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Communications of the ACM

Inside risks

Through Computer Architecture, Darkly

electrified 3D grid

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates / Shutterstock

Spectre,11 Meltdown,13 Foreshadow,18,20 Rowhammer,9 Spoiler,9—suddenly it seems as if there is a new and unending stream of vulnerabilities in processors. Previous niche concepts such as speculative execution and cache timing side-channels have taken center stage. Across the whole hardware/software system, new vulnerabilities such as insufficiently protected memory access from untrustworthy PCIe or Thunderbolt USB-C peripherals,15 malicious Wi-Fi firmware,4 or alleged hardware implants14 are also starting to emerge.

We may be facing a crisis in systems design. What might we do about it? Here, we consider whether existing approaches are adequate, and where substantial new work is needed.


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