Adopting the Arm Memory Tagging Extension in Android

As part of our continuous commitment to improve the security of the Android ecosystem, we are partnering with Arm to design the memory tagging extension (MTE). Memory safety bugs, common in C and C++, remain one of the largest vulnerabilities in the Android platform and although there have been previous hardening efforts, memory safety bugs comprised more than half of the high priority security bugs in Android 9. Additionally, memory safety bugs manifest as hard to diagnose reliability problems, including sporadic crashes or silent data corruption. This reduces user satisfaction and increases the cost of software development. Software testing tools, such as ASAN and HWASAN help, but their applicability on current hardware is limited due to noticeable overheads.

MTE, a hardware feature, aims to further mitigate these memory safety bugs by enabling us to detect them with low overhead. It has two execution modes:

  • Precise mode: Provides more detailed information about the memory violation
  • Imprecise mode: Has lower CPU overhead and is more suitable to be always-on.

Arm recently published a whitepaper on MTE and has added documentation to the Arm v8.5 Architecture Reference Manual.

We envision several different usage modes for MTE.

  • MTE provides a version of ASAN/HWASAN that is easier to use for testing and fuzzing in laboratory environments. It will find more bugs in a fraction of the time and at a lower cost, reducing the complexity of the development process. In many cases, MTE will allow testing memory safety using the same binary as shipped to production. The bug reports produced by MTE will be as detailed and actionable as those from ASAN and HWASAN.
  • MTE will be used as a mechanism for testing complex software scenarios in production. App Developers and OEMs will be able to selectively turn on MTE for parts of the software stack. Where users have provided consent, bug reports will be available to developers via familiar mechanisms like Google Play Console.
  • MTE can be used as a strong security mitigation in the Android System and applications for many classes of memory safety bugs. For most instances of such vulnerabilities, a probabilistic mitigation based on MTE could prevent exploitation with a higher than 90% chance of detecting each invalid memory access. By implementing these protections and ensuring that attackers can’t make repeated attempts to exploit security-critical components, we can significantly reduce the risk to users posed by memory safety issues.

We believe that memory tagging will detect the most common classes of memory safety bugs in the wild, helping vendors identify and fix them, discouraging malicious actors from exploiting them. During the past year, our team has been working to ensure readiness of the Android platform and application software for MTE. We have deployed HWASAN, a software implementation of the memory tagging concept, to test our entire platform and a few select apps. This deployment has uncovered close to 100 memory safety bugs. The majority of these bugs were detected on HWASAN enabled phones in everyday use. MTE will greatly improve upon this in terms of overhead, ease of deployment, and scale. In parallel, we have been working on supporting MTE in the LLVM compiler toolchain and in the Linux kernel. The Android platform support for MTE will be complete by the time of silicon availability.

Google is committed to supporting MTE throughout the Android software stack. We are working with select Arm System On Chip (SoC) partners to test MTE support and look forward to wider deployment of MTE in the Android software and hardware ecosystem. Based on the current data points, MTE provides tremendous benefits at acceptable performance costs. We are considering MTE as a possible foundational requirement for certain tiers of Android devices.

Thank you to Mitch Phillips, Evgenii Stepanov, Vlad Tsyrklevich, Mark Brand, and Serban Constantinescu for their contributions to this post.