Georgia Tech Brings Cybersecurity Findings to CCS '16

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The ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS) is one of the world's premier annual premier conferences for cybersecurity -- and this year, faculty and students from the Georgia Institute of Technology contribute five juried papers with novel results. Only 137 research papers out of 837 (or 16 percent) were accepted to the conference -- to be held Oct. 24-28, 2016 in Vienna, Austria.

Research results include a security loophole in Intel TSX that may affect more than 60 percent of its products since 2015, identifying 19 new vulnerabilities confirmed by Linux and Android in kernel security, examining how adversaries can exploit legitimate cloud repositories, a new method for malware identification, and more.

Georgia Tech's research contributions are listed below. Complete papers will be available for download after Oct. 24 from CCS '16 and from the authors.


Breaking Kernel Address Space Layout Randomization with Intel TSX
Yeongjin Jang, Sangho Lee and Taesoo Kim (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Abstract   |   Kernel hardening has been an important topic since many applications and security mechanisms often consider the kernel as part of their Trusted Computing Base (TCB). Among various hardening techniques, Kernel Address Space Layout Randomization (KASLR) is the most effective and widely adopted defense mechanism that can practically mitigate various memory corruption vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflow and use-after-free. In principle, KASLR is secure as long as no memory leak vulnerability exists and high entropy is ensured.  In this paper, we introduce a highly stable timing attack against KASLR, called DrK, that can precisely de-randomize the memory layout of the kernel without violating any such assumptions. DrK exploits a hardware feature called Intel Transactional Synchronization Extension (TSX) that is readily available in most modern commodity CPUs. One surprising behavior of TSX, which is essentially the root cause of this security loophole, is that it aborts a transaction without notifying the underlying kernel even when the transaction fails due to a critical error, such as a page fault or an access violation, which traditionally requires kernel intervention. DrK turned this property into a precise timing channel that can determine the mapping status (i.e., mapped versus unmapped) and execution status (i.e., executable versus non-executable) of the  privileged kernel address space. In addition to its surprising accuracy and precision, DrK is universally applicable to all OSes, even in virtualized environments, and generates no visible footprint, making it difficult to detect in practice. We demonstrated that DrK can break the KASLR of all major OSes (i.e., Windows, Linux, and OS X) with near-perfect accuracy in under a second. Finally, we propose potential countermeasures that can effectively prevent or mitigate the DrK attack. We urge our community to be aware of the potential threat of having Intel TSX, which is present in most recent Intel CPUs—100% in workstations and 60% in high-end Intel CPUs since Skylake -- and is even available on Amazon EC2 (X1).


"UniSan: Proactive Kernel Memory Initialization to Eliminate Data Leakages"
Kangjie Lu, Chengyu Song, Taesoo Kim and Wenke Lee (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Abstract  |  The operating system kernel is the de facto trusted computing base for most computer systems. To secure the OS kernel, many security mechanisms, e.g., kASLR and StackGuard, have been increasingly deployed to defend against attacks (e.g., code reuse attack). However, the effectiveness of these protections has been proven to be inadequate—there are many information leak vulnerabilities in the kernel to leak the randomized pointer or canary, thus bypassing kASLR and StackGuard. Other sensitive data in the kernel, such as cryptographic keys and file caches, can also be leaked. According to our study, most kernel information leaks are caused by uninitialized data reads. Unfortunately, existing techniques like memory safety enforcements and dynamic access tracking tools are not adequate or efficient enough to mitigate this threat. In this paper, we propose UniSan, a novel, compiler-based approach to eliminate all information leaks caused by uninitialized read in the OS kernel. UniSan achieves this goal using byte-level, flow-sensitive, context-sensitive, and field-sensitive initialization analysis and reachability analysis to check whether an allocation has been fully initialized when it leaves kernel space; if not, it automatically instruments the kernel to initialize this allocation. UniSan’s analyses are conservative to avoid false negatives and are robust by preserving the semantics of the OS kernel. We have implemented UniSan as passes in LLVM  and applied it to the latest Linux kernel (x86_64) and Android kernel (AArch64). Our evaluation showed that UniSan can successfully prevent 43 known and many new uninitialized data leak vulnerabilities. Further, 19 new vulnerabilities in the latest kernels have been confirmed by Linux and Google. Our extensive performance evaluation with LMBench, ApacheBench, Android benchmarks, and the SPEC benchmarks also showed UniSan imposes a negligible performance overhead.


"Lurking Malice in the Cloud: Understanding and Detecting Cloud Repository as a Malicious Service"
Xiaojing Liao (Georgia Institute of Technology), Sumayah Alrwais, Kan Yuan, Luyi Xing, XiaoFeng Wang (Indiana University Bloomington), Shuang Hao (University of California Santa Barbara) and Raheem Beyah (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Abstract   |   The popularity of cloud hosting services also brings in new security challenges: it has been reported that these services are increasingly utilized by miscreants for their malicious online activities. Mitigating this emerging threat, posed by such “bad repositories” (simply Bar), is challenging due to the different hosting strategy to traditional hosting service, the lack of direct observations of the repositories by those outside the cloud, the reluctance of the cloud provider to scan its customers’ repositories without their consent, and the unique evasion strategies employed by the adversary. In this paper, we took the first step toward understanding and detecting this emerging threat. Using a small set of “seeds” (i.e., confirmed Bars), we identified a set of collective features from the websites they serve (e.g., attempts to hide Bars), which uniquely characterize the Bars. These features were utilized to build a scanner that detected over 600 Bars on leading cloud platforms like Amazon, Google, and 150,000 sites, including popular ones like, using
them. Highlights of our study include the pivotal roles played by these repositories on malicious infrastructures and other important discoveries include how the adversary exploited legitimate cloud repositories and why the adversary uses Bars in the first place that has never been reported. These findings bring such malicious services to the spotlight and contribute to a better understanding and ultimate eliminating this new threat.


"Acing the IOC Game: Toward Automatic Discovery and Analysis of Open-Source Cyber Threat Intelligence"
Xiaojing Liao (Georgia Institute of Technology), Kan Yuan (Indiana University Bloomington), XiaoFeng Wang (Indiana University Bloomington), Zhou Li (ACM member), Luyi Xing (Indiana University Bloomington) and Raheem Beyah (Georgia Institute of Technology)

Abstract   |   To adapt to the rapidly evolving landscape of cyber threats, security professionals are actively exchanging Indicators of Compromise (IOC) (e.g., malware signatures, botnet IPs) through public sources (e.g. blogs, forums, tweets, etc.). Such information, often presented in articles, posts, white papers etc., can be converted into a machine-readable OpenIOC format for automatic analysis and quick deployment to various security mechanisms like an intrusion
detection system. With hundreds of thousands of sources in the wild, the IOC data are produced at a high volume and velocity today, which becomes increasingly hard to manage by humans. Efforts to automatically gather such information from unstructured text, however, is impeded by the limitations of today’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques, which cannot meet the high standard (in terms of accuracy and coverage) expected from the
IOCs that could serve as direct input to a defense system. In this paper, we present iACE, an innovation solution for fully automated IOC extraction. Our approach is based upon the observation that the IOCs in technical articles are often described in a predictable way: being connected to a set of context terms (e.g., “download”) through stable grammatical relations. Leveraging this observation, iACE is designed to automatically locate a putative IOC token (e.g., a zip file) and its context (e.g., “malware”, “download”) within the sentences in a technical article, and further analyze their relations through a novel application of graph mining techniques. Once the grammatical connection between the tokens is found to be in line with the way that the IOC is commonly presented, these tokens are extracted to generate an OpenIOC item that describes not only the indicator (e.g., a malicious zip file) but also its context (e.g., download from an external source). Running on 71,000 articles collected from 45 leading technical blogs, this new approach demonstrates a remarkable performance: it generated 900,000 OpenIOC items with a precision of 95% and a coverage over 90%, which is way beyond what the stat-of-the-art NLP technique and industry IOC tool can achieve, at a speed of thousands of articles per hour. Further, by correlating the IOCs mined from the articles published over a 13-year span, our study sheds new light on the links across hundreds of seemingly unrelated attack instances, particularly their shared infrastructure resources, as well as the impacts of such open-source threat intelligence on security protection and evolution of attack strategies.


"SmartWalk: Enhancing Social Network Security via Adaptive Random Walks"
Yushan Liu (Princeton University), Shouling Ji (Georgia Tech) and Prateek Mittal (Princeton University)

Abstract   |   Random walks form a critical foundation in many social network based security systems and applications. Currently, the design of such social security mechanisms is limited to the classical paradigm of using fixed-length random walks for all nodes on a social graph. However, the fixed-length walk paradigm induces a poor trade-off between security and other desirable properties. In this paper, we propose SmartWalk, a security enhancing system which incorporates adaptive random walks in social network security applications. We utilize a set of supervised machine learning techniques to predict the necessary random walk length based on the structural characteristics of a social graph. Using experiments on multiple real world topologies, we show that the desired walk length starting from a specific node can be well predicted given the local features of the node, and limited knowledge for a small set of training nodes. We describe node-adaptive and path-adaptive random walk usage models, where the walk length adaptively changes based on the starting node and the intermediate nodes on the path, respectively. We experimentally demonstrate the applicability of adaptive random walks on a number of social network based security and privacy systems, including Sybil defenses, anonymous communication and link privacy preserving systems, and show up to two orders of magnitude improvement in performance.


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