PKEYS(7)                  Linux Programmer's Manual                 PKEYS(7)

NAME         top

       pkeys - overview of Memory Protection Keys

DESCRIPTION         top

       Memory Protection Keys (pkeys) are an extension to existing page-
       based memory permissions.  Normal page permissions using page tables
       require expensive system calls and TLB invalidations when changing
       permissions.  Memory Protection Keys provide a mechanism for changing
       protections without requiring modification of the page tables on
       every permission change.

       To use pkeys, software must first "tag" a page in the page tables
       with a pkey.  After this tag is in place, an application only has to
       change the contents of a register in order to remove write access, or
       all access to a tagged page.

       Protection keys work in conjunction with the existing PROT_READ/
       PROT_WRITE/ PROT_EXEC permissions passed to system calls such as
       mprotect(2) and mmap(2), but always act to further restrict these
       traditional permission mechanisms.

       If a process performs an access that violates pkey restrictions, it
       receives a SIGSEGV signal.  See sigaction(2) for details of the
       information available with that signal.

       To use the pkeys feature, the processor must support it, and the
       kernel must contain support for the feature on a given processor.  As
       of early 2016 only future Intel x86 processors are supported, and
       this hardware supports 16 protection keys in each process.  However,
       pkey 0 is used as the default key, so a maximum of 15 are available
       for actual application use.  The default key is assigned to any
       memory region for which a pkey has not been explicitly assigned via

       Protection keys have the potential to add a layer of security and
       reliability to applications.  But they have not been primarily
       designed as a security feature.  For instance, WRPKRU is a completely
       unprivileged instruction, so pkeys are useless in any case that an
       attacker controls the PKRU register or can execute arbitrary

       Applications should be very careful to ensure that they do not "leak"
       protection keys.  For instance, before calling pkey_free(2), the
       application should be sure that no memory has that pkey assigned.  If
       the application left the freed pkey assigned, a future user of that
       pkey might inadvertently change the permissions of an unrelated data
       structure, which could impact security or stability.  The kernel
       currently allows in-use pkeys to have pkey_free(2) called on them
       because it would have processor or memory performance implications to
       perform the additional checks needed to disallow it.  Implementation
       of the necessary checks is left up to applications.  Applications may
       implement these checks by searching the /proc/[pid]/smaps file for
       memory regions with the pkey assigned.  Further details can be found
       in proc(5).

       Any application wanting to use protection keys needs to be able to
       function without them.  They might be unavailable because the
       hardware that the application runs on does not support them, the
       kernel code does not contain support, the kernel support has been
       disabled, or because the keys have all been allocated, perhaps by a
       library the application is using.  It is recommended that
       applications wanting to use protection keys should simply call
       pkey_alloc(2) and test whether the call succeeds, instead of
       attempting to detect support for the feature in any other way.

       Although unnecessary, hardware support for protection keys may be
       enumerated with the cpuid instruction.  Details of how to do this can
       be found in the Intel Software Developers Manual.  The kernel
       performs this enumeration and exposes the information in
       /proc/cpuinfo under the "flags" field.  The string "pku" in this
       field indicates hardware support for protection keys and the string
       "ospke" indicates that the kernel contains and has enabled protection
       keys support.

       Applications using threads and protection keys should be especially
       careful.  Threads inherit the protection key rights of the parent at
       the time of the clone(2), system call.  Applications should either
       ensure that their own permissions are appropriate for child threads
       at the time when clone(2) is called, or ensure that each child thread
       can perform its own initialization of protection key rights.

   Signal Handler Behavior
       Each time a signal handler is invoked (including nested signals), the
       thread is temporarily given a new, default set of protection key
       rights that override the rights from the interrupted context.  This
       means that applications must re-establish their desired protection
       key rights upon entering a signal handler if the desired rights
       differ from the defaults.  The rights of any interrupted context are
       restored when the signal handler returns.

       This signal behavior is unusual and is due to the fact that the x86
       PKRU register (which stores protection key access rights) is managed
       with the same hardware mechanism (XSAVE) that manages floating-point
       registers.  The signal behavior is the same as that of floating point

   Protection Keys system calls
       The Linux kernel implements the following pkey-related system calls:
       pkey_mprotect(2), pkey_alloc(2), and pkey_free(2).

       The Linux pkey system calls are available only if the kernel was
       configured and built with the CONFIG_X86_INTEL_MEMORY_PROTECTION_KEYS

EXAMPLE         top

       The program below allocates a page of memory with read and write
       permissions.  It then writes some data to the memory and successfully
       reads it back.  After that, it attempts to allocate a protection key
       and disallows access to the page by using the WRPKRU instruction.  It
       then tries to access the page, which we now expect to cause a fatal
       signal to the application.

           $ ./a.out
           buffer contains: 73
           about to read buffer again...
           Segmentation fault (core dumped)

   Program source

       #define _GNU_SOURCE
       #include <unistd.h>
       #include <sys/syscall.h>
       #include <stdio.h>
       #include <sys/mman.h>

       static inline void
       wrpkru(unsigned int pkru)
           unsigned int eax = pkru;
           unsigned int ecx = 0;
           unsigned int edx = 0;

           asm volatile(".byte 0x0f,0x01,0xef\n\t"
                        : : "a" (eax), "c" (ecx), "d" (edx));

       pkey_set(int pkey, unsigned long rights, unsigned long flags)
           unsigned int pkru = (rights << (2 * pkey));
           return wrpkru(pkru);

       pkey_mprotect(void *ptr, size_t size, unsigned long orig_prot,
                     unsigned long pkey)
           return syscall(SYS_pkey_mprotect, ptr, size, orig_prot, pkey);

           return syscall(SYS_pkey_alloc, 0, 0);

       pkey_free(unsigned long pkey)
           return syscall(SYS_pkey_free, pkey);

       #define errExit(msg)    do { perror(msg); exit(EXIT_FAILURE); \
                                  } while (0)

           int status;
           int pkey;
           int *buffer;

            *Allocate one page of memory
           buffer = mmap(NULL, getpagesize(), PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE,
                         MAP_ANONYMOUS | MAP_PRIVATE, -1, 0);
           if (buffer == MAP_FAILED)

            * Put some random data into the page (still OK to touch)
           *buffer = __LINE__;
           printf("buffer contains: %d\n", *buffer);

            * Allocate a protection key:
           pkey = pkey_alloc();
           if (pkey == -1)

            * Disable access to any memory with "pkey" set,
            * even though there is none right now
           status = pkey_set(pkey, PKEY_DISABLE_ACCESS, 0);
           if (status)

            * Set the protection key on "buffer".
            * Note that it is still read/write as far as mprotect() is
            * concerned and the previous pkey_set() overrides it.
           status = pkey_mprotect(buffer, getpagesize(),
                                  PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, pkey);
           if (status == -1)

           printf("about to read buffer again...\n");

            * This will crash, because we have disallowed access
           printf("buffer contains: %d\n", *buffer);

           status = pkey_free(pkey);
           if (status == -1)


SEE ALSO         top

       pkey_alloc(2), pkey_free(2), pkey_mprotect(2), sigaction(2)

COLOPHON         top

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Linux                            2016-12-12                         PKEYS(7)