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xTag: Mitigating Use-After-Free Vulnerabilities via Software-Based Pointer Tagging on Intel x86-64


Memory safety in complex applications implemented in unsafe programming languages such as C/C++ is still an unresolved problem in practice. Such applications were often developed in an ad-hoc, security-ignorant fashion, and thus they contain many types of security issues. Many different types of defenses have been proposed in the past to mitigate these problems, some of which are even widely used in practice. However, advanced attacks are still able to circumvent these defenses, and the arms race is not (yet) over. On the defensive side, the most promising next step is a tighter integration of the hardware and software level: modern mitigation techniques are either accelerated using hardware extensions or implemented in the hard- ware by extensions of the instruction set architecture (ISA). In particular, memory tagging, as proposed by ARM or SPARC, promises to solve many issues for practical memory safety. Unfortunately, Intel x86-64, which represents the most important ISA for both the desktop and server domain, lacks support for hardware-accelerated memory tagging, so memory tagging is not considered practical for this platform. In this paper, we present the design and implementation of an efficient, software-only pointer tagging scheme for Intel x86-64 based on a novel metadata embedding scheme. The basic idea is to alias multiple virtual pages to one physical page so that we can efficiently embed tag bits into a pointer. Furthermore, we introduce several optimizations that significantly reduce the performance impact of this approach to memory tagging. Based on this scheme, we propose a novel use-after-free mitigation scheme, called xTag, that offers better performance and strong security properties compared to state-of-the-art methods. We also show how double-free vulnerabilities can be mitigated. Our approach is highly compatible, allowing pointers to be passed back and forth between instrumented and non-instrumented code without losing metadata, and it is even compatible with inline assembly. We conclude that building exploit mitigation mechanisms on top of our memory tagging scheme is feasible on Intel x86-64, as demonstrated by the effective prevention of use-after-free bugs in the Firefox web browser.

Conference / Medium

IEEE EuroS&P 2022

Date published


Date last modified

2022-03-18 11:07:38