ShadowCallStack is an instrumentation pass, currently only implemented for aarch64, that protects programs against return address overwrites (e.g. stack buffer overflows.) It works by saving a function’s return address to a separately allocated ‘shadow call stack’ in the function prolog in non-leaf functions and loading the return address from the shadow call stack in the function epilog. The return address is also stored on the regular stack for compatibility with unwinders, but is otherwise unused.

The aarch64 implementation is considered production ready, and an implementation of the runtime has been added to Android’s libc (bionic). An x86_64 implementation was evaluated using Chromium and was found to have critical performance and security deficiencies–it was removed in LLVM 9.0. Details on the x86_64 implementation can be found in the Clang 7.0.1 documentation.


To optimize for memory consumption and cache locality, the shadow call stack stores only an array of return addresses. This is in contrast to other schemes, like SafeStack, that mirror the entire stack and trade-off consuming more memory for shorter function prologs and epilogs with fewer memory accesses.

Return Flow Guard is a pure software implementation of shadow call stacks on x86_64. Like the previous implementation of ShadowCallStack on x86_64, it is inherently racy due to the architecture’s use of the stack for calls and returns.

Intel Control-flow Enforcement Technology (CET) is a proposed hardware extension that would add native support to use a shadow stack to store/check return addresses at call/return time. Being a hardware implementation, it would not suffer from race conditions and would not incur the overhead of function instrumentation, but it does require operating system support.


A runtime is not provided in compiler-rt so one must be provided by the compiled application or the operating system. Integrating the runtime into the operating system should be preferred since otherwise all thread creation and destruction would need to be intercepted by the application.

The instrumentation makes use of the platform register x18 on AArch64 and x3 (gp) on RISC-V. For simplicity we will refer to this as the SCSReg. On some platforms, SCSReg is reserved, and on others, it is designated as a scratch register. This generally means that any code that may run on the same thread as code compiled with ShadowCallStack must either target one of the platforms whose ABI reserves SCSReg (currently Android, Darwin, Fuchsia and Windows) or be compiled with a flag to reserve that register (e.g., -ffixed-x18). If absolutely necessary, code compiled without reserving the register may be run on the same thread as code that uses ShadowCallStack by saving the register value temporarily on the stack (example in Android) but this should be done with care since it risks leaking the shadow call stack address.

Because it requires a dedicated register, the ShadowCallStack feature is incompatible with any other feature that may use SCSReg. However, there is no inherent reason why ShadowCallStack needs to use a specific register; in principle, a platform could choose to reserve and use another register for ShadowCallStack, but this would be incompatible with the ABI standards published in AAPCS64 and the RISC-V psABI.

Special unwind information is required on functions that are compiled with ShadowCallStack and that may be unwound, i.e. functions compiled with -fexceptions (which is the default in C++). Some unwinders (such as the libgcc 4.9 unwinder) do not understand this unwind info and will segfault when encountering it. LLVM libunwind processes this unwind info correctly, however. This means that if exceptions are used together with ShadowCallStack, the program must use a compatible unwinder.


ShadowCallStack is intended to be a stronger alternative to -fstack-protector. It protects from non-linear overflows and arbitrary memory writes to the return address slot.

The instrumentation makes use of the SCSReg register to reference the shadow call stack, meaning that references to the shadow call stack do not have to be stored in memory. This makes it possible to implement a runtime that avoids exposing the address of the shadow call stack to attackers that can read arbitrary memory. However, attackers could still try to exploit side channels exposed by the operating system [1] [2] or processor [3] to discover the address of the shadow call stack.

Unless care is taken when allocating the shadow call stack, it may be possible for an attacker to guess its address using the addresses of other allocations. Therefore, the address should be chosen to make this difficult. One way to do this is to allocate a large guard region without read/write permissions, randomly select a small region within it to be used as the address of the shadow call stack and mark only that region as read/write. This also mitigates somewhat against processor side channels. The intent is that the Android runtime will do this, but the platform will first need to be changed to avoid using setrlimit(RLIMIT_AS) to limit memory allocations in certain processes, as this also limits the number of guard regions that can be allocated.

The runtime will need the address of the shadow call stack in order to deallocate it when destroying the thread. If the entire program is compiled with SCSReg reserved, this is trivial: the address can be derived from the value stored in SCSReg (e.g. by masking out the lower bits). If a guard region is used, the address of the start of the guard region could then be stored at the start of the shadow call stack itself. But if it is possible for code compiled without reserving SCSReg to run on a thread managed by the runtime, which is the case on Android for example, the address must be stored somewhere else instead. On Android we store the address of the start of the guard region in TLS and deallocate the entire guard region including the shadow call stack at thread exit. This is considered acceptable given that the address of the start of the guard region is already somewhat guessable.

One way in which the address of the shadow call stack could leak is in the jmp_buf data structure used by setjmp and longjmp. The Android runtime avoids this by only storing the low bits of SCSReg in the jmp_buf, which requires the address of the shadow call stack to be aligned to its size.

The architecture’s call and return instructions (bl and ret) operate on a register rather than the stack, which means that leaf functions are generally protected from return address overwrites even without ShadowCallStack.


To enable ShadowCallStack, just pass the -fsanitize=shadow-call-stack flag to both compile and link command lines. On aarch64, you also need to pass -ffixed-x18 unless your target already reserves x18. On RISC-V, x3 (gp) is always reserved. It is, however, important to disable GP relaxation in the linker. This can be done with the --no-relax-gp flag in GNU ld.

Low-level API


In some cases one may need to execute different code depending on whether ShadowCallStack is enabled. The macro __has_feature(shadow_call_stack) can be used for this purpose.

#if defined(__has_feature)
#  if __has_feature(shadow_call_stack)
// code that builds only under ShadowCallStack
#  endif


Use __attribute__((no_sanitize("shadow-call-stack"))) on a function declaration to specify that the shadow call stack instrumentation should not be applied to that function, even if enabled globally.


The following example code:

int foo() {
  return bar() + 1;

Generates the following aarch64 assembly when compiled with -O2:

stp     x29, x30, [sp, #-16]!
mov     x29, sp
bl      bar
add     w0, w0, #1
ldp     x29, x30, [sp], #16

Adding -fsanitize=shadow-call-stack would output the following assembly:

str     x30, [x18], #8
stp     x29, x30, [sp, #-16]!
mov     x29, sp
bl      bar
add     w0, w0, #1
ldp     x29, x30, [sp], #16
ldr     x30, [x18, #-8]!