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Newly Demoed JackHammer Cyberattack Uses FPGA-CPU Combo to Attack Memory

(Image credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock)

There's a new hammer in town. On December 31, researchers detailed a cyberattack dubbed JackHammer, as spotted by ZDNet. Based on the Rowhammer attacks revealed in 2014, JackHammer uses a hybrid FPGA and CPU setup to conduct more efficient attacks on various forms of PC memory.

Unlike other branding applied to vulnerabilities, Rowhammer is actually pretty descriptive. The attack corrupts data stored in memory by repeatedly accessing one row of memory cells to build up enough charge to cause bit flips in adjacent rows. Rowhammer attacks were previously executed only via CPUs. But the rise of FPGAs led researchers at Intel, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. and the University of Lubeck in Germany to see if the hardware could make the attacks more effective. 

It turns out that it does. The researchers said that JackHammer attacks, which are effectively Rowhammer attacks conducted on FPGA-CPU setups, can be twice as fast as attacks conducted from CPUs only and can also cause four times as many bit flips.

That means the attacks conducted by the researchers were simultaneously more efficient and more effective. Combine that with the Rowhammer attacks' already wide reach--not even ECC memory is safe--and this could be a terrifying discovery.

Don't be surprised if other researchers start to wonder how FPGAs could improve existing attacks following JackHammer's revelation--or if those improvements become even more worrisome as FPGAs rise in popularity and performance.