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memctl is a kernel introspection tool that I developed to aid my security research into macOS and iOS. It facilitates reverse engineering and vulnerability analysis in the kernel. It is not a full-featured kernel debugger, but it can help illuminate what is happening in kernel memory.

The project is divided into two parts: a library called libmemctl and a command-line tool called memctl. The libmemctl library provides functions to read and write kernel memory, call kernel functions, find kernel symbols, and manipulate processes and tasks. The command-line tool wraps this functionality into a debugger-like CLI so that it can be used on the device being analyzed.

In order to work memctl needs a library called a core to gain access to the kernel task port. I've written the following cores:

  • memctl-tfp0-core: A core for jailbroken iOS devices that uses task_for_pid(0) and host_get_special_port(4).
  • memctl-kext-core: A core for Macs that uses a custom kernel extension to access the kernel task port.
  • memctl-physmem-core: A core for macOS 10.12.1 that leverages the physmem vulnerability to get the kernel task port. (This core is incompatible with the current version of memctl.)

An important design goal of libmemctl is to leave the kernel in a consistent state: it should clean up any allocated kernel resources and restore all important system data it modifies before exiting. Despite trying very hard to ensure that this goal is met, I cannot guarantee that using libmemctl will not crash or corrupt your system. Use it at your own risk.

The libmemctl library

While the libmemctl library is primarily designed for use by memctl, it may be used on its own. It provides the following key features:

  • kernel.h: Functions to load (and decompress if necessary) the kernel file from disk, find symbols in the kernel/kext by name, and find byte sequences in the kernel/kext binaries. Some (platform-specific) special symbol finders are available to find certain non-exported symbols.

  • kernel_call.h: Functions to call kernel functions. The default implementation, kernel_call_7, can call kernel functions with up to 7 arguments, with restrictions, and retrieve a 32-bit return value. More generic, platform-specific implementations are also available. For example, an implementation is available for some arm64 platforms that can call a kernel function with up to 14 64-bit arguments and retrieve a 64-bit return value. (Only integer/pointer arguments are currently supported.)

  • kernel_memory.h: Functions to manipulate kernel virtual and physical memory, including several safe functions (that fail gracefully on invalid kernel addresses). Among other things, these functions can be used to implement various types of full-memory scans, which is very useful for live analysis.

  • kernel_slide.h: Given the kernel task port, find the kASLR slide.

  • process.h: Wrappers for some of XNU's process and task manipulation functions.

Other features are available in other headers.

Supported platforms

Memctl has been tested on the following platforms:

iOS version Devices
10.2 iPhone 5s
11.1.2 iPhone 7
11.2.5 iPhone 8
11.3.1 iPhone 5s, iPhone 8
11.3.1 iPhone 5s, iPhone 8
12.0 iPhone8
12.1 iPhone 7 Plus

If you need support for another (recent) iOS version and device, let me know.

Unfortunately, memctl only supports calling kernel functions with up to 9 arguments on iOS 11.3.1. This could be improved, but is not a top priority for me right now.

Building memctl

You will need a core in order to build memctl from source. Here is an example showing how to compile memctl for iOS using the memctl-tfp0-core.

$ git clone
$ cd memctl
$ git clone
$ cd memctl-tfp0-core
$ make
$ cd ..
$ make ARCH=arm64 SDK=iphoneos CORE_DIR=memctl-tfp0-core

Note that since memctl is primarily a research tool, the libmemctl APIs might change without notice, and old cores that target specific vulnerabilities may not be updated. If memctl is not building properly with a particular core, check whether memctl and the core are on compatible versions.

Memctl will usually need to be signed in order to run. The make variables ENTITLEMENTS and SIGNING_ID can be used to sign using the codesign utility. If that is not general enough for your use case, the CODESIGN_COMMAND variable can specify a custom codesigning command.

Running memctl

After successful compilation, the memctl binary is available at bin/memctl. Copy the binary to the target device. Running memctl with no arguments will drop into a REPL. You can type ? to see a general list of commands, and type a specific command name followed by ? to see specific help for that command. Hit Ctrl-D or type quit to exit the REPL.

$ memctl
memctl> ?
i                                Print system information
r <address> [length]             Read and print formatted memory
rb <address> <length>            Print raw binary data from memory
ri <address> <length>            Disassemble kernel memory
rif <function>                   Disassemble a function
rs <address> [length]            Read a string from memory
w <address> <value>              Write an integer to memory
wd <address> <data>              Write arbitrary data to memory
ws <address> <string>            Write a string to memory
f <value> [range]                Find an integer in memory
fpr <pid>                        Find the proc struct for a process
fc <class> [range]               Find instances of a C++ class
kc <function> <args...>          Call a kernel function
kcv <vindex> <object> <args...>  Call a kernel virtual method
lc <address>                     Look up the class of a C++ object
cm <class>                       Get the C++ metaclass pointer
cz <class>                       Get the size of a C++ class
kp <address>                     Translate virtual to physical address
kpm <range>                      Print virtual to physical address map
zs <address>                     Get zalloc memory size
pca <address>                    Show physical cache attributes
vt <class>                       Find the vtable of a C++ class
vtl <address>                    Look up the class name for a vtable
vm <address>                     Show virtual memory information
vmm [range]                      Show virtual memory information for range
vma <size>                       Allocate virtual memory
vmd <address> [size]             Deallocate virtual memory
vmp <prot> <address> [length]    Set virtual memory protection
ks [address]                     Kernel slide
a <symbol>                       Find the address of a symbol
ap [address]                     Address permutation
s <address>                      Find the symbol for an address
kcd [file]                       Decompress a kernelcache
root                             Exec a root shell
quit                             Exit the REPL
memctl> r?

r[width] [-d] [-f] [-p] [-x access] <address> [length]

    Read data from kernel virtual or physical memory and print it with the
    specified formatting.

    [width]      The width to display each value
    [-d]         Use dump format with ASCII
    [-f]         Force read (unsafe)
    [-p]         Read physical memory
    [-x access]  The memory access width

    <address>    The address to read
    [length]     The number of bytes to read

memctl> quit

Usage examples

Here's a brief overview showing a couple of memctl's more useful commands.

We can find all instances of the class AppleMobileFileIntegrity with the command:

memctl> fc AppleMobileFileIntegrity

To find all occurrences of the pointer 0xfffffff000def5a0 on the heap:

memctl> fh 0xfffffff000def5a0

Let's examine the first occurrence. We can find the zalloc allocation size for the allocation containing the first address using:

memctl> zs 0xfffffff000d06ef0

Now let's read the memory surrounding address 0xfffffff000d06ef0:

memctl> r 0xfffffff000d06e00 256
fffffff000d06e00:  0000000000000000 0000000000000000
fffffff000d06e10:  0000000000000000 000000000000ffff
fffffff000d06e20:  41656e4d00000000 0000000000000000
fffffff000d06e30:  0000000000000000 0000000000008000
fffffff000d06e40:  0000000000000002 0000000000000002
fffffff000d06e50:  000000000000ffff 6934424100000000
fffffff000d06e60:  0000000000000001 0000000000000001
fffffff000d06e70:  414d50456d414964 deadbeefdeadbeef
fffffff000d06e80:  fffffff0231980b0 0000000000000001
fffffff000d06e90:  fffffff000de9500 fffffff000d7f280
fffffff000d06ea0:  0000000000000000 0000000000000000
fffffff000d06eb0:  0000000000000000 0000000000000000
fffffff000d06ec0:  0000000000000000 fffffff000aee8f0
fffffff000d06ed0:  0000000000000000 fffffff000b526e0
fffffff000d06ee0:  000000000000001e 0000000000000000
fffffff000d06ef0:  fffffff000def5a0 deadbeefdeadbeef

The presence of deadbeefdeadbeef suggests that address 0xfffffff000d06e70 is at the end of one allocation and address 0xfffffff000d06e80 is the start of the next one. However, before we move on, the data at address 0xfffffff000d06e70 looks like ASCII. We can dump memory contents with ASCII annotations by adding the d flag, or we can print the string directly using the rs command:

memctl> rd fffffff000d06e70 8
fffffff000d06e70:  6449416d45504d41                   |dIAmEPMA        |
memctl> rs fffffff000d06e70 8

We can determine what type of object is at address 0xfffffff000d06e80 using the lc command:

memctl> lc fffffff000d06e80

Once we know the class name, we can use the cz command to determine the class size:

memctl> cz AppleSmartIOCommand

In this case the class size is 0x70, which means the AppleMobileFileIntegrity pointer at address 0xfffffff000d06ef0 is likely leftover heap garbage.

The memctl tool can also be used to call kernel functions directly from the command line. Kernel functions can be called using the kc command:

memctl> kc _current_task
memctl> kc __ZN18IOMemoryDescriptor16withAddressRangeEyyjP4task 0x104000000 0x4000 0x110003 0xffffffe004ce3188
memctl> lc 0xffffffe004d75500

A similar command, kcv, can be used to perform virtual method calls by virtual index on C++ objects in the kernel.


memctl is released under the MIT license.

memctl also relies on some third-party source code, most of which is released by Apple under the terms of the Apple Public Source License. All third party source code is placed in the external directory and is not considered to be part of memctl. Third party code remains under the original licensing terms.


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