New Rowhammer technique bypasses existing DDR4 memory defenses

The_King

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Aug 2, 2020
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Researchers have developed a new fuzzing-based technique called 'Blacksmith' that revives Rowhammer vulnerability attacks against modern DRAM devices that bypasses existing mitigations.

The emergence of this new Blacksmith method demonstrates that today's DDR4 modules are vulnerable to exploitation, allowing a variety of attacks to be conducted.

The Rowhammer effect​

Rowhammer is a security exploit that relies on the leaking of electrical charges between adjacent memory cells, enabling a threat actor to flip 1s and 0s and change the content in the memory.

This powerful attack can bypass all software-based security mechanisms, leading to privilege escalation, memory corruption, and more.

It was first discovered in 2014, and within a year, two working privilege escalation exploits based on the researcher were already available.

Gradually, this became a widespread problem, and even Android tools were developed, exploiting the Rowhammer vulnerability on smartphones to gain root access.

The mitigations applied to address this bit-flipping problem showed the first signs of their insufficiency in March 2020, when academic researchers proved that a bypass was possible.

Manufacturers had implemented a set of mitigations called "Target Row Refresh" (TRR), which were mainly effective in keeping the then-new DDR4 safe from attacks.

The attack used against it was called 'TRRespass,' and was another fuzzing-based technique that successfully found usable Rowhammering patterns.

DDR5 may be safer​

Newer DDR5 DRAM modules are already available in the market, and adoption will pick up pace in the next couple of years.

In DDR5, Rowhammer may not be as much of a problem, as TRR is replaced by "refresh management," a system that keeps track of activations in a bank and issues selective refreshes once a threshold is reached.

This means that scalable fuzzing on a DDR5 DRAM device would be a lot harder and possibly a lot less effective, but that remains to be seen.