Annual Computer Security Applications Conference 2011 Technical Track Papers

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Security Through Amnesia: A Software-Based Solution to the Cold Boot Attack on Disk Encryption

Disk encryption has become an important security measure for a multitude of clients, including governments, corporations, activists, security-conscious professionals, and privacy-conscious individuals. Unfortunately, recent research has discovered an effective side channel attack against any disk mounted by a running machine. This attack, known as the cold boot attack, is effective against any mounted volume using state-of-the-art disk encryption, is relatively simple to perform for an attacker with even rudimentary technical knowledge and training, and is applicable to exactly the scenario against which disk encryption is primarily supposed to defend: an adversary with physical access.

While there has been some previous work in defending against this attack\cite{tresor}, the only currently available solution suffers from the twin problems of disabling access to the SSE registers and supporting only a single encrypted volume, hindering its usefulness for such common encryption scenarios as data and swap partitions encrypted with different keys (the swap key being a randomly generated throw-away key). We present Loop-Amnesia, a kernel-based disk encryption mechanism implementing a novel technique to eliminate vulnerability to the cold boot attack. We contribute a novel technique for shielding multiple encryption keys from RAM and a mechanism for storing encryption keys inside the CPU that does not interfere with the use of SSE. We offer theoretical justification of Loop-Amnesia's invulnerability to the attack, verify that our implementation is not vulnerable in practice, and present measurements showing our impact on I/O accesses to the encrypted disk is limited to a slowdown of approximately 2x. Loop-Amnesia is written for x86-64, but our technique is applicable to other register-based architectures. We base our work on loop-AES, a state-of-the-art open source disk encryption package for Linux.


Patrick Simmons    
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
United States


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