RowHammer: A Retrospective

by   Onur Mutlu, et al.

This retrospective paper describes the RowHammer problem in Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM), which was initially introduced by Kim et al. at the ISCA 2014 conference <cit.>. RowHammer is a prime (and perhaps the first) example of how a circuit-level failure mechanism can cause a practical and widespread system security vulnerability. It is the phenomenon that repeatedly accessing a row in a modern DRAM chip causes bit flips in physically-adjacent rows at consistently predictable bit locations. RowHammer is caused by a hardware failure mechanism called DRAM disturbance errors, which is a manifestation of circuit-level cell-to-cell interference in a scaled memory technology. Researchers from Google Project Zero demonstrated in 2015 that this hardware failure mechanism can be effectively exploited by user-level programs to gain kernel privileges on real systems. Many other follow-up works demonstrated other practical attacks exploiting RowHammer. In this article, we comprehensively survey the scientific literature on RowHammer-based attacks as well as mitigation techniques to prevent RowHammer. We also discuss what other related vulnerabilities may be lurking in DRAM and other types of memories, e.g., NAND flash memory or Phase Change Memory, that can potentially threaten the foundations of secure systems, as the memory technologies scale to higher densities. We conclude by describing and advocating a principled approach to memory reliability and security research that can enable us to better anticipate and prevent such vulnerabilities.


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