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Using memory errors to attack a virtual machine

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2 Author(s)
Govindavajhala, S. ; Princeton Univ., NJ, USA ; Appel, A.W.

We present an experimental study showing that soft memory errors can lead to serious security vulnerabilities in Java and .NET virtual machines, or in any system that relies on type-checking of untrusted programs as a protection mechanism. Our attack works by sending to the JVM a Java program that is designed so that almost any memory error in its address space will allow it to take control of the JVM. All conventional Java and .NET virtual machines are vulnerable to this attack. The technique of the attack is broadly applicable against other language-based security schemes such as proof-carrying code. We measured the attack on two commercial Java virtual machines: Sun's and IBM's. We show that a single-bit error in the Java program's data space can be exploited to execute arbitrary code with a probability of about 70%, and multiple-bit errors with a lower probability. Our attack is particularly relevant against smart cards or tamper-resistant computers, where the user has physical access (to the outside of the computer) and can use various means to induce faults; we have successfully used heat. Fortunately, there are some straightforward defenses against this attack.

Published in:

Security and Privacy, 2003. Proceedings. 2003 Symposium on

Date of Conference:

11-14 May 2003

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