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Azure Confidential Computing Heralds the Next Generation of Encryption in the Cloud

For years, EFF has commended companies who make cloud applications that encrypt data in transit. But soon, the new gold standard for cloud application encryption will be the cloud provider never having access to the user’s data—not even while performing computations on it.

Microsoft has become the first major cloud provider to offer developers the ability to build their applications on top of Intel’s Software Guard Extensions (SGX) technology, making Azure “the first SGX-capable servers in the public cloud.” Azure customers in Microsoft’s Early Access program can now begin to develop applications with the “confidential computing” technology.

Intel SGX uses protections baked into the hardware to ensure that data remains secure, even from the platform it’s running on. That means that an application that protects its secrets inside SGX is protecting it not just from other applications running on the system, but from the operating system, the hypervisor, and even Intel’s Management Engine, an extremely privileged coprocessor that we’ve previously warned about.

Cryptographic methods of computing on encrypted data are still an active body of research, with most methods still too inefficient or involving too much data leakage to see practical use in industry. Secure enclaves like SGX, also known as Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs), offer an alternative path to applications looking to compute over encrypted data. For example, a messaging service with a server that uses secure enclaves offers similar guarantees to end-to-end encrypted services. But whereas an end-to-encrypted messaging service would have to use client-side search or accept either side channel leakage or inefficiency to implement server-side search, by using an enclave they can provide server-side search functionality with always-encrypted guarantees at little additional computational cost. The same is true for the classic challenge of changing the key that a ciphertext is encrypted without access to the key, known as proxy re-encryption. Many problems that have challenged cryptographers for decades to find efficient, leakage-free solutions are solvable instead by a sufficiently robust secure enclave ecosystem.

While there is great potential here, SGX is still a relatively new technology, meaning that security vulnerabilities are still being discovered as more research is done. Memory corruption vulnerabilities within enclaves can be exploited by classic attack mechanisms like return-oriented programming (ROP). Various side channel attacks have been discovered, some of which are mitigated by a growing host of protective techniques. Promisingly, Microsoft’s press release teases that they’re “working with Intel and other hardware and software partners to develop additional TEEs and will support them as they become available.” This could indicate that they’re working on developing something like Sanctum, which isolates caches by trusted application, reducing a major side channel attack surface. Until these issues are fully addressed, a dedicated attacker could recover some or all of the data protected by SGX, but it’s still a massive improvement over not using hardware protection at all.

The technology underlying Azure Confidential Computing is not yet perfect, but it's efficient enough for practical usage, stops whole classes of attacks, and is available today. EFF applauds this giant step towards making encrypted applications in the cloud feasible, and we look forward to seeing cloud offerings from major providers like Amazon and Google follow suit. Secure enclaves have the potential to be a new frontier in offering users privacy in the cloud, and it will be exciting to see the applications that developers build now that this technology is becoming more widely available.

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