Missing Protection Mechanism for Alternate Hardware Interface

The lack of protections on alternate paths to access control-protected assets (such as unprotected shadow registers and other external facing unguarded interfaces) allows an attacker to bypass existing protections to the asset that are only performed against the primary path.


An asset inside a chip might have access-control protections through one interface. However, if all paths to the asset are not protected, an attacker might compromise the asset through alternate paths. These alternate paths could be through shadow or mirror registers inside the IP core, or could be paths from other external-facing interfaces to the IP core or SoC.

Consider an SoC with various interfaces such as UART, SMBUS, PCIe, USB, etc. If access control is implemented for SoC internal registers only over the PCIe interface, then an attacker could still modify the SoC internal registers through alternate paths by coming through interfaces such as UART, SMBUS, USB, etc.

Alternatively, attackers might be able to bypass existing protections by exploiting unprotected, shadow registers. Shadow registers and mirror registers typically refer to registers that can be accessed from multiple addresses. Writing to or reading from the aliased/mirrored address has the same effect as writing to the address of the main register. They are typically implemented within an IP core or SoC to temporarily hold certain data. These data will later be updated to the main register, and both registers will be in synch. If the shadow registers are not access-protected, attackers could simply initiate transactions to the shadow registers and compromise system security.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

Register SECURE_ME is located at address 0xF00. A mirror of this register called COPY_OF_SECURE_ME is at location 0x800F00. The register SECURE_ME is protected from malicious agents and only allows access to select, while COPY_OF_SECURE_ME is not.

Access control is implemented using an allowlist (as indicated by acl_oh_allowlist). The identity of the initiator of the transaction is indicated by the one hot input, incoming_id. This is checked against the acl_oh_allowlist (which contains a list of initiators that are allowed to access the asset).

Though this example is shown in Verilog, it will apply to VHDL as well.

module foo_bar(data_out, data_in, incoming_id, address, clk, rst_n);
output [31:0] data_out;
input [31:0] data_in, incoming_id, address;
input clk, rst_n;
wire write_auth, addr_auth;
reg [31:0] data_out, acl_oh_allowlist, q;
assign write_auth = | (incoming_id & acl_oh_allowlist) ? 1 : 0;
always @*

  acl_oh_allowlist <= 32h8312;

assign addr_auth = (address == 32hF00) ? 1: 0;
always @ (posedge clk or negedge rst_n)

  if (!rst_n)


      q <= 32h0;
      data_out <= 32h0;




      q <= (addr_auth & write_auth) ? data_in: q;
      data_out <= q;



assign addr_auth = (address == 32hF00) ? 1: 0;

The bugged line of code is repeated in the Bad example above. Weakness arises from the fact that the SECURE_ME register can be modified by writing to the shadow register COPY_OF_SECURE_ME, the address of COPY_OF_SECURE_ME should also be included in the check. That buggy line of code should instead be replaced as shown in the Good Code Snippet below.

assign addr_auth = (address == 32hF00 || address == 32h800F00) ? 1: 0;

See Also

Privilege Separation and Access Control Issues

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Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

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Weaknesses without Software Fault Patterns

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Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

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