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Using ptrace(2) To Call a Userspace Function

Unix systems define an incredibly powerful system call called ptrace(2). This system call is available on Linux, BSD, and OS X (but note that the interface is not exactly the same between the Linux ptrace and the BSD/OS X ptrace). Using ptrace you can arbitrarily inspect or modify the state of another process.

While working with ptrace I found a lot of examples online of using ptrace to make a Linux system call. However I was unable to find any examples of how to use ptrace to call a userspace method in the remote process, which is a lot more interesting (in my opinion) and also more difficult to do.

The purpose of this project is to demonstrate what the code looks like to do this. This code will do the equivalent of making this function call in the attached process:

fprintf(stderr, "instruction pointer = %p\n", rip);

where rip is the value of the instruction pointer when the process was attached. After the call to fprintf() completes, the program will resume execution where it was when it was attached, as if nothing has changed.

Note: this code is specific to the Linux implementation of ptrace.

How It Works

Just look at the source code. There are a lot of comments explaining exactly what is going on, what caveats there are, etc.

I also wrote some articles about this program here (part 1) and here (part 2).


You can compile the code with make. You should see that it builds an executable called call-fprintf. Invoke it like this:

call-fprintf -p <pid>

An easy way to test this is to open two terminals, run echo $$ in the first terminal to get the pid of the shell, and then in the other terminal run call-fprintf with the first shell's pid.

When you run the command, you will see output like this:

$ ./call-fprintf -p 21160
their %rip           0x7f229e153790
allocated memory at  0x7f229e669000
executing jump to mmap region
successfully jumped to mmap area
their libc           0x7f229e08b000
their fprintf        0x7f229e08b000
their stderr         0x7f229e447560
inserting code/data into the mmap area at 0x7f229e669000
setting the registers of the remote process
continuing execution
successfully caught TRAP signal
jumping back to original rip
successfully jumped back to original %rip at 0x7f229e153790
making call to mmap
munmap returned with status 0
restoring old text at 0x7f229e153790
restoring old registers

Issues With Yama ptrace_scope

If you get a failure like this:

$ ./call-fprintf -p 1
PTRACE_ATTACH: Operation not permitted

then you are trying to trace a process that you don't have permissions to trace, i.e. a process with a different user id than you. You can only ptrace a process whose effective user id is the same as yours (or if you are root).

If you instead get a failure like this:

$ ./call-fprintf -p 5603
PTRACE_ATTACH: Operation not permitted

The likely cause of this failure is that your system has kernel.yama.ptrace_scope = 1
If you would like to disable Yama, you can run: sudo sysctl kernel.yama.ptrace_scope=0

Then the issue is that you have Yama ptrace_scope configured to disallow ptrace. In particular, the default behavior of Ubuntu since Ubuntu 10.10 has been to set kernel.yama.ptrace_scope = 1. If this affects you, you can either run call-fprintf as root, or you can run the command listed in the error message to disable the Yama setting.


Example of how to use the ptrace(2) system call to call a userspace method.




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