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MORPHEUS blocks potential attacks by encrypting and randomly reshuffling key bits of its own code and data twenty times per second.

New chip can stop cyber attacks in their tracks

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A new computer processor architecture developed at the University of Michigan (U-M) could assist in a future where computers proactively defend against cyber threats, rendering the current electronic security model of bugs and patches obsolete.

The chip, called Morpheus, blocks potential attacks by encrypting and randomly reshuffling key bits of its own code and data 20 times per second. According to the team at U-M, this processor is faster than a human hacker and a thousand times faster than even the fastest electronic hacking techniques.

“Today’s approach of eliminating security bugs one by one is a losing game,” said Todd Austin, U-M professor of computer science and engineering. “People are constantly writing code, and as long as there is new code, there will be new bugs and security vulnerabilities.”

Also the developer of the system, Austin added: “With Morpheus, even if a hacker finds a bug, the information needed to exploit it vanishes 50 milliseconds later. It’s perhaps the closest thing to a future-proof secure system.”

Austin and his colleagues have demonstrated a DARPA-funded prototype processor that successfully defended against every known variant of control-flow attack, one of hackers’ most dangerous and widely used techniques.

The researchers said the technology could be used in a variety of applications, from laptops and PCs to Internet of Things (IoT) devices, where simple and reliable security will be increasingly critical.

“We’ve all seen how damaging an attack can be when it hits a computer that’s sitting on your desk,” he said. “But attacks on the computer in your car, in your smart lock or even in your body could place users at even greater risk.”

Austin said that the system embeds security into its hardware, instead of using software to patch known code vulnerabilities. Such an application makes vulnerabilities impossible to pin down and exploit by constantly randomising critical programme assets in a process known as “churn”, he added.

“Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that rearranges itself every time you blink,” Austin said. “That’s what hackers are up against with Morpheus. It makes the computer an unsolvable puzzle.”

The chip, however, is transparent to software developers and end-users as the technology focuses on randomising bits of data known as “undefined semantics”.

Undefined semantics refers to the “nooks and crannies” of the computer architecture: for example the location, format and content of programme code are undefined semantics.

According to the team, this randomisation of data is part of a processor’s most basic machinery, and legitimate programmers don’t generally interact with this process. However, hackers can reverse-engineer them to uncover vulnerabilities in a system and launch an attack.

The chip’s churn rate can be adjusted up or down to strike the right balance between maximising security and minimising resource consumption.

Austin explained that a churn rate of once every 50 milliseconds was chosen for the demonstration processor. This is because it’s several thousand times faster than the fastest electronic hacking techniques, but only slows the performance by around 1 per cent.

The computer processor architecture also features an attack detector. This searches for impending cyber threats and increases the churn rate if the system senses than an attack is imminent.

Austin and colleagues presented the chip and research paper in April 2019 at the ACM International Conference on Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems.

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