Physical attack mitigation in Trusted Firmware-M


Tamas Ban; David Hu


Arm Limited



PSA Certified Level 3 Lightweight Protection Profile [1] requires protection against physical attacks. This includes protection against manipulation of the hardware and any data, undetected manipulation of memory contents, physical probing on the chip’s surface. The RoT detects or prevents its operation outside the normal operating conditions (such as voltage, clock frequency, temperature, or external energy fields) where reliability and secure operation has not been proven or tested.


Mitigation against certain level of physical attacks is a mandatory requirement for PSA Level 3 certification. The TF-M countermeasures against physical attacks discussed below doesn’t provide mitigation against all the physical attacks considered in scope for PSA L3 certification. Please check the Protection Profile document for an exhaustive list of requirements.

Physical attacks

The goal of physical attacks is to alter the expected behavior of a circuit. This can be achieved by changing the device’s normal operating conditions to untested operating conditions. As a result a hazard might be triggered on the circuit level, whose impact is unpredictable in advance but its effect can be observed. With frequent attempts, a weak point of the system could be identified and the attacker could gain access to the entire device. There is a wide variety of physical attacks, the following is not a comprehensive list rather just give a taste of the possibilities:

  • Inject a glitch into the device power supply or clock line.

  • Operate the device outside its temperature range: cool down or warm it up.

  • Shoot the chip with an electromagnetic field. This can be done by passing current through a small coil close to the chip surface, no physical contact or modification of the PCB (soldering) is necessary.

  • Point a laser beam on the chip surface. It could flip bits in memory or a register, but precise knowledge of chip layout and design is necessary.

The required equipment and cost of these attacks varies. There are commercial products to perform such attacks. Furthermore, they are shipped with a scripting environment, good documentation, and a lot of examples. In general, there is a ton of videos, research paper and blogs about fault injection attacks. As a result the threshold, that even non-proficient can successfully perform such attack, gets lower over time.

Effects of physical attacks in hardware and in software execution

The change in the behavior of the hardware and software cannot be seen in advance when performing a physical attack. On circuit-level they manifest in bit faults. These bit faults can cause varied effects in the behavior of the device micro-architecture:

  • Instruction decoding pipeline is flushed.

  • Altering instructions when decoding.

  • Altering data when fetching or storing.

  • Altering register content, and the program counter.

  • Flip bits in register or memory.

These phenomenons happen at random and cannot be observed directly but the effect can be traced in software execution. On the software level the following can happen:

  • A few instructions are skipped. This can lead to taking different branch than normal.

  • Corrupted CPU register or data fetch could alter the result of a comparison instruction. Or change the value returned from a function.

  • Corrupted data store could alter the config of peripherals.

  • Very precise attacks with laser can flip bits in any register or in memory.

This is a complex domain. Faults are not well-understood. Different fault models exist but all of them target a specific aspect of fault injection. One of the most common and probably the easily applicable fault model is the instruction skip.

Mitigation against physical attacks

The applicability of these attacks highly depends on the device. Some devices are more sensitive than others. Protection is possible at hardware and software levels as well.

On the hardware level, there are chip design principles and system IPs that are resistant to fault injection attacks. These can make it harder to perform a successful attack and as a result the chip might reset or erase sensitive content. The device maker needs to consider what level of physical attack is in scope and choose a SoC accordingly.

On top of hardware-level protection, a secondary protection layer can be implemented in software. This approach is known as “defence in depth”.

Neither hardware nor software level protection is perfect because both can be bypassed. The combination of them provides the maximum level of protection. However, even when both are in place, it is not certain that they provide 100% protection against physical attacks. The best of what is to achievable to harden the system to increase the cost of a successful attack (in terms of time and equipment), thereby making it non profitable to perform them.

Software countermeasures against physical attacks

There are practical coding techniques which can be applied to harden software against fault injection attacks. They significantly decrease the probability of a successful attack:

  • Control flow monitor

    To catch malicious modification of the expected control flow. When an important portion of a program is executed, a flow monitor counter is incremented. The program moves to the next stage only if the accumulated flow monitor counter is equal to an expected value.

  • Default failure

    The return value variable should always contain a value indicating failure. Changing its value to success is done only under one protected flow (preferably protected by double checks).

  • Complex constant

    It is hard to change a memory region or register to a pre-defined value, but usual boolean values (0 or 1) are easier to manipulate.

  • Redundant variables and condition checks

    To make branch condition attack harder it is recommended to check the relevant condition twice (it is better to have a random delay between the two comparisons).

  • Random delay

    Successful fault injection attacks require very precise timing. Adding random delay to the code execution makes the timing of an attack much harder.

  • Loop integrity check

    To avoid to skip critical loop iterations. It can weaken the cryptographic algorithms. After a loop has executed, check the loop counter whether it indeed has the expected value.

  • Duplicated execution

    Execute a critical step multiple times to prevent fault injection from skipping the step. To mitigate multiple consecutive fault injections, random delay can be inserted between duplicated executions.

These techniques should be applied in a thoughtful way. If it is applied everywhere then it can result in messy code that makes the maintenance harder. Code must be analysed and sensitive parts and critical call path must be identified. Furthermore, these techniques increase the overall code size which might be an issue on the constrained devices.

Currently, compilers are not providing any support to implement these countermeasures automatically. On the contrary, they can eliminate the protection code during optimization. As a result, the C level protection does not add any guarantee about the final behavior of the system. The effectiveness of these protections highly depends on the actual compiler and the optimization level. The compiled assembly code must be visually inspected and tested to make sure that proper countermeasures are in-place and perform as expected.

TF-M Threat Model against physical attacks

Physical attack target

A malicious actor performs physical attack against TF-M to retrieve assets from device. These assets can be sensitive data, credentials, crypto keys. These assets are protected in TF-M by proper isolation.

For example, a malicious actor can perform the following attacks:

  • Reopen the debug port or hinder the closure of it then connect to the device with a debugger and dump memory.

  • Bypass secure boot to replace authentic firmware with a malicious image. Then arbitrary memory can be read.

  • Assuming that secure boot cannot be bypassed then an attacker can try to hinder the setup of the memory isolation hardware by TF-M Secure Partition Manager (SPM) and manage to execute the non-secure image in secure state. If this is achieved then still an exploitable vulnerability is needed in the non-secure code which can be used to inject and execute arbitrary code to read the assets.

  • Device might contain unsigned binary blob next to the official firmware. This can be any data, not necessarily code. If an attacker manages to replace this data with arbitrary content (e.g. a NOP slide leading to a malicious code) then they can try to manipulate the program counter to jump to this area before setting up the memory isolation.

Assumptions on attacker capability

It is assumed that the attacker owns the following capabilities to perform physical attack against devices protected by TF-M.

  • Has physical access to the device.

  • Able to access external memory, read and possibly tamper it.

  • Able to load arbitrary candidate images for firmware upgrade.

  • Able to manage that bootloader tries to upgrade the arbitrary image from staging area.

  • Able to inject faults on hardware level (voltage or power glitch, EM pulse, etc.) to the system.

  • Precise timing of fault injection is possible once or a few times, but in general the more intervention is required for a successful attack the harder will be to succeed.

It is out of the scope of TF-M mitigation if an attacker is able to directly tamper or disclose the assets. It is assumed that an attacker has the following technical limitations.

  • No knowledge of the image signing key. Not able to sign an arbitrary image.

  • Not able to directly access to the chip through debug port.

  • Not able to directly access internal memory.

  • No knowledge of the layout of the die or the memory arrangement of the secure code, so precise attack against specific registers or memory addresses are out of scope.

Physical attack scenarios against TF-M

Based on the analysis above, a malicious actor may perform physical attacks against critical operations in SPE workflow and critical modules in TF-M, to indirectly gain unauthenticated accesses to assets.

Those critical operations and modules either directly access the assets or protect the assets from disclosure. Those operations and modules can include:

  • Image validation in bootloader

  • Isolation management in TF-M, including platform specific configuration

  • Cryptographic operations

  • TF-M Secure Storage operations

  • PSA client permission check in TF-M

The detailed scenarios are discussed in following sections.

Physical attacks against bootloader

Physical attacks may bypass secure image validation in bootloader and a malicious image can be installed.

The countermeasures is bootloader specific implementation and out of the scope of this document. TF-M relies on MCUboot by default. MCUboot has already implemented countermeasures against fault injection attacks [3].

Physical attacks against TF-M SPM

TF-M SPM initializes and manages the isolation configuration. It also performs permission check against secure service requests from PSA clients.

Static isolation configuration

It is TF-M SPM’s responsibility to build up isolation during the initialization phase. If this is missed or not done correctly then it might be possible for non-secure code to access some secure memory area or an external device can access assets in the device through a debug port.

Therefore, hindering the setup of memory or peripheral isolation hardware is an obvious candidate for physical attacks. The initialization phase has a constant time execution (like the previous boot-up state), therefore the timing of the attack is simpler, compared to cases when secure and non-secure runtime firmware is up-and-running for a while and IRQs make timing unpredictable.

Some examples of attacking isolation configuration are shown in the list below.

  • Hinder the setting of security regions. Try to execute non-secure code as secure.

  • Manipulate the setting of secure regions, try to extend the non-secure regions to cover a memory area which otherwise is intended to be secure area.

  • Hinder the setting of isolation boundary. In this case vulnerable ARoT code has access to all memory.

  • Manipulate peripheral configuration to give access to non-secure code to a peripheral which is intended to be secure.

PSA client permission checks

TF-M SPM performs several permission checks against secure service requests from a PSA client, such as:

  • Check whether the PSA client is a non-secure client or a secure client

    NS client’s PSA client ID is negative. NS client is not allowed to directly access secure areas. A malicious actor can inject faults when TF-M SPM authenticates a NS client. It may manipulate TF-M to accept it as a secure client and allow the NS client to access assets.

  • Memory access checks

    TF-M SPM checks whether the request has correct permission to access a secure memory area. A malicious actor can inject faults when TF-M SPM checks memory access permission. It may skip critical check steps or corrupt the check result. Thereby a malicious service request may pass TF-M memory access check and accesses assets which it is not allowed to.

The physical attacks mentioned above relies on the a malicious NS application or a vulnerable RoT service to start a malicious secure service request to access the assets. The malicious actor has to be aware of the accurate timing of dealing with the malicious request in TF-M SPM. The timing can be affected by other clients and interrupts. It should be more difficult than pure fault injection.

Dynamic isolation boundary configuration

Physical attack may affect the isolation boundary setting during TF-M context switch, especially in Isolation Level 3. For example:

  • A fault injection may cause TF-M SPM to skip clear privileged state before switching in an ARoT service.

  • A fault injection may cause TF-M SPM to skip updating MPU regions and therefore the next RoT service may access assets belonging to a previous one.

However, it is much more difficult to find out the accurate timing of TF-M context switch, compared to other scenarios in TF-M SPM. It also requires a vulnerable RoT service to access assets after fault injection.

Physical attacks against TF-M Crypto service

Since crypto operations are done by mbedTLS library or by a custom crypto accelerator engine and its related software driver stack, the analysis of physical attacks against crypto operations is out-of-scope for this document. However, in general the same requirements are applicable for the crypto, to be compliant with PSA Level 3 certification. That is, it must be resistant against physical attacks. So crypto software and hardware must be hardened against side-channel and physical attacks.

Physical attacks against Secure Storage

Physical attacks against Internal Trusted Storage

Based on the assumption in Assumptions on attacker capability, a malicious actor is unable to directly retrieve assets via physical attacks against Internal Trusted Storage (ITS).

Instead, a malicious actor can inject faults into isolation configuration of ITS area in TF-M SPM to gain the access to assets stored in ITS. Refer to Physical attacks against TF-M SPM for details.

Physical attacks against Protected Storage

Based on the assumption in Assumptions on attacker capability, a malicious actor can be able to directly access external storage device. Therefore Protected Storage (PS) shall enable encryption and authentication by default to detect tampering with the content in external storage device.

A malicious actor can also inject faults into isolation configuration of PS and external storage device peripherals in TF-M SPM to gain the access to assets stored in PS. Refer to Physical attacks against TF-M SPM for details.

It is out of the scope of TF-M to fully prevent malicious actors from directly tampering with or retrieving content stored in external storage devices.

Physical attacks against platform specific implementation

Platform specific implementation includes critical TF-M HAL implementations. A malicious actor can perform physical attack against those platform specific implementations to bypass the countermeasures in TF-M common code.

Platform early initialization

TFM provides a HAL API for platforms to perform HW initialization before SPM initialization starts. The system integrator is responsible to implement this API on a particular SoC and harden it against physical attacks:

enum tfm_hal_status_t tfm_hal_platform_init(void);

The API can have several initializations on different modules. The system integrator can choose to even harden some of these initializations functions within this platform init API. One of the examples is the debug access setting.

Debug access setting

TF-M configures debug access according to device lifecycle and accessible debug certificates. In general, TF-M locks down the debug port if the device is in secure production state. The system integrator can put the settings into an API and harden it against physical attacks.

Platform specific isolation configuration

TFM SPM exposes a HAL API for static and dynamic isolation configuration. The system integrator is responsible to implement these API on a particular SoC and harden it against physical attacks.

enum tfm_hal_status_t tfm_hal_set_up_static_boundaries(void);
enum tfm_hal_status_t tfm_hal_bind_boundary(const struct partition_load_info_t *p_ldinf,
                                            uintptr_t *p_boundary);
Memory access check

TFM SPM exposes a HAL API for platform specific memory access check. The system integrator is responsible to implement this API on a particular SoC and harden it against physical attacks.

tfm_hal_status_t tfm_hal_memory_check(uintptr_t boundary,
                                      uintptr_t base,
                                      size_t size,
                                      uint32_t access_type);

TF-M countermeasures against physical attacks

This section propose a design of software countermeasures against physical attacks.

Fault injection hardening library

There is no open-source library which implements generic mitigation techniques listed in Software countermeasures against physical attacks. TF-M project implements a portion of these techniques. TF-M software countermeasures are implemented as a small library Fault Injection Hardening (FIH) in TF-M code base. A similar library was first introduced and tested in the MCUboot project (version 1.7.0) [2] which TF-M relies on.

The FIH library is put under TF-M lib/fih/.

The implementation of the different techniques was assigned to fault injection protection profiles. Four profiles (OFF, LOW, MEDIUM, HIGH) were introduced to fit better to the device capability (memory size, TRNG availability) and to protection requirements mandated by the device threat model. Fault injection protection profile is configurable at compile-time, default value: OFF.

Countermeasure profiles and corresponding techniques are listed in the table below.


Profile LOW

Profile MEDIUM

Profile HIGH


Control flow monitor




Failure loop hardening




Complex constant



Redundant variables and checks



Random delay


Implemented, but depends on HW capability

Similar to MCUboot, four profiles are supported. It can be configured at build time by setting (default is OFF):


How to use FIH library

As analyzed in TF-M Threat Model against physical attacks, this section focuses on integrating FIH library in TF-M SPM to mitigate physical attacks.

  • Identify critical function call path which is mandatory for configuring isolation or debug access. Change their return types to FIH_RET_TYPE and make them return with FIH_RET. Then call them with FIH_CALL. These macros are providing the extra checking functionality (control flow monitor, redundant checks and variables, random delay, complex constant) according to the profile settings. More details about usage can be found here: trusted-firmware-m/lib/fih/inc/fih.h

    Take simplified TF-M SPM initialization flow as an example:

      |--> tfm_core_init()
      |           |
      |           |--> tfm_hal_set_up_static_boundaries()
      |           |                  |
      |           |                  |--> platform specific isolation impl.
      |           |
      |           |--> tfm_hal_platform_init()
      |                              |
      |                              |--> platform specific init
      |--> During each partition initialization
                  |--> tfm_hal_bind_boundary()
                                     |--> platform specific peripheral isolation impl.
  • Might make the important setting of peripheral config register redundant and verify them to match expectations before continue.

  • Implements an extra verification function which checks the critical hardware config before secure code switches to non-secure. Proposed API for this purpose:

    fih_int tfm_hal_verify_static_boundaries(void);

    This function is intended to be called just after the static boundaries are set up and is responsible for checking all critical hardware configurations. The goal is to catch if something is missed and act according to system policy. The introduction of one more checking point requires one more intervention with precise timing. The system integrator is responsible to implement this API on a particular SoC and harden it against physical attacks. Make sure that all platform dependent security feature is properly configured.

  • The most powerful mitigation technique is to add random delay to the code execution. This makes the timing of the attack much harder. However it requires an entropy source. It is recommended to use the HIGH profile when hardware support is available. There is a porting API layer to fetch random numbers in FIH library:

    void fih_delay_init(void);
    uint8_t fih_delay_random(void);
  • Similar countermeasures can be implemented in critical steps in platform specific implementation.

    Take memory isolation settings on AN521 platform as an example. The following hardware components are responsible for memory isolation in a SoC, which is based on SSE-200 subsystem. System integrators must examine the chip specific memory isolation solution, identify the key components and harden the configuration of those. This list just serves as an example here for easier understanding:

    • Implementation Defined Attribution Unit (IDAU): Implementation defined, it can be a static config or dynamic. Contains the default security access permissions of the memory map.

    • SAU: The main module in the CPU to determine the security settings of the memory.

    • MPC: External module from the CPU point of view. It protects the non security aware memories from unauthenticated access. Having a properly configured MPC significantly increases the security of the system.

    • PPC: External module from the CPU point of view. Protects the non security aware peripherals from unauthenticated access.

    • MPU: Protects memory from unprivileged access. ARoT code has only a restricted access in secure domain. It mitigates that a vulnerable or malicious ARoT partition can access to device assets.

    The following AN521 specific isolation configuration functions shall be hardened against physical attacks.


    Some platform specific implementation rely on platform standard device driver libraries. It can become much more difficult to maintain drivers if the standard libraries are modified with FIH library. Platform specific implementation can implement duplicated execution and redundant variables/ condition check when calling platform standard device driver libraries according to usage scenarios.

Impact on memory footprint

The addition of protection code against physical attacks increases the memory footprint. The actual increase depends on the selected profile and where the mitigation code is added.

Attack experiment with SPM

The goal is to bypass the setting of memory isolation hardware with simulated instruction skips in fast model execution (FVP_MPS2_AEMv8M) in order to execute the regular non-secure test code in secure state. This is done by identifying the configuration steps which must be bypassed to make this happen. The instruction skip simulation is achieved by breakpoints and manual manipulation of the program counter. The following steps are done on AN521 target, but this can be different on another target:

  • Bypass the configuration of isolation HW: SAU, MPC.

  • Bypass the setting of the PSP limit register. Otherwise, a stack overflow exception will happen. Because the secure PSP will be overwritten by the address of the non-secure stack and on this particular target the non-secure stack is on lower address than the value in the secure PSP_LIMIT register.

  • Avoid the clearing of the least significant bit in the non-secure entry point, where BLXNS/BXNS is jumping to non-secure code. Having the least significant bit cleared indicates to the hardware to switch security state.

The previous steps are enough to execute the non-secure Reset_Handler() in secure state. Usually, RTOS is executing on the non-secure side. In order to properly boot it up further steps are needed:

  • Set the S_VTOR system register to point the address of the NS Vector table. Code is executed in secure state therefore when an IRQ hit then the handler address is fetched from the table pointed by S_VTOR register. RTOS usually do an SVC call at start-up. If S_VTOR is not modified then SPM’s SVC handler will be executed.

  • TBC: RTX osKernelStart still failing.

The bottom line is that in order to execute the regular non-secure code in secure state the attacker need to interfere with the execution flow at many places. Successful attack can be made even harder by adding the described mitigation techniques and some random delays.


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