Security Techniques

Exploiting the DRAM rowhammer bug to gain kernel privileges

Project Zero: Exploiting the DRAM rowhammer bug to gain kernel privileges: “Rowhammer” is a problem with some recent DRAM devices in which repeatedly accessing a row of memory can cause bit flips in adjacent rows. We tested a selection of laptops and found that a subset of them exhibited the problem. We built two working privilege escalation exploits that use this effect. One exploit uses rowhammer-induced bit flips to gain kernel privileges on x86-64 Linux when run as an unprivileged userland process. When run on a machine vulnerable to the rowhammer problem, the process was able to induce bit flips in page table entries (PTEs). It was able to use this to gain write access to its own page table, and hence gain read-write access to all of physical memory.

We don’t know for sure how many machines are vulnerable to this attack, or how many existing vulnerable machines are fixable. Our exploit uses the x86 CLFLUSH instruction to generate many accesses to the underlying DRAM, but other techniques might work on non-x86 systems too.

We expect our PTE-based exploit could be made to work on other operating systems; it is not inherently Linux-specific. Causing bit flips in PTEs is just one avenue of exploitation; other avenues for exploiting bit flips can be practical too. Our other exploit demonstrates this by escaping from the Native Client sandbox.