Wouldn't it be nice if we could actually own our data and programs in the cloud? By “owning” here I mean to have control over their confidentiality and integrity. When it comes to confidentiality and integrity for the data, it's not much of a rocket since, as the classic crypto (and secure client systems) is all that we need. I have already wrote about it in an earlier post.
But it would also be nice, if we could somehow get the same confidentiality and integrity assurance for our programs that we upload for the execution in the cloud...
For example, a company might want take their database application, that deal with all sorts of corporate critical sensitive data, and then upload and safely run this application on e.g. Amazon's EC2, or maybe even to some China-based EC2-clone. Currently there is really nothing that could stop the provider, who has a full control over the kernel or the hypervisor under which our application (or our VM) executes, from reading the contents of our process' memory and stealing the secrets from there. This is all easy stuff to do from the technical point of view, and this is also not just my own paranoia...
Plus, there are the usual concerns, such as: is the infrastructure of the cloud provider really that safe and secure, as it is advertised? How do we know nobody found an exploitable bug in the hypervisor and was not able to compromise other customer's VMs from within the attacker-hired VM? Perhaps the same question applies if we didn't decided to outsource the apps to a 3rd party cloud, but in case of a 3rd party clouds we really don't know about what measures have been applied. E.g. does the physical server on which my VMs are hosted also used to host some foreign customers? From China maybe? You get the point.
Sometimes all we really need is just integrity, e.g. if we wanted to host an open source code revision system, e.g. a git repository or a file server. Remember the kernel.org incident? On a side note, I find the Jonathan Corbet's self-comforting remarks on how there was really nothing to worry about, to be strikingly naive... I could easily think of a few examples of how the attacker(s) could have exploited this incident, so that Linus & co. would never (not soon) find out. But that's another story...
But, how can one protect a running process, or a VM, from a potentially compromised OS, or a hypervisor/VMM?
To some extent, at least theoretically, Intel Trusted Execution Technology (TXT), could be used to implement such protection. Intel TXT can attest to a remote entity, in that case this would be the cloud customer, about the hash of the hypervisor (or kernel) that has been loaded on the platform. This means it should be possible for the user to know that the cloud provider uses the unmodified Xen 4.1.1 binary as the hypervisor and not some modified version, with a built-in FBI backdoor for memory inspection. Ok, it's a poor example, because the Xen architecture (and any other commercially used VMM) allow the administrator who controls Dom0 (or equivalent) to essentially inspect and modify all the memory in the system, also that belonging to other VMs, and no special backdoors in the hypervisor are needed for this.
But let's assume hypothetically that Xen 5.0 would change that architecture, and so the Dom0 would not be able to access any other VM's memory anymore. Additionally, if we also assumed that the Xen hypervisor was secure, so that it was not possible to exploit any flaw in the hypervior, then we should be fine. Of course, assuming also there were also no flaws in the TXT implementation, and that the SMM was properly sandboxed, or that we trusted (some parts of) the BIOS (these are really complex problems to solve in practice, but I know there is some work going on in this area, so there is some hope).
Such a TXT-bases solution, although a step forward, still requires us to trust the cloud provider a bit... First, TXT doesn't protect against bus-level physical attacks – think of an attacker who replaces the DRAM dies with some kind of DRAM emulator – a device that looks like DRAM to the host, but on the other end allows full inspection/modification of its contents (well, ok, this is still a bit tricky, because of the lack of synchronization, but doable).
Additionally for Remote Attestation to make any sense, we must somehow know that we “talk to” a real TPM, and not to some software-emulated TPM. The idea here is that only a “real” TPM would have access to a private key, called Endorsement Key, used for signing during Remote Attestation procedure (or used during the generation of the AIK key, that can be used alternatively for Remote Attestation). But then again who generates (and so: owns) the private endorsement keys? Well, the TPM manufacturer, that can be... some Asian company that we not necessarily want to trust that much...
Now we see it would really be advantageous for customers, if Intel decided to return to the practice of implementing TPM internally inside the chipset, as they did in the past for their Series 4 chipsets (e.g. Q45). This would also protect against the LCP bus-level attacks against TPM (although somebody told me recently that TPM in current systems cannot be so easily attacked from LCP bus, because of some authentication protocol being used there – I really don't know, as physical attacks have not been the area we ever looked at extensively; any comments on that?).
But then again, the problem of DRAM content sniffing always remains, although I would consider this to be a complex and expensive attack. So, it seems to me that most governments would be able to bypass such TXT-ensured guarantees in order to “tap” the user's programs executing in the cloud provides that operate within their jurisdictions. But at least this could stop malicious companies from staring up fake cloud services with an intent to easily harvest some sensitive data from unsuspecting users.
It seems that the only way to solve the above problem of DRAM sniffing attacks is to add some protection at the processor level. We can imagine two solutions that processor vendors could implement:
First, they could opt for adding an in-processor hardware mechanism for encrypting all the data that leave the processor, to ensure that everything the is kept in the DRAM is encrypted (and, of course, also integrity-protected), with some private key that never leave the processor. This could be seen as an extension to the Intel TXT.
This would mean, however, we still needed to relay on: 1) the hypervisor to not contain bugs, 2) the whole VMM architecture to properly protect VM's memory, specifically against the Dom0, 3) Intel TXT to not be buggy either, 4) SMM being properly sandboxed, or alternatively to trust (some parts of) the BIOS and SMI handler, 5) TPM's EK key to be non-compromised and verifiable as genuine, and 6) TPM bus attacks made impossible (those two could be achieved by moving the TPM back onto the chipset, as mentioned above), and finally, 7) on the encryption key used by the processor for data encryption to be safely kept in the processor.
That's still quite a lot of things to trust, and it requires quite a lot of work to make it practically really secure...
The other option is a bit more crazy, but also more powerful. The idea is that the processor might allow to create untrusted supervisors (or hypervisors). Bringing this down to x86 nomenclature, it would mean that kernel mode (or VT-x root) code cannot sniff or inject code into (crypto-protected) memory of the usermode processes (or VT-x guests). This idea is not as crazy as you might think, and there has even been some academic work done in this area. Of course, there are many catches here, as this would require specifically written and designed applications. And if we ever considered to use this technology also for client systems (how nice it would be if we could just get rid of some 200-300 kLOC of the Xen hypervisor from the TCB in Qubes OS!), the challenges are even bigger, mostly relating to safe and secure trusted output (screen) and, especially, input (keyboard, mouse).
If this worked out, then we would need to trust just one element: the processor. But we need to trust it anyway. Of course, we also need to trust some software stack, e.g. the compilers we use at home to build our application, and the libraries it uses, but that's somehow an unrelated issue. What is important is that we now would be able to choose that (important) software stack ourselves, and don't care about all the other software used by the cloud provider.
As I wrote above, the processor is this final element we always need to rust. In practice this comes down to also trusting the US government :) But we might imagine users consciously choosing e.g. China-based, or Russia-based cloud providers and require (cryptographically) to run their hosted programs on US-made processors. I guess this could provide reasonable politically-based safety. And there is also ARM, with its licensable processor cores, where, I can imagine, the licensee (e.g. an EU state) would be able to put their own private key, not known to any other government (here I assume the licensee also audits the processor RTL for any signs of backdoors). I'm not sure if it would be possible to hide such a private key from a foundry in Hong Kong, or somewhere, but luckily there are also some foundries within the EU.
In any case, it seems like we could make our cloud computing orders of magnitude safer and more secure than what is now. Let's see whether the industry will follow this path...