ACFA: Secure Runtime Auditing & Guaranteed Device Healing via Active Control Flow Attestation


Adam Caulfield, Rochester Institute of Technology; Norrathep Rattanavipanon, Prince of Songkla University, Phuket Campus; Ivan De Oliveira Nunes, Rochester Institute of Technology


Embedded devices are increasingly used in a wide range of “smart” applications and spaces. At the lower-end of the scale, they are implemented under strict cost and energy budgets, using microcontroller units (MCUs) that lack security features akin to those available in general-purpose processors. In this context, Remote Attestation (RA) was proposed as an inexpensive security service that enables a verifier (Vrf) to remotely detect illegal modifications to the software binary installed on a prover MCU (Prv). Despite its effectiveness to validate Prv's binary integrity, attacks that hijack the software's control flow (potentially leading to privilege escalation or code reuse attacks) cannot be detected by classic RA.

Control Flow Attestation (CFA) augments RA with information about the exact order in which instructions in the binary are executed. As such, CFA enables detection of the aforementioned control flow attacks. However, we observe that current CFA architectures cannot guarantee that Vrf ever receives control flow reports in case of attacks. In turn, while they support detection of exploits, they provide no means to pinpoint the exploit origin. Furthermore, existing CFA requires either (1) binary instrumentation, incurring significant runtime overhead and code size increase; or (2) relatively expensive hardware support, such as hash engines. In addition, current techniques are neither continuous (they are only meant to attest small and self-contained operations) nor active (once compromises are detected, they offer no secure means to remotely remediate the problem).

To jointly address these challenges, we propose ACFA: a hybrid (hardware/software) architecture for Active CFA. ACFA enables continuous monitoring of all control flow transfers in the MCU and does not require binary instrumentation. It also leverages the recently proposed concept of “active roots-of-trust” to enable secure auditing of vulnerability sources and guaranteed remediation, in case of compromise detection. We provide an open-source reference implementation of ACFA on top of a commodity low-end MCU (TI MSP430) and evaluate it to demonstrate its security and cost-effectiveness.

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@inproceedings {291156,
author = {Adam Caulfield and Norrathep Rattanavipanon and Ivan De Oliveira Nunes},
title = {{ACFA}: Secure Runtime Auditing \& Guaranteed Device Healing via Active Control Flow Attestation},
booktitle = {32nd USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 23)},
year = {2023},
isbn = {978-1-939133-37-3},
address = {Anaheim, CA},
pages = {5827--5844},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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