Hell Oh Entropy!

Life, Code and everything in between

FUDCon Notes on my Security Exploits Session

Posted: Nov 10, 2011, 10:17

I was askedĀ  by a couple of people for notes on the security exploits session that I conducted at FUDCon. I had posted the code samples on the talk page, but that is probably a little terse, so here’s a little write-up to support the code samples. To repeat what I had said multiple times earlier; I am not a security researcher, not even a security freak. This topic was suggested to me by Amit Shah, and I developed an interest in it due to my original interest, which is operating systems tools. The preparation of this talk got me interested in security, but only through the perspective of operating systems tools and programs, so I am still relatively indifferent to the subject of web-based security.

I started preparing for the session fairly late; i.e. 2 days before FUDCon. I am a little familiar with glibc code and with the way the compiler, linker, loader, etc. work on Linux, so that helped me understand a lot of the concepts behind exploits fairly easily. But concepts != working code and getting exploit code to work was the real challenge, especially when I had just about 3 evenings+nights for it. I had started with an idea of showing stack smashing and privilege escalation examples, but given the time constraint, audience level (college students) and also the constraint of my knowledge, I decided to restrict it to stack based attacks. All of the examples have a buffer which is being written to without checking for bounds of that buffer, typically with an strcpy.

The shellcode sample:

The shellcode sample as well as the final vulnerability demo (smash.c and vulnerable.c) were derived from the article Stack Smashing for Fun and Profit. That is a great article that explains in much more detail than I went into in my session, as to how the shellcode exploit can be developed.The core idea of this is:

The exploit is fairly straightforward, except that the instructions no longer work as is on Linux. These instructions require that the process image is set up in a manner that the page mapped to implement the program stack should have execute permissions. By default on recent Linux distributions (I tried this on F-15, but I am certain this should be true for at least F-13, if not earlier), the linker writes out binaries in a manner that the stack, when set up for a process, only has read and write permissions.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where this was set and finally found the -z option of the linker. So to write out a binary that sets up an executable stack, I had to call the linker with -z execstack. This finally enabled me to get the shellcode working.

The actual exploit

Once the shellcode was done, I could get the final vulnerability working and I immediately set about trying it. The exploit is based on the above shellcode example, except for one difference. The shellcode example is just that, an example. It is not an actual exploit; it is just a roundabout way to get a shell. The exploit I was about to do was a real crack. The idea now is to accept a string as input, which is then fed in to make a regular and buggy program provide you with a shell.

To imagine how this would work, think of the program that gives you a login prompt. In the context of this exploit, you should be able to input a crafted string into this login prompt and have it give you a shell without actually knowing the password! This is what the actual exploit ought to look like.

Again, writing the exploit was the easy part; getting it to run was quite another thing altogether. The exploit works as follows:

In all of this, there is one assumption that caused the program sample to not work; the assumption that memory maps are at predictable addresses. Recent kernels (quite some time ago actually) have a new security mechanism called Address Space Randomization which ensures that memory pages are loaded at random offsets. This meant that our educated guess would no longer work. So to be able to actually do this demo, I would have to disable address space randomization. I do that with:

echo 0 > /proc/sys/kernel/randomize_va_space

Even with this, my example would not execute by itself and would end with a SIGILL. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that my systm is x86_64 while the samples are all 32-bit. Our overflow string does not seem to agree with the instruction set on my system. In any case, it seems to run just fine inside a debugger. So if you run smash to get a shell, run gdb vulnerable and then run it with $EGG, you get the shell! At least I had a demo now.

Jump to libc

While I was trying out the shellcode example, I continued thinking about various other ways in which I could get a shell. One of the methods I thought of was to overwrite the return address with the address of the system() glibc call and pass the string via stack. I later found out via Huzaifa that this is in fact a documented way to exploit unchecked buffers on stack. Huzaifa also said that I may be missing out on something there and gave me some tips on finding the right resources for this. I still could not get this working, but at least I found out why the exploit did not work.

This exploit seemed attractive to me because it does not require an executable stack. The instructions I want to execute are already there in memory. So I only have to overwrite the return address and continue writing “/bin/sh” on the stack. I first tried with x86_64 in this case, because I was going by my own idea at that time. I soon figured out that the system() function on x86_64 did not take function arguments from stack. It took the argument from the %rdi register. My devious plan had been foiled! I did not give up however and looked at the system() implementation on i686. This retained the old behaviour of popping arguments from the stack, so my exploit was still possible here.

Not. My code was correct, but every time I run the program, the address of system() had just 3 bytes set. So it would always look something like: 0x00aabbcc. This was bad news because this meant that I cannot continue writing the shell string into the stack (strcpy stops copying when it encounters a 0x0). This means that I can call system() (like I was able to on x86_64 too), but I cannot pass it an argument. After trying enough number of times, I concluded that this must be a security feature. This was backed up by the tip Huzaifa had shared with me to (ironically) get the exploit to work. This was perhaps the first documentation of a return to libc exploit by Solar Designer. In his explanation, Solar designer mentioned that a way to fix this would be to ensure a 0x00 in the address, which is precisely what is happening here.

This obviously does not deny the fact that such an exploit can be carried out if you want to call functions that do not have arguments. Think for example, of a function that executes a shell ;)


The last modify example was a simple little trick I wrote on the last day to demonstrate how buffer overflows work and how they can be used to alter program flow. That again is not an exploit at all. At most, it can be called… a buffer overflow ;)

I had even more fun preparing for this session than actually presenting it because it taught me a lot more than I could ever have done by just reading literature. I hope those who attended my session at FUDCon enjoyed the session too.