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The RAM Retention Issue Revisited

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#1 hornet777


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Posted 13 September 2006 - 08:35 PM

Credit goes to Budfred for bringing this up in the first place, here: http://forums.spywar...showtopic=84723 post 4. Since, I have reviewed the information from which I first learned about the phenomenon in the help file that accompanies the security programme Eraser, and excerpted the relevant portions below.

Secure Deletion of Data from Magnetic and Solid-State Memory

Erasure of Data stored in Random-Access Memory

Simply repeatedly overwriting the data held in DRAM with new data isn't nearly as effective as it is for magnetic media. The new data will begin stressing or relaxing the oxide as soon as it is written, and the oxide will immediately begin to take a "set" which will either reinforce the previous "set" or will weaken it. The greater the amount of time that new data has existed in the cell, the more the old stress is "diluted", and the less reliable the information extraction will be. Generally, the rates of change due to stress and relaxation are in the same order of magnitude. Thus, a few microseconds of storing the opposite data to the currently stored value will have little effect on the oxide. Ideally, the oxide should be exposed to as much stress at the highest feasible temperature and for as long as possible to get the greatest "erasure" of the data. Unfortunately if carried too far this has a rather detrimental effect on the life expectancy of the RAM.

Therefore the goal to aim for when sanitising memory is to store the data for as long as possible rather than trying to change it as often as possible. Conversely, storing the data for as short a time as possible will reduce the chances of it being "remembered" by the cell. Based on tests on DRAM cells, a storage time of one second causes such a small change in threshold that it probably isn't detectable. On the other hand, one minute is probably detectable, and 10 minutes is certainly detectable.

The most practical solution to the problem of DRAM data retention is therefore to constantly flip the bits in memory to ensure that a memory cell never holds a charge long enough for it to be "remembered". While not practical for general use, it is possible to do this for small amounts of very sensitive data such as encryption keys. This is particularly advisable where keys are stored in the same memory location for long periods of time and control access to large amounts of information, such as keys used for transparent encryption of files on disk drives. The bit-flipping also has the convenient side-effect of keeping the page containing the encryption keys at the top of the queue maintained by the system's paging mechanism, greatly reducing the chances of it being paged to disk at some point.

Secure Deletion of Data from Magnetic and Solid-State Memory

Methods of Recovery for Data stored in Random-Access Memory

Contrary to conventional wisdom, "volatile" semiconductor memory does not entirely lose its contents when power is removed. Both static (SRAM) and dynamic (DRAM) memory retains some information on the data stored in it while power was still applied. SRAM is particularly susceptible to this problem, as storing the same data in it over a long period of time has the effect of altering the preferred power-up state to the state which was stored when power was removed. Older SRAM chips could often "remember" the previously held state for several days. In fact, it is possible to manufacture SRAM's which always have a certain state on power-up, but which can be overwritten later on - a kind of "writeable ROM".

DRAM can also "remember" the last stored state, but in a slightly different way. It isn't so much that the charge (in the sense of a voltage appearing across a capacitance) is retained by the RAM cells, but that the thin oxide which forms the storage capacitor dielectric is highly stressed by the applied field, or is not stressed by the field, so that the properties of the oxide change slightly depending on the state of the data. One thing that can cause a threshold shift in the RAM cells is ionic contamination of the cell(s) of interest, although such contamination is rarer now than it used to be because of robotic handling of the materials and because the purity of the chemicals used is greatly improved. However, even a perfect oxide is subject to having its properties changed by an applied field. When it comes to contaminants, sodium is the most common offender - it is found virtually everywhere, and is a fairly small (and therefore mobile) atom with a positive charge. In the presence of an electric field, it migrates towards the negative pole with a velocity which depends on temperature, the concentration of the sodium, the oxide quality, and the other impurities in the oxide such as dopants from the processing. If the electric field is zero and given enough time, this stress tends to dissipate eventually.

The stress on the cell is a cumulative effect, much like charging an RC circuit. If the data is applied for only a few milliseconds then there is very little "learning" of the cell, but if it is applied for hours then the cell will acquire a strong (relatively speaking) change in its threshold. The effects of the stress on the RAM cells can be measured using the built-in self test capabilities of the cells, which provide the ability to impress a weak voltage on a storage cell in order to measure its margin. Cells will show different margins depending on how much oxide stress has been present. Many DRAM's have undocumented test modes which allow some normal I/O pin to become the power supply for the RAM core when the special mode is active. These test modes are typically activated by running the RAM in a nonstandard configuration, so that a certain set of states which would not occur in a normally-functioning system has to be traversed to activate the mode. Manufacturers won't admit to such capabilities in their products because they don't want their customers using them and potentially rejecting devices which comply with their spec sheets, but have little margin beyond that.

A simple but somewhat destructive method to speed up the annihilation of stored bits in semiconductor memory is to heat it. Both DRAM's and SRAM's will lose their contents a lot more quickly at Tjunction = 140C than they will at room temperature. Several hours at this temperature with no power applied will clear their contents sufficiently to make recovery difficult. Conversely, to extend the life of stored bits with the power removed, the temperature should be dropped below -60C. Such cooling should lead to weeks, instead of hours or days, of data retention.

Secure Deletion of Data from Magnetic and Solid-State Memory


Data overwritten once or twice may be recovered by subtracting what is expected to be read from a storage location from what is actually read. Data which is overwritten an arbitrarily large number of times can still be recovered provided that the new data isn't written to the same location as the original data (for magnetic media), or that the recovery attempt is carried out fairly soon after the new data was written (for RAM). For this reason it is effectively impossible to sanitise storage locations by simple overwriting them, no matter how many overwrite passes are made or what data patterns are written. However by using the relatively simple methods presented in this paper the task of an attacker can be made significantly more difficult, if not prohibitively expensive.

My assumptions going back into it with a fuzzy memory about what I had read originally, turned out to be erroneous; those interested may want to adjust their strategies in this regard.
After all is invested in correctness, then how does it stand with truth?

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