Behind the scenes of a bug collision


In this blog post I’ll speculate as to how we ended up with multiple researchers arriving at the same vulnerabilities in modern CPU’s concurrently. The conclusion is that the bug was ripe because of a years long build up of knowledge about CPU security, carried out by many research groups. I’ll also detail the rough story behind the research that let me to the bug. My story is probably different than that of the other researchers, but while unique, I am relatively sure that it’s the same for all researchers on most security issues: security research is a long haul thing. The remainder of this blog post is semi-technical.

Why did we get a bug collision on Spectre/Meltdown?

This is of course my take on the event, my personal story, which I’ll detail below. Research collision in CPU research isn’t that uncommon. In fact, the story of my friendship with Daniel Gruss is about a series of collisions. In 2015 I was preparing a talk about row hammer for Black Hat with Nishat Herath [2] when Daniel tweeted that he was able to flip bits from Javascript. I didn’t want to have questions I couldn’t answer, so I started researching it and literally the evening before Daniel published how he was doing it, I knew how he did it. Later Daniel teased me about detecting cache side channels if there were no L3 cache misses. I replied ‘are you timing Clflush?’ He was indeed. You’ll find me being acknowledged in the paper for this reason [1]. I told him he shouldn’t worry about me competing on publishing it, because I was doing research on a side channel in the row buffer and didn’t have time to compete on Clflush. Turns out he and the wu cache clan were too. I blogged it, and wu cache clan wrote a paper on it in Pessl et al. [3]. You’ll find me acknowledged here as well. Not long after that, I did a blog post on breaking KASLR with the prefetch instruction. Obviously, Daniel was doing the exact same thing again. We had enough of competition and started my by now a regular collaboration with the WU cache clan after that point.

So why do things like this happen? (Granted, the story about Daniel is a freaky one.) Well, CPU research is much like drawing a map of an uncharted world. Researchers start from known research and proceed into the unknown, and if they find something, they document it and add it to the map. This essentially means that the frontier looks very similar to everybody leading people into the same paths. This processed is very much sustained by the fact that almost all research in this area is academic and academia is much better organized in terms of recording and documenting than hackers.

For a thing like meltdown, the real foundation was laid with the work on cache side channels sometime back around 2005. There are many papers from this time, I’ll mention Percival [4] because it’s my favorite. Another milestone paper was Yuval Yarom’s paper on Flush+reload [5]. Note that Yuval is also partial to the Spectre paper. With this foundation, a subgenre of papers emerged in 2013 with Hund, Willems & Holz [6]. They essentially noticed that when an unprivileged user tries to read kernel mode memory, the CPU actually does a great part of the read process before making an error, allowing a user to observe not the data of the kernel, but the layout of the kernel – this is known as a KASLR break and is important for classical exploits. This work was followed up with improvements including Gruss et al [7] and Yang et al [8]. Both papers showed that a lot more work was being done by the CPU than was strictly needed when an unprivileged user accesses kernel memory – an important prerequisite for Meltdown to exist. Also in 2016, another KASLR break using branches from Evtuishkin et al. emerged[9]. They didn’t try to read from the kernel but rather found that branch prediction leaked information. This is important because branch prediction is a precursor for speculative execution and thus build a bridge towards Meltdown. Felix Wilhelm [11] extended Evtuishkin et al. [9] to extend to hypervisors which are likely to be important in the rationale for hypervisors being affected. In fact, I think Jann Horn mentioned this blog post as an inspiration. There where other works, like that of Enrique Nissim[11] which showed that the KASLR breaks real-world applications with a classic exploit. Also in 2016, some work was being done on side channels in the pipeline. My Covert Shotgun blog post is an example of this literature[12]. To sum it up, by the end of 2016 it was known that unprivileged reads from user mode to kernel mode did more processing than was strictly required, it was known that branches were important, and there was work going on examining the pipeline. In end effect, the Meltdown bug was surrounded on all sides. It was a single blind spot on the map – obviously, nobody knew that there’d actually be a bug in this blind spot and I think most did not believe such as bug existed. Other people would probably pick other papers and there where many. My point remains: a lot of people moved towards this find over a very long period of time.

The personal perspective
I work for GDATA Advanced Analytics and there I work in an environment that is very friendly and supportive of research. Without research, a consultant company like ours cannot provide excellence for their customers. However, CPU bugs don’t pay the bills, so my day job does not have much to do with this. I spend my time helping customers with their security problems: malware analysis, digital forensics, and incident response being the main tasks that I do on a day to day basis. This means that the bulk of the work I do on CPUs is done in my spare time after hours.

So my story with Meltdown and Spectre starts essentially at Black Hat 2016 where Daniel Gruss and I presented our work on the prefetch instruction. The video of our talk can be found here [13]. As described above, this work slowly gave me this fuzzy feeling that maybe this work is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact did a blog post about the meta’s on breaking KASLR in October 2016 [14] and presented it at RuhrSec 2017 [15], so I was very well acquainted with that literature. Meanwhile, I wanted to get away from working with caches and accidentally found some covert channels and wrote about them[16]. I thought there might be more and started picking apart the pipeline in search of covert channels. My frustration led me to automate finding covert channels which resulted in this blog post [12] and later this talk at HackPra [17]. In the talk, you can hear that I’m still frustrated “I don’t care, I’ll just use a shotgun”. To this day I have many unanswered questions about the pipeline..
Later that year I met up with the WU Cache Clan at CCS where we were presenting the academic version of the prefetch KASLR break[7]. We had some beer-fueled conversations. The conversations were added upon at Black Hat Europe (Michael Schwarz and I did a talk on the row buffer side channel we’d done concurrent work on) where I started believing that meltdown might be possible, but yet without a clue as to how it could possibly work.

I finally made the connection to speculative execution on December 2016/January 2017 when I prepared the presentation for HackPra about Covert Shotgun[17]. There are a lot of slides about speculative execution. At first, I didn’t think about reading kernel memory. My first “attack” was just another attack on KASLR. Essentially it was Hund, Willems, Holz in a speculative version- the work never really got finished (timing inside of speculative execution is possible, but not easy – I did not find a solution to this problem until much later) the rationale for doing this work is that it would solve a problem with their method and do this stuff in my spare time – fun is essential and this sounded like fun. So my project name for Meltdown was “undead KASLR”, despite me quickly figuring out there was bigger fish to be fried. I told my friend Halvar Flake about the weird ideas while presenting at IT-Defense in February and his encouragement was a big part of me actually continuing, because I didn’t believe it would work.

In March, I had the first chance to do some real work on the project during a small get away from work to present Jacob Torrey’s and my work on PUFs (the work was really mostly Jacobs – and not related to Meltdown per se) at Troopers 17. I researched mornings in the hotel and even did some research during other people’s talks. Fun fact: there is s a video of me doing a spectre-style attack POC on the code I’d added to Alex Ionescu’s wonderful Simplevisor. Hi Alex! I’m the bald head seen to the lower left of the center isle doing weird head movements and packing away my laptop as I succeeded at around 19 minutes into the video. The second half of the talk was pretty awesome btw!!

Later in March 2017, I visited Daniel, Michael, and Clementine Maurice in Graz to work on a common project we had on detecting double fetch bugs with a cache attack (which became this paper [21]. Here I tried to pitch my idea, because with the workload I had I knew it would be difficult for me to realize alone. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one fully booked out and Daniel, Michael and myself were super skeptical at that time, despite the slight encouragement I’d had at Troopers. So we decided to finish the stuff we were already doing first. Might I add here that Daniel and Michael did some really cool stuff since then? Struggling with work and making a sufficient contribution to the double fetch paper the project was on ice. The main reason why my name is so far back on the paper is that I didn’t have time to pull my weight.

After Troopers, I didn’t get much done and was really frustrated about it. So in July, I started back up again in the evenings. It helped me immensely that my climbing partner suffered an injury giving me a bit more time. This time around I was working targeted at Meltdown. I were doing stuff much too complicated at first and wasted a lot of time on that. Then I tried to simple things up as much as I could and this is why I ended up with a negative result. I wrote up the blog on company time on a Friday before noon before leaving early on a vacation. Luca Ebach helped proof read it. If he hadn’t it would’ve been unreadable and Tomasulo would’ve been spelled wrong.. The “Pandoras box” part of the blog post is a reference to the limited and unfinished stuff I did on “Spectre”, which I was sure would work at the time, but needed checking before I’d commit to blogging about it. While on vacation, I decided to wrap things up in an academic paper and with some positive results in my hands, seek help from some academic professionals. So I have continued my research afterward, after all you don’t open Pandora’s box without looking what is inside. In light of recent events, I shall not be publishing the rest of the stuff I did.

The stuff that Jann Horn did, is really really awesome, the same goes for the Spectre/Meltdown papers. It is wonderful to see that I was barking up the right tree. It is important to me to mention that Jann Horn reported his research prior to my blog post and did not have access to mine prior to that date.


[1] Gruss, Daniel, et al. “Flush+ Flush: a fast and stealthy cache attack.” Detection of Intrusions and Malware, and Vulnerability Assessment. Springer International Publishing, 2016. 279-299.
[2] Nishat Herath, Anders Fogh. “These Are Not Your Grand Daddy’s CPU Performance Counters” Black Hat 2015,
[3] Pessl, Peter, et al. “DRAMA: Exploiting DRAM Addressing for Cross-CPU Attacks.” USENIX Security Symposium. 2016.
[4] Percival, Colin. “Cache missing for fun and profit.” (2005).

[5] Yarom, Yuval, and Katrina Falkner. “FLUSH+ RELOAD: A High Resolution, Low Noise, L3 Cache Side-Channel Attack.” USENIX Security Symposium. 2014.
[6] Hund, Ralf, Carsten Willems, and Thorsten Holz. “Practical timing side-channel attacks against kernel space ASLR.” Security and Privacy (SP), 2013 IEEE Symposium on. IEEE, 2013.
[7] Gruss, Daniel, et al. “Prefetch side-channel attacks: Bypassing SMAP and kernel ASLR.” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security. ACM, 2016.
[8] Jang, Yeongjin, Sangho Lee, and Taesoo Kim. “Breaking kernel address space layout randomization with intel tsx.” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security. ACM, 2016.
[9] Evtyushkin, Dmitry, Dmitry Ponomarev, and Nael Abu-Ghazaleh. “Jump over ASLR: Attacking branch predictors to bypass ASLR.” Microarchitecture (MICRO), 2016 49th Annual IEEE/ACM International Symposium on. IEEE, 2016.
[10] Wilhelm, Felx. “Mario Baslr”,
[11] Nissim, Enrique. “I Know Where Your Page Lives: De-randomizing the Windows 10 Kernel”.
[12] Fogh, Anders. “Covert Shotgun”,
[13] Fogh, Anders, Gruss, Daniel. “Using Undocumented CPU Behavior to See Into Kernel Mode and Break KASLR in the Process” Black Hat 2016.
[14] Fogh, Anders, “Micro architecture attacks on KASLR”,
[15] Fogh, Anders. “Micro architecture attacks on KASLR and More”,
[16] Fogh, Anders, “Two covert channels”,
[17[ Fogh, Anders, “Covert Shotgun”,, Hack Pra 2017
[18] Schwarz, Michael, Fogh, Anders. “Drama: how your DRAM becomes a security problem”. Black Hat Europe 2016
[19] Ionescu, Alex, “SimpleVisor” 007/ “
[20] Neilson, Graeme, “Vox Ex Machina”, Troopers 17.
[21] Schwarz, Michael, et al. “Automated Detection, Exploitation, and Elimination of Double-Fetch Bugs using Modern CPU Features.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1711.01254 (2017).
[22] Fogh, Anders. “Negative result: reading kernel memory from user mode”