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Dissertation Defense

Control-Flow Security

William Patrick Arthur

Computer security is a topic of paramount importance in computing today. Though enormous effort has been expended to reduce the software attack surface, vulnerabilities remain. In contemporary attacks, subverting the control-flow of an application is often the cornerstone to a successful attempt to compromise a system. This subversion, known as a control-flow attack, remains as an essential building block of many software exploits.
This dissertation proposes a multi-pronged approach to securing software control-flow to harden the software attack surface. The primary domain of this dissertation is the elimination of the basic mechanism in software enabling control-flow attacks. I address the prevalence of such attacks by going to the heart of the problem, removing all of the operations that inject runtime data into program control. This novel approach, Control-Data Isolation, provides protection by subtracting the root of the problem; indirect control-flow. Previous works have attempted to address control-flow attacks by layering additional complexity in an effort to shield software from attack. In this work, I take a subtractive approach; subtracting the primary cause of both contemporary and classic control-flow attacks. This novel approach to security advances the state of the art in control-flow security by ensuring the integrity of the programmer-intended control-flow graph of an application at runtime. Further, this dissertation provides methodologies to eliminate the barriers to adoption of control-data isolation while simultaneously moving ahead to reduce future attacks.
The secondary domain of this dissertation is technique which leverages the process by which software is engineered, tested, and executed to pinpoint the statements in software which are most likely to be exploited by an attacker, defined as the Dynamic Control Frontier. Rather than reacting to successful attacks by patching software, the approach in this dissertation will move ahead of the attacker and identify the susceptible code regions before they are compromised.
In total, this dissertation combines software and hardware design techniques to eliminate contemporary control-flow attacks. Further, it demonstrates the efficacy and viability of a subtractive approach to software security, eliminating the elements underlying security vulnerabilities.

Sponsored by

Professor Todd Austin