This is a new vulnerability against Apple’s M1 chip. Researchers say that it is unpatchable.
Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, however, have created a novel hardware attack, which combines memory corruption and speculative execution attacks to sidestep the security feature. The attack shows that pointer authentication can be defeated without leaving a trace, and as it utilizes a hardware mechanism, no software patch can fix it.
The attack, appropriately called “Pacman,” works by “guessing” a pointer authentication code (PAC), a cryptographic signature that confirms that an app hasn’t been maliciously altered. This is done using speculative execution—a technique used by modern computer processors to speed up performance by speculatively guessing various lines of computation—to leak PAC verification results, while a hardware side-channel reveals whether or not the guess was correct.
What’s more, since there are only so many possible values for the PAC, the researchers found that it’s possible to try them all to find the right one.
It’s not obvious how to exploit this vulnerability in the wild, so I’m unsure how important this is. Also, I don’t know if it also applies to Apple’s new M2 chip.