Dealing with Untrusted Input in SMM


Intel Security recently held a talk and published slides on a vulnerability in SMM handlers on x86 systems. They provide examples on how both UEFI and coreboot are affected.


SMM, the System Management Mode, is a CPU mode that is configured by firmware and survives the system’s initialization phase. On certain events that mode can be triggered and executes code, suspending the current processing that is going on the CPU, no matter whether it’s in kernel or user space.

In SMM, the CPU has access to memory dedicated to that mode (SMRAM) that is normally inaccessible, and typically some restrictions are lifted as well (eg. in some configurations, certain flash write protection registers are writable in SMM only). This makes SMM a target for attacks which seek to elevate a ring0 (kernel) exploit to something permanent.


Intel Security showed several places in coreboot’s SMM handler (Slides 32+) that could be manipulated into writing data at user-chosen addresses (SMRAM or otherwise), by modifying the BAR (Base Address Register) on certain devices. By picking the right addresses and the right events (and with them, mutators on the data at these addresses), it might be possible to change the SMM handler itself to call into regular RAM (where other code resides that then can work with elevated privileges).

Their proposed mitigations (Slide 37) revolve around making sure that the BAR entries are reasonable, and point to a device instead of regular memory or SMRAM. They’re not very detailed on how this could be implemented, which is what this document discusses.

Detailed Design

The attack works because the SMM handler trusts the results of the pci_read_config32(dev, reg) function, even though the value read by that function can be modified in kernel mode.

In the general case it’s not possible to keep the cached value from system initialization because there are legitimate modifications the kernel can do to these values, so the only remedy is to make sure that the value isn’t totally off.

For applications where hardware changes are limited by design (eg. no user-modifiable PCIe slots) and where the running kernel is known, such as Chromebooks, further efforts include caching the BAR settings at initialization time and comparing later accesses to that.

What “totally off” means is chipset specific because it requires knowledge of the memory map as seen by the memory controller: which addresses are routed to devices, which are handled by the memory controller itself? The proposal is that in SMM, the pci_read_config functions (which aren’t timing critical) always validate the value read from a given set of registers (the BARs) and fail hard (ie. cold reset, potentially after logging the event) if they’re invalid (because that points to a severe kernel bug or an attack). The actual validation is done by a function implemented by the chipset code.

Another validation that can be done is to make sure that the BAR has the appropriate bits set so it is enabled and points to memory (instead of IO space).

In terms of implementation, this might look somewhat as follows. There are a bunch of blanks to fill in, in particular how to handle the actual config space access and there will be more registers that need to be checked for correctness, both official BARs (0-4) and per-chipset registers that need to be blacklisted in another chipset specific function:

static inline __attribute__((always_inline))
uint32_t pci_read_config32[d](pci_devfn_t dev, unsigned int where)
    uint32_t val = real_pci_read_config32(dev, where);
    if (IS_ENABLED(__SMM__) && (where == PCI_BASE_ADDRESS_0) &&
        is_mmio_ptr(dev, where) && !is_address_in_mmio(val)) {
    return val;

is_address_in_mmio(addr) would be a newly introduced function to be implemented by chipset drivers that returns true if the passed address points into whatever is considered valid MMIO space. is_mmio_ptr(dev, where) returns true for PCI config space registers that point to BARs (allowing custom overrides because sometimes additional registers are used to point to addresses).

For this function what is considered a legal address needs to be documented, in accordance with the chipset design. (For example: AMD K8 has a bunch of registers that define strictly which addresses are “MMIO”)

Fully insured (aka “paranoid”) mode

For systems with more control over the hardware and kernel (such as Chromebooks), it may be possible to set up the BARs in a way that the kernel isn’t compelled to rewrite them, and store these values for later comparison.

This avoids attacks such as setting the BAR to point to another device’s MMIO region which the above method can’t catch. Such a configuration would be “illegal”, but depending on the evaluation order of BARs in the chipset, this might effectively only disable the device used for the attack, while still fooling the SMM handler.

Since this method isn’t generalizable, it has to be an optional compile-time feature.


This capability might need to be hidden behind a Kconfig flag because we won’t be able to provide functional implementations of is_address_in_mmio() for every chipset supported by coreboot from the start.

Security Considerations

The actual exploitability of the issue is unknown, but fixing it serves as defense in depth, similar to the Memory Sinkhole mitigation for older Intel chipsets.

Testing Plan

Manual testing can be conducted easily by creating a small payload that provokes the reaction. It should test all conditions that enable the address test (ie. the different BAR offsets if used by SMM handlers).