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An unprivileged attacker with the ability to execute code

That sounds like a contradiction --- if you can already execute code, I'd say you're quite privileged. It's unfortunate that their demo doesn't itself run in the browser using JS (I don't know if it's possible), because that's closer to what people might think of as "unprivileged".

The attacker has no control over the address from which data is leaked, therefore it is necessary to know when the victim application handles the interesting data.

This is a very important point that all the Spectre/Meltdown-originated side-channels have in common, so I think it deserves more attention: there's a huge difference between being able to read some random data (theoretically, a leak) and it being actionable (practically, to exploit it); of course as mentioned in the article there are certain data which has patterns, but things like encryption keys tend to be pretty much random --- and then there's the question of what exactly that key is protecting. Let's say you did manage to correctly read a whole TLS session key --- what are you going to do with it? How are you going to get access to the network traffic it's protecting? You have just as much chance that this same exploit will leak the bytes of that before it's encrypted, so the ability to do something "attackful" is still rather limited.

Even the data which has patterns, like the mentioned credit card numbers, still needs some other associated data (cardholder name, PIN, etc.) in order to actually be usable.

The unpredictability of what you get, and the speed at which you can read (the demo shows 31 seconds to read 12 bytes), IMHO leads to a situation where getting all the pieces to line up just right for one specific victim is a huge effort, and because it's timing-based, any small change in the environment could easily "shift the sand" and result in reading something entirely different from what you had planned with all the careful setup you did.

Using ZombieLoad as a covert channel, two VMs could communicate with each other even in scenarios where they are configured in a way that forbids direct interaction between them.

IMHO that example is stretching things a bit, because it's already possible to "signal" between VMs by using indicators as crude as CPU or disk usage --- all one VM has to do to "write" is "pulse" the CPU or disk usage in whatever pattern it wants, modulating it with the data it wants to send, and the other one can "read" just by timing how long operations take. Anyone who has ever experienced things like "this machine is more responsive now, I guess the build I was doing in the background is finished" has seen this simple side-channel in action.






> if you can already execute code, I'd say you're quite privileged.

I always interpreted "privileged" to mean "superuser". I.e. unrestricted. Or possibly the case of one user and another user. Having a program that can determine the URL you are visiting in the browser from memory when running as the same user is a different class than something that can do the same when run as any non-root user on the system. There's a reason it's common to "drop privileges" in a daemon after any initial setup that requires those privileges (such as binding to a low port).


> That sounds like a contradiction --- if you can already execute code, I'd say you're quite privileged.

If you're in a VM, you have no privileges over the host CPU, you can't switch to another VM or to the host itself. That's what's meant by unprivileged here.




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