Failure to Disable Reserved Bits

The reserved bits in a hardware design are not disabled prior to production. Typically, reserved bits are used for future capabilities and should not support any functional logic in the design. However, designers might covertly use these bits to debug or further develop new capabilities in production hardware. Adversaries with access to these bits will write to them in hopes of compromising hardware state.


Reserved bits are labeled as such so they can be allocated for a later purpose. They are not to do anything in the current design. However, designers might want to use these bits to debug or control/configure a future capability to help minimize time to market (TTM). If the logic being controlled by these bits is still enabled in production, an adversary could use the logic to induce unwanted/unsupported behavior in the hardware.


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

Assume a hardware Intellectual Property (IP) has address space 0x0-0x0F for its configuration registers, with the last one labeled reserved (i.e. 0x0F). Therefore inside the Finite State Machine (FSM), the code is as follows:

reg gpio_out = 0;  //gpio should remain low for normal operation

case (register_address)

  4'b1111 : //0x0F


      gpio_out = 1;


An adversary may perform writes to reserved address space in hopes of changing the behavior of the hardware. In the code above, the GPIO pin should remain low for normal operation. However, it can be asserted by accessing the reserved address space (0x0F). This may be a concern if the GPIO state is being used as an indicator of health (e.g. if asserted the hardware may respond by shutting down or resetting the system, which may not be the correct action the system should perform).

In the code below, the condition "register_address = 0X0F" is commented out, and a default is provided that will catch any values of register_address not explicitly accounted for and take no action with regards to gpio_out. This means that an attacker who is able to write 0X0F to register_address will not enable any undocumented "features" in the process.

reg gpio_out = 0;  //gpio should remain low for normal operation

case (register_address)

  //4'b1111 : //0x0F
  default: gpio_out = gpio_out;

See Also

Comprehensive Categorization: Poor Coding Practices

Weaknesses in this category are related to poor coding practices.

General Circuit and Logic Design Concerns

Weaknesses in this category are related to hardware-circuit design and logic (e.g., CMOS transistors, finite state machines, and registers) as well as issues related t...

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

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

Weaknesses Introduced During Design

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

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