While the whole industry is scrambling on Spectre, Meltdown focused most of the spotlight on Intel and there is no shortage of outrage in Internet comments. Like many great discoveries, this one is obvious with the power of hindsight. So much so that the spectrum of reactions have spanned an extreme range. From “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must be idiots” to “It’s so obvious, Intel engineers must have known! They kept it from us in a conspiracy with the NSA!”
We won’t try to sway those who choose to believe in a conspiracy that’s simultaneously secret and obvious to everyone. However, as evidence of non-obviousness, some very smart people got remarkably close to the Meltdown effect last summer, without getting it all the way. [Trammel Hudson] did some digging and found a paper from the early 1990s (PDF) that warns of the dangers of fetching info into the cache that might cross priviledge boundaries, but it wasn’t weaponized until recently. In short, these are old vulnerabilities, but exploiting them was hard enough that it took twenty years to do it.
Building a new CPU is the work of a large team over several years. But they weren’t all working on the same thing for all that time. Any single feature would have been the work of a small team of engineers over a period of months. During development they fixed many problems we’ll never see. But at the end of the day, they are only human. They can be 99.9% perfect and that won’t be good enough, because once hardware is released into the world: it is open season on that 0.1% the team missed.
The odds are stacked in the attacker’s favor. The team on defense has a handful of people working a few months to protect against all known and yet-to-be discovered attacks. It is a tough match against the attackers coming afterwards: there are a lot more of them, they’re continually refining the state of the art, they have twenty years to work on a problem if they need to, and they only need to find a single flaw to win. In that light, exploits like Spectre and Meltdown will probably always be with us.
Let’s look at some factors that paved the way to Intel’s current embarrassing situation.