PKU Pitfalls: Attacks on PKU-based Memory Isolation Systems


R. Joseph Connor, Tyler McDaniel, Jared M. Smith, and Max Schuchard, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Intra-process memory isolation can improve security by enforcing least-privilege at a finer granularity than traditional operating system controls without the context-switch overhead associated with inter-process communication. A single process can be divided into separate components such that memory belonging to one component can only be accessed by the code of that component. Because the process has traditionally been a fundamental security boundary, assigning different levels of trust to components within a process is a fundamental change in secure systems design. However, so far there has been little research on the challenges of securely implementing intra-process isolation on top of existing operating system abstractions. We identify that despite providing strong intra-process memory isolation, existing, general purpose approaches neglect the ways in which the OS makes memory and other intra-process resources accessible through system objects. Using two recently-proposed memory isolation systems, we show that such designs are vulnerable to generic attacks that bypass memory isolation These attacks use the kernel as a confused deputy, taking advantage of existing intended kernel functionality that is agnostic of intra-process isolation. We argue that the root cause stems from a fundamentally different security model between kernel abstractions and user-level, intra-process memory isolation. Finally, we discuss potential mitigations and show that the performance cost of extending a ptrace-based sandbox to prevent the new attacks is high, highlighting the need for more efficient system call interception.

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@inproceedings {251558,
author = {R. Joseph Connor and Tyler McDaniel and Jared M. Smith and Max Schuchard},
title = {{PKU} Pitfalls: Attacks on PKU-based Memory Isolation Systems},
booktitle = {29th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 20)},
year = {2020},
isbn = {978-1-939133-17-5},
pages = {1409--1426},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
month = aug,

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