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Pointer authentication in AArch64 Linux
Author: Mark Rutland <>
Date: 2017-07-19
This document briefly describes the provision of pointer authentication
functionality in AArch64 Linux.
Architecture overview
The ARMv8.3 Pointer Authentication extension adds primitives that can be
used to mitigate certain classes of attack where an attacker can corrupt
the contents of some memory (e.g. the stack).
The extension uses a Pointer Authentication Code (PAC) to determine
whether pointers have been modified unexpectedly. A PAC is derived from
a pointer, another value (such as the stack pointer), and a secret key
held in system registers.
The extension adds instructions to insert a valid PAC into a pointer,
and to verify/remove the PAC from a pointer. The PAC occupies a number
of high-order bits of the pointer, which varies dependent on the
configured virtual address size and whether pointer tagging is in use.
A subset of these instructions have been allocated from the HINT
encoding space. In the absence of the extension (or when disabled),
these instructions behave as NOPs. Applications and libraries using
these instructions operate correctly regardless of the presence of the
The extension provides five separate keys to generate PACs - two for
instruction addresses (APIAKey, APIBKey), two for data addresses
(APDAKey, APDBKey), and one for generic authentication (APGAKey).
Basic support
When CONFIG_ARM64_PTR_AUTH is selected, and relevant HW support is
present, the kernel will assign random key values to each process at
exec*() time. The keys are shared by all threads within the process, and
are preserved across fork().
Presence of address authentication functionality is advertised via
HWCAP_PACA, and generic authentication functionality via HWCAP_PACG.
The number of bits that the PAC occupies in a pointer is 55 minus the
virtual address size configured by the kernel. For example, with a
virtual address size of 48, the PAC is 7 bits wide.
Recent versions of GCC can compile code with APIAKey-based return
address protection when passed the -msign-return-address option. This
uses instructions in the HINT space (unless -march=armv8.3-a or higher
is also passed), and such code can run on systems without the pointer
authentication extension.
In addition to exec(), keys can also be reinitialized to random values
using the PR_PAC_RESET_KEYS prctl. A bitmask of PR_PAC_APIAKEY,
specifies which keys are to be reinitialized; specifying 0 means "all
When CONFIG_ARM64_PTR_AUTH is selected, and HW support for address
authentication is present, the kernel will expose the position of TTBR0
PAC bits in the NT_ARM_PAC_MASK regset (struct user_pac_mask), which
userspace can acquire via PTRACE_GETREGSET.
The regset is exposed only when HWCAP_PACA is set. Separate masks are
exposed for data pointers and instruction pointers, as the set of PAC
bits can vary between the two. Note that the masks apply to TTBR0
addresses, and are not valid to apply to TTBR1 addresses (e.g. kernel
Pointer authentication is not currently supported in KVM guests. KVM
will mask the feature bits from ID_AA64ISAR1_EL1, and attempted use of
the feature will result in an UNDEFINED exception being injected into
the guest.