PTAuth: Temporal Memory Safety via Robust Points-to Authentication


Reza Mirzazade Farkhani, Mansour Ahmadi, and Long Lu, Northeastern University


Temporal memory corruptions are commonly exploited software vulnerabilities that can lead to powerful attacks. Despite significant progress made by decades of research on mitigation techniques, existing countermeasures fall short due to either limited coverage or overly high overhead. Furthermore, they require external mechanisms (e.g., spatial memory safety) to protect their metadata. Otherwise, their protection can be bypassed or disabled.

To address these limitations, we present robust points-to authentication, a novel runtime scheme for detecting all kinds of temporal memory corruptions. We built a prototype system, called PTAuth, that realizes this scheme on ARM architectures. PTAuth contains a customized compiler for code analysis and instrumentation and a runtime library for performing the points-to authentication as a protected program runs. PTAuth leverages the Pointer Authentication Code (PAC) feature, provided by the ARMv8.3 and later CPUs, which serves as a simple hardware-based encryption primitive. PTAuth uses minimal in-memory metadata and protects its metadata without requiring spatial memory safety. We report our evaluation of PTAuth in terms of security, robustness and performance using 150 vulnerable programs from Juliet test suite and the SPEC CPU2006 benchmarks. PTAuth detects all three categories of heap-based temporal memory corruptions, generates zero false alerts, and slows down program execution by 26% (this number was measured based on software-emulated PAC; it is expected to decrease to 20% when using hardware-based PAC). We also show that PTAuth incurs 2% memory overhead thanks to the efficient use of metadata.

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@inproceedings {263812,
author = {Reza Mirzazade farkhani and Mansour Ahmadi and Long Lu},
title = {{PTAuth}: Temporal Memory Safety via Robust Points-to Authentication},
booktitle = {30th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 21)},
year = {2021},
isbn = {978-1-939133-24-3},
pages = {1037--1054},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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