3.9. Secure Development Guidelines

This page contains guidance on what to check for additional security measures, including build options that can be modified to improve security or catch issues early in development.

3.9.1. Security considerations

Part of the security of a platform is handling errors correctly, as described in the previous section. There are several other security considerations covered in this section. Do not leak secrets to the normal world

The secure world must not leak secrets to the normal world, for example in response to an SMC. Handling Denial of Service attacks

The secure world should never crash or become unusable due to receiving too many normal world requests (a Denial of Service or DoS attack). It should have a mechanism for throttling or ignoring normal world requests. Preventing Secure-world timing information leakage via PMU counters

The Secure world needs to implement some defenses to prevent the Non-secure world from making it leak timing information. In general, higher privilege levels must defend from those below when the PMU is treated as an attack vector.

Refer to the Performance Monitoring Unit guide for detailed information on the PMU registers. Timing leakage attacks from the Non-secure world

Since the Non-secure world has access to the PMCR register, it can configure the PMU to increment counters at any exception level and in both Secure and Non-secure state. Thus, it attempts to leak timing information from the Secure world.

Shown below is an example of such a configuration:


    • Set P to 0.

    • Set NSK to 1.

    • Set M to 0.

    • Set NSH to 0.

    • Set SH to 1.


    • Set P[0] to 1.

    • Set C to 1.

  • PMCR_EL0:

    • Set DP to 0.

    • Set E to 1.

This configuration instructs PMEVCNTR0_EL0 and PMCCNTR_EL0 to increment at Secure EL1, Secure EL2 (if implemented) and EL3.

Since the Non-secure world has fine-grained control over where (at which exception levels) it instructs counters to increment, obtaining event counts would allow it to carry out side-channel timing attacks against the Secure world. Examples include Spectre, Meltdown, as well as extracting secrets from cryptographic algorithms with data-dependent variations in their execution time. Secure world mitigation strategies

The MDCR_EL3 register allows EL3 to configure the PMU (among other things). The Arm ARM details all of the bit fields in this register, but for the PMU there are two bits which determine the permissions of the counters:

  • SPME for the programmable counters.

  • SCCD for the cycle counter.

Depending on the implemented features, the Secure world can prohibit counting in AArch64 state via the following:

  • ARMv8.2-Debug not implemented:

    • Prohibit general event counters and the cycle counter: MDCR_EL3.SPME == 0 && PMCR_EL0.DP == 1 && !ExternalSecureNoninvasiveDebugEnabled().

      • MDCR_EL3.SPME resets to 0, so by default general events should not be counted in the Secure world.

      • The PMCR_EL0.DP bit therefore needs to be set to 1 when EL3 is entered and PMCR_EL0 needs to be saved and restored in EL3.

      • ExternalSecureNoninvasiveDebugEnabled() is an authentication interface which is implementation-defined unless ARMv8.4-Debug is implemented. The Arm ARM has detailed information on this topic.

    • The only other way is to disable the PMCR_EL0.E bit upon entering EL3, which disables counting altogether.

  • ARMv8.2-Debug implemented:

    • Prohibit general event counters: MDCR_EL3.SPME == 0.

    • Prohibit cycle counter: MDCR_EL3.SPME == 0 && PMCR_EL0.DP == 1. PMCR_EL0 therefore needs to be saved and restored in EL3.

  • ARMv8.5-PMU implemented:

    • Prohibit general event counters: as in ARMv8.2-Debug.

    • Prohibit cycle counter: MDCR_EL3.SCCD == 1

In Aarch32 execution state the MDCR_EL3 alias is the SDCR register, which has some of the bit fields of MDCR_EL3, most importantly the SPME and SCCD bits.

3.9.2. Build options

Several build options can be used to check for security issues. Refer to the Build Options for detailed information on these.

  • The BRANCH_PROTECTION build flag can be used to enable Pointer Authentication and Branch Target Identification.

  • The ENABLE_STACK_PROTECTOR build flag can be used to identify buffer overflows.

  • The W build flag can be used to enable a number of compiler warning options to detect potentially incorrect code. TF-A is tested with W=0 but it is recommended to develop against W=2 (which will eventually become the default).


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