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2007: The year of the 9,999 vulnerabilities?

A look at the National Vulnerability Database statistics will reveal that the number of vulnerabilities found yearly has greatly increased since 2003:


Average yearly increase (including the 2002-2003 decline): 48%

6605*1.48= 9775

So, that’s not quite 9999, but fairly close.  There’s enough variance that hitting 9999 in 2007 seems a plausible event.  If not in 2007, then it seems likely that we’ll hit 9999 in 2008.  So, what does it matter?

MITRE’s CVE effort uses a numbering scheme for vulnerabilities that can accomodate only 9999 vulnerabilities:  CVE-YEAR-XXXX.  Many products and vulnerability databases that are CVE-compatible (e.g., my own Cassandra service, CIRDB, etc…) use a field of fixed size just big enough for that format.  We’re facing a problem similar, although much smaller in scope, to the year-2000 overflow.  When the board of editors of the CVE was formed, the total number of vulnerabilities known, not those found yearly, was in the hundreds.  A yearly number of 9999 seemed astronomical;  I’m sure that anyone who would have brought up that as a concern back then would have been laughed at.  I felt at the time that it would take a security apocalypse to reach that.  Yet there we are, and a fair warning to everyone using or developing CVE-compatible products.

Kudos to the National Vulnerability Database and the MITRE CVE teams for keeping up under the onslaught.  I’m impressed.

Yet another timing attack

[tags]cryptography, information security, side-channel attacks, timing attacks,security architecture[/tags]
There is a history of researchers finding differential attacks against cryptography algorithms.  Timing and power attacks are two of the most commonly used, and they go back a very long time.  One of the older, “classic” examples in computing was the old Tenex password-on-a-page boundary attack. Many accounts of this can be found various places online such as here and here (page 25).  These are varieties of an attack known as side-channel attacks—they don’t attack the underlying algorithm but rather take advantage of some side-effect of the implementation to get the key.  A search of the WWW finds lots of pages describing these.

So, it isn’t necessarily a surprise to see a news report of a new such timing attack.  However, the article doesn’t really give much detail, nor does it necessarily make complete sense.  Putting branch prediction into chips is something that has been done for more than twenty years (at least), and results in a significant speed increase when done correctly.  It requires some care in cache design and corresponding compiler construction, but the overall benefit is significant.  The majority of code run on these chips has nothing to do with cryptography, so it isn’t a case of “Security has been sacrificed for the benefit of performance,” as Seifert is quoted as saying.  Rather, the problem is more that the underlying manipulation of cache and branch prediction is invisible to the software and programmer. Thus, there is no way to shut off those features or create adequate masking alternatives.  Of course, too many people who are writing security-critical software don’t understand the mapping of code to the underlying hardware so they might not shut off the prediction features even if they had a means to do so.

We’ll undoubtedly hear more details of the attack next year, when the researchers disclose what they have found.  However, this story should serve to simply reinforce two basic concepts of security: (1) strong encryption does not guarantee strong security; and (2) security architects need to understand—and have some control of—the implementation, from high level code to low level hardware.  Security is not collecting a bunch of point solutions together in a box…it is an engineering task that requires a system-oriented approach.
[posted with ecto]