Rollback protection in TF-M secure boot


Tamas Ban


Arm Limited


Tamas Ban <>

Anti-rollback protection

The goal of anti-rollback protection is to prevent downgrading of the device to an older version of its software, which has been deprecated due to security concerns.

Elements of software upgrade

During a software upgrade the following entities are involved:

  • Boot loader

  • Manifest data: Metadata of the software image: size, version, hash, signature, etc.

  • Software image: binary data, elf, etc.

Validation of new image

Boot loader is responsible to authenticate the new image according to the required policies and decide whether the new image is fulfilling all the requirements. Boot loader verifies the image integrity (hash calculation) and the origination (signature validation), and might verify other requirements as well. If the new image is successfully authenticated then the boot loader is in charge to do the necessary steps (load to execute address, etc.) to enable the new image to be executed. During the validation process the image and the manifest data is checked.

Manifest format in MCUBoot

MCUBoot has a custom manifest format, which is composed of two parts:

  • Image header: Prepended to the beginning of the image. It is integrity protected:

  • TLV section: Appended to the end of the image. It is not integrity protected:

  • Hash of public key, hash of image, signature of image

struct image_header {
    uint32_t ih_magic;
    uint32_t ih_load_addr;
    uint16_t ih_hdr_size;
    uint16_t _pad1;
    uint32_t ih_img_size;
    uint32_t ih_flags;
    struct image_version ih_ver;
    uint32_t _pad2;

Security counter

The aim of a security counter is to have an independent (from the image version) counter in the image manifest to ensure anti-rollback protection. During software release the value of this counter must be increased if a security flaw was fixed in the current version. Later when this image is installed on the device then it is not allowed to go back to earlier versions. It is beneficial to handle this counter independently from image main version number:

  • It does not need to increase with each software release

  • It makes it possible to do software downgrade to some extent: if the security counter has the same value in the older image then it is accepted.

  • If the boot loader verifies multiple images then these can be handled independently.

However, as an alternative solution the image version number also could serve as the security counter of the image. Even the version number itself could be checked during the anti-rollback verification or the value of the security counter could be derived from the image main version. It is the responsibility of the software issuer to define which policy to apply.

Implementation of security counter

The value of the security counter is a security critical data. Any change in its value has a security implication. Therefore it must be in the integrity protected part of the image manifest. Because the image header is almost fully utilized (few unused fields) and the change of image header structure could lead to compatibility issues between boot loader and runtime software, it is proposed to extend the integrity protection to some part of the TLV section. One of the unused fields in the image header can be used to store the size of the integrity protected area of the TLV section. This is necessary to know how to calculate properly the image hash and signature. With this extension of the integrity protected area other attributes that require integrity protection can easily be added to the image manifest.

Trusted non-volatile (NV) counters

The Trusted Base System Architecture (TBSA-M) defines non-volatile (NV) counters or version counters as a counter with the following properties:

  • It must only be possible to increment a version counter through a Trusted access.

  • It must only be possible to increment a version counter. It must not be possible to decrement it.

  • When a version counter reaches its maximum value, it must not roll over, and no further changes must be possible.

  • A version counter must be non-volatile, and the stored value must survive a power down period up to the lifetime of the device.

Trusted non-volatile counters can be used to store the value of security counters per updatable software image. Ideally all independently updatable software images should have a separate security counter. In current TF-M implementation the BL2 is not updatable and the secure and non-secure images are updated together as a single binary. Therefore, one counter is enough to implement rollback protection. In future the secure and non-secure binaries will be handled independently; at that time the introduction of a second counter will be necessary.

Currently the NV counters can be manipulated through the interface described in tfm_plat_nv_counters.h.

NV counters and anti-rollback protection

Trusted non-volatile counters might not be supported by a hardware platform. In this case anti-rollback protection might still be feasible.

The device threat model needs to consider the following aspects:

  • What is the trust level of the boot loader towards the active software

  • If the boot loader cannot protect the anti-rollback mechanism from the secure image then the following threat is unmitigated: The content of the memory area which holds the active image could be replaced with a valid but an older version of the software with software only attack, i.e.: remote code execution.

  • If the boot loader does not trust the loaded image at all then security counter must have a copy in NV counter area.

  • Another aspect to consider is where the active image is stored

  • Trusted memory: i.e. on-chip flash (eFlash). The threat that a malicious actor can modify the content of trusted memory with HW attack is out of scope for the current implementation. It is assumed that if an active image and related manifest data is stored in trusted memory then the included security counter cannot be compromised.

  • Untrusted memory: i.e. external (off-chip) storage, where malicious actor can physically access it so it is possible to modify its content, therefore the value of included security counter is unreliable.

If the active image is stored in untrusted storage and it is feasible to modify its content (i.e. replace the whole image to an older version including corresponding manifest) then the value of security counter must be copied to the NV counter area. During software validation the boot loader must compare the new image’s security counters against the security counter stored in non-volatile counters.

If the active image is stored in trusted memory and boot loader trusts in the active software then it is not mandatory to store the security counter to non-volatile counter area. During software validation the boot loader is allowed to compare the new image’s security counters against active image’s security counter.

The evaluation of trusted and untrusted memory must be done per target platform during threat modelling.

For the most robust implementation the following principles should be applied:

  • Always use NV counters for storing security counter value if supported by the hardware.

  • Each software stage must not be able to decrease their corresponding NV counter.

Boot flow with anti-rollback protection

During software upgrade as part of the image validation process the new and active image security counters must be compared. The new image can be accepted if its security counter has a greater or equal value than the active image security counter. From where to extract the active image security counter it can be platform dependent. It might read out directly from active image manifest data (only if it is in trusted memory) or the corresponding non-volatile counter is read.

If non-volatile counters are used to save security counters then their value must be updated:

  • If the boot loader does not support to revert previous images (just overwrites the previously active image with the new one) in case of faulty update then the non-volatile counter can be updated to be equal with the new image security counter after successful authentication of the new image.

  • If revert is supported then non-volatile counter can be updated just after a test run of the new software when its health check is done. Just in case of successful health check can the counter updated to avoid the prevention of the revert. This might require a secondary restart of the device.

Tool support

There is a Python script, which is used to prepare the new image for upgrade (add header, sign the image, append TLV section). This script must be modified to get an additional command line argument which serves as security counter. The security counter must be included in the integrity protected part of the TLV section.

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