Alec Fernandez (email@example.com)
At the end of 2022, the Confidential Computing Consortium amended the definition of Confidential Computing. We added attestation as an explicit part of the definition, but beyond updating our whitepaper we did not explain to the community why we made this change.
First off, an attestation is the evidence that you use to evaluate whether or not to trust a Confidential Computing program or environment. It’s sometimes built into a common protocol as in RA-TLS / Attested TLS. In other uses it might be built into the boot flow of a Confidential VM or built into an asynchronous usage like attaching it to the result of a Confidential Process.
To many of us attestation was an implicit part of Confidential Computing architecture. However it is so central to the idea of Confidential Computing that it really needed to be part of the formal definition.
Hardware and software providers have long offered assurances of security and these assurances have oftentimes fallen short of expectations. A historical analysis of the track record for placing trust in individual organizations to protect data raises important questions for security professionals. The recurrence of data breaches has led to understandably deep skepticism of technologies that purport to provide new security protections.
Users desire to see for themselves the evidence that new technologies are actually safeguarding their data.
Attestation is the process by which customers can alleviate their skepticism by getting answers to these questions:
- Can the TEE provide evidence showing that its security assurances are in effect?
- Who is providing this evidence?
- How is the evidence obtained?
- Is the evidence valid, authentic, and delivered through a secure chain of custody?
- Who judges the evidence?
- Is the judge separate from the evidence provider?
- Who provides the standards against which the evidence is judged?
- Can evidence assure that the code and data protection claims are in effect?
Hardware based attestation evidence is produced by a trusted hardware root-of-trust component of the computing environment. The hardware root-of-trust is a silicon chip or a set of chips that have been specifically designed to be highly tamper resistant. Some have been reviewed by researchers at standards organizations such as NIST, NSA, ICO, ENISA and academic institutions around the world and the technical community at large. While a critique of the analyses behind hardware roots of trust is beyond the scope of this paper, we take them to represent the current state of the art in computer security. They represent a significant improvement over available alternatives. See reference material at the end of this blog for more information.
Providing Attestation Evidence
Attestation evidence is delivered in a message containing authentic, accurate and timely measurements of system components such as hardware, firmware, BIOS and the software and data state of the computer being evaluated. Importantly, this attestation evidence is digitally signed by a key known only to the hardware root-of-trust (often the physical CPU) and not extractable. This means that the attestation evidence is secured. It cannot be altered, once it leaves the hardware without the alteration being detected. It is impervious to attacks by the host operating system, the kernel, the cloud platform provider. This eliminates chain of custody concerns as the evidence flows from the producer to the consumer.
Validating the Authenticity of Attestation Evidence
Before examining the attestation evidence, the source of the evidence must be established. This is done by matching the digital signature in the attestation evidence with a certificate issued by the manufacturer of the hardware root of trust, for example the manufacturer of the physical CPU in the computer. If the signature on the attestation evidence matches the manufacturer’s certificate, then this proves that the attestation report was produced by the CPU hardware. This means that if you trust the company that manufactured the hardware, then you can trust the attestation report.
Who Judges the Attestation Evidence? Are they Separate from the Evidence Provider?
Having the attestation evidence delivered in a message that is digitally signed by hardware allows for TEE users to establish for themselves that the security assurances provided by the TEE are in place. This can be done without the provider of the computing infrastructure or intervening parties being able to alter the evidence during delivery.
Attestation evidence is highly technical and oftentimes it is not feasible for an organization to judge the evidence themselves. This is especially true when the organization is not specialized in computing infrastructure security. In cases such as these, having a different entity, a third party with security expertise, evaluate the evidence offers a good balance between security and complexity. In this scenario, the computing infrastructure or device user is implicitly trusting the entity that verifies the attestation evidence (the verifier). In such scenarios, it is imperative for the device user to have access to effective mechanisms to verify the authenticity and reliability of the verifier to ensure that the attestation results produced by the verifier are legitimate and trustworthy.
Who provides the standards against which the evidence is judged?
The attestation evidence contains claims￼ about the physical characteristics and the configuration settings of the execution environment. Examples include:
- CPU Manufacturer, model and version and identifier.
- Microcode and firmware version.
- Configuration settings, e.g., whether memory encryption is enabled.
- Encryption configuration, e.g., whether a different key is used to protect each individual VM
The values supplied in the attestation evidence are compared against reference values. For example, the firmware supplier might recommend that it be patched to a specific version due to the discovery of a security vulnerability. The attestation evidence will accurately reflect the current firmware version. But who decides which are acceptable firmware versions?
- Since the firmware is typically the responsibility of the hardware manufacturer and they have intimate knowledge of the details behind its security baseline, they should certainly be consulted.
- The owner of the device or computing infrastructure should also be consulted since they could be responsible for any risks of data exfiltration.
- In a public cloud environment, the computing infrastructure provider controls patching the firmware to the hardware manufacturer’s recommended version but they do not make use of the resulting environment. The user of the TEE is responsible for data placed in the environment and must ensure that firmware complies with their security policy
Remote attestation provides a way to evaluate evidence that shows the actual firmware version provided by the TEE. This evidence is provided directly by the hardware on which the TEE is executing and allows the attestation verifier to independently verify when the patching was completed.
More generally, attestation can be used to check whether all available security standards and policies have been met. This practically eliminates the possibility that a configuration error on the part of the computer or device owner will result in a security guarantee being falsely reported. The computer or device owner might be incorrectly configured in a way that goes undetected, but the attestation evidence comes directly from the hardware component that is executing the TEE and so remains accurate.
Relying on Attestation Evidence to Secure a TEE
An example of using attestation to provide data security is secure key release (SKR). One excellent use case for SKR is configuring your key management infrastructure (KMI) to evaluate the attestation evidence against a policy controlled by the verifier which is deemed to be trustworthy owner of the TEE and configuring your KMI to refuse to supply the key needed to decrypt the computer’s OS disk unless the attestation evidence shows the computer to be in compliance. In this example, the attestation evidence is generated when the computer is powered on and sent to the KMI. If the attestation evidence indicates that the TEE is not in compliance with the policy (perhaps because the CPU firmware was not an acceptable version) then the KMI would not release the decryption key to the compute infrastructure and this would prevent data from being decrypted and this prevent the risk of data exfiltration.
Confidential computing, through the use of hardware-based, attested TEEs and remote attestation protects sensitive data and code against an increasingly common class of threats occurring during processing while data is in use. These were previously difficult, if not impossible to mitigate. Additionally, Confidential Computing allows for protecting data against the owner of the system and public cloud platforms which traditionally had to simply be trusted to not use their elevated permissions to access the data.