on the same physical hardware.

No lawyer or judge would allow this sort of attack scenario if it were performed in American systems. It would be very difficult, I think, to minimize data in this kind of "fishing expedition." Most of the data returned would belong to US persons and would be subject to protection. Sure, there are conspiracy theorists out there who will never trust that the US government follows its own laws. These people are sure that the USG already knew about Spectre and Meltdown and ravaged every American cloud system already, after doing the same with the "Intel Management Engine backdoors."

In reality, US law will prevent computer network operators from running these sorts of missions on US cloud infrastructure. Overseas, it's a different story. Non US-persons do not enjoy the same sorts of privacy protections as US persons. Therefore, the more "domestic" (non-American) the foreign target, the better. For example, if the IC identified a purely Russian cloud provider, it would not be difficult for the USG to authorize a Spectre-Meltdown collection operation against that target.

I have no idea if this is happening, but this was one of my first thoughts when I first heard about this new attack vector.

Bonus: it's popular to criticize academics who research cybersecurity. They don't seem to find much that is interesting or relevant. However, academics played a big role in discovering Spectre and Meltdown. Wow!

No comments: