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A packer/protector for x86-64 ELF binaries on Linux. Kiteshield wraps ELF binaries with multiple layers of encryption and injects them with loader code that decrypts, maps, and executes the packed binary entirely in userspace. A ptrace-based runtime engine ensures that only functions in the current call stack are decrypted at any given time and additionally implements a variety of anti-debugging techniques in order to make packed binaries as hard to reverse-engineer as possible. Both single and multithreaded binaries are supported.

See the Architecture and Codebase Layout sections below for a bird's-eye view of how Kiteshield works.

Kiteshield is intended to be a fun academic exercise in binary obfuscation rather than something that can be used in the real world given the source code, and thus how it works, is public.

Named for the shields preferred by the Normans in the 11th century (alternatively: the kiteshields that are so prevalent in Old School Runescape).

Building Kiteshield

Kiteshield requires the Bitdefender disassembler library to decode instructions in the packer. It is included as a submodule at packer/bddisasm. To build it from a fresh clone, run the following (note you will need to have CMake installed):

git submodule update --init
cd packer/bddisasm
mkdir build
cd build
cmake ..

You can now build Kiteshield in release mode by running make from the top level directory. Alternatively you can create a debug build with make debug. Debug builds of Kiteshield disable all anti-debugging features and turn on the loader's very verbose debug logging.

In order to debug the actual anti-debugging functionality, you can build Kiteshield in debug mode with anti-debugging functionality turned on using make debug-antidebug.

Using Kiteshield

To pack a binary called program and output the packed binary to packed.ks, run:

./packer/kiteshield program packed.ks

packed.ks can now be run and should be functionally equivalent to program, but encrypted and hard to reverse engineer. Note that for layer 2 encryption to be applied, the input binary must not be stripped as Kiteshield relies on the symbol table being present. On most Linux distros, standard system utilities (eg. /bin/ls) are generally stripped.

You can still however pack stripped binaries without layer 2 encryption using the -n flag:

./packer/kiteshield -n program packed.ks

This will produce an output binary packed with only layer 1 encryption and the runtime engine omitted.

Codebase Layout

Kiteshield is composed of two separate parts. The packer is a regular C application that reads, instruments, and encrypts input binaries. The loader is a freestanding C application responsible for dynamic function decryption and anti-debugging functionality that is injected into input binaries by the packer. It receives initial control from the kernel, maps all appropriate segments of the binary into memory (including the dynamic linker if applicable), and hands off control to the application. The loader also contains the runtime engine, which dynamically decrypts and encrypts functions as they are entered and exited at runtime.

Since the loader receives initial control from the kernel (ie. before any shared libraries would normally be mapped by the dynamic linker), it does not have access to libc and thus all needed functionality provided by libc is re-implemented in the loader code.

Packer and loader code can be found in the packer/ and loader/ directories respectively. Code that is common to both can be found in the common/ directory. A high-level overview of the important parts of the codebase is as follows:

├── common                         # Code common to packer/loader
│   ├── include
│   │   ├── defs.h
│   │   ├── obfuscation.h
│   │   └── rc4.h
│   ├── obfuscation.c              # Obfuscation utilities
│   └── rc4.c                      # RC4 stream cipher implementation
├── loader                         # Loader code
│   ├── anti_debug.c               # Anti-debugging functionality
│   ├──           # Script to "headerize" a compiled loader
│   ├── entry.S                    # Loader entry point code
│   ├── include
│   │   ├── anti_debug.h
│   │   ├── debug.h
│   │   ├── elf_auxv.h
│   │   ├── errno.h
│   │   ├── malloc.h
│   │   ├── obfuscated_strings.h   # Generated file produced by
│   │   ├── signal.h
│   │   ├── string.h
│   │   ├── syscalls.h
│   │   └── types.h
│   ├──                   # Custom linker script for building loader
│   ├── loader.c                   # Binary loading/mapping code (userspace exec)
│   ├── Makefile
│   ├── malloc.c                   # Freestanding malloc/free implementation
│   ├── runtime.c                  # Main body of runtime engine code
│   ├── string.c                   # String processing utilities (eg. strncat)
│   ├──      # String obfuscation helper script
│   ├── syscalls.c                 # System call implementations in inline assembly
│   └── test                       # Loader unit tests
│       ├── attounit.h
│       ├── Makefile
│       ├── test_main.c
│       ├── test_malloc.c
│       └── test_rc4.c
├── Makefile
├── packer                         # Packer code
│   ├── bddisasm                   # Bitdefender x86-64 disassembler library (submodule)
│   ├── elfutils.c                 # ELF binary reading/writing utilities
│   ├── include
│   │   └── elfutils.h
│   ├── kiteshield.c               # Main body of packer code
│   └── Makefile
└── testing                        # Integration tests (see testing/


Kiteshield wraps input ELF binaries in two (or one, if using the -n flag) layers of RC4 encryption such that the binary on disk is fairly well obfuscated. These layers are stripped off at runtime by the loader.

Layer 1

The first layer of encryption (referred to in the codebase as the "outer layer") consists of a single RC4 pass over the entire input binary. This is designed primarily to fight static analysis. Due to the way the key is deobfuscated (which is dependent on the loader code) the first layer of encryption also effectively checksums the loader code before executing the packed binary, making Kiteshield resistant to code patching.

Layer 2

The second layer of encryption (referred to in the codebase as the "inner layer") consists of individual encryption of almost every function in the input binary (identified via the symbol table at pack-time). A ptrace-based runtime engine is triggered on every function entry and exit via replacement of each function's entry instruction and all its return instructions with int3 instructions (which deliver a SIGTRAP when executed). Upon receiving a trap, the runtime engine looks up the current function and encrypts or decrypts it as needed such that only functions within the current call stack are decrypted at any point in time.

After stripping off layer 1, Kiteshield effectively re-implements the exec syscall in userspace (See loader/loader.c. This technique is commonly referred to in literature as a "userspace exec" or "userland exec".) to map the packed binary into memory via a series of mmap/mprotect calls before forking and handing control off to the packed binary in the child and the runtime engine in the parent (which attaches to the child using ptrace).

In addition to encryption, Kiteshield's loader code also contains a number of anti-debugging features designed to make it as difficult as possible to analyze a running packed binary (See loader/anti_debug.c and loader/include/anti_debug.h).

To give a concrete example of Kiteshield in action, consider the following hello world program, which we will pack with Kiteshield in debug mode.

#include <stdio.h>

int main()
  puts("Hello World!");
  return 0;

When packed in debug mode, loader code in packed binaries will log very verbose debug information. The following is the log from a packed binary corresponding to the above program. It has been annotated (and additional newlines added for clarity) to provide a concrete example of Kiteshield in action:

$ ./packed.ks

# Runtime startup
[kiteshield] starting ptrace runtime
[kiteshield] number of trap points: 5
[kiteshield] number of encrypted functions: 3

# List of points in memory that have been instrumented with an int3 instruction
[kiteshield] list of trap points:
[kiteshield] 8000011ac value: c3, type: ret, function: __libc_csu_init (#0)
[kiteshield] 800001150 value: 41, type: ent, function: __libc_csu_init (#0)
[kiteshield] 800001050 value: 31, type: ent, function: _start (#1)
[kiteshield] 80000114b value: c3, type: ret, function: main (#2)
[kiteshield] 800001135 value: 55, type: ent, function: main (#2)

# Runtime has started and is waiting on the packed app, begin mapping binary

# Stripping layer one encryption
[kiteshield] RC4 decrypting binary with key 85e19ad41fb8cc13e87e3cd1589a45fb
[kiteshield] decrypted 12336 bytes

# Mapping segments from packed binary program header table
[kiteshield] mapping LOAD section from packed binary at 800000000
[kiteshield] mapping LOAD section from packed binary at 800001000
[kiteshield] mapping LOAD section from packed binary at 800002000
[kiteshield] mapping LOAD section from packed binary at 800003000

# Mapping dynamic linker specified in INTERP header of packed binary
[kiteshield] mapping INTERP ELF at path /lib64/
[kiteshield] mapped LOAD section from fd at b00000000
[kiteshield] interpreter base address is b00000000
[kiteshield] mapped LOAD section from fd at b00001000
[kiteshield] mapped LOAD section from fd at b0001f000
[kiteshield] mapped extra space for static data (.bss) at b00029000 len 400
[kiteshield] mapped LOAD section from fd at b00027000
[kiteshield] binary base address is 800000000

# Modifying ELF auxiliary vector as needed for program execution
[kiteshield] taking 7ffff2997c60 as auxv start
[kiteshield] replaced auxv entry 9 with value 34359742544 (0x800001050)
[kiteshield] replaced auxv entry 3 with value 34359738432 (0x800000040)
[kiteshield] replaced auxv entry 7 with value 47244640256 (0xb00000000)
[kiteshield] replaced auxv entry 5 with value 11 (0xb)
[kiteshield] finished mapping binary into memory
[kiteshield] control will be passed to packed app at b00001090

# Mapping done

# Runtime attaches to the packed application with ptrace
[kiteshield] child is traced, handing control to packed binary

# Program is executing, functions are logged on entry/exit
[kiteshield] tid 13508: entering encrypted function _start decrypting with key 74c974f9d097e5a8c60049c3842c6110
[kiteshield] tid 13508: entering encrypted function __libc_csu_init decrypting with key 9124511baa87daa76c09b2426355dfca
[kiteshield] tid 13508: leaving function __libc_csu_init for address 7fa9a821d02a (no function record) via ret at 8000011ac
[kiteshield] tid 13508: entering encrypted function main decrypting with key 2f1c20e77ff3617b0b89a579669aba48

# Actual program output
Hello World!

# Packed application returns from main() and exits
[kiteshield] tid 13508: leaving function main for address 7fa9a821d09b (no function record) via ret at 80000114b
[kiteshield] tid 13508: exited with status 0
[kiteshield] all threads exited, exiting


Kiteshield has an extensive set of integration tests to verify correctness across several different platforms. See testing/ for details.


Kiteshield was written with obfuscation in mind, not speed. Trapping into the Kiteshield runtime on every function entrance and exit is very expensive. Programs packed with layer 2 encryption should expect a serious performance hit.


MIT © Rhys Rustad-Elliott