Many security systems have been shown to be breakable by "timing attacks". These attacks extract secrets by analyzing timings of the legitimate user's operations on secret data. See the June 2022 survey page https://timing.attacks.cr.yp.to for an overview and further references.
Sometimes these attacks are used as motivation to disable the attacker's
access to various timing mechanisms. For example, Firefox rounds its
performance.now timer to 1-millisecond resolution
"to mitigate potential security threats".
As another example, reducing
under Linux to 2 (from 3 or higher), so that libcpucycles has access to
the best available Intel/AMD cycle counter (RDPMC), also means making
this cycle counter and other performance-monitoring counters available
to any attacker-controlled software running on the computer. Perhaps
this helps timing attacks, not to mention the possibility of opening up
other vulnerabilities via the complicated
As yet another example, ARM CPUs disable user access to the main CPU cycle counter by default. Installing a kernel module to enable user access to the cycle counter could help attacks.
Given the availability of simple mechanisms to disable RDPMC etc., it is easy to recommend using those mechanisms. To avoid creating unnecessary tension between those recommendations and the use of libcpucycles, applications that use libcpucycles should be structured so that high-resolution timers are used only on controlled development and benchmarking machines, not on general end-user machines.
This structure might seem incompatible with using cycle counts to automatically select the best of multiple options, as in FFTW. However, new infrastructure introduced in lib25519 automatically selects options on end-user machines based on cycle counts that were collected on benchmarking machines.
The above text should not be understood as endorsing the idea that disabling timers is an effective defense against timing attacks. Certainly disabling high-resolution timers is not sufficient for security: there are many ways for attackers to amplify timing signals and to statistically filter out noise from low-resolution timers. Disabling every standard timing mechanism on the machine does not stop the attacker from accessing a remote timer or a counter maintained by the attacker's software. Perhaps disabling timers sometimes makes the difference between a feasible attack and an infeasible attack, but evaluating this is extremely difficult.
Meanwhile there is an auditable methodology available to stop timing attacks: constant-time programming, which systematically cuts off data flow from secrets to timings.
For example, secrets affect a CPU's power consumption, and Turbo Boost creates data flow from power consumption to timings, as illustrated by the Hertzbleed attack extracting secret keys from the SIKE cryptosystem (before SIKE was broken in other ways), and an independent attack extracting secret AES keys. Consequently, the constant-time methodology does not allow Turbo Boost.
This is why https://timing.attacks.cr.yp.to recommends turning off Turbo Boost "right now", and explains the mechanisms available to do this. One non-security reason that it was already normal (although not universal) for manufacturers to provide these mechanisms to end users is that Turbo Boost has a reputation for causing premature hardware failures. Turbo Boost also provides very little speed benefit for modern multithreaded vectorized applications.
Another reaction to timing attacks is to apply "masking" techniques. These techniques seem to make it more difficult for attackers to extract secrets from power consumption and other side channels. However, as https://timing.attacks.cr.yp.to explains, it is "practically impossible for an auditor to obtain any real assurance that these techniques are secure". See the December 2022 paper "Breaking a fifth-order masked implementation of CRYSTALS-Kyber by copy-paste" for a newer example of a security failure in a masked implementation.
Version: This is version 2023.01.05 of the "Security" web page.