Counting the Frequency of Indirect Branches to Detect Return-Oriented Programming Attacks Mateus Felipe Tymburib´a Ferreira Computer Science Department, Federal University of Minas Gerais Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Email: [email protected] Abstract—Return Oriented Programming (ROP) is presently one of the most effective ways to bypass modern software protection mechanisms. The techniques used to prevent ROP based exploits usually yield false positives, stopping legitimate programs, or false negatives, failing to detect attacks. Furthermore, they tend to add a substantial overhead onto the program that they protect. In this paper we introduce a novel hardwarebased approach to detect ROP attacks: we monitor the frequency of indirect branches. If this frequency exceeds a threshold, then we have strong evidence that an attack is in course. Our method can be inexpensively implemented in hardware, and is very effective: on the one hand, it exposes all the exploits publicly available that we have experimented with; on the other hand, it does not prevent the legitimate execution of any program in the entire SPEC CPU 2006 benchmark suite. To solidify our claims, we provide an argument that building attacks with lowfrequency of indirect branches is difficult, and show that our solution improves on the current frequency-based techniques used to detect ROP attacks.



To make software more secure, we must find ways to prevent the class of exploits known as Return-Oriented Programming (ROP) attacks. ROPs are a relatively recent technique [1]. Nevertheless, in spite of its short history, ROP emerges today as one of the most effective ways to exploit vulnerable software [2], [3]. This effectiveness stems from the fact that the techniques used nowadays to secure programs against ROP attacks suffer from false positives, false negatives or high overhead. This paper presents an alternative to detect ROP exploits that is substantially different from all the techniques previously described. The key insight of this work lies on the observation that public ROP-based exploits have a very high density of indirect branches. We demonstrate empirically that such a density is unlikely to be observed in actual programs. Thus, we have designed a hardware extension that keeps track of the frequency of indirect branches, and that fires an exception once this frequency exceeds a certain threshold. Even though simple, our technique is effective. It recognizes all the exploits available in the “Exploits Database” [4] that we have experimented with. Furthermore, we have not observed any false positive warning when applying our method on all the SPEC CPU 2006 [5] programs. We reinforce our claims with two simple arguments. First, we show that although possible in some situations, circumventing our technique is hard enough to discourage attackers. Secondly, we explain that our approach has a low hardware footprint and does not affect the application’s runtime.



ROPs are built around sets of gadgets. A gadget is a small sequence of instructions that ends with an indirect branch (IB). In the x86 architecture, for instance, IBs are return instructions (RETs), indirect jumps or indirect call instructions. Shacham [1] shows how to chain these gadgets to overcame a protection known as Write⊕Execute, which marks memory addresses where data is stored as non-executable. A common trait among gadgets observed in practice is their size: they tend to be small. In general, ROP-based exploits use gadgets with 13 instructions only [6]. When crafting an exploit, the attacker can only build gadgets out of sequences of instructions that are already part of the program code. Long sequences may create undesirable side effects, such as overwriting registers or the stack in unwanted ways. The contents of the stack need to be carefully prepared, so that a ROP-based attack can be successful. The probability that a store operation changes this content, thus breaking the progress of the attack is nonnegligible. A. The Key Observation As mentioned before, the gadgets tend to be formed by small sequences of instructions. Therefore, the density of IBs during the execution of a ROP-based exploit is likely to be high. We measure the density of IBs as the number of such instructions within a given window. In our context, a window is a sequence of instructions in the program’s execution trace. If we consider, for instance, the last 32 instructions executed by a program under attack, then gadgets containing between 1 and 3 instructions would give us a density of at least 10 IBs in a 32-bit window. The table in Figure 1 shows numbers taken from 15 actual ROP-based attacks publicly available in the Exploit Database [4]. We report the number of instructions that are part of the gadgets used in the exploit, and we report the number of IBs present in this sequence. This last value equals the number of gadgets themselves. These two quantities are readily available in the code of the exploits. In each one of these exploits, a window of 32 instructions would register, at its peak, a high number of IBs. We have observed a minimum of at least 11 IBs in each example that we have tested. On the other hand, during a legitimate execution of the applications, none of them has presented more than 9 IBs per window. This fact leads us to our key observation: Observation 2.1: In the 15 examples of exploits evaluated, there exists a well-defined separation between the density of IBs in the exploit and in the actual execution of the application.


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Instructions Function Density in Exploit Terminators Windows 49 62 95 69 51 36 53 212 150 47 Linux 66 45 81 69 45

24 28 38 36 21 18 21 81 59 19

0.49 0.45 0.4 0.52 0.41 0.5 0.40 0.38 0.39 0.40

24 19 27 30 14

0.36 0.42 0.33 0.43 0.31

Fig. 1. Sum of instructions in the gadgets used to craft a ROP-based attack, and number of cross-IBs among these instructions. We mark with ∗ the exploits that use, in addition to RET instructions, also indirect jumps or indirect calls. We have run all the exploits in an x86 machine.

B. A Brief Discussion about False Positives If we assume that we have a ROP-based attack in course whenever we observe a high-density of IBs, then false positives may happen if such density is achieved by the legitimate execution of code. We studied four situations in which we can expect a high density of IBs: (i) loops with very large bodies; (ii) invocation of short functions within loops having small bodies; (iii) bytecode interpreters and (iv) recursive function calls. We have designed and implemented a series of microbenchmarks that exercises each one of these scenarios. Our toils lets us conclude that even under these extreme situations we can expect a relatively low density of IBs. We also have not been able to produce a binary compiled with gcc or MS Visual Studio 2013 that yields a density of one IB per each two instructions. C. A Brief Discussion about False Negatives Our approach will produce a false-negative if an attacker can craft a sequence of gadgets that gives us a low density of IBs. We have tried to build such sequences on top of 10 exploits publicly available for Windows on x86. These efforts show that it is possible, although difficult, to circumvent our protection. To achieve such a purpose, we have trodden two different avenues: first, we have tried to simply increase the number of instructions after gadgets that we already knew for some of the publicly available exploits. These attempts were fruitless: the extra instructions break the exploits for the applications that we have analyzed. Second, we have tried to interpose no-op gadgets in between sequences of effective gadgets. A no-op gadget is a sequence of instructions ending with an IB, which does not cause side effects that could invalidate an exploit. In this case, we have been able to build effective exploits for two applications. Do these findings indicate that our defense is weak? We say: No! All the operative no-op gadgets belong into one of two categories: (i)

static initialization sequences, and (ii) alignment blocks. In the former category we have long sequences of stores into fixed addresses, which are used to initialize static memory in C. In the latter we have no-op gadgets that correspond to code that the compiler inserts in-between functions to force an alignment of 16 bytes. We claim that it is possible to modify the compiler to remove these gadgets. III.


This section describes a possible implementation of our method on a modern superscalar processor. We provide a holistic view of a secured system, explaining (i) the hardware features necessary to detect ROP attacks, and (ii) the OS features necessary to treat warnings raised by the hardware. We also explain why our detection scheme does not incur any performance overhead on top of the monitored application if no ROP pattern is detected. A. The Hardware Level: Detection The sliding window is made visible in the instruction set as a model-specific register readable and writeable from privileged mode. This allows the operating system to save and restore the register during context switches, isolating each application. In an out-of-order processor, the retirement pipeline stage enforces the sequential semantics of the program. It commits the speculative state to the architectural state and signals exceptions [7]. We propose to implement frequency count at the retirement stage. The simplest implementation consists in computing the value of the sliding window for each instruction retired, and counting the number of bits set in each window at each cycle. Figure 2 gives a sketch of a possible implementation in a superscalar processor that can retire 3 instructions per cycle. At each cycle, 3 new sliding windows are computed by shifting the value of the previous window. Although we illustrate it on a 3-issue pipeline, the same approach can be applied to any superscalar width. A bitset population count operation can be realized efficiently using a Wallace-style compressor tree [8]. For instance, an implementation of a 64-bit population count was reported to require 57 3:2 compressors and 8 half-adder gates, for a depth of 8 compressor stages and 3 half-adder stages, and already fits within the timing budget of one clock cycle of a contemporary processor [9]. Following the same strategy, a 32-bit population count can be implemented using 12 3:2 compressors and 13 half-adders, in 5 stages of 3:2 compressors and 3 stages of half-adders, a much reduced cost. In addition, the comparison with the threshold may be embedded into the compressor tree to avoid a second carry propagation. Such comparison will add at most one stage of half-adders to the logic depth. Since the checks can be performed independently from the other operations of retirement and fit within the timing budget of a clock cycle, they would not affect the cycle time of the processor. A more efficient implementation may further save area by reusing the computation of the population count in the central part of the window that is common between consecutive instructions.

intruction i RET:1

intruction i+1 ADD:0

intruction i+2 RET:1


Sliding window of 128 bits


Beginning Retirement stage

46# Old 01001000 sliding window New sliding window

39# 32# 1001000 1

001000 10

01000 101

Population Count

Population Count

Population Count

Threshold 4

3 - 4 = -1

2 - 4 = -2

3 - 4 = -1

25# 18# 45#

Sliding window of 96 bits

40# 35#

End Retirement stage


Fig. 2. A hardware implementation operating at the retirement stage, built on a 3-way superscalar processor for an 8-instruction window. Three comparisons are performed in parallel on three successive instances of the sliding window. The windows are computed by appending the type bit of the next instructions to the shifted value of the previous window value. Each sliding window is then processed by a differential population count unit, that computes the difference between the number of bits set and the threshold. An instruction with a positive count will trigger an exception.

25# 20# 15# 32#

Sliding window of 64 bits

29# 26#

B. The Operating System Level: Treatment The hardware extension that we have described detects ROP attacks, but it does not handle them. This task belongs to the operating system, which must activate, in face of a warning from the hardware, either a handler registered by the application itself, or its default exception treatment routine. For instance, operating systems from the Windows’ family provide a default exception handler. This default procedure prints a message to the user warning about the error, asks if a report should be submitted to Microsoft and then terminates the faulty process. This is the behavior, for instance, when Data-Execution Prevention is enabled and an exploit tries to execute an instruction located in a non-executable page. IV.


Universal vs Specific Thresholds. In our experiments, we have found a perfect distinction between legitimate and fraud-

20# 17# 14# 18"

Sliding window of 32 bits

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Figure 3 shows the frequency of IBs for programs compiled with Visual Studio, running on Windows 7 in 32-bit mode. Each dot in the charts shows the maximum number of IBs observed on a sliding window of either 32, 64, 96 or 128 bits. The sliding window strategy was implemented using Pin, a dynamic binary instrumentation framework [10]. When running the SPEC CPU programs, we have used their reference input, which is the largest set of input data that the benchmark provides. This data amounts to billions of instructions. From these charts, it is possible to draw three conclusions: (i) ROPbased exploits show higher peak density of IBs; (ii) larger window sizes tend to blur the distinction between legitimate and fraudulent executions; and (iii) at least for the benchmarks that we have tested, it is possible to determine a universal threshold that separates legitimate and illegal traces of instructions using a 32-bit sliding window. We have observed similar behavior when running the exploits in the Linux system.


Fig. 3. Maximum density of IBs in Windows 7, given different window sizes. The publicly available exploits are in the grey area.

ulent executions in all the benchmarks that we have used, and in the two different operating systems that we have fiddled with. However, in Linux this threshold is made of only two instructions, a rather small gap. This small difference leads us to believe that, instead of searching for a universal threshold, a frequency-based mechanism to detect ROP attacks should consider thresholds that are specific to each application. It is

possible to determine such thresholds either dynamically or statically. Dynamically, we can use an instrumentation framework to find out the peak frequency of IBs of each application. Statically, we can analyze the call graph of programs, to determine the shortest path between return instructions. We have already experimented with the first approach. If we study again the chart in Figure 3, we see that only a few applications achieve an IB frequency that is close to the universal threshold. The table in Figure 4 makes this observation more explicit. We have grouped benchmarks according to their peak frequency. We notice that the peak frequency tends to be higher in the Windows OS; however, the frequency of the exploits is higher as well in this environment, as Figure 3 reveals. On the other hand, Linux, the system where we found the smallest gap between legal and illegal executions, has a very low peak (6/32 IBs per instruction) in almost half the applications. The immediate conclusion that we draw from Figure 4 is that the most common frequency of IBs in our benchmarks is also the one that is the farthest away from the lowest peak observed in the actual exploits. Therefore, the use of a specific threshold for each application provides us with a more robust and accurate system.

al. [15] and Goktas et al. [16] propose ways to bypass the LBR-based defense. However, we do not believe that these strategies work easily against our protection mechanism. For attackers to succeed, they must insert no-ops between gadgets. Just adding them at the end, or after 10 gadgets, like Carline does against the defense proposed by Pappas et al. and Cheng et al. is not enough to circumvent our approach. VI.

This paper has presented a novel technique to detect Return-Oriented Programming attacks: we check the density of indirect branches in the stream of executed instructions. A sliding window implemented in hardware allows us to keep track of this information efficiently. Our approach does not make ROP exploits impossible to be implemented. The recent history of construction and defeat of ROP prevention mechanisms has shown us that this goal would be rather ambitious. Instead, we propose a cheap, original and efficient method to make ROP attacks substantially more difficult to craft. R EFERENCES [1]




10 9 8 7 6

0 6.9% 27.6% 24.1% 41.4%

11.1% 88.9% 0 0 0

Fig. 4. Distribution of peak occurrences of IBs within a sliding window of 32 bits for SPEC CPU 2006. The higher the peak, the higher the frequency of IBs, e.g., a peak of 10 instructions means that 10 IBs have been observed within a group of 32 successive opcodes.


[3] [4] [5] [6]




There are strategies to identify ROP-based attacks that are similar to ours. The closest works are due to Chen et al. [11], Davi et al. [12], Pappas et al. [13], and - more recently Cheng et al. [14]. These researchers propose to monitor the sequence of instructions that a program produces during its execution, flagging as exploits instruction streams that show a high frequency of RET operations. For instance, Chen et al. [11] fire warnings if they observe sequences of three RET operations and if each is separated from the others by five or less instructions. This approach yields more false positives than our sliding window: Chen et al. have reported one false alarm in a smaller corpus of benchmarks than the one we have used in this paper. Davi et al. have not implemented their approach, but discuss four situations that lead to false positives. Pappas et al [13] and Cheng et al. [14] use the Last Branch Record (LBR) registers to detect chains of gadgets. LBR refers to a collection of register pairs that store the source and destination addresses of recently executed branches. They are present in Intel Core 2, Intel Xeon and Intel Atom. ARM has similar capabilities in some processors. We propose a different hardware, which consists of a register, a shifter and an adder. We believe that our strategy makes ROP detection easier and faster than using the LBR approach. Carline et








[15] [16]

H. Shacham, “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone: return-intolibc without function calls (on the x86),” in CCS. ACM, 2007, pp. 552–561. Z. Lin, X. Zhang, and D. Xu, “Reuse-oriented camouflaging trojan: Vulnerability detection and attack construction,” in DSN. IEEE, 2010, pp. 281–290. R. Roemer and E. Buchanan, “Return-oriented programming: Systems, languages and applications,” Trans. Inf. Syst. Secur., vol. V, 2012. Anonymous, “Exploit-DB,” 2014, J. L. Henning, “Spec cpu2006 benchmark descriptions,” SIGARCH Comput. Archit. News, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 1–17, 2006. L. Yuan, W. Xing, H. Chen, and B. Zang, “Security breaches as pmu deviation: Detecting and identifying security attacks using performance counters,” in APSys. ACM, 2011, pp. 6:1–6:5. J. L. Hennessy and D. A. Patterson, Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach, 3rd ed. Elsevier, 2003. C. S. Wallace, “A suggestion for a fast multiplier,” Electronic Computers, vol. EC-13, no. 3, pp. 14–17, 1964. R. Ramanarayanan, S. Mathew, V. Erraguntla, R. Krishnamurthy, and S. Gueron, “A 2.1 GHz 6.5 mW 64-bit unified popcount/bitscan datapath unit for 65nm high-performance microprocessor execution cores,” in VLSID. IEEE, 2008, pp. 273–278. Intel, “Pin - A Dynamic Binary Instrumentation Tool.” [Online]. Available: P. Chen, H. Xiao, X. Shen, X. Yin, B. Mao, and L. Xie, “DROP: Detecting return-oriented programming malicious code,” in ISS. IEEE, 2009, pp. 163–177. L. Davi, A. Sadeghi, and M. Winandy, “Dynamic integrity measurement and attestation: Towards defense against return-oriented programming attacks,” in WSTC, 2009, pp. 49–54. V. Pappas, M. Polychronakis, and A. D. Keromytis, “Transparent rop exploit mitigation using indirect branch tracing,” in SEC. USENIX, 2013, pp. 447–462. Y. Cheng, Z. Zhou, M. Yu, X. Ding, and R. H. Deng, “Ropecker: A generic and practical approach for defending against ROP attacks,” in NDSS. Internet Society, 2014, pp. 1–14. N. Carlini and D. Wagner, “ROP is still dangerous: Breaking modern defenses,” in Security Symposium. USENIX, 2014, pp. 385–399. E. G¨oktas, E. Athanasopoulos, M. Polychronakis, H. Bos, and G. Portokalidis, “Size does matter: Why using gadget-chain length to prevent code-reuse attacks is hard,” in Security Symposium. USENIX, 2014, pp. 417–432.

Counting the Frequency of Indirect Branches to Detect ...

instructions (RETs), indirect jumps or indirect call instructions. Shacham [1] shows how to .... a 3-way superscalar processor for an 8-instruction window. Three ...

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