Using memory errors to attack a virtual machine

S. Govindavajhala, A. W. Appel

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

31 Scopus citations


We present an experimental study showing that soft memory errors can lead to serious security vulnerabilities in Java and.NET virtual machines, or in any system that relies on type-checking of untrusted programs as a protection mechanism. Our attack works by sending to the JVM a Java program that is designed so that almost any memory error in its address space will allow it to take control of the JVM. All conventional Java and.NET virtual machines are vulnerable to this attack. The technique of the attack is broadly applicable against other language-based security schemes such as proof-carrying code. We measured the attack on two commercial Java virtual machines: Sun's and IBM's. We show that a single-bit error in the Java program's data space can be exploited to execute arbitrary code with a probability of about 70%, and multiple-bit errors with a lower probability. Our attack is particularly relevant against smart cards or tamper-resistant computers, where the user has physical access (to the outside of the computer) and can use various means to induce faults; we have successfully used heat. Fortunately, there are some straightforward defenses against this attack.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProceedings - 2003 Symposium on Security and Privacy, SP 2003
PublisherInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)0769519407
StatePublished - 2003
Event2003 Symposium on Security and Privacy, SP 2003 - Berkeley, United States
Duration: May 11 2003May 14 2003

Publication series

NameProceedings - IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy
ISSN (Print)1081-6011


Other2003 Symposium on Security and Privacy, SP 2003
Country/TerritoryUnited States

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Software
  • Computer Networks and Communications


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