intuitive Call instrumentation - dynamic heuristic-based approach to instrument jump-based calls at runtime
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iCi - intuitive Call instrumentation

In a few words

Let us consider

  • B a binary
  • F(B) the set of functions implemented in B
  • e an execution of this binary

The problem iCi addresses is:

How to instrument every call to every function f of F(B) during an execution e of B?

iCi proposes an eponym heuristic-based approach to do this. This repository also includes three other approach to compare with iCi:

  • oracle: a very unefficient symbol-based instrumentation that gives the ground-truth
  • jcall: instrumentation of every CALL instruction, plus every JMP instruction that comes from the .plt section
  • jmp: instrumentation of every CALL instruction, plus every JMP instruction (each one is considered as a call)

Our experiments show that a naive implementation of call instrumentations (jcallor jmp) is not efficient (either missing calls or producing a huge amount of false positives), especially with compiler optimizations. On the other hand, our implementation iCi gives very accurate results, as it catches 99.99% of calls with no significant false positives (see relative section), but it comes with an overhead.

Here is the overview of the following sections:

  • Problem: emphasis of the problem to solve, by showing that naive approaches are not efficient
  • Approach: presentation of our heuristic-based solution
  • Results: experimentals results, to show that our approach is efficient
  • Conclusion: last words and conclusion on this work
  • User Guide: how to use the tool


As mentioned in the previous section, the problem we address here is to catch, dynamically and in real-time, every call to any function embedded in a given binary. An obvious approach is to instrument every CALL instruction. However, there are calls that are not based on the CALL instruction. In particular, every call to a dynamically-loaded library goes through the .plt, which uses the JMP instruction to achieve this.

To emphasis the problem we address, we propose two simple approaches and show that they either produce false negatives, or a huge number of false positives. But first, let us give some details about the oracle we use.


Table 1 - FScore of naive approaches to the problem of call detection


We construct the oracle by first fetching the symbol table in the binary file to get the function entry points. At load time, it also instruments routines (RTN) with Pin to get entry points of functions from libraries. Then, during the execution, care detects any discontinuity in the execution (meaning that there is a non-sequential evolution of %rip). In this case, it compares the new value of %eip with every function entry point that he knows. If there is a match, then it increments the number of calls to this particular function.

From this oracle, we get the total number of calls, regarding one execution, that we should detect for every function. Every other analysis we propose compares to this one by confronting the number of calls detected for each function. A call detected by the oracle and missed by a given analysis is called a false negative, and a call detected by the analysis that is not present in the oracle is called a false positive.

Important note: with this method, we only get an oracle for functions that are either embedded in the binary or imported from libraries using symbols. However, we do not have any information about what happens inside libraries (because we do not know the entry point of functions). For this reason, each time we use the oracle to produce numeric results, please note that this excludes whatever happens from library to library.


The first naive way of implementing call detection, named jcall, instruments every CALL instruction plus every JMP instruction located in the .plt section.
The results shown in Table 1 show that this method gives good results for binaries compiled with -O0 and -O1, but misses a significant number of calls with -O2 and -O3. For example, jcall has a FScore of 0.87 on ffmpeg compiled with -O2 or -O3, because it misses almost 300,000 calls.

What happens here? At -O0 and -O1, there is no tail-call optimization. Therefor, the vast majority of calls are actually implemented by a CALL instruction in the binary, or a JMP from the .plt when it targets a function in a shared libary. However, at -O2 and -O3, gcc implements a tail-call optimization which leads to transforming the calls that are the last instruction of a given function by a JMP-based call which is more efficient. At -O3, this optimization is still present, but because gcc also starts inlining functions, there are less calls to detect and thus less false negatives in absolute.

Note that this implementation, anyway, gives no false positive, at it focuses on the CALL instruction.


The previous implementation produces no false positive, but misses calls (and in particular tail-calls). The second approach we propose is to implement a much more conservative way: consider every JMP as a call. From such an approach, it is clear that a lot of false positives will be produced (see Table 1 ). However, we aim to show that there is no more false negative, and that would imply that the main problem here, if one wants to catch every call, is to differentiate JMP-based calls from regular jumps inside a function.

Table 1 shows that this is exactly what happens. The jmp instrumentation produces no false negative, which means that, in our benchmark, there is no call to a function that is implemented at assembly level by an instruction which is neither a CALL or a JMP (conditional or unconditional). The other result from this experiment is that the number of false positives can be very significant.

So, problem?

In this section, we showed that two naive approaches to catch calls are not efficient.

  • jcall produces no false positive, but misses some calls, especially with optimizations from the compiler
  • jmp produces no false negative, but interprets every jump as a call, which lead to a huge amount of false positive.

In the next section, we address this problem, and propose an approach that aims to detect JMP-based calls, such that:

  • the number of false negatives is lower than what we have with jcall,
  • the number of false positives is as close to zero as possible.


As mentionned in the previous section, the main problem is to distinguish JMP-based calls from internal jumps. As we do not want to rely on the symbol table, we do not assume to know function boundaries at the beginning of the execution. In addition, we do not assume to be able to analyse statically the binary before the execution at this point. Therefore, the analysis is only based on the flow of instructions that are actually executed by the CPU.

The goal is to catch every call to a function in real-time. This means that, for each jump, we want to decide on-the-fly if this jump should be considered as a call or not. This requirement is dut to the fact that we want this approach to be applicable for real-time analysis such as CFI.


In a few words, our approach consists of considering every CALL instruction and JMP instructions from the .plt - exactly in the same way jcall works, plus instrumenting every JMP instruction. For each JMP that is not from the .plt, we perform some heuristic-based checks to conclude if it is a call or not. These checks are of two categories:

  • exclusive checks: if one of these checks fails, then the JMP is not considered as a call
  • inclusive checks: if one of these checks passes, then the JMP is considered as a call

Note that inclusion checks are performed after exclusion checks. In addition, if neither of these two categories of checks lead to a conclusion, then we apply a default policy which can be configured in our implementation. In our experiments, we always use as a default policy to consider a JMP instruction as not a call if checks are inconclusive.

Another point important to notice is that, during the execution, we keep a memory of the previous decisions. In particular, everytime a call is detected (either based on the CALL instruction, a jump from the .plt or a JMP instruction that passes an inclusion check), the target of this call is added to a list of known entry points. This is important, because it means that the more the execution goes, the more entry points we know, and the more accurate and efficient is the detection.


This section presents the heuristics and checks we perform to differentiate regular jumps from calls.

Note that we keep track of the following data, that are accessible (or made accessible by our implementation) at every jump instrumentation:

  • the current program counter %eip,
  • the target of the jump (address),
  • the current entry point, which is the target of the last instruction that was detected as a call (either CALL, JMP from .plt or any JMP instruction that matched an inclusion check) - note that this data might be inaccurate at some point, for instance if we missed the last JMP-based call,
  • the current state of the stack (i.e., value of %esp),
  • the state of the stack when the last call occurred,
  • information about the return point of functions seen so far (see relative section).

Exclusion checks

  • From .plt to .plt: this is to avoid internals jump in .plt that are used for name resolution, .got entry fetching, etc.
  • Stack inconsistency: check if the state is in the same state as it was when the last call occurred - indeed, for a tail-call to happen correctly, the stack must be cleaned first and the top of it should contain the (same) return address that was pushed before the previous call.
  • Internal jump before: if the target of the jump is between the current entry point (i.e., the target of the last detected call) and the current %eip, then it is an internal call (assuming that functions are ot interlaced in memory).
  • Internal jump after: if the target of the jump is between the current %eip and a known return point of the current function (see section returns), then it is an internal call.

Inclusion checks

Remember that inclusion checks are performed only if no exclusion check was conclusive. Thus, at this point, we know that the stack is consistent for a call, that we are not in the .plt, etc.

  • Known entry point: if the target of the jump is a known entry point, then it is a call.
  • External jump before: the target of the call is before the last known entry point. Assuming that functions have a single entry point, it means that we are leaving the current function boundaries, therefore it is a call.
  • External jump after: similarly to the previous argument, if we cross a known return point of the current function, then it is a call.
  • Cross entry point: this chececk here if there is any known entry point between the current %eip and the target of the jump. If so, then we consider this jump as a call. It is the most costly check, therefore it is performed last. Implementation details are given in this section.

Some implementation details

We present here some details about the implementation.

Function information

Each time a call is detected, we store information about the called function. If the target is not known yet, then we need to add an entry to a data structure, in order to detect later calls easily. This entry also stores the number of times a function is called, plus a list of instructions that caused the function to be called (for debug and diagnostic purposes). In addition, it contains information about known boundaries of function (especially the exit point) - see next section.

To efficiently access the entry corresponding to a given function by its entry point, we store these information in a hash table. This hash table is indexed by the twenty least-significant bits of the address after a right shift of 4 bits (because of memory alignment, many functions have an address with least-significant bits to zero). From this hash table, we can check quickly if a given address corresponds to an entry point of a known function, and if so to access the information relative to this function.

In addition, for the last inclusion check (cross entry point), we need a way to determine if there is a known entry point between two addresses. To do so, the hash map is not efficient, as we would have to check every entry of the table one by one. For this purpose, we maintain, in addition to the hash map, a binary search tree that stores every known entry point of functions (only entry points, not the whole info about functions). This data structure allows to efficiently check if there is a known entry point between the target of a jump and the address of the instruction.


Two checks (internal jump after and external jump after) rely on the knowledge of the lower boundary of the current function. This information is stored in the correspondant entry of the hash table for each function. We determine it by instrumenting RET instructions. Each time a RET instruction is executed, we add it to the list of known exit points of the last called function.

Stack of calls

For several purposes, and in particular the stack unconsistency check, we need to keep a notion of stack of calls. For this purpose, every time a call is detected, we push a new entry on the top of our stack structure. This entry stores the following information:

  • the target of the call (i.e., the entry point of the function being called),
  • the supposed return address (i.e., the address of the instruction statically following the instruction causing the call),
  • the current value of %esp.

Each time a RET instruction is instrumented, we unstack entries, until one of them has a return address that corresponds to the target of the RET. Every function that is unstacked is considered to be returning as well.


To speed up the implementation and reduce overhead, we maintain a cache of the jump instructions that were pruned before in the execution. To do so, we use another hash table. Each time an exclusion check matches, the pruned jump address is added to the hashtable. Therefore, for every jump instruction, before doing any exclusion check, we look for it in the hash table, and if so we prune it once again without performing any further test.


This section presents the different results we obtained during our experiments.

Note that, for every accuracy-relative test, we perform every instrumentation (i.e., oracle, jcall, jmp and iCi) in a single execution (to handle non-deterministic executions). For overhead measures, we perform a single instrumentation per execution. This means that the overhead results may not be completely accurate in the case of non-deterministic executions.



Table 2 - F-score of iCi compared to jcall and jmp

Table 2 presents the main results of our experiments. On coreutils, binutils, evince and ffmpeg, it shows that the f-score of iCi is always higher than what we have with the other naive techniques. It also shows that the accuracy of this approach does not suffer from optimizations at compilation time.



Table 3 - Overhead of the different approaches in time of execution

This section presents the overhead of the different implementations. We decided to use, as a reference, the jmp implementation. The reason of this choice is that experiments show that, to catch every call, one need to instrument JMP instructions as well as CALL instructions. Then, the overhead becomes the cost of differentiating a regular jump from a JMP-based call.

Table 3 shows the overhead in time of jcall and iCi relatively to jmp.



Table 4 - Experimentations on SPEC CPU2006

In addition to our benchmark, we tested our approach on SPEC CPU2006. These results are not reported in the main results, as we did not tested SPEC with every optimization level - we only tested it with -O2, for two reasons:

  • it is the default option when compiling SPEC with no manual change in the configuration files,
  • it is the most challenging level of optimization, as shown in the section Problem.

Table 4 shows the results of our implementation, in comparison with others, on every SPEC CPU2006 benchmark in C or C++.


These experiments emphasis the following points:

  • catching every call to functions is indeed a problem, especially when programs are compiled with optimization,
  • the method we propose is able to detect calls efficiently, with a very few false positives and false negatives,
  • for each of these misdetections, the tool we designed can show the instructions that led to an error and the number of its occurrences,
  • the overhead is significant over a jcall implementation, but in many cases not that much compared to jmp.

Note that, to apply this method for CFI for instance, the overhead could be significantly reduced execution after execution, if we use the knowledge gained from previous executions to prune jumps that are not called (we would not need to even instrument them),

User Guide

Note: if you only want the tool, checkout the master branch; if you want to replay the experiments shown in the paper, checkout the benchmark branch.



  • You need to have Pin 3.4 installed.
  • You need to have libyaml-dev package installed (for parsing configuration files).
  • It is also better to set a virtualenv for iCi. If you want to use the scripts we used to replay our experiments, this virtualenv must be located at .venv/iCi.


First clone the repo:

git clone

Second, install the python dependencies (preferably in your virtualenv).

pip install -r requirements.txt


Copy the template configuration file (config/template.yaml) to config/config.yaml, and fill the entries path and bin with values corresponding to your installation of Pin. The rest of the configuration file should be OK, unless you use iCi in an unexpected way.


usage: [-h] [--analysis ALS [ALS ...]] [--res [RES]] [--log [LOG]]
              [--pgm [PGM]] [--args [ARGS]] [--ignore-libs] [--ignore-ld]
              [--no-ins] [-v] [-q] [--run]

iCi -- intuitive Call instrumentation

positional arguments:
  ALS                   basic command to execute (launch, diff, etc.)

optional arguments:
  -h, --help            show this help message and exit
  --analysis ALS [ALS ...]
                        analysis to launch (e.g. oracle)
  --res [RES]           file to log the (plaintext) results of the analysis
  --log [LOG]           file to log the (not formatted) results of the
  --pgm [PGM]           binary program to be executed
  --args [ARGS]         arguments to give to the binary for the execution
  --ignore-libs         ignore everything that happens in the libraries during
  --ignore-ld           ignore every instruction from and to ld in the output
  --no-ins              do not compare instruction by instruction (only total
                        number of calls
  -v                    output detailed results
  -q                    quiet mode -- only output the minimum result info
  --run                 Re-run instrumentations before diff


Run oracle

$ ./ launch --analysis oracle --pgm [PGM] --args "[ARGS]" -v

Other options:

  • --ignore-libs to avoid instrumenting every instruction of libraries
  • --res [RES] to store the results in a file instead of stdout

DISCLAIMER Remember that, because iCi relies on the symbol table for the oracle analysis, you should target non-stripped binaries.

Compare oracle, jcall and iCi

$ ./ diff --run --ignore-libs --analysis oracle jcall iCi --pgm [PGM] --args "[ARGS]" -v


  • --run means that the program will be executed to generate new results ; if not specified, iCi assumes that the analyses were previously launched and that the results can be found in the default directory (log/)
  • You can add more analyses ; then the comparison will be computed between the first one (here oracle) and every other one