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The Pizza Index & Cyber Vulnerability

The Pizza Index

In the quiet hours of the night on January 16, 1991, amidst the tensions of the Gulf War, an unsuspecting correlation between pizza orders and national security was about to unfold. Frank Meeks, an entrepreneur with a chain of pizza outlets in Washington D.C., inadvertently stumbled upon what would be known as the "pizza index." This unusual index revealed a spike in orders from government offices, hinting at the impending commencement of Operation Desert Storm. The late-night orders were not for leisure but for sustaining the war room vigils, marking the eve of significant military actions.

In the world of cyber security and digital espionage, the story of the pizza index during the Gulf War might seem like an odd place to start. Yet, perfectly illustrates the concept of a side-channel attack. The pizza index was an unwitting leak of confidential information, a classic side-channel attack where indirect signals reveal hidden truths.

Side-channel attacks, unlike direct cyber intrusions, exploit the physical implementation of a system rather than its logical weaknesses. These can range from analyzing power consumption to interpreting acoustic signals. But the implications of such attacks took a monumental leap with the discovery of Meltdown and Spectre, two severe vulnerabilities in the architecture of modern CPUs.

Meltdown and Spectre showcased that even flawless software could be undermined by hardware vulnerabilities. These bugs didn't exploit software weaknesses but leveraged fundamental aspects of CPU design, specifically speculative execution and branch prediction. Speculative execution, a performance optimization where the CPU guesses the path of future operations, and branch prediction, which anticipates the direction of conditional operations, can inadvertently expose sensitive data.

The revelation was startling: nearly every computing device was at risk, with potential access to unauthorized memory spaces. The scale was unprecedented, affecting devices worldwide, from personal computers to cloud servers. Meltdown, primarily impacting Intel CPUs, could be mitigated with memory isolation. However, Spectre, affecting a broader range of processors, presented a more sinister challenge due to its exploitation of speculative execution.

Addressing these vulnerabilities meant rethinking CPU design and software safeguards. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team's drastic recommendation to replace affected CPUs underscored the gravity of the situation.

Understanding Spectre requires delving into how CPUs interact with memory. Modern CPUs utilize a hierarchy of memory, including caches, to improve performance. However, speculative execution can cause CPUs to access unauthorized memory, leaving traces in the cache. These remnants, though the executed speculative paths are discarded, can be detected through timing attacks, revealing sensitive information.

This situation led to a frenzied race to develop patches and hardware redesigns. The broader implication was clear: the integrity of computing devices hinged on securing the foundational elements of hardware design.

The Spectre and Meltdown episodes serve as a realworld reminder of the complex interplay between software and hardware security. They underscore the necessity for holistic approaches in cybersecurity, where both software integrity and hardware robustness must be prioritized.

The current world, characterized by threat of more wars and an increase in cyber attacks, the seemingly quaint historical footnote of the pizza index becomes a stark reminder of the potential dangers that lie ahead. With the possibility of engineered exploits, possibly even from nations like China, the challenge in cybersecurity extends beyond combating direct attacks. We are tasked with securing the very fabric of our computing devices against side-channel attacks that could threaten global digital infrastructure and exploit unintended vulnerabilities.


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