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How to use the ASPIRE framework

In this manual, we will explain how to set up the ASPIRE tools and how to use them to protect a simple application.

The set up of the open sourced version ASPIRE tools is simple thanks to the use of the Docker virtualization framework. More specifically, we use Docker Compose for running and combining all the different components. The rest of this manual describes how to set everything up, and how to apply different ASPIRE protections with the ASPIRE Compiler Tool Chain (ACTC).

Docker & Setup

We assume that you have already Docker installed on your machine. If not, you can follow the instructions from the Docker website. At least version 1.13 of Docker Compose is required.

To set up the ASPIRE framework, you just have to clone this repository which contains the base Docker file. As all the actual tools are linked into this repository with git submodules, you'll also have to initialize the git submodules in addition to cloning this repository. We use a separate script for this, which will also query you to (optionally) install additional support for anti_debugging.

# git clone
# cd framework
# ./

No extra setup is required: all components will automatically be built the at the first run. Most ASPIRE projects are built from scratch from the source code. This allows you to immediately start developing and extending any existing tools, without having to worry about how to build the projects and how to overwrite the pre-built files. The only down side is that the initial build takes some time. This process takes about 6 minutes on a decently modern machine.

The only files that are not built inside containers are:

  • The patched binary tool chains. These can be rebuilt from source by cloning Diablo's toolchains repository located at and following the instructions in the README.MD file.
  • Versions of the OpenSSL, libwebsockets and libcurl libraries that have been built with Diablo-compatible tool chains. These can be rebuilt from source by cloning the repository and following the instructions in the README.MD file.

Running the ACTC without any protections

During the first run of the ACTC the 'projects' directory is prepared by checking out the actc-demos repository into it. We will use one of the samples in this repository for the remainder of this manual. The projects/ directory is mapped into the ACTC container as /projects/, so this demos repository is located inside the container at /projects/actc-demos/. We will be protecting the bzip2 compression utility in the repository. As an example, we have already added some annotations to the bzip2.c source file.

First, we will use the ACTC to build an unprotected bzip2 binary for the ARM Linux platform. We have provided an ACTC configuration file for this purpose. You can view this file at projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json. This configuration file instructs the ACTC in such a way that the ACTC will build the binary, but it will not apply any protections. To run the ACTC with this configuration file, do the following:

# ./docker/ -d -f /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

This produces a final binary in projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/bzip2. If you have an ARM development board, you can copy this file and run it as you would do any other binary.

Running the ACTC with only offline protections

The ACTC now has applied no protections at all to our binary. As a first step, we will apply some offline protection techniques. The annotations to instruct the protection tools which code fragments need to be protected have already been added in the source code (you can find these by looking for _Pragma("ASPIRE begin and _Pragma ("ASPIRE end") in the source files). As you can see, we have added annotations for call stack checks, binary obfuscations, and code guards. We only need to enable their application in the configuration file of the ACTC.

Annotations can be added and modified at will. Their syntax and semantics are described in detail in the appendices of the ASPIRE Framework report.

The configuration file is a JSON file that can be edited easily:

# vim projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

Code guards is a technique that consists of a source-to-source transformation and a binary transformation. First, we enable the source-to-source part. We search for "SLP08", which is the name of the source step responsible for this. We see that the "traverse" is currently set to true, which means that the action for this step simply copies the files from the input directory to the output directory, rather than applying the action in this step. Thus, set this action to false.

Next, we have to edit the configuration where the binary protection techniques are described. Search for "BLP04", which is the name of the final binary protection step in the ACTC. In the configuration for this step, we will now enable all the aforementioned protections: set "obfuscations" and "call_stack_check" to true (the binary part of the code guards protection is automatically enabled or disabled depending on how we configured the "SLP08" step). We can now run the ACTC as before:

# ./docker/ -d -f /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

This again produces the protected binary in projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/bzip2. This time, you can check the log files in the projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/ directory to verify that the protections have indeed been applied. For example, the file bzip2.diablo.obfuscation.log contains information of which binary obfuscations have been applied to which code fragments.

Running the ACTC with code mobility

Now that we have created a version of our binary with offline protections applied, it is time to apply our first online protection called code mobility. This will split off binary code fragments from the application, and replace them with stubs that at run time ask for these code fragments to be downloaded from a protection server. Only once they are downloaded at run time, are these code fragments executed.

The first step is to enable this protection in the JSON configuration. There are two steps needed to enable this: enabling the technique itself, and configuring the server. To enable the technique, simply change the value of "code_mobility" to true in the "BLP04" section of the configuration file.

To configure the server in the JSON configuration file, go to the "COMPILE_ACCL" section of the configuration, and modify the value of "endpoint" to be the IP of the machine on which your Docker container is running.

Again, run the ACTC as before:

# ./docker/ -d -f /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

You can first verify that the code mobility protection was applied by inspecting the log file called bzip2.diablo.code_mobility.log. Next, verify that mobile code blocks were indeed produced. If you look up at the output of the ACTC, near the end it will write information to the terminal similar to:

   code mobility       /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/mobile_blocks

/opt/code_mobility/ -a D7846E47BB09D62A2824CA9CF5000AE8 -p 20 -i YOUR_IP_HERE /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/mobile_blocks && touch /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/mobile_blocks/.p20done

APPLICATION ID  = D7846E47BB09D62A2824CA9CF5000AE8

This indicates that the ACTC is deploying the mobile blocks to the location in which the code mobility server expects these blocks to be. This location depends on the APPLICATION ID (AID) mentioned in the output of the ACTC: they are located inside the container at /opt/online_backends/<AID>/code_mobility/00000000/:

# docker-compose exec actc bash
root@b343a3897ad4:/projects# ls  /opt/online_backends/D7846E47BB09D62A2824CA9CF5000AE8/code_mobility/00000000/
mobile_dump_00000000  mobile_dump_00000001  mobile_dump_00000002  mobile_dump_00000003  mobile_dump_00000004  mobile_dump_00000005  mobile_dump_00000006  mobile_dump_00000007  mobile_dump_00000008  mobile_dump_00000009  mobile_dump_0000000a  source.txt

As you can see in the source code, the code mobility annotation was applied to the uncompress function. So if you now copy the protected file to an ARM board and try to decompress a file, the code mobility protection will be triggered. You can afterwards verify the logs in the server to see which blocks were requested:

# scp projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/bzip2 user@armboard:.
# ssh user@armboard
user@armboard:~$ dd if=/dev/zero of=./zeroes bs=1M count=10 ; bzip2 zeroes
10+0 records in
10+0 records out
10485760 bytes (10 MB) copied, 0.080404 s, 130 MB/s
user@armboard:~$ ./bzip2 -d zeroes.bz2 
user@armboard:~$ logout
# tail /opt/online_backends/code_mobility/mobility_server.log 
Fri Nov 25 15:02:24 2016 [Code Mobility Server] Actual revision for app_id D7846E47BB09D62A2824CA9CF5000AE8 is 00000000

Fri Nov 25 15:02:24 2016 [Code Mobility Server] BLOCK_ID 8 requested

Fri Nov 25 15:02:24 2016 [Code Mobility Server] BLOCK_ID 8 (filename: /opt/online_backends/D7846E47BB09D62A2824CA9CF5000AE8/code_mobility/00000000/mobile_dump_00000008) is going to be served.

Fri Nov 25 15:02:24 2016 [Code Mobility Server] BLOCK_ID 8 is 52 bytes long.

Fri Nov 25 15:02:24 2016 [Code Mobility Server] BLOCK_ID 8 correctly sent to ASPIRE Portal.

Warning: the server ports of the ASPIRE servers should not be firewalled on your Docker machine. Similarly, if your Docker is running inside a virtual machine, your virtual machine monitor should forward these ports to the VM itself. The ports are: port 8088, all ports between 8090 to 8099 (inclusive), and port 18001.

Running the ACTC with remote attestation

Now that we have protected the application with code mobility, we will enable another online protection technique called remote attestation. This technique uses a server to verify the integrity of code fragments during the application execution. The application connects to the server, which then instructs the application to send attestations of certain code regions back to the server. The results of these attestations can be linked to the code mobility protection technique to stop serving code to applications that have been compromised.

First, we enable the remote attestation step in the ACTC configuration file. The name of the step source-to-source part of the remote attestation protection is named SLP07. So, to enable remote attestation, simply change the "excluded" value in the "SLP07" section of the configuration file to false. The binary part of this protection technique is again automatically enabled and disabled based on the value in "SLP07".

Again, to build the protected application with the ACTC, just run as before:

# ./docker/ -d -f /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

The output of the ACTC immediately shows that the remote attestation was deployed:

Add attestator in the DB (nr: 00000000000000000000, name: remote_ra_region, f: 10)
Generating inital 100 prepared data for current attestator (launching extractor)
Attestator inserted with ID: 5
Inserting startup areas in the DB, found 1 areas
Startup area: 0

**** RA application components deployed on server successfully ****

To verify that the binary itself indeed connects to the protection server of the remote attestation technique, and that this server indeed receives valid attestations, we can again copy the protected binary to a development board, run it to compress and decompress the file we created earlier to demonstrate code mobility, and check the attestation logs on the server:

# scp projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/build/bzip2_linux/BC05/bzip2 user@armboard:.
# ssh user@armboard
user@armboard:~$ ./bzip2 zeroes ; ./bzip2 -d zeroes.bz2
[1927760:9055] NOTICE: Initial logging level 7
<... some additional logging information about the connection is displayed ...>
user@armboard:~$ logout
# tail /opt/online_backends/remote_attestation/verifier.log
(Verifier) Response verification result: SUCCESS
(Verifier) Response verified in = 0.001435 s
(Verifier) Execution finished at: Fri Nov 25 15:55:07 2016

This shows that the protected application indeed connected to the server, and that the server sent an annotation request back to this client, and that this client successfully responded to that request.

Doing development with this Docker container

When you're playing with the Docker container and want to edit the sources of one of the tools, it can be handy to have changes made in your host immediately propagate to the Docker, and vice versa. To make this easier, we have provided the option of running the container in development mode. This can be started by running the development script, and then running the ACTC inside the container:

# ./docker/
root@b343a3897ad4:/projects# /opt/ACTC/ -d -f /projects/actc-demos/bzip2-1.0.6/actc/bzip2_linux.json

The development script works by setting up Docker volumes volumes in /opt/development that refer to the directories of all the tools on your host. /opt/framework is then updated to be a symlink to /opt/development, and Diablo is built from (development) source. This build happens on a named volume (located at /build in the Docker) so that it has to happen only once, and incremental builds are easy.

Further reading

These are some documents describing parts of the framework and its components in more detail:

  • Reference architecture Describes the architectural design of the ASPIRE protections and the communication logic for the client and server components of the protections.
  • ASPIRE Framework report Documents the ASPIRE tool chain and decision support components in exhaustive detail. This document furthermore documents the supported protection annotations.
  • ASPIRE Open Source Manual Contains manuals for the framework (which is an older version of this README), and documentation of the ADSS Full.