Branch Protection

The Branch Protection is an optional feature that can help with mitigation of common exploits through undesired branching in code.

The Branch Protection feature leverages the Pointer Authentication and Branch Target Identification extension (PACBTI) which is optional and available in Armv8.1-M architecture.

PACBTI is designed to mitigate Return-Oriented Programming (ROP) and Jump-Oriented Programming (JOP) security exploit attacks.

Pointer authentication

Pointer authentication (PAC) is a technique by which the pointer is “signed”. This signed pointer is generated by the hardware by combining a modifier, a secret key and the pointer itself through a hardware cryptographic mechanism.

The generated signed pointer is produced at the beginning of a subroutine or function. On returning from the subroutine/function another signed pointer is generated and compared with the previous signed pointer. If they match, then the pointer (return address) has not been tampered and there are no side-effects. Otherwise the validating instruction generates a UsageFault exception.

All the above functionality is achieved by introducing specific instructions at the beginning and at the end of the subroutine/function. This addition is controlled by compiler options, when supported.

To enable PAC in your platform, TF-M supports the following build options:

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET_LEAF

One of the above values can be assigned to CONFIG_TFM_BRANCH_PROTECTION_FEAT

BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET_LEAF extends BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET when PAC is desired also in leaf functions.

Branch target identification

Branch Target Identification (BTI) can mitigate some of the JOP attacks so that indirect branches can only allow target instructions. Such instructions are also called landing pads. In other words, an indirect branch can only “land” where a specific instruction is present, otherwise the branch has been compromised and a UsageFault exception is raised.

The above functionality is achieved by introducing specific instructions at the beginning of executable code.

To enable BTI in your platform, TF-M supports the following build option:

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_BTI

One of the above values can be assigned to CONFIG_TFM_BRANCH_PROTECTION_FEAT

PAC and BTI

It is possible to have some combinations of the PAC and BTI options above. The allowed values for CONFIG_TFM_BRANCH_PROTECTION_FEAT are listed below, but only one option can be used:

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_DISABLED - PACBTI feature is disabled

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_NONE - PACBTI instructions are not generated

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_STANDARD - Enables pointer authentication and branch target identification, leaf functions excluded

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET - Enables pointer authentication only, leaf functions excluded

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_PACRET_LEAF - Enables pointer authentication on all functions, including leaf functions

  • BRANCH_PROTECTION_BTI - Enables branch target identification only

Note that PACBTI is conditional to both architecture support and compiler support.

The build system performs checks to ensure that support is available and terminates the build process if the required conditions are not met.


For further details on PACBTI features refer to:

Armv8-M Architecture Reference Manual

Armv8.1-M Pointer Authentication and Branch Target Identification Extension


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