Intel CPU security features

List of Intel CPU security features along with short descriptions taken from the Intel manuals.

WP (Write Protect) (PDF)

Quoting Volume 3A, 4-3, Paragraph 4.1.3:

CR0.WP allows pages to be protected from supervisor-mode writes. If CR0.WP = 0, supervisor-mode write accesses are allowed to linear addresses with read-only access rights; if CR0.WP = 1, they are not (User-mode write accesses are never allowed to linear addresses with read-only access rights, regardless of the value of CR0.WP).

Interesting links:

NXE/XD (No-Execute Enable/Execute Disable) (PDF)

Regarding IA32_EFER MSR and NXE (Volume 3A, 4-3, Paragraph 4.1.3):

IA32_EFER.NXE enables execute-disable access rights for PAE paging and IA-32e paging. If IA32_EFER.NXE = 1, instructions fetches can be prevented from specified linear addresses (even if data reads from the addresses are allowed).

IA32_EFER.NXE has no effect with 32-bit paging. Software that wants to use this feature to limit instruction fetches from readable pages must use either PAE paging or IA-32e paging.

Regarding XD (Volume 3A, 4-17, Table 4-11):

If IA32_EFER.NXE = 1, execute-disable (if 1, instruction fetches are not allowed from the 4-KByte page controlled by this entry; see Section 4.6); otherwise, reserved (must be 0).

SMAP (Supervisor Mode Access Protection) (PDF)

Quoting Volume 3A, 4-3, Paragraph 4.1.3:

CR4.SMAP allows pages to be protected from supervisor-mode data accesses. If CR4.SMAP = 1, software operating in supervisor mode cannot access data at linear addresses that are accessible in user mode. Software can override this protection by setting EFLAGS.AC.

SMEP (Supervisor Mode Execution Protection) (PDF)

Quoting Volume 3A, 4-3, Paragraph 4.1.3:

CR4.SMEP allows pages to be protected from supervisor-mode instruction fetches. If CR4.SMEP = 1, software operating in supervisor mode cannot fetch instructions from linear addresses that are accessible in user mode.

MPX (Memory Protection Extensions) (PDF)

Intel MPX introduces new bounds registers and new instructions that operate on bounds registers. Intel MPX allows an OS to support user mode software (operating at CPL = 3) and supervisor mode software (CPL < 3) to add memory protection capability against buffer overrun. It provides controls to enable Intel MPX extensions for user mode and supervisor mode independently. Intel MPX extensions are designed to allow software to associate bounds with pointers, and allow software to check memory references against the bounds associated with the pointer to prevent out of bound memory access (thus preventing buffer overflow).

Interesting links:

SGX (Software Guard Extensions) (PDF)

These extensions allow an application to instantiate a protected container, referred to as an enclave. An enclave is a protected area in the application’s address space (see Figure 1-1), which provides confidentiality and integrity even in the presence of privileged malware. Accesses to the enclave memory area from any software not resident in the enclave are prevented.

Interesting links:

Protection keys (PDF)

Quoting Volume 3A, 4-31, Paragraph 4.6.2:

The protection-key feature provides an additional mechanism by which IA-32e paging controls access to user-mode addresses. When CR4.PKE = 1, every linear address is associated with the 4-bit protection key located in bits 62:59 of the paging-structure entry that mapped the page containing the linear address. The PKRU register determines, for each protection key, whether user-mode addresses with that protection key may be read or written.

The following paragraphs, taken from LWN, shed some light on the purpose of memory protection keys:

One might well wonder why this feature is needed when everything it does can be achieved with the memory-protection bits that already exist. The problem with the current bits is that they can be expensive to manipulate. A change requires invalidating translation lookaside buffer (TLB) entries across the entire system, which is bad enough, but changing the protections on a region of memory can require individually changing the page-table entries for thousands (or more) pages. Instead, once the protection keys are set, a region of memory can be enabled or disabled with a single register write. For any application that frequently changes the protections on regions of its address space, the performance improvement will be large.

There is still the question (as asked by Ingo Molnar) of just why a process would want to make this kind of frequent memory-protection change. There would appear to be a few use cases driving this development. One is the handling of sensitive cryptographic data. A network-facing daemon could use a cryptographic key to encrypt data to be sent over the wire, then disable access to the memory holding the key (and the plain-text data) before writing the data out. At that point, there is no way that the daemon can leak the key or the plain text over the wire; protecting sensitive data in this way might also make applications a bit more resistant to attack.

Another commonly mentioned use case is to protect regions of data from being corrupted by «stray» write operations. An in-memory database could prevent writes to the actual data most of the time, enabling them only briefly when an actual change needs to be made. In this way, database corruption due to bugs could be fended off, at least some of the time. Ingo was unconvinced by this use case; he suggested that a 64-bit address space should be big enough to hide data in and protect it from corruption. He also suggested that a version of mprotect() that optionally skipped TLB invalidation could address many of the performance issues, especially if huge pages were used. Alan Cox responded, though, that there is real-world demand for the ability to change protection on gigabytes of memory at a time, and that mprotect() is simply too slow.

CET (Control-flow Enforcement Technology) (PDF)

Control-flow Enforcement Technology (CET) provides the following capabilities to defend against ROP/JOP style control-flow subversion attacks:

  • Shadow Stack – return address protection to defend against Return Oriented Programming,
  • Indirect branch tracking – free branch protection to defend against Jump/Call Oriented Programming.
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