Jack Wampler (University of Colorado Boulder), Ian Martiny (University of Colorado Boulder), Eric Wustrow (University of Colorado Boulder)

Recently, the Spectre and Meltdown attacks revealed serious vulnerabilities in modern CPU designs, allowing
an attacker to exfiltrate data from sensitive programs. These
vulnerabilities take advantage of speculative execution to coerce
a processor to perform computation that would otherwise not
occur, leaking the resulting information via side channels to an

In this paper, we extend these ideas in a different direction,
and leverage speculative execution in order to hide malware from
both static and dynamic analysis. Using this technique, critical
portions of a malicious program’s computation can be shielded
from view, such that even a debugger following an instruction-
level trace of the program cannot tell how its results were

We introduce ExSpectre, which compiles arbitrary malicious
code into a seemingly-benign payload binary. When a separate
trigger program runs on the same machine, it mistrains the CPU’s
branch predictor, causing the payload program to speculatively
execute its malicious payload, which communicates speculative
results back to the rest of the payload program to change its
real-world behavior.

We study the extent and types of execution that can be
performed speculatively, and demonstrate several computations
that can be performed covertly. In particular, within speculative execution we are able to decrypt memory using AES-NI
instructions at over 11 kbps. Building on this, we decrypt and
interpret a custom virtual machine language to perform arbitrary
computation and system calls in the real world. We demonstrate
this with a proof-of-concept dial back shell, which takes only
a few milliseconds to execute after the trigger is issued. We
also show how our corresponding trigger program can be a pre-existing benign application already running on the system, and
demonstrate this concept with OpenSSL driven remotely by the
attacker as a trigger program.

ExSpectre demonstrates a new kind of malware that evades
existing reverse engineering and binary analysis techniques. Because its true functionality is contained in seemingly unreachable
dead code, and its control flow driven externally by potentially
any other program running at the same time, ExSpectre poses a
novel threat to state-of-the-art malware analysis techniques.

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