HomeWinBuzzer NewsResearchers Uncover Unpatchable Side Channel in Apple Silicon

Researchers Uncover Unpatchable Side Channel in Apple Silicon

Researchers found a chip flaw in Apple's M1 and M2 chips that leaks encryption keys. This can't be directly fixed.


Researchers have identified a significant vulnerability within Apple’s M-series chips, which poses a risk of secret encryption keys being leaked during cryptographic operations through side-channel attacks. Published on March 21, 2024, the findings come from a collaborative effort among academics from several prestigious institutions. The vulnerability, inherent in the chip’s design, cannot be directly patched and may necessitate performance-impacting mitigations.

A side-channel attack is a security exploit that tries to steal confidential information from a device by measuring indirect things leakage during the device’s operation. Attackers can use this information to guess things like passwords or encryption keys.

The Nature of the Vulnerability

The flaw resides in the data memory-dependent prefetcher (DMP) of the chips, a feature designed to enhance performance by predicting and preloading data into the CPU cache. This optimization, while beneficial for reducing latency, inadvertently opens a side channel that can be exploited to extract secret keys during cryptographic processes. Unlike traditional prefetchers, the DMP in Apple’s silicon also considers data values in its predictions, which can lead to the unintended prefetching of sensitive information if it resembles a pointer address.

Implications for Cryptography

The research highlights a critical challenge for cryptographic software running on M-series chips, particularly affecting the M1 and M2 generations. Mitigating the vulnerability requires adjustments to cryptographic applications, potentially at the cost of significant performance degradation. The team’s findings underscore a previously overlooked behavior of DMPs, where the prefetcher’s misinterpretation of data as pointers can leak information through cache side channels. This breach of the constant-time programming paradigm, which aims to prevent side-channel attacks by ensuring operations take a consistent amount of time, represents a serious security concern.

In light of the discovery, the researchers have outlined potential strategies to mitigate the vulnerability without directly altering the chip’s architecture. These include modifications to cryptographic algorithms to prevent the DMP from misinterpreting sensitive data as pointers. However, such measures are likely to impact the overall performance of cryptographic operations on affected devices.

As the tech community digests the implications of this unpatchable flaw, the focus turns to both Apple and third-party developers to implement effective safeguards. The discovery serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between hardware optimization and security, emphasizing the need for ongoing vigilance and innovation in the face of evolving threats.

Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke has been writing about all things tech for more than five years. He is following Microsoft closely to bring you the latest news about Windows, Office, Azure, Skype, HoloLens and all the rest of their products.