Dear Qubes Community,
We have just published Qubes Security Bulletin (QSB) #37: Information leaks due to processor speculative execution bugs. The text of this QSB is reproduced below. This QSB and its accompanying signatures will always be available in the Qubes Security Pack (qubes-secpack).
View QSB #37 in the qubes-secpack:
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View XSA-254 in the XSA Tracker:
---===[ Qubes Security Bulletin #37 ]===---
January 11, 2018
Information leaks due to processor speculative execution bugs
2018-01-11: Original QSB published
2018-01-23: Updated mitigation plan to XPTI; added Xen package versions
On the night of January 3, two independent groups of researchers
announced the results of their months-long work into abusing modern
processors' so-called speculative mode to leak secrets from the system's
privileged memory . As a response, the Xen Security Team
published Xen Security Advisory 254 (XSA-254) . The Qubes Security
Team did _not_ receive notice of these vulnerabilities via the Xen
security pre-disclosure list before XSA-254 was publicly released.
In the limited time we've had to analyze the issue, we've come to the
following conclusions about the practical impact on Qubes OS users and
possible remedies. We'll also share a plan to address the issues in a
more systematic way in the coming weeks.
Practical impact and limiting factors for Qubes users
## Fully virtualized VMs offer significant protection against Meltdown
Meltdown, the most reliable attack of the three discussed, cannot be
exploited _from_ a fully-virtualized (i.e. HVM or PVH) VM. It does not
matter whether the _target_ VM (i.e. the one from which the attacker
wants to steal secrets) is fully-virtualized. In Qubes 3.x, all VMs are
para-virtualized (PV) by default, though users can choose to create
fully-virtualized VMs. PV VMs do not protect against the Meltdown
attack. In Qubes 4.0, almost all VMs are fully-virtualized by default
and thus offer protection. However, the fully-virtualized VMs in Qubes
3.2 and in release candidates 1-3 of Qubes 4.0 still rely on PV-based
"stub domains", making it possible for an attacker who can chain another
exploit for qemu to attempt the Meltdown attack.
## Virtualization makes at least one variant of Spectre seem difficult
Of the two Spectre variants, it _seems_ that at least one of them might
be significantly harder to exploit under Xen than under monolithic
systems because there are significantly fewer options for the attacker
to interact with the hypervisor.
## All attacks are read-only
It's important to stress that these attacks allow only _reading_ memory,
not modifying it. This means that an attacker cannot use Spectre or
Meltdown to plant any backdoors or otherwise compromise the system in
any persistent way. Thanks to the Qubes OS template mechanism, which is
used by default for all user and system qubes (AppVMs and ServiceVMs),
simply restarting a VM should bring it back to a good known state for
most attacks, wiping out the potential attacking code in the
TemplateBasedVM (unless an attacker found a way to put triggers within
the user's home directory; please see  for more discussion).
## Only running VMs are vulnerable
Since Qubes OS is a memory-hungry system, it seems that an attacker
would only be able to steal secrets from VMs running concurrently with
the attacking VM. This is because any pages from shutdown VMs will
typically very quickly get allocated to other, running VMs and get wiped
as part of this procedure.
## PGP and other cryptographic keys are at risk
For VMs that happen to be running concurrently with the attacking VM, it
seems possible that these attacks might allow the attacker to steal
cryptographic keys, including private PGP keys.
## Disk encryption and screenlocker passwords are at risk
There is one VM that is always running concurrently with other VMs: the
AdminVM (dom0). This VM contains at least two important user secrets:
- The disk (LUKS) encryption key (and likely the passphrase)
- The screenlocker passphrase
In order to make use of these secrets, however, the attacker would have
to conduct a physical attack on the user's computer (e.g. steal the
laptop physically). Users who use the same passphrase to encrypt their
backups may also be affected.
Additional remedies available to Qubes users
Thanks to the explicit Qubes partitioning model, it should be
straightforward for users to implement additional hygiene by ensuring
that, whenever less trusted VMs are running, highly sensitive VMs are
Additionally, for some of the VMs that must run anyway (e.g. networking
and USB qubes), it is possible to recreate the VM each time the user
suspects it may have been compromised, e.g. after disconnecting from a
less trusted Wi-Fi network, or unplugging an untrusted USB device. In
Qubes 4.0, this is even easier, since Disposable VMs can now be used for
the networking and USB VMs (see ).
The Qubes firewalling and networking systems also make it easy to limit
the networking resources VMs can reach, including making VMs completely
offline. While firewalling in Qubes is not intended to be a
leak-prevention mechanism, it likely has this effect in a broad class
class of attack scenarios. Moreover, making a VM completely offline
(i.e. setting its NetVM to "none") is a more robust way to limit the
ability of an attacker to leak secrets stolen from memory to the outside
world. While this mechanism should not be considered bullet-proof -- it
is still possible to mount a specialized attack that exploits a covert
channel to leak the data -- it could be considered as an additional
layer of defense.
Finally, Qubes offers mechanisms to allow for additional protection of
user secrets, especially cryptographic keys, such as PGP keys used for
encryption and signing. Qubes Split GPG  allows the user to keep
these keys in an isolated VM. So, for example, the user might be running
her "development" qube in parallel with a compromised qube, while
keeping the GPG backend VM (where she keeps the signing key that she
uses to sign her software releases) shut down most of the time (because
it's only needed when a release is being made). This way, the software
signing keys will be protected from the attack.
The user could take this further by using Qubes Split GPG with a backend
qube running on a physically separate computer, as has been demonstrated
with the Qubes USB Armory project .
## Qubes 4.0
As explained above, almost all the VMs in Qubes 4.0 are
fully-virtualized by default (specifically, they are HVMs), which
mitigates the most severe issue, Meltdown. The only PV domains in Qubes
4.0 are stub domains, which we plan to eliminate by switching to PVH
where possible. This will be done in Qubes 4.0-rc4 and also released as
a normal update for existing Qubes 4.0 installations. The only remaining
PV stub domains will be those used for VMs with PCI devices. (In the
default configuration, these are sys-net and sys-usb.) To protect those
domains, we will provide the Xen page-table isolation (XPTI) patch, as
described in the following section on Qubes 3.2.
## Qubes 3.2
Previously, we had planned to release an update for Qubes 3.2 that would
have made almost all VMs run in PVH mode by backporting support for this
mode from Qubes 4.0. However, a much less drastic option has become
available sooner than we and the Xen Security Team anticipated: what the
Xen Security Team refers to as a "stage 1" implementation of the Xen
page-table isolation (XPTI) mitigation strategy . This mitigation
will make the most sensitive memory regions (including all of physical
memory mapped into Xen address space) immune to the Meltdown attack. In
addition, this mitigation will work on systems that lack VT-x support.
(By contrast, our original plan to backport PVH would have worked only
when the hardware supported VT-x or equivalent technology.)
Please note that this mitigation is expected to have a noticeable
performance impact. While there will be an option to disable the
mitigation (and thereby avoid the performance impact), doing so will
return the system to a vulnerable state.
The following packages contain the patches described above:
- Xen packages, version 4.6.6-36
Suggested actions after patching
While the potential attacks discussed in this bulletin are severe,
recovering from these potential attacks should be easier than in the
case of an exploit that allows the attacker to perform arbitrary code
execution, resulting in a full system compromise. Specifically, we don't
believe it is necessary to use Qubes Paranoid Backup Restore Mode to
address these vulnerabilities because of the strict read-only character
of the attacks discussed. Instead, users who believe they are affected
should consider taking the following actions:
1. Changing the screenlocker passphrase.
2. Changing the disk encryption (LUKS) passphrase.
3. Re-encrypting the disk to force a change of the disk encryption
_key_. (In practice, this can be done by reinstalling Qubes and
restoring from a backup.)
4. Evaluating the odds that other secrets have been compromised,
such as other passwords and cryptographic keys (e.g. private
PGP, SSH, or TLS keys), and generate new secrets. It is unclear
how easy it might be for attackers to steal such data in a
real world Qubes environment.
From a (high-level) architecture point of view, the attacks discussed in
this bulletin should not concern Qubes OS much. This is because,
architecture-wise, there should be no secrets or other sensitive data in
the hypervisor memory. This is in stark contrast to traditional
monolithic systems, where there is an abundance of sensitive information
living in the kernel (supervisor).
Unfortunately, for rather accidental reasons, the implementation of the
particular hypervisor we happen to be using to implement isolation for
Qubes, i.e. the Xen hypervisor, undermines this clean architecture by
internally mapping all physical memory pages into its address space. Of
course, under normal circumstances, this isn't a security problem,
because no one is able to read the hypervisor memory. However, the bugs
we're discussing today might allow an attacker to do just that. This is
a great example of how difficult it can be to analyze the security
impact of a feature when limiting oneself to only one layer of
abstraction, especially a high-level one (also known as the "PowerPoint
At the same time, we should point out that the use of full
virtualization prevents at least one of the attacks, and incidentally
the most powerful one, i.e. the Meltdown attack.
However, we should also point out that, in Qubes 3.2, even HVMs still
rely on PV stub domains to provide I/O emulation (qemu). In the case of
an additional vulnerability within qemu, an attacker might compromise
the PV stub domain and attempt to perform the Meltdown attack from
This limitation also applies to HVMs in release candidates 1-3 of Qubes
4.0. Qubes 4.0-rc4, which we plan to release next week, should be using
PVH instead of HVM for almost all VMs without PCI devices by default,
thus eliminating this avenue of attack. As discussed in the Patching
section, VMs with PCI devices will be the exception, which means that
the Meltdown attack could in theory still be conducted if the attacker
compromises a VM with PCI devices and afterward compromises the
corresponding stub domain via a hypothetical qemu exploit.
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about this without
cooperation from the Xen project .
Here is an overview of the VM modes that correspond to each Qubes OS
VM type \ Qubes OS version | 3.2 | 4.0-rc1-3 | 4.0-rc4 |
---------------------------------- | --- | --------- | ------- |
Default VMs without PCI devices | PV | HVM | PVH |
Default VMs with PCI devices | PV | HVM | HVM |
Stub domains - Default VMs w/o PCI | N/A | PV | N/A |
Stub domains - Default VMs w/ PCI | N/A | PV | PV |
Stub domains - HVMs | PV | PV | PV |
See the original Xen Security Advisory.
The Qubes Security Team