Why I’m not enabling Bitcode

Thoughts on application binaries packaging and software distribution

At Apple’s annual WWDC developer event, the compiler infrastructure team unveiled “Bitcode” and recommended iOS developers to opt-in , even requiring it for Apple Watch applications.

The Problem with fat archives

Multi-architecture iOS (and OS X) executables are packaged in fat archives. The fat format (not to same as the filesystem) is quite simple: the application binaries contain headers describing the scope of the instructions for a given infrastructure. Fat headers of a binary can be looked up by running:

otool -f binaryName

In the following screenshot, we can see that Signal Private Messenger is compiled for the two following architectures:

- armv7: ARM has CPU type 12, armv7 is CPU subtype 9. (The armv7-specific instructions start at offset 16384 and go on for the next 5306144 bytes.)
- arm64: CPU type 16777228, the ARM 64-bit CPU type. 64-bit instructions start at offset 5324800 and have length of 6457600 bytes.
Screenshot from running the ‘otool’ command

Note: The FAT_MAGIC value `0xCAFEBABE` indicates what kind of archive it is. Different flags are defined for big/little-endian & 32/64 bit configurations.

macho.h from Apple’s Open Source page

As we can see, adding architectures come at a significant storage cost. Apple has regularly updated the underlying ARM processor architectures of their series A SoCs.

iOS Support Matrix. Each color represents a different processor architecture. Source

It is fairly common for Apple to continue delivering operating system updates for devices that are more than four years old. For instance, the iPhone 4S, released in 2011, still gets an iOS 9 update. iOS developers also build their apps to be able to run on multiple older versions of iOS and therefore have to support sometimes even more architectures. In addition, Apple has started releasing multiple iPhone models per year powered by different architectures. iPhones are not the only devices running these apps: the same binaries can be executed on iPads too. And since recently, iPhone app bundles are shipping with WatchOS binaries too. All of this results in application binaries becoming substantially larger as time goes by.

Applications are built for all architectures, but only one is required on a specific device. So, why not just distribute the binary for the device’s architecture? Apple introduced exactly that with App Thinning.

App Thinning

Slicing is the process of creating and delivering variants of the app bundle for different target devices. A variant contains only the executable architecture and resources that are needed for the target device. You continue to develop and upload full versions of your app to iTunes Connect.
Source: App Thinning — Apple Developer Documentation

Slicing looks great. It not only strips away unused executable architectures, but also deals away with resources that won’t be used based on your screen resolution or size, such as images and icons.

Great! Binary size growth is no more an issue, but what about new architectures? What stripped architecture should Apple serve them? That’s where Bitcode comes in.


Bitcode isn’t actually anything new. It’s been around in the LLVM project for some time now. Let’s review the compilation process.

The most popular design for a traditional static compiler (like most C compilers) is the three phase design whose major components are the front end, the optimizer and the back end.
The front end parses source code, checking it for errors, and builds a language-specific Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) to represent the input code. The AST is optionally converted to a new representation for optimization, and the optimizer and back end are run on the code.
The optimizer is responsible for doing a broad variety of transformations to try to improve the code’s running time, such as eliminating redundant computations, and is usually more or less independent of language and target.
The back end (also known as the code generator) then maps the code onto the target instruction set. In addition to making correct code, it is responsible for generating goodcode that takes advantage of unusual features of the supported architecture. Common parts of a compiler back end include instruction selection, register allocation, and instruction scheduling.
LLVM three stages compilation
The most important win of this classical design comes when a compiler decides to support multiple source languages or target architectures. If the compiler uses a common code representation in its optimizer, then a front end can be written for any language that can compile to it, and a back end can be written for any target that can compile from it.
Source: LLVM’s Chris Lattner Intro to LLVM

The front-end produces LLVM “bytecode” (LLVM Intermediate Representation) for a virtual machine, that is later optimized and mapped to native instruction sets. Bitcode is simply a bitstream of LLVM IR.

With iOS 9, Apple wants developers to upload LLVM Bitcode to iTunes Connect (the App Store’s backend). Apple would then optimize the LLVM IR and generate the binaries for each platform. In practice, the LLVM Bitcode is compressed and packed into the Mach-O binary that is uploaded to iTunes.

If you’re curious about how Bitcode is packed into application binaries when uploaded to the App Store, I suggest you the following article:

Is LLVM-IR really platform independent?

Even though the three stages compilation infrastructure appeared to be designed to be platform independent. It appears to be very different in practice.

In a lengthy write-up in 2011 on the LLVM-dev mailing list, (ex-)Apple engineer Dan Gohman argued about why IR would be “a poor system for building a Platform, any system where LLVM IR would be a
format in which programs are stored or transmitted for subsequent
use on multiple underlying architectures”.

However, there are several ways in which LLVM IR differs from actual
platforms, both high-level VMs like Java or .NET and actual low-level
ISAs like x86 or ARM.

First, the boundaries of what capabilities LLVM provides are nebulous.
LLVM IR contains:

* Explicitly Target-specific features. These aren't secret;
x86_fp80's reason for being is pretty clear.

* Target-specific ABI code. In order to interoperate with native
C ABIs, LLVM requires front-ends to emit target-specific IR.
Pretty much everyone around here has run into this.

* Implicitly Target-specific features. The most obvious examples of
these are all the different Linkage kinds. These are all basically
just gateways to features in real linkers, and real linkers vary
quite a lot. LLVM has its own IR-level Linker, but it doesn't
do all the stuff that native linkers do.

* Target-specific limitations in seemingly portable features.
How big can the alignment be on an alloca? Or a GlobalVariable?
What's the widest supported integer type? LLVM's various backends
all have different answers to questions like these.

Even ignoring the fact that the quality of the backends in the
LLVM source tree varies widely, the question of "What can LLVM IR do?"
has numerous backend-specific facets. This can be problematic for
producers as well as consumers.

Second, and more fundamentally, LLVM IR is a fundamentally
vague language. It has:

* Undefined Behavior. LLVM is, at its heart, a C compiler, and
Undefined Behavior is one of its cornerstones.

High-level VMs typically raise predictable exceptions when they
encounter program errors. Physical machines typically document
their behavior very extensively. LLVM is fundamentally different
from both: it presents a bunch of rules to follow and then offers
no description of what happens if you break them.

LLVM's optimizers are built on the assumption that the rules
are never broken, so when rules do get broken, the code just
goes off the rails and runs into whatever happens to be in
the way. Sometimes it crashes loudly. Sometimes it silently
corrupts data and keeps running.

There are some tools that can help locate violations of the
rules. Valgrind is a very useful tool. But they can't find
everything. There are even some kinds of undefined behavior that
I've never heard anyone even propose a method of detection for.

* Intentional vagueness. There is a strong preference for defining
LLVM IR semantics intuitively rather than formally. This is quite
practical; formalizing a language is a lot of work, it reduces
future flexibility, and it tends to draw attention to troublesome
edge cases which could otherwise be largely ignored.

I've done work to try to formalize parts of LLVM IR, and the
results have been largely fruitless. I got bogged down in
edge cases that no one is interested in fixing.

* Floating-point arithmetic is not always consistent. Some backends
don't fully implement IEEE-754 arithmetic rules even without
-ffast-math and friends, to get better performance.

If you're familiar with "write once, debug everywhere" in Java,
consider the situation in LLVM IR, which is fundamentally opposed
to even trying to provide that level of consistency. And if you allow
the optimizer to do subtarget-specific optimizations, you increase
the chances that some bit of undefined behavior or vagueness will be

Third, LLVM is a low level system that doesn't represent high-level
abstractions natively. It forces them to be chopped up into lots of
small low-level instructions.

* It makes LLVM's Interpreter really slow. The amount of work
performed by each instruction is relatively small, so the interpreter
has to execute a relatively large number of instructions to do simple
tasks, such as virtual method calls. Languages built for interpretation
do more with fewer instructions, and have lower per-instruction

* Similarly, it makes really-fast JITing hard. LLVM is fast compared
to some other static C compilers, but it's not fast compared to
real JIT compilers. Compiling one LLVM IR level instruction at a
time can be relatively simple, ignoring the weird stuff, but this
approach generates comically bad code. Fixing this requires
recognizing patterns in groups of instructions, and then emitting
code for the patterns. This works, but it's more involved.

* Lowering high-level language features into low-level code locks
in implementation details. This is less severe in native code,
because a compiled blob is limited to a single hardware platform
as well. But a platform which advertizes architecture independence
which still has all the ABI lock-in of HLL implementation details
presents a much more frightening backwards compatibility specter.

* Apple has some LLVM IR transformations for Objective-C, however
the transformations have to reverse-engineer the high-level semantics
out of the lowered code, which is awkward. Further, they're
reasoning about high-level semantics in a way that isn't guaranteed
to be safe by LLVM IR rules alone. It works for the kinds of code
clang generates for Objective C, but it wouldn't necessarily be
correct if run on code produced by other front-ends. LLVM IR
isn't capable of representing the necessary semantics for this
unless we start embedding Objective C into it.

Chris Lattner, primary author of the LLVM project and now director of the developer tools at Apple responded:

I agree with almost all of the points you make, but not your conclusion. Many of the issues that you point out as problems are actually “features” that a VM like Java doesn’t provide. For example, Java doesn’t have uninitialized variables on the stack, and LLVM does. LLVM is capable of expressing the implicit zero initialization of variables that is implicit in Java, it just leaves the choice to the frontend.
Many of the other issues that you raise are true, but irrelevant when compared to other VMs. For example, LLVM allows a frontend to produce code that is ABI compatible with native C ABIs. It does this by requiring the frontend to know a lot about the native C ABI. Java doesn’t permit this at all, and so LLVM having “this feature” seems like a feature over-and-above what high-level VMs provide. Similiarly, the “conditionally” supported features like large and obscurely sized integers simply don’t exist in these VMs. […]
It isn’t LLVM’s fault that people want LLVM to magically solve all of C’s portability problems.

It’s clear that nobody claims that LLVM IR is actually portable. Once the LLVM-IR has been generated from a specific front-end, you can’t just plug another backend and hope that your application will just work.

This exchange being from 2011, has anything changed since? I compiled a simple App with Bitcode to see. You can find the AppDelegate.m and the associated LLVM-IR in the following Gist. Unsurprisingly, the IR is highly dependent on a specific target (casts, word sizes …).

Bitcode will enable support for better microarchitecture support but gets nowhere close to target independence. Applications compiled for the armv7 target could still run on armv7s devices but additional optimisations make applications faster if they contain a armv7s slice. The advantage that Bitcode provides on top of app thinning is negligible in my opinion since it will only provide a slight speed up until the developer uploads a new build with the optimized slice.

Security Implications

Now that we know what Bitcode actually does, let’s review the security implications.

Compiler Optimizations Correctness

Compiler optimizations correctness is nothing new and of course it also applies to programs not distributed with Bitcode. But usually, the developer of the application has complete control on what types of optimizations will be performed and on what files these should be applied. Bitcode doesn’t provide any fine-grained control over this. Apple does not provide any documentation or sample configuration of what optimizations are applied on the LLVM-IR. It acts like a black-box, and you can’t reproduce the output locally as far as I know.

Compiler optimizations correctness has been studied for a long time. A recent paper by Vijay D’Silva, Mathias Payer and Dawn Song presented at LangSec 2015, analyses optimizations from a security perspective. Here are a few examples of what could go wrong:

  • information leaks through persistent state.
A compiler optimization that manipulates security critical code may cause information about a secure computation to persist in memory thereby introducing a persistent state violation.

Examples: Dead Store Elimination, Function Call Inlining, Code Motion

  • elimination of security-relevant code due to undefined behavior
The term undefined behavior refers to situation in which
the behavior of a program is not specified. Language specifications
deliberately underspecify the semantics of some
operations for various reasons such as to allow working
around hardware restrictions or to create optimization opportunities.
Examples of undefined behavior in C are using
an uninitialized variable, dividing by zero, or operations that
trigger overflows.
  • introduction of side channels
A side channel leaks information about the state of the
system. Side channel attacks allow an attacker external to
the system to observe the internal state of a computation
without direct access to the internal state. We say that a side
channel violation occurs if optimized code is susceptible to
a side channel attack but the source code is not.

Examples: Common Subexpression Elimination, Strength Reduction, Peephole Optimizations

All of these bugs are bad. With cryptographic implementations in mind, all of these represent important vulnerabilities. From key leakage to timing attacks via fault attacks, a lot of things can go wrong.

No Inline Assembly

It is quite frequent for performance or security sensitive applications to include inline assembly. Cryptographic implementations are often written directly in assembly to prevent any unwanted compiler optimizations and be able to optimize operations tailored to the algorithm’s requirements.

With Bitcode, developers can’t use inline assembly anymore. It not only affects cryptographic applications, VLC media player uses inline assembly to speed up some graphical operations.

Compiler trust

In his 1984 Turing Award Lecture “Reflections on trusting trust”, Ken Thompson describes how compilers can be used to inject trojans.

Extract from Ken Thompson’s Turing Award Lecture

An interesting example of the inherent trust issue in compilers has been doing rounds recently with the detection of XcodeGhost, a modified version of Xcode that reportedly infected millions of users. It is already difficult to trust compilers. LLVM being open-source and reviewable makes it easier to trust than a blackbox. But that doesn’t entirely solve the problem since you will need a compiler binary to compile your compiler.

The centralization of the building and signing process is what worries me: an adversary could find a vulnerability in the LLVM backend to obtain remote code execution on Apple’s Bitcode compilation infrastructure to inject a compiler trojan that would affect every single app on the App Store that was submitted with Bitcode.

Potential for backdoor injection

Compromising Apple’s infrastructure isn’t the only way to backdoor iOS apps in that setting. Since Apple is going to centralize the process of building application binaries, it will become really appealing to governments desiring to get “lawful” access to application content, circumventing any kind of encryption, no matter how strong it is. An article published today by the Washington Post explains how the Obama administration working group has been working on compelling phone manufacturers or App Store services to provide a way to insert a backdoor on the device.

The second approach would exploit companies’ automatic software updates. Under a court order, the company could insert spyware onto targeted customers’ phones or tablets — essentially hacking the device.

Adding backdoors to Bitcode applications becomes easier than ever. Apple has your application’s IR (easier to decompile than binary) with all the associated symbols and will recompile your app.

This is not a new capability. Of course, you can ‘easily’ do it on current binaries too. But the issue is that Apple will compile your code, and you don’t get to see the resulting binary.


There is currently no easy way of verifying (save with a jailbroken iPhone) that an application on the App Store is the one you uploaded as a developer. And I’m not even talking about reproducible builds, which consist of reproducing the same binary from a given source code. The biggest pain point up to now for verifiable and reproducible builds was FairPlay, Apple’s DRM applied to applications. App Store binaries are encrypted (with a key that even the app’s developer doesn’t have). Hence, they have to be decrypted before being able to analyze with binary analysis tools such as Hopper, IDA …

FairPlay encryption already made it really difficult for developers to make sure that Apple distributes the build you think they are distributing. But at least, with jailbroken iPhone, I’m currently able to get some idea of what the binary I’m distributing looks like and compare it to the one I submitted to Apple.

With Bitcode builds, this becomes significantly harder. Since I can’t reproduce a target binary since I don’t know what optimizations Apple is performing on my binaries, I can’t ‘diff’ them to find possibly altered parts. I have to analyze the entire binary to figure out that nothing nasty is going on. It became so bad that some developers weren’t even able to symbolicate the crash logs of their own applications since binaries were built on the server and Apple was failing to provide the symbolication files (dSYM).


App thinning solves the binary size problem that I understand needed to be solved. The potential performance improvements during a short time period on new microarchitectures isn’t outbalancing all of the issues I cited in this post. It might be a different deal for you, but I strongly think it’s unwise for any developer who cares about security.

Just not gonna happen, Bitnope …

Update 1 (24–09–2015 17:19 GMT): Some grammatical and layout issues were fixed based on feedback from Nadim Kobeissi.

Update 2 (29–09–2015 12:30 GMT): Adding VLC to inline assembly paragraph.