Arm Memory Tagging Extension (MTE)

Why MTE?

Memory safety bugs, which are errors in handling memory in native programming languages, are common code issues. They lead to security vulnerabilities as well as stability problems.

Armv9 introduced the Arm Memory Tagging Extension (MTE), a hardware extension that allows you to catch use-after-free and buffer-overflow bugs in your native code.

Check for support

Starting from Android 13, select devices have support for MTE. To check whether your device is running with MTE enabled, run the following command:

adb shell grep mte /proc/cpuinfo

If the result is Features : [...] mte, your device is running with MTE enabled.

Some devices don't enable MTE by default, but allow developers to reboot with MTE enabled. This is an experimental configuration that is not recommended for normal use as it might decrease device performance or stability, but can be useful for app development. To access this mode, navigate to Developer Options > Memory Tagging Extension in your Settings App. If this option is not present, your device does not support enabling MTE this way.

MTE operating modes

MTE supports two modes: SYNC and ASYNC. SYNC mode provides better diagnostic information and thus is more suited for development purposes, while ASYNC mode has high performance that allows it to be enabled for released apps.

Synchronous mode (SYNC)

This mode is optimized for debuggability over performance and can be used as a precise bug detection tool, when higher performance overhead is acceptable. When enabled, MTE SYNC also acts as a security mitigation.

On a tag mismatch, the processor terminates the process on the offending load or store instruction with SIGSEGV (with si_code SEGV_MTESERR) and full information about the memory access and the faulting address.

This mode is useful during testing as an faster alternative to HWASan that does not require you to recompile your code, or in production, when the your app represents a vulnerable attack surface. In addition, when ASYNC mode (described below) has found a bug, an accurate bug report can be obtained by using the runtime APIs to switch execution to SYNC mode.

Moreover, when running in SYNC mode, the Android allocator records the stack trace of every allocation and deallocation and uses them to provide better error reports that include explanation of a memory error, such as use-after-free or buffer-overflow, and the stack traces of the relevant memory events (see Understanding MTE reports for more details). Such reports provide more contextual information and make bugs easier to trace and fix than in ASYNC mode.

Asynchronous mode (ASYNC)

This mode is optimized for performance over accuracy of bug reports and can be used for low-overhead detection of memory safety bugs. On a tag mismatch, the processor continues execution until the nearest kernel entry (such as a syscall or timer interrupt), where it terminates the process with SIGSEGV (code SEGV_MTEAERR) without recording the faulting address or memory access.

This mode is useful for mitigating memory-safety vulnerabilities in production on well tested codebases where the density of memory safety bugs is known to be low, which is achieved by using the SYNC mode during testing.

Enable MTE

For a single device

For experimentation, app compatibility changes can be used to set the default value of memtagMode attribute for an application that does not specify any value in the manifest (or specifies "default").

These can be found under System > Advanced > Developer options > App Compatibility Changes in the global setting menu. Setting NATIVE_MEMTAG_ASYNC or NATIVE_MEMTAG_SYNC enables MTE for a particular application.

Alternatively, this can be set using the am command as follows:

$ adb shell am compat enable NATIVE_MEMTAG_[A]SYNC my.app.name

For an APK on any capable device

MTE is disabled by default. Apps that want to use MTE can do so by setting android:memtagMode under the <application> or <process> tag in the AndroidManifest.xml.

android:memtagMode=(off|default|sync|async)

When set on the <application> tag, the attribute affects all processes used by the application, and can be overridden for individual processes by setting the <process> tag.

Run your app

Having enabled MTE, use and test your app as normal. If a memory safety issue is detected, your app crashes with a tombstone that looks similar to this (note the SIGSEGV with SEGV_MTESERR for SYNC or SEGV_MTEAERR for ASYNC):

pid: 13935, tid: 13935, name: sanitizer-statu  >>> sanitizer-status <<<
uid: 0
tagged_addr_ctrl: 000000000007fff3
signal 11 (SIGSEGV), code 9 (SEGV_MTESERR), fault addr 0x800007ae92853a0
Cause: [MTE]: Use After Free, 0 bytes into a 32-byte allocation at 0x7ae92853a0
x0  0000007cd94227cc  x1  0000007cd94227cc  x2  ffffffffffffffd0  x3  0000007fe81919c0
x4  0000007fe8191a10  x5  0000000000000004  x6  0000005400000051  x7  0000008700000021
x8  0800007ae92853a0  x9  0000000000000000  x10 0000007ae9285000  x11 0000000000000030
x12 000000000000000d  x13 0000007cd941c858  x14 0000000000000054  x15 0000000000000000
x16 0000007cd940c0c8  x17 0000007cd93a1030  x18 0000007cdcac6000  x19 0000007fe8191c78
x20 0000005800eee5c4  x21 0000007fe8191c90  x22 0000000000000002  x23 0000000000000000
x24 0000000000000000  x25 0000000000000000  x26 0000000000000000  x27 0000000000000000
x28 0000000000000000  x29 0000007fe8191b70
lr  0000005800eee0bc  sp  0000007fe8191b60  pc  0000005800eee0c0  pst 0000000060001000

backtrace:
      #00 pc 00000000000010c0  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test_crash_malloc_uaf()+40) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
      #01 pc 00000000000014a4  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test(void (*)())+132) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
      #02 pc 00000000000019cc  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (main+1032) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
      #03 pc 00000000000487d8  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (__libc_init+96) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)

deallocated by thread 13935:
      #00 pc 000000000004643c  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (scudo::Allocator<scudo::AndroidConfig, &(scudo_malloc_postinit)>::quarantineOrDeallocateChunk(scudo::Options, void*, scudo::Chunk::UnpackedHeader*, unsigned long)+688) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)
      #01 pc 00000000000421e4  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (scudo::Allocator<scudo::AndroidConfig, &(scudo_malloc_postinit)>::deallocate(void*, scudo::Chunk::Origin, unsigned long, unsigned long)+212) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)
      #02 pc 00000000000010b8  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test_crash_malloc_uaf()+32) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
      #03 pc 00000000000014a4  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test(void (*)())+132) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)

allocated by thread 13935:
      #00 pc 0000000000042020  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (scudo::Allocator<scudo::AndroidConfig, &(scudo_malloc_postinit)>::allocate(unsigned long, scudo::Chunk::Origin, unsigned long, bool)+1300) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)
      #01 pc 0000000000042394  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (scudo_malloc+36) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)
      #02 pc 000000000003cc9c  /apex/com.android.runtime/lib64/bionic/libc.so (malloc+36) (BuildId: 6ab39e35a2fae7efbe9a04e9bbb14331)
      #03 pc 00000000000010ac  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test_crash_malloc_uaf()+20) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
      #04 pc 00000000000014a4  /system/bin/sanitizer-status (test(void (*)())+132) (BuildId: 953fc93301472d0b72709b2b9a9f6f30)
Learn more about MTE reports: https://source.android.com/docs/security/test/memory-safety/mte-report

See Understanding MTE reports in the AOSP documentation for more details. You can also debug your app with Android Studio and the debugger stops at the line causing the invalid memory access.

Advanced Users: Using MTE in your own allocator

To use MTE for memory not allocated through the normal system allocators, you need to modify your allocator to tag memory and pointers.

The pages for your allocator need to be allocated using PROT_MTE in the prot flag of mmap (or mprotect).

All tagged allocations need to be 16-byte aligned, as tags can only be assigned for 16-byte chunks (also known as granules).

Then, before returning a pointer, you need to use the IRG instruction to generate a random tag and store it in the pointer.

Use the following instructions to tag the underlying memory:

  • STG: tag a single 16-byte granule
  • ST2G: tag two 16-byte granules
  • DC GVA: tag cacheline with the same tag

Alternatively, the following instructions also zero-initialize the memory:

  • STZG: tag and zero-initialize a single 16-byte granule
  • STZ2G: tag and zero-initialize two 16-byte granules
  • DC GZVA: tag and zero-initialize cacheline with the same tag

Note that these instructions are not supported on older CPUs, so you need to conditionally run them when MTE is enabled. You can check whether MTE is enabled for your process:

#include <sys/prctl.h>

bool runningWithMte() {
      int mode = prctl(PR_GET_TAGGED_ADDR_CTRL, 0, 0, 0, 0);
      return mode != -1 && mode & PR_MTE_TCF_MASK;
}

You may find the scudo implementation helpful as a reference.

Learn more

You can learn more in the MTE User Guide for Android OS written by Arm.