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From AArch32 to AArch64 and back
deroko of ARTeam
I was thinking whether it was possible to call AArch64 syscalls from
AArch32. While looking through code and reading specs it seemed it was.
The specs were claiming it could be done only on exception level, eg. from EL0 to
EL1 and viceversa. Looking at the specs, it turns out that if CPSR has the M[4] bit
set it's AArch32, and if it's 0 in PSTATE we are AArch64. PSTATE or Process State is
the flags register for AArch64, while CPSR is the Current Program Status Register, or flags
register in AArch32.
The only way as it seems is to change M[4] bit when we are coming back from EL1 to EL0, so
we can do that through raising a signal and modifying ucontext_t. Another way would be
to fork and ptrace to change CPSR, but in this article I'll focus on switching mode
within the same process.
First I've looked at rt_sigreturn in the kernel source code. rt_sigreturn is used to restore
context after signal is being handled. It's held in VDSO (virtual dynamic shared object which
is mapped in every user process), and when delivering the signal, kernel will point PC to installed
handler, but return address (LR or X30) will be pointing at sys_rt_sigreturn in VDSO, which
will restore registers from ucontext_t and continue.
arch/arm64/kernel/signal.c and signal32.c:
sys_rt_sigreturn at some point calls restore_sig_frame:
if (restore_sigframe(regs, frame))
goto badframe;
for (i = 0; i < 31; i++)
__get_user_error(regs->regs[i], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.regs[i],
__get_user_error(regs->sp, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.sp, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pc, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.pc, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pstate, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.pstate, err);
Copies what is in ucontext to the registers saved on the stack, similar code we
can see in signal32.c where the 32bit version is called compat_sys_rt_sigreturn:
if (compat_restore_sigframe(regs, &frame->sig))
goto badframe;
__get_user_error(regs->regs[0], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r0, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[1], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r1, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[2], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r2, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[3], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r3, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[4], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r4, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[5], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r5, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[6], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r6, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[7], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r7, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[8], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r8, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[9], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r9, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[10], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_r10, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[11], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_fp, err);
__get_user_error(regs->regs[12], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_ip, err);
__get_user_error(regs->compat_sp, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_sp, err);
__get_user_error(regs->compat_lr, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_lr, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pc, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_pc, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pstate, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.arm_cpsr, err);
As seen here, there is no sanity check on M[4] in CPSR or PSTATE, so we can
set the saved pstate to whatever we want and alter the mode of execution on return
from the user mode signal handler.
Let's put this to practice.
void saction(int signo, siginfo_t *siginfo, void *context){
ucontext_t *pctx;
mcontext_t *mctx;
pctx = context;
mctx = &pctx->uc_mcontext;
mctx->arm_cpsr &= ~(1<<4); <--- wipe M[4]
int main(){
struct sigaction sa;
struct sigaction old;
void *killcode;
killfn fn;
void *buff;
void *raw_code;
unsigned int raw_code_size;
memset(&sa, 0, sizeof(sa));
sa.sa_flags = SA_SIGINFO;
sa.sa_sigaction = saction;
sigaction(SIGUSR1, &sa, &old);
kill(getpid(), SIGUSR1);
return 0;
What happens is that we will end up right after SVC in kill(), but running as
AArch64. SVC is way of executing syscalls on ARM or AArch64, and here is example
from and kill():
.text:00041C04 kill
.text:00041C04 MOV R12, R7
.text:00041C08 MOV R7, #0x25 <--- syscall number in R7
.text:00041C0C SVC 0 <--- call into kernel
.text:00041C10 MOV R7, R12 <--- return after signal
if PC in not modified
Good. But how can we verify that we are actually running 64-bit code?
We can write aarch64 assembly to print something to the shell and we'll find out:
adr x0, msg
bl __strlen
mov x2, x0
adr x1, msg
eor x0, x0, x0
add x0, x0, 1
mov x8, 64 <--- __NR_write
svc 0
dbg: b dbg <--- hang program or call exit()
__strlen: mov x1, x0
mov x2, x0
ldrb w0, [x1],#1
cbnz w0, __looplen
sub x0, x1, x2
msg: .asciz "tada - executed as AArch64 from AArch32\n"
Hopefully, we will be greeted with this message, but how do we go back to the
aarch32 mode? We need to setup another signal handler, call kill(), and we
will again have access to our ucontext_t, but this time from AArch64 code.
What I was expecting (without having read the source code) was that the signal
delivered would be for aarch64, but I was wrong, we get a signal delivered for
the aarch32 handler.
Code from signal.c/handle_signal:
if (is_compat_task()) {
if (ka->sa.sa_flags & SA_SIGINFO)
ret = compat_setup_rt_frame(usig, ka, info, oldset,
ret = compat_setup_frame(usig, ka, oldset, regs);
} else {
ret = setup_rt_frame(usig, ka, info, oldset, regs);
where is_compat_task() is defined as:
static inline int is_compat_task(void)
return test_thread_flag(TIF_32BIT);
Even if we are running as AArch64, every signal delivered to this program will set up
a stack frame, and registers as if we are still in AArch32 program. This comes from fact
that TIF_32BIT flag is set in the thread flags which indicates that we are running as a
32-bit program.
Here we can see LR while we are in AArch64 code during signal handling, and indeed it
is pointing to sys_rt_sigreturn in AArch32 VDSO (the instructions displayed in the
disassembly are wrong, since we are executing AArch64 code)
R0: 0x00000010 R1: 0x46508001 R2: 0x00000210 R3: 0xFFFEC860
R4: 0x00000000 R5: 0xF7480000 R6: 0x00000001 R7: 0x00000025
R8: 0x00000081 R9: 0x00000000 R10: 0x00000000 R11: 0xFFFEF88C
R12: 0xAAE483B8 SP: 0xFFFEF478 LR: 0xFFFF050C PC: 0xF7480168 n z c v q j e a i f t
=> 0xf7480168: strne r0, [r0], #-0
0xf748016c: addle r1, r0, #26
0xf7480170: strle r0, [r0], #-1
0xf7480174: ldrble r0, [pc], -r0, asr #7
0xf7480178: addle r1, r0, #200, 0 ; 0xc8
0xf748017c: strle r0, [r0], #-1
0xf7480180: ldrble r0, [pc], -r0, asr #7
0xf7480184: addle r1, r0, #136, 10 ; 0x22000000
0xf7480168 in ?? ()
gdb$ x/10i $lr
0xffff050c: mov r7, #173, 0 ; 0xad <--- rt_sigreturn for AArch32
0xffff0510: svc 0x000000ad
0xffff0514: svcle 0x00ad27ad
0xffff0518: andeq r0, r0, r0
Since we are now executing aarch64 code, obviously we can't simply return from the
signal handler, nor can we use LR or X14 to to return to sys_rt_sigreturn code. If we
would use a AArch64 RET to return from the signal handler where LR is X30, we would
probably end up in a loop since X30 is holding the address of our last call from
AArch64 (if we made any).
What needs to be done is to rebuild the complete rt_sigframe as defined in
arch/arm64/kernel/signal.c and directly invoke rt_sigreturn for AArch64. What is
important to note here is that X13 has our AArch32 SP, so accessing SP via AArch64
is wrong,you don't end up with the same register! The same is true for LR which in
aarch32 is an alias for the register X14, while on aarch64 it's an alias for X30.
So let's look at rt_sigreturn from arch/arm64/kernel/entry.S:
* Special system call wrappers.
mov x0, sp
b sys_rt_sigreturn
asmlinkage long sys_rt_sigreturn(struct pt_regs *regs)
struct rt_sigframe __user *frame;
/* Always make any pending restarted system calls return -EINTR */
current_thread_info()->restart_block.fn = do_no_restart_syscall;
* Since we stacked the signal on a 128-bit boundary, then 'sp' should
* be word aligned here.
if (regs->sp & 15)
goto badframe;
frame = (struct rt_sigframe __user *)regs->sp;
and rt_sigrame is:
struct rt_sigframe {
struct siginfo info;
struct ucontext uc;
u64 fp;
u64 lr;
What needs to be done here is to make sure that before calling rt_sigreturn SP points
to rt_sigframe which we will build on stack. In this case we can ignore siginfo,
as the kernel doesn't care about it, so we won't either.
struct ucontext {
unsigned long uc_flags;
struct ucontext *uc_link;
stack_t uc_stack; <--- handled by do_sigaltstack in kernel/signal.c
sigset_t uc_sigmask;
// glibc uses a 1024-bit sigset_t
__u8 __unused[1024 / 8 - sizeof(sigset_t)];
//last for future expansion
struct sigcontext uc_mcontext;
struct sigcontext {
__u64 fault_address;
//AArch64 registers
__u64 regs[31];
__u64 sp;
__u64 pc;
__u64 pstate;
// 4K reserved for FP/SIMD state and future expansion
__u8 __reserved[4096] __attribute__((__aligned__(16)));
Now that we know all of this, we can rebuild our rt_sigrame. First, we need to borrow uc_stack,
as it will be checked by do_sigaltstack. We can do this by simply taking old data from the aarch32
uc_stack. We have to do this as during the rt_sigreturn we will end up in do_sigaltstack
from kernel/signal.c which uses uc_stack, so we try to make it valid. Or we could set
us_stack.ss_flags to SS_DISABLED and don't care about uc_stack at all, but I tried to make it as
flexible as it could be.
if (ss_flags != SS_DISABLE && ss_flags != SS_ONSTACK && ss_flags != 0)
goto out;
if (ss_flags == SS_DISABLE) {
ss_size = 0;
ss_sp = NULL;
} else {
error = -ENOMEM;
if (ss_size < MINSIGSTKSZ)
goto out;
sa_sigaction prototype:
void sa_sigaction(int signo, siginfo *psiginfo, void *ctx);
signo = x0 or r0
psiginfo = x1 or r1
ctx = x2 or r2 <-- ucontext_t
ldr w0, [x2, #8] //uc_stack.ss_sp
ldr w1, [x2, #16] //uc_stack.ss_size
//at offset 12 we have ss_flags but we keep
//them 0
The next thing is that we will get AArch32 sp and use it as our own sp pointer as sp in aarch64
is not the same as our sp. Note that we shouldn't touch X13 during code execution in AArch64
mode to preserve AArch32 SP, and to enable easy transition from AArch64 to AArch32, as on
AArch32 SP we can save registers prior tothe switch to AArch64 code. Of course, AArch32 SP can
be saved in a global variable and restored, while we could allocate the AArch64 stack using the
mmap syscall.
Later on we can just fill in all registers in ucontext_t:
mov x4, 31
str xzr, [x19], #8 //all registers to 0
cmp x4, 31-13
bne __cntloop
str x2, [x19, #-8] //fill in sp for aarch32 or X13
__cntloop: subs x4, x4, 1
bne __store_gen_regs
str xzr, [x19], #8 //store sp, this will not be really used
//but good to have it for later...
adr x0, testarm64_end
str x0, [x19], #8 //store pc after kill()
mov x0, 0x10 //set AArch32 M[4] bit in pstate
str x0, [x19], #8
Ok, everything seems to be fine: we run the code, return from the signal and we return to the correct
aarch32 instruction, but why do we get a SIGSEGV?
If any function called by sys_rt_sigreturn returns error, sys_rt_sigreturn will always result in a
if (show_unhandled_signals)
pr_info_ratelimited("%s[%d]: bad frame in %s: pc=%08llx sp=%08llx\n",
current->comm, task_pid_nr(current), __func__,
regs->pc, regs->sp);
force_sig(SIGSEGV, current);
return 0;
Because of this code which is called from sys_rt_sigreturn -> restore_sigframe from
arch/arm64/kernel/signal.c we need to work more with the context:
static int restore_sigframe(struct pt_regs *regs,
struct rt_sigframe __user *sf)
sigset_t set;
int i, err;
void *aux = sf->uc.uc_mcontext.__reserved;
err = __copy_from_user(&set, &sf->uc.uc_sigmask, sizeof(set));
if (err == 0)
for (i = 0; i < 31; i++)
__get_user_error(regs->regs[i], &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.regs[i],
__get_user_error(regs->sp, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.sp, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pc, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.pc, err);
__get_user_error(regs->pstate, &sf->uc.uc_mcontext.pstate, err);
* Avoid sys_rt_sigreturn() restarting.
regs->syscallno = ~0UL;
err |= !valid_user_regs(&regs->user_regs);
if (err == 0) {
struct fpsimd_context *fpsimd_ctx =
container_of(aux, struct fpsimd_context, head);
err |= restore_fpsimd_context(fpsimd_ctx); <--- will give us ERROR
return err;
and from restore_fpsimd_context:
__get_user_error(magic, &ctx->head.magic, err);
__get_user_error(size, &ctx->head.size, err);
if (err)
return -EFAULT;
if (magic != FPSIMD_MAGIC || size != sizeof(struct fpsimd_context))
return -EINVAL;
/* copy the FP and status/control registers */
err = __copy_from_user(fpsimd.vregs, ctx->vregs,
__get_user_error(fpsimd.fpsr, &ctx->fpsr, err);
__get_user_error(fpsimd.fpcr, &ctx->fpcr, err);
where FPSIMD_MAGIC is defined as:
struct _aarch64_ctx {
__u32 magic;
__u32 size;
#define FPSIMD_MAGIC 0x46508001
struct fpsimd_context {
struct _aarch64_ctx head;
__u32 fpsr;
__u32 fpcr;
___uint128_t vregs[32];
Our job is easy: set magic and size, fill the rest of the struct with 0s and execute
mov w1, 0x8001
movk w1, 0x4650, lsl #16
mov w2, 0x210
stp w1, w2, [x19], #8 //magic/size
str xzr,[x19], #8 //fpsr, fpcr
mov x4, 32
__store_vregs: stp xzr, xzr, [x19], #16
subs x4, x4, 1
bne __store_vregs
//execute __kernel_rt_sigreturn
mov x8, 0x8b
svc 0x0
The code should now successfully switch back to aarch32 from aarch64.
I wondered: what if I call aarch64 syscalls from aarch64, will it end up in a AArch64 syscall
or in compat_syscall which is the name for the syscall table reserved for AArch32 code. I wondered
because at one point during signal delivery we had a call for is_compat_task() and a check for
TIF_32BIT. If the flag was checked, we would endup in AArch32 bit code, so I started looking
at entry.S from arch/arm64/kernel/entry.S
kernel_entry 0 <--- saves all regs and makes pt_regs
mrs x25, esr_el1 // read the syndrome register
lsr x24, x25, #ESR_EL1_EC_SHIFT // exception class
cmp x24, #ESR_EL1_EC_SVC64 // SVC in 64-bit state
b.eq el0_svc
In the so called exception syndrom register or ESR_EL1, during the switch from EL0(user) to EL1(kernel)
bits will be updated to show if an exception was thrown from AArch32 or AArch64. Based on that information,
the kernel will call the proper syscall handler. Taken from AArch64 specs we can see this:
[31:26] EC
Exception Class:
Instruction Abort that caused entry from a lower Exception level in AArch32 or AArch64.
Instruction Abort that caused entry from a current Exception level in AArch64.
Also it is important to note that Exception Table for AArch64 is extended a bit to also include
entries for AArch32 excptions and CPU decides which one would be called based on CPU state.
Ok, we are now sure that all syscalls executed from aarch64 will actually be aarch64 syscalls.
Of course, it would also be possible to switch from aarch64 to aarch32 and do basically the same
by preparing rt_sigreturn for aarch32, but that is left as an exercise to the reader.
What do we gain from this? Not much, we can execute AArch64 syscalls with 64bit parameters from an
AArch32 program, and make it difficult to debug our program for people trying to reverse engineer it.
That's all.
deroko of ARTeam
Special tnx goes to Daniel Pistelli for proofreading and correcting errors