Basics of Pointer Authentication

Return Oriented Programming (ROP) is a software attack where the attacker corrupts the return address stored in the stack to point it to somewhere in the application with a useful sequence of instructions, ending in an indirect branch. These sequences are known as gadgets, and are prevalent in most code. By chaining multiple gadgets, the attacker can mislead the program to perform actions that end up in a security compromise. An example of such a security compromise is spawning an interactive shell.

Pointer Authentication is a feature, available for Armv8.3-A and Armv9.0-A (and later) Arm architectures, to provide some protection against such attacks. A Pointer Authentication Code (PAC) is generated from the value of a given pointer, and is used to verify pointers before using them.

If attackers attempt to modify such a pointer in memory they will also need to compute the right PAC signature for it. Using the ROP example, if the return address stored in the stack is signed and verified before returning to it, the attacker will not be able to control the program flow and an exception is raised.

Generation and use of PAC in applications requires compiler support, as function calls and returns will need to be modified. This Learning Path will help you understand the impact of protecting your code in this way..

See Code reuse attacks: the compiler story for a deeper discussion.

Arm CPU Pointer Authentication Support Table

Below is a table which lists which Arm processors support Pointer Authentication.

CPUPointer AuthArm ISA versionNotes
Neoverse V2YesArmv9.0-A
Neoverse N2YesArmv9.0-A
Neoverse E2YesArmv9.0-A
Neoverse V1YesArmv8.4-ADoes not support optional FEAT_EPAC
Neoverse N1NoArmv8.2-A
Neoverse E1NoArmv8.2-A

If you are looking for cloud instances with Pointer Authentication, AWS instances with Graviton3 processors are a good place to start (C7g, M7g, and R7g).

Preparation for exercise the following sections

Install GCC and other tools. The commands for using the apt package manager are below. Similar commands are possible with other package managers (such as yum).


            sudo apt update
sudo apt install gcc make gdb-multiarch -y

Configure Pointer Authentication in the Linux kernel


The information below explains how to disable pointer authentication. This not recommended, but you may want to do it for experimentation purposes.

Pointer Authentication is a recommended security feature, and is enabled by default in Linux distributions. However, it is possible to turn off Pointer Authentication for debug or performance investigations. It can be disabled with a kernel configuration parameter, or if the the kernel was compiled with Pointer Authentication enabled, it can be disabled with a kernel boot parameter change.

Kernel configuration:



Kernel boot parameter: