Oh, how I love my TEE (or do I?)

Trusted Execution Environments use chip-level instructions to allow you to create enclaves of higher security

I realised just recently that I’ve not written yet about Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs) on this blog.  This is a surprise, honestly, because TEEs are fascinating, and I spend quite a lot of my professional time thinking – and sometimes worrying – about them.  So what, you may ask, is a TEE?

Let’s look at one of the key use cases first, and then get to what a Trusted Execution Environment is.  A good place to start it the “Cloud”, which, as we all know, is just somebody else’s computer.  What this means is that if you’re running an application (let’s call it a “workload”) in the Cloud – AWS, Azure, whatever – then what you’re doing is trusting somebody else to take the constituent parts of that workload – its code and its data – and run them on their computer.  “Yay”, you may be thinking, “that means that I don’t have to run it in my computer: it’s all good.”  I’m going to take issue with the “all good” bit of that statement.  The problem is that the company – or people within that company – who run your workload on their computer (let’s call it a “host”) can, if they so wish, look inside it, change it, and stop it running.  In other words, they can break all three classic “CIA” properties of security: confidentiality (by looking inside it); integrity (by changing it); and availability (by stopping it running).  This is because the way that workloads run on hosts – whether in hardware-mediated virtual machines, within containers or on bare-metal – all allow somebody with sufficient privilege on that machine to do all of the bad things I’ve just mentioned.

And these are bad things.  We don’t tend to care about them too much as individuals – because the amount of value a cloud provider would get from bothering to look at our information is low – but as businesses, we really should be worried.

I’m afraid that the problem doesn’t go away if you run your systems internally.  Remember that anybody with sufficient access to hosts can look inside and tamper with your workloads?  Well, are you happy that you sysadmins should all have access to your financial results?  Merger and acquisition details?  Pay roll?  Because if you have this kind of data running on your machines on your own premises, then they do have access to all of those.

Now, there are a number of controls that you can put in place to help with this – not least background checks and Acceptable Use Policies – but TEEs aim to solve this problem with technology.  Actually, they only really aim to solve the confidentiality and integrity pieces, so we’ll just have to assume for now that you’re going to be in a position to notice if your sales order process fails to run due to malicious activity (for instance).  Trusted Execution Environments use chip-level instructions to allow you to create enclaves of higher security where processes can execute (and data can be processed) in ways that mean that even privileged users of the host cannot attack their confidentiality or integrity.  To get a little bit technical, these enclaves are memory pages with particular controls on them such that they are always encrypted except when they are actually being processed by the chip.

The two best-known TEE implementations so far are Intel’s SGX and AMD’s SEV (though other silicon vendors are beginning to talk about their alternatives).  Both Intel and AMD are aiming to put these into server hardware and create an ecosystem around their version to make it easy for people to run workloads (or components of workloads) within them.  And the security community is doing what it normally does (and, to be clear, absolutely should be doing), and looking for vulnerabilities in the implementation.  So far, most of the vulnerabilities that have been identified are within Intel’s SGX – though I’m not in a position to say whether that’s because the design and implementation is weaker, or just because the researchers have concentrated on the market leader in terms of server hardware.  It looks like we need to go through a cycle or two of the technologies before the industry is convinced that we have a working design and implementation that provides the levels of security that are worth deploying.  There’s also work to be done to provide sufficiently high quality open source software and drivers to support TEEs for wide deployment.

Despite the hopes of the silicon vendors, it may be some time before TEEs are in common usage, but people are beginning to sit up and take notice, partly because there’s so much interest in moving workloads to the Cloud, but still serious concerns about the security of your sensitive processes and data when they’re there.  This has got to be a good thing, and I think it’s really worth considering how you might start designing and deploying workloads in new ways once TEEs actually do become commonly available.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

2 thoughts on “Oh, how I love my TEE (or do I?)”

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