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Security researchers from KU Leuven, Technion, University of Michigan and University of Adelaide, have recently published their findings on an attack called Foreshadow, that compromises the security of Intel SGX enclaves. Once again, speculative execution was exploited in a manner similar to the Meltdown attack.

In our previous post, we explained how Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) protect against a Meltdown attack attempted from the untrusted part of a process hosting an enclave. However, the Foreshadow team showed how one can use a Meltdown-like technique to read the victim enclave's memory, conditioned on sensitive data already being in the cache. The official disclosure of the vulnerabilities, named L1 Terminal Fault by Intel, took place on August 14th, 2018, and they were filed as CVE-2018-3615, CVE-2018-3646 and CVE-2018-3647.

In this post, we explain the implications of the attack, its mitigations via microcode updates, and how Anjuna helps ensure that a backend application is running on an updated hardware secured against this attack.


SGX enables the creation of "secure enclaves", that enable an application to protect its sensitive data even from the kernel or a user with root access to the machine, effectively limiting the attack surface to the secure enclave interfaces, rather than everything else on the host.
The Foreshadow attack, discovered by Van Bulck et al. [2], leverages speculative execution and a cache-timing side-channel to extract information from enclaves.


Intel mitigates this attack by flushing the L1 cache upon enclave exit events, which invalidates the requirement that Foreshadow relies on, that secrets should be present in the L1 cache in order for the attacker to be able to circumvent abort-page dynamics.
This update to the behavior of enclaves has caused a recent increment in the Security Version Number. In addition, to prevent attestation forgery, the old EPID group was invalidated and is no longer authorized by the Intel Attestation Service (IAS).
Intel released a security advisory for the issue, which it calls L1 Terminal Fault.

In order to make sure previously stored data will not be accessible (by reverting a microcode update), we recommend re-sealing and re-signing the data with new keys that can only be accessed by an up-to-date enclave with microcode updates deployed.


Attestation is a cornerstone capability of TEEs (Trusted Execution Environments), which enables a server application to provide a cryptographic proof to a client communicating with it, that it indeed runs inside a secure enclave, and assures that it is safe to send over sensitive data to it, or trust that its outputs are authentic. There are multiple ways to perform attestation, but all of them must rely on secure primitives to achieve their guarantees.
The most practical implication of Foreshadow is on the EPID-based Remote Attestation of enclaves. EPID attestation is based on a group signature scheme that enables to sign an enclave report, attesting to the initial state of the enclave, and cryptographically proving to a remote verifier that the report was generated by an authentic SGX enclave. The signing is performed using a key that is embedded in the processor and can only be accessed by the Quoting Enclave (QE). The extraction of this key enables an attacker to forge an attestation for any enclave identity. 

Anjuna does not use EPID-based attestation when anonymous attestation is not required, and unlinkability is not needed. Instead, we use standard PKI for most of our customer's scenarios. It is therefore sufficient to regenerate certificates and provision the enclaves with the corresponding private keys. The increment in the CPU Security Version Number (CPUSVN) guarantees that those new private keys are inaccessible to platforms where the security updates were not deployed. As such, the attestation mechanism is a perfect way to ensure that client applications are communicating with backend instances on properly patched servers.


Somewhat counterintuitively, we believe that some of the implications of Foreshadow actually strengthen the case for Intel® SGX, and specifically for hardware-based remote attestation. As mentioned in the original Foreshadow paper [2], and in Foreshadow-NG by Weisse et al. [3],  the L1 Terminal Fault has implications reaching far beyond enclaves, to inter-VM scenarios, hypervisor memory inspection, separate processes running on the same physical core with hyper-threading, etc.
While the mitigations provided by Intel address the issues, users must ensure that the updates were actually deployed on the infrastructure they are running on. In this sense, Intel® SGX can be extremely helpful in providing a signed report that notifies a remote client whether updates have been deployed, and which security features are activated on the host (for instance, whether HyperThreading has been turned off or not). Similarly to previous microarchitectural attacks like Spectre, Foreshadow actually strengthens the need for such attestation, even for scenarios where the operating system is trusted.


We can reason about what goes on in a processor on various levels. One of them is the architectural level, that defines the semantics of executing programs, and the other is the micro-architectural level, which is how these semantics are actually implemented underneath.
On the architectural level, things have been pretty solid - the semantics of Intel® Software Guard Extensions were formally verified by Subramanyan et al. [1]. However, on the micro-architectural level things have been discovered to be a bit shakier during the past year and a half. After several years during which cache-timing side-channel attacks were studied and perfected by researchers from academia and industry, the big blow came with the discovery of the Meltdown and Spectre attacks, concurrently and independently by Jahn Horn from Google's Project Zero, and by Paul Kocher (co-founder of Cryptography Research) and other researchers from academia and industry.
These attacks have shown that the assumptions about memory isolation between either different protection rings, or between different processes, are violated by micro-architectural side-channels that leak information across the architectural boundaries. For instance, Meltdown uses the fact that kernel memory is accessed speculatively from an unprivileged protection ring, leaving measurable effects in the processor's cache that leak content that should only be accessible to the privileged protection ring.

A silver lining in this story is the decoupling between the architecture and the microarchitecture. The Foreshadow paper explicitly states:

“We want to emphasize that Foreshadow exploits a microarchitectural implementation bug, and does not in any way undermine the architectural design of Intel SGX and TEEs in general. We strongly believe that the non-hierarchical protection model supported by these architectures is still as valuable as it was before.”

— Foreshadow: Extracting the Keys to the Intel SGX Kingdom with Transient Out-of-Order Execution


Anjuna helps its users to handle the complexities of SGX, and provides the tools that enable to take the necessary steps to restore security and privacy following such vulnerabilities, by migrating data to new enclave versions, and making sure new attestation keys are re-provisioned.

We are excited to see that the brightest minds in the security field from academia are researching Intel's SGX technology, over time helping make it one of the most secure solutions for application security and privacy.


  1. Subramanyan, Pramod, et al. "A formal foundation for secure remote execution of enclaves." Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security. ACM, 2017.

  2. Bulck, J. Van, Minkin, M., Weisse, O., Genkin, D., Kasikci, B., Piessens, F., Silberstein, M., Wenisch, T., Yarom Y., Strackx, R. (2018). Foreshadow: Extracting the Keys to the Intel SGX Kingdom with Transient Out-of-Order Execution. In 27th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 18).

  3. Weisse, O., Bulck, J. Van, Minkin, M., Genkin, D., Kasikci, B., Piessens, F., Silberstein, M., Wenisch, T., Yarom Y., Strackx, R.(2018). Foreshadow-NG : Breaking the Virtual Memory Abstraction with Transient Out-of-Order Execution. Technical Report.

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