Advisory TFMV-1


NS world may cause the CPU to perform an unexpected return operation due to unsealed stacks.




16 October 2020

Versions Affected

All versions up to and including TF-M v1.1




Most likely a crash in secure world with a very low likelihood of hijacking secure world execution flow via a separate vulnerability.

Fix Version

commit 92e46a3abd0e328fac29ccd1cf161cd482397567


Matvey Mukha


When the Non-Secure world returns to Secure after a callback (FNC_RETURN) or Non-Secure interrupt handling (EXC_RETURN), the hardware pops the secure return address and RET_PSR from the respective secure stack. The hardware performs a set of integrity checks at this point and will raise a fault if the checks fail. There is a potential vulnerability if the NS attempts a wrong FNC_RETURN or EXC_RETURN and causes the PE to pop from the unexpected stack. Please refer to ARMv8-M Secure stack sealing advisory notice for more details on the vulnerability.

To prevent such an attack, the architecture expects the secure software to seal the stacks. The ARMv8-M ARM states that the stack should be sealed with the special value, 0xFEF5EDA5 (informative IGJGL).

Both the MSP_S and the PSP_S stacks need to be sealed to mitigate stack underflow attacks and this is not done currently in TF-M.


This section analyses the impact of this vulnerability on the upstream TF-M implementation.

All requests coming in from the Non-Secure world uses ARM_LIB_STACK as the PSP_S and then switches to MSP_S as part of SPM scheduling. The MSP_S is fully unwound when the scheduled partition is executing. All partitions run using the PSP_S and this stack can be separate for each partition or be a common stack depending on whether TF-M is in library mode or IPC model. When the partition execution using PSP_S switches to non-secure world due to a non-secure interrupt or a non-secure callback invocation, the non-secure world on return back to secure can use a fake EXC_RETURN or FNC_RETURN operation to trigger an MSP_S stack underflow, and the CPU could fetch the return PC and PSR from the memory just above MSP_S stack (stack grows from higher to lower address).

The memory above MSP_S is the ARM_LIB_STACK (as described by tfm_common_s.sct/ld), which because of overlaying or zero initialization is most likely to be initialized memory for most platforms. This is the stack used to run the initialization code of TF-M and usually there will some unused free space in the stack. Any underflow of MSP_S will be into this stack and hence is likely to be a deterministic crash given that this memory is initialized. In theory, a separate vulnerability that allows an attacker to control the memory above MSP_S in concert with this vulnerability could enable an attacker to hijack the secure world execution flow but the likelihood of that is very low.

Through analysing TF-M specific initialization and execution flow, we have not found any scenario in TF-M in which Non-secure world can fake a return operation back to secure world and cause underflow of PSP_S.

As described in the white paper, de-privileged interrupt handling is also vulnerable to this problem. The Library mode of TF-M uses de-privileged interrupt handling and does not allow non-secure interrupt to pre-empt the secure interrupt handling. But if the de-privileged handler makes a Non-Secure callback then there is a chance that Non-Secure world could return back to Secure world via a fake FNC_RETURN. Under certain conditions, this can force the CPU to use the 2 words on top of stack as return PC and PSR. Sealing the top of MSP_S before switching to PSP_S as part of de-privileged interrupt handling mitigates this vulnerability.

The interrupt handling in IPC model uses PSA signal to signal the partition and does not use de-privileged interrupt handling mechanism. The PSA signal gets handled by the partition when it is scheduled to run by the SPM. Hence during interrupt handling in IPC model, there is no additional threat caused by this vulnerability, compared to regular partition execution.


Overall, from analysis of upstream TF-M implementation, the severity of this vulnerability is low, given that the values popped out from secure stack (either via underflow of MSP_S or from top of MSP_S stack in de-privileged interrupt handling) cannot be influenced by the Non Secure world. To mitigate the risk completely, the fix in TF-M is to follow the recommendation in ARMv8-M ARM which is to seal the base of both handler mode stack (MSP_S) and thread stacks (PSP_S) and, in case of library mode, also seal the top of MSP_S before handing control over to de-privileged interrupt handler.

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