Data Execution Prevention (DEP) is a set of hardware and software technologies that perform additional checks on memory to help prevent malicious code from running on a system. In Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, DEP is enforced by hardware and by software.
The primary benefit of DEP is that it helps prevent code execution from data pages, such as the default heap pages, various stack pages, and memory pool pages. Typically, code is not executed from the default heap and the stack. Hardware-enforced DEP detects code that is running from these locations and raises an exception when execution occurs. If the exception is unhandled, the process will be stopped. Execution of code from protected memory in kernel mode causes a Stop error.
DEP can help block a class of security intrusions. Specifically, DEP can help block a malicious program in which a virus or other type of attack has injected a process with additional code and then tries to run the injected code. On a system with DEP, execution of the injected code causes an exception. Software-enforced DEP can help block programs that take advantage of exception-handling mechanisms in Windows.
Hardware-enforced DEP marks all memory locations in a process as non-executable unless the location explicitly contains executable code. A class of attacks exists that tries to insert and run code from non-executable memory locations. DEP helps prevent these attacks by intercepting them and raising an exception.
Hardware-enforced DEP relies on processor hardware to mark memory with an attribute that indicates that code should not be executed from that memory. DEP functions on a per-virtual memory page basis, and DEP typically changes a bit in the page table entry (PTE) to mark the memory page.
Processor architecture determines how DEP is implemented in hardware and how DEP marks the virtual memory page. However, processors that support hardware-enforced DEP can raise an exception when code is executed from a page that is marked with the appropriate attribute set.
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel have defined and shipped Windows-compatible architectures that are compatible with DEP.
Beginning with Windows XP SP2, the 32-bit version of Windows uses one of the following:
1. The no-execute page-protection (NX) processor feature as defined by AMD.
2. The Execute Disable Bit (XD) feature as defined by Intel.
To use these processor features, the processor must be running in Physical Address Extension (PAE) mode. However, Windows will automatically enable PAE mode to support DEP. Users do not have to separately enable PAE by using the /PAE boot switch.
An additional set of Data Execution Prevention security checks have been added to Windows XP SP2. These checks, known as software-enforced DEP, are designed to block malicious code that takes advantage of exception-handling mechanisms in Windows. Software-enforced DEP runs on any processor that can run Windows XP SP2. By default, software-enforced DEP helps protect only limited system binaries, regardless of the hardware-enforced DEP capabilities of the processor.
Windows supports four system-wide configurations for both hardware-enforced and software-enforced DEP.