Decoding Syscalls in ARM64

Eventually as you are reverse-engineering an ARM binary you will come across a function that looks like the following:

Even if you understand what this code is doing (as I suspect you may) read on, as this post intends to bring to light several security models specific to the ARMv8-a architecture.

To understand what this code is doing, you need to understand a few concepts first. Since this is an ARM specific blog, this is what we will focus on. Specifically in the context of the ARMv8-a architecture. An extremely helpful overview of this architecture can be found here - I suggest you read it before continuing.

Exception Levels

The most important concept is rather new, these are the Exception Levels ARMv8-a uses for privilege separation (such as rings in the Intel architecture) there are 4 levels, notably:

Exception Level Description Usage* Status
EL0 Unprivileged Applications are executed here Required
EL1 Privileged Linux (or other OS) Kernel Required
EL2 Hypervisor Virtualization Optional
EL3 Secure Monitor Security States Optional

*: aarch64 does not dictate how software can use the exception levels, these are simply a common usage model.

Now, as you can imagine, applications running in EL0 may need to access or modify the system in some way. The Linux kernel provides a safe portable way to access these system-level functions. This Application Programming Interface or API between the unprivileged EL0 and the privileged EL1 execution levels are called system calls or syscalls.

The ARMv8-a architecture has strict rules about how to leverage syscalls, as you can imagine abuse of this API is commmon and could lead to an unprivileged application modifying the system beyond what it should be allowed to. This technique has been used countless times to gain root on a device or escalate privileges of a user. One of the biggest issues with mobile devices is there is not much quality control for software that interfaces with the kernel, things like device drivers get abused far too often.

Before we get into exceptions, it should be noted that ARMv8-a has a (harrowingly complicated) Security Model, whose general principles are as follows. If EL3 is implemented in the system there are two security states Secure and Non-Secure each with their own physical memory address space. If EL3 is not implemented, AND does not include EL2 then it’s IMPLEMENTATION DEFINED. If EL2 is present then it is Non-Secure state. Changing states occurs in the same fashion as the exceptions described below.


ARMv8-a can operate in two execution states Aarch64 and Aarch32 (compatible with ARMv7-a). It is possible to move between these two states using what the architecture defines as interprocessing though it is not useful for this exercise.

In Aarch64 state, you can change exception levels only by taking an exception, or returning from one. Perhaps the best way to explain it is with pseudo-code:


if state == aarch64 && take_exception {
	 target_exception_level = exception_level or exception_level+1

if state == aarch64 && return_from_exception {
	target_exception_level = exception_level or exception_level-1

There are a few types of exceptions ARMv8-a allows that will interrupt the processor and change the control flow of the program. These are:

The SVC instruction is the most common, and the one we are dealing with in the following example. This instruction causes a Supervisor Call exception, which provides this unprivileged program the ability to make a system call to the privileged operating system. When SVC is executed, the target_exception_level becomes EL1 from EL0.

Let’s walk-through this function to see what’s going on:

MOV X8, #0x40

Moves the immediate value 0x40 into the X8 register.

While this looks like a simple instruction there’s a lot going on here that you may not be familiar with. Prefacing a call to the kernel (SVC 0) we have to setup that call, which generally means you need two things:

It is also important to note, that (quite annoyingly) these syscall numbers change based on the architecture you are executing the instruction. In this case, 0x40 is defined in the arm64 kernel as a call to write. And of course since ARM is a load/store based architecture we require X8 to act as a catalyst to move the value since we can not write the value directly to memory (like you can in other architectures.)

Note: In ARMv7 the R7 register was used, which you can remember by: v7 uses R7, v8 uses X8.


Generates supervisor call exception, targeting EL1

The call looks like this: AArch64.TakeException(EL1, exception, preferred_exception_return, vect_offset);

Now is a good time to break and talk about what vect_offset is:

Exception Vector Tables

From ARM Infocenter:

When an exception occurs, the processor must execute handler code which corresponds to the exception. The location in memory where the handler is stored is called the exception vector. In the ARM architecture, exception vectors are stored in a table, called the exception vector table. Each Exception level has its own vector table, that is, there is one for each of EL3, EL2 and EL1. The table contains instructions to be executed, rather than a set of addresses. Vectors for individual exceptions are located at fixed offsets from the beginning of the table. The virtual address of each table base is set by the Vector Based Address Registers VBAR_EL3, VBAR_EL2 and VBAR_EL1.

This means that after SVC 0 is called, AArch64.TakeException() executes using VBAR_EL1 + vect_offset 0x280 to retrieve the exception handler instructions to carry out the exception - see Table 10.2 in the infocenter reference for information about calculating offsets.

Accessing VBAR_EL1 is done through the MRS instruction and looks like this for our example:

CMN X0, #1, LSL#12


B.HI loc_42B4B8

ARM has a number of potential conditions set by the 4-bit prefix in an instruction word. The prefix we are intersted in is the HI condition as shown by our instructions. The HI condition is met when the Carry flag is set and the Zero flag is false, which simply means there was a non-zero value returned from the system call into X0.

The above instructions are checking the returned value from the system call, stored in X0, for a non-zero value (an error) and setting the HI condition to branch accordingly into loc_42B4B8.


Branches to the address stored in the Link Register (LR)

Now that you understand what is happening with this function it is a good idea to rename it in IDA so that you can identify when a function is calling the write handler! (TODO: ignore the sys_getppid, too lazy to take another screen shot ATM will fix.)

I left some details out about the above process because this was meant as an intro. Some of the topics I did not discuss are Exception Syndrome Registers, Exception Link Registers, and PSTATE.

NOTE: To learn more about exceptions in ARMv8-a check out Chapter D1 in the Aarch64 Reference Manual

Thanks to reddit user SidJenkins who explained why I’m an idiot WRT to ARM syscall values, and the conditional compare instructions. You can see the comment thread here as well as a better technical description about how the CMN and CINV instructions function in this use-case.

A great tip by @michalmalik to use the man pages to reference Architecture Calling Conventions in case you forget what registers are used. Thanks Michal!