I am no longer a PhD. student

It took me 4 years and 10 days, but I can finally announce it: I am no longer a PhD. student.

It has been a long journey —4 years, 10 days— but I have completed my PhD on October 25, 2018. The exact title of my PhD thesis is “Specifying and Verifying Hardware-based Security Enforcement Mechanisms”.

Abstract

In this thesis, we consider a class of security enforcement mechanisms we called Hardware-based Security Enforcement (HSE). In such mechanisms, some trusted software components rely on the underlying hardware architecture to constrain the execution of untrusted software components with respect to targeted security policies. For instance, an operating system which configures page tables to isolate userland applications implements a HSE mechanism.

For a HSE mechanism to correctly enforce a targeted security policy, it requires both hardware and trusted software components to play their parts. During the past decades, several vulnerability disclosures have defeated HSE mechanisms. We focus on the vulnerabilities that are the result of errors at the specification level, rather than implementation errors. In some critical vulnerabilities, the attacker makes a legitimate use of one hardware component to circumvent the HSE mechanism provided by another one. For instance, cache poisoning attacks leverage inconsistencies between cache and DRAM’s access control mechanisms. We call this class of attacks, where an attacker leverages inconsistencies in hardware specifications, compositional attacks.

Our goal is to explore approaches to specify and verify HSE mechanisms using formal methods that would benefit both hardware designers and software developers. Firstly, a formal specification of HSE mechanisms can be leveraged as a foundation for a systematic approach to verify hardware specifications, in the hope of uncovering potential compositional attacks ahead of time. Secondly, it provides unambiguous specifications to software developers, in the form of a list of requirements.

Our contribution is two-fold:

  1. We propose a theory of HSE mechanisms against hardware architecture models. This theory can be used to specify and verify such mechanisms. To evaluate our approach, we propose a minimal model for a single core x86-based computing platform. We use it to specify and verify the HSE mechanism provided by Intel to isolate the code executed while the CPU is in System Management Mode (SMM), a highly privileged execution mode of x86 microprocessors. We have written machine-checked proofs in the Coq proof assistant to that end.
  2. We propose a novel approach inspired by algebraic effects to enable modular verification of complex systems made of interconnected components as a first step towards addressing the challenge posed by the scale of the x86 hardware architecture. This approach is not specific to hardware models, and could also be leveraged to reason about composition of software components as well. In addition, we have implemented our approach in the Coq theorem prover, and the resulting framework takes advantages of Coq proof automation features to provide general-purpose facilities to reason about components interactions.

Publications

If you are interested, you can have a look at the paper I wrote during my PhD:

You can also have a look at the Coq frameworks I have published:

Finally, the interesting reader might want to see the final material of my PhD: