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Some security related notes

I have started to write down notes on the security related videos I watch (as a way of quick recall).

These might be more useful to beginners.

The order of notes here is not in order of difficulty, but in reverse chronological order of how I write them (i.e., latest first).



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Notes Themselves

Misc RE tips

Written on Aug 12 2017

Influenced by Gynvael's CONFidence CTF 2017 Livestreams here and here; and by his Google CTF Quals 2017 Livestream here

Sometimes, a challenge might implement a complicated task by implementing a VM. It is not always necessary to completely reverse engineer the VM and work on solving the challenge. Sometimes, you can RE a little bit, and once you know what is going on, you can hook into the VM, and get access to stuff that you need. Additionally, timing based side-channel attacks become easier in VMs (mainly due to more number of "real" instructions executed.

Cryptographically interesting functions in binaries can be recognized and quickly RE'd simply by looking for the constants and searching for them online. For standard crypto functions, these constants are sufficient to quickly guess at a function. Simpler crypto functions can be recognized even more easily. If you see a lot of XORs and stuff like that happening, and no easily identifiable constants, it is probably hand-rolled crypto (and also possibly broken).

Sometimes, when using IDA with HexRays, the disassembly view might be better than the decompilation view. This is especially true if you notice that there seems to be a lot of complication going on in the decompilation view, but you notice repetitive patterns in the disassembly view. (You can quickly switch b/w the two using the space bar). For example, if there is a (fixed size) big-integer library implemented, then the decompilation view is terrible, but the disassembly view is easy to understand stuff (and easily recognizable due to the repetitive "with-carry" instructions such as adc). Additionally, when analyzing like this, using the "Group Nodes" feature in IDA's graph view is extremely useful to quickly reduce the complexity of your graph, as you understand what each node does.

For weird architectures, having a good emulator is extremely useful. Especially, an emulator that can give you a dump of the memory can be used to quickly figure out what is going on, and recognize interesting portions, once you have the memory out of the emulator. Additionally, using an emulator implemented in a comfortable language (such as Python), means that you could run things exactly how you like. For example, if there is some interesting part of the code you might wish to run multiple times (for example, to brute force or something), then using the emulator, you can quickly code up something that does only that part of the code, rather than having to run the complete program.

Being lazy is good, when REing. Do NOT waste time reverse engineering everything, but spend enough time doing recon (even in an RE challenge!), so as to be able to reduce the time spent on actually doing the more difficult task of REing. What recon, in such a situation means, is to just take quick looks at different functions, without spending too much time on analyzing each function thoroughly. You just quickly gauge what the function might be about (for example "looks like a crypto thing", or "looks like a memory management thing", etc.)

For unknown hardware or architecture, spend enough time looking it up on Google, you might get lucky with a bunch of useful tools or documents that might help you build tools quicker. Often times, you'll find toy emulator etc implementations that might be useful as a quick point to start off from. Alternatively, you might get some interesting info (such as how bitmaps are stored, or how strings are stored, or something) with which you can write a quick "fix" script, and then use normal tools to see if interesting stuff is there.

Gimp (the image manipulation tool), has a very cool open/load functionality to see raw pixel data. You can use this to quickly look for assets or repetitive structures in raw binary data. Do spend time messing around with the settings to see if more info can be gleaned from it.

Analysis for RE and Pwning tasks in CTFs

Written on Jul 2 2017

Influenced by a discussion with @p4n74 and @h3rcul35 on the InfoSecIITR #bin chat. We were discussing on how sometimes beginners struggle to start with a larger challenge binary, especially when it is stripped.

To either solve the RE challenge, or to be able to pwn it, one must first analyze the given binary, in order to be able to effectively exploit it. Since the binary might possibly be stripped etc (found using file) one must know where to begin analysis, to get a foothold to build up from.

There's a few styles of analysis, when looking for vulnerabilities in binaries (and from what I have gathered, different CTF teams have different preferences):

  1. Static Analysis

1.1. Transpiling complete code to C

This kind of analysis is sort of rare, but is quite useful for smaller binaries. The idea is to go in an reverse engineer the entirety of the code. Each and every function is opened in IDA (using the decompiler view), and renaming (shortcut: n) and retyping (shortcut: y) are used to quickly make the decompiled code much more readable. Then, all the code is copied/exported into a separate .c file, which can be compiled to get an equivalent (but not same) binary to the original. Then, source code level analysis can be done, to find vulns etc. Once the point of vulnerability is found, then the exploit is built on the original binary, by following along in the nicely decompiled source in IDA, side by side with the disassembly view (use Tab to quickly switch between the two; and use Space to switch quickly between Graph and Text view for disassembly).

1.2. Minimal analysis of decompilation

This is done quite often, since most of the binary is relatively useless (from the attacker's perspective). You only need to analyze the functions that are suspicious or might lead you to the vuln. To do this, there are some approaches to start off:

1.2.1. Start from main

Now usually, for a stripped binary, even main is not labelled (IDA 6.9 onwards does mark it for you though), but over time, you learn to recognize how to reach the main from the entry point (where IDA opens at by default). You jump to that and start analyzing from there.

1.2.2. Find relevant strings

Sometimes, you know some specific strings that might be outputted etc, that you know might be useful (for example "Congratulations, your flag is %s" for an RE challenge). You can jump to Strings View (shortcut: Shift+F12), find the string, and work backwards using XRefs (shortcut: x). The XRefs let you find the path of functions to that string, by using XRefs on all functions in that chain, until you reach main (or some point that you know).

1.2.3. From some random function

Sometimes, not specific string might be useful, and you don't want to start from main. So instead, you quickly flip through the whole functions list, looking for functions that look suspicious (such as having lots of constants, or lots of xors, etc) or call important functions (XRefs of malloc, free, etc), and you start off from there, and go both forwards (following functions it calls) and backwards (XRefs of the function)

1.3. Pure disassembly analysis

Sometimes, you cannot use the decompilation view (because of weird architecture, or anti-decompilation techniques, or hand written assembly, or decompilation looking too unnecessarily complex). In that case, it is perfectly valid to look purely at the disassembly view. It is extremely useful (for new architectures) to turn on Auto Comments, which shows a comment explaining each instruction. Additionally, the node colorization and group nodes functionalities are immensely helpful. Even if you don't use any of these, regularly marking comments in the disassembly helps a lot. If I am personally doing this, I prefer writing down Python-like comments, so that I can quickly then transpile in manually into Python (especially useful for RE challenges, where you might have to use Z3 etc).

1.4. Using platforms like BAP, etc.

This kind of analysis is (semi-)automated, and is usually more useful for much larger software, and is rarely directly used in CTFs.

  1. Fuzzing

Fuzzing can be an effective technique to quickly get to the vuln, without having to actually understand it initially. By using a fuzzer, one can get a lot of low-hanging-fruit style of vulns, which then need to be analyzed and triaged to get to the actual vuln. See my notes on basics of fuzzing and genetic fuzzing for more info.

  1. Dynamic Analysis

Dynamic Analysis can be used after finding a vuln using static analysis, to help build exploits quickly. Alternatively, it can be used to find the vuln itself. Usually, one starts up the executable inside a debugger, and tries to go along code paths that trigger the bug. By placing breakpoints at the right locations, and analyzing the state of the registers/heap/stack/etc, one can get a good idea of what is going on. One can also use debuggers to quickly identify interesting functions. This can be done, for example, by setting temporary breakpoints on all functions initially; then proceeding to do 2 walks - one through all uninteresting code paths; and one through only a single interesting path. The first walk trips all the uninteresting functions and disables those breakpoints, thereby leaving the interesting ones showing up as breakpoints during the second walk.

My personal style for analysis, is to start with static analysis, usually from main (or for non-console based applications, from strings), and work towards quickly finding a function that looks odd. I then spend time and branch out forwards and backwards from here, regularly writing down comments, and continuously renaming and retyping variables to improve the decompilation. Like others, I do use names like Apple,Banana,Carrot,etc for seemingly useful, but as of yet unknown functions/variables/etc, to make it easier to analyze (keeping track of func_123456 style of names is too difficult for me). I also regularly use the Structures view in IDA to define structures (and enums) to make the decompilation even nicer. Once I find the vuln, I usually move to writing a script with pwntools (and use that to call a gdb.attach()). This way, I can get a lot of control over what is going on. Inside gdb, I usually use plain gdb, though I have added a command peda that loads peda instantly if needed.

My style is definitely evolving though, as I have gotten more comfortable with my tools, and also with custom tools I have written to speed things up. I would be happy to hear of other analysis styles, as well as possible changes to my style that might help me get faster. For any comments/criticisms/praise you have, as always, I can be reached on Twitter @jay_f0xtr0t.

Return Oriented Programming

Written on Jun 4 2017

Influenced by this awesome live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he discusses the basics of ROP, and gives a few tips and tricks

Return Oriented Programming (ROP) is one of the classic exploitation techniques, that is used to bypass the NX (non executable memory) protection. Microsoft has incorporated NX as DEP (data execution prevention). Even Linux etc, have it effective, which means that with this protection, you could no longer place shellcode onto heap/stack and have it execute just by jumping to it. So now, to be able to execute code, you jump into pre-existing code (main binary, or its libraries -- libc, ldd etc on Linux; kernel32, ntdll etc on Windows). ROP comes into existence by re-using fragments of this code that is already there, and figuring out a way to combine those fragments into doing what you want to do (which is of course, HACK THE PLANET!!!).

Originally, ROP started with ret2libc, and then became more advanced over time by using many more small pieces of code. Some might say that ROP is now "dead", due to additional protections to mitigate it, but it still can be exploited in a lot of scenarios (and definitely necessary for many CTFs).

The most important part of ROP, is the gadgets. Gadgets are "usable pieces of code for ROP". That usually means pieces of code that end with a ret (but other kinds of gadgets might also be useful; such as those ending with pop eax; jmp eax etc). We chain these gadgets together to form the exploit, which is known as the ROP chain.

One of the most important assumptions of ROP is that you have control over the stack (i.e., the stack pointer points to a buffer that you control). If this is not true, then you will need to apply other tricks (such as stack pivoting) to gain this control before building a ROP chain.

How do you extract gadgets? Use downloadable tools (such as ropgadget) or online tool (such as ropshell) or write your own tools (might be more useful for more difficult challenges sometimes, since you can tweak it to the specific challenge if need be). Basically, we just need the addresses that we can jump to for these gadgets. This is where there might be a problem with ASLR etc (in which case, you get a leak of the address, before moving on to actually doing ROP).

So now, how do we use these gadgets to make a ropchain? We first look for "basic gadgets". These are gadgets that can do simple tasks for us (such as pop ecx; ret, which can be used to load a value into ecx by placing the gadget, followed by the value to be loaded, followed by rest of chain, which is returned to after the value is loaded). The most useful basic gadgets, are usually "set a register", "store register value at address pointed to by register", etc.

We can build up from these primitive functions to gain higher level functionality (similar to my post titled exploitation abstraction). For example, using the set-register, and store-value-at-address gadgets, we can come up with a "poke" function, that lets us set any specific address with a specific value. Using this, we can build a "poke-string" function that lets us store any particular string at any particular location in memory. Now that we have poke-string, we are basically almost done, since we can create any structures that we want in memory, and can also call any functions we want with the parameters we want (since we can set-register, and can place values on stack).

One of the most important reasons to build from these lower order primitives to larger functions that do more complex things, is to reduce the chances of making mistakes (which is common in ROP otherwise).

There are more complex ideas, techniques, and tips for ROP, but that is possibly a topic for a separate note, for a different time :)

PS: Gyn has a blogpost on Return-Oriented Exploitation that might be worth a read.

Genetic Fuzzing

Written on May 27 2017; extended on May 29 2017

Influenced by this amazing live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he talks about the basic theory behind genetic fuzzing, and starts to build a basic genetic fuzzer. He then proceeds to complete the implementation in this live stream.

"Advanced" fuzzing (compared to a blind fuzzer, described in my "Basics of Fuzzing" note). It also modifies/mutates bytes etc, but it does it a little bit smarter than the blind "dumb" fuzzer.

Why do we need a genetic fuzzer?

Some programs might be "nasty" towards dumb fuzzers, since it is possible that a vulnerability might require a whole bunch of conditions to be satisfied to be reached. In a dumb fuzzer, we have very low probability of this happening since it doesn't have any idea if it is making any progress or not. As a specific example, if we have the code if a: if b: if c: if d: crash! (let's call it the CRASHER code), then in this case we need 4 conditions to be satisfied to crash the program. However, a dumb fuzzer might be unable to get past the a condition, just because there is very low chance that all 4 mutations a, b, c, d, happen at same time. In fact, even if it progresses by doing just a, the next mutation might go back to !a just because it doesn't know anything about the program.

Wait, when does this kind of "bad case" program show up?

It is quite common in file format parsers, to take one example. To reach some specific code paths, one might need to go past multiple checks "this value must be this, and that value must be that, and some other value must be something of something else" and so on. Additionally, almost no real world software is "uncomplicated", and most software has many many many possible code paths, some of which can be accessed only after many things in the state get set up correctly. Thereby, many of these programs' code paths are basically inaccessible to dumb fuzzers. Additionally, sometimes, some paths might be completely inaccessible (rather than just crazily improbable) due to not enough mutations done whatsoever. If any of these paths have bugs, a dumb fuzzer would never be able to find them.

So how do we do better than dumb fuzzers?

Consider the Control Flow Graph (CFG) of the above mentioned CRASHER code. If by chance a dumb fuzzer suddenly got a correct, then too it would not recognize that it reached a new node, but it would continue ignoring this, discarding the sample. On the other hand, what AFL (and other genetic or "smart" fuzzers) do, is they recognize this as a new piece of information ("a newly reached path") and store this sample as a new initial point into the corpus. What this means is that now the fuzzer can start from the a block and move further. Of course, sometimes, it might go back to the !a from the a sample, but most of the time, it will not, and instead might be able to reach b block. This again is a new node reached, so adds a new sample into the corpus. This continues, allowing more and more possible paths to be checked, and finally reaches the crash!.

Why does this work?

By adding mutated samples into the corpus, that explore the graph more (i.e. reach parts not explored before), we can reach previously unreachable areas, and can thus fuzz such areas. Since we can fuzz such areas, we might be able to uncover bugs in those regions.

Why is it called genetic fuzzing?

This kind of "smart" fuzzing is kind of like genetic algorithms. Mutation and crossover of specimens causes new specimens. We keep specimens which are better suited to the conditions which are tested. In this case, the condition is "how many nodes in the graph did it reach?". The ones that traverse more can be kept. This is not exactly like genetic algos, but is a variation (since we keep all specimens that traverse unexplored territory, and we don't do crossover) but is sufficiently similar to get the same name. Basically, choice from pre-existing population, followed by mutation, followed by fitness testing (whether it saw new areas), and repeat.

Wait, so we just keep track of unreached nodes?

Nope, not really. AFL keeps track of edge traversals in the graph, rather than nodes. Additionally, it doesn't just say "edge travelled or not", it keeps track of how many times an edge was traversed. If an edge is traversed 0, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, ... times, it is considered as a "new path" and leads to addition into the corpus. This is done because looking at edges rather than nodes is a better way to distinguish between application states, and using an exponentially increasing count of the edge traversals gives more info (an edge traversed once is quite different from traversed twice, but traversed 10 is not too different from 11 times).

So, what and all do you need in a genetic fuzzer?

We need 2 things, the first part is called the tracer (or tracing instrumentation). It basically tells you which instructions were executed in the application. AFL does this in a simple way by jumping in between the compilation stages. After the generation of the assembly, but before assembling the program, it looks for basic blocks (by looking for endings, by checking for jump/branch type of instructions), and adds code to each block that marks the block/edge as executed (probably into some shadow memory or something). If we don't have source code, we can use other techniques for tracing (such as pin, debugger, etc). Turns out, even ASAN can give coverage information (see docs for this).

For the second part, we then use the coverage information given by the tracer to keep track of new paths as they appear, and add those generated samples into the corpus for random selection in the future.

There are multiple mechanisms to make the tracer. They can be software based, or hardware based. For hardware based, there are, for example, some Intel CPU features exist where given a buffer in memory, it records information of all basic blocks traversed into that buffer. It is a kernel feature, so the kernel has to support it and provide it as an API (which Linux does). For software based, we can do it by adding in code, or using a debugger (using temporary breakpoints, or through single stepping), or use address sanitizer's tracing abilities, or use hooks, or emulators, or a whole bunch of other ways.

Another way to differentiate the mechanisms is by either black-box tracing (where you can only use the unmodified binary), or software white-box tracing (where you have access to the source code, and modify the code itself to add in tracing code).

AFL uses software instrumentation during compilation as the method for tracing (or through QEMU emulation). Honggfuzz supports both software and hardware based tracing methods. Other smart fuzzers might be different. The one that Gyn builds uses the tracing/coverage provided by address sanitizer (ASAN).

Some fuzzers use "speedhacks" (i.e. increase fuzzing speed) such as by making a forkserver or other such ideas. Might be worth looking into these at some point :)

Basics of Fuzzing

Written on 20th April 2017

Influenced by this awesome live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he talks about what fuzzing is about, and also builds a basic fuzzer from scratch!

What is a fuzzer, in the first place? And why do we use it?

Consider that we have a library/program that takes input data. The input may be structured in some way (say a PDF, or PNG, or XML, etc; but it doesn't need to be any "standard" format). From a security perspective, it is interesting if there is a security boundary between the input and the process / library / program, and we can pass some "special input" which causes unintended behaviour beyond that boundary. A fuzzer is one such way to do this. It does this by "mutating" things in the input (thereby possibly corrupting it), in order to lead to either a normal execution (including safely handled errors) or a crash. This can happen due to edge case logic not being handled well.

Crashing is the easiest way for error conditions. There might be others as well. For example, using ASAN (address sanitizer) etc might lead to detecting more things as well, which might be security issues. For example, a single byte overflow of a buffer might not cause a crash on its own, but by using ASAN, we might be able to catch even this with a fuzzer.

Another possible use for a fuzzer is that inputs generated by fuzzing one program can also possibly be used in another library/program and see if there are differences. For example, some high-precision math library errors were noticed like this. This doesn't usually lead to security issues though, so we won't concentrate on this much.

How does a fuzzer work?

A fuzzer is basically a mutate-execute-repeat loop that explores the state space of the application to try to "randomly" find states of a crash / security vuln. It does not find an exploit, just a vuln. The main part of the fuzzer is the mutator itself. More on this later.

Outputs from a fuzzer?

In the fuzzer, a debugger is (sometimes) attached to the application to get some kind of a report from the crash, to be able to analyze it later as security vuln vs a benign (but possibly important) crash.

How to determine what areas of programs are best to fuzz first?

When fuzzing, we want to usually concentrate on a single piece or small set of piece of the program. This is usually done mainly to reduce the amount of execution to be done. Usually, we concentrate on the parsing and processing only. Again, the security boundary matters a lot in deciding which parts matter to us.

Types of fuzzers?

Input samples given to the fuzzer are called the corpus. In oldschool fuzzers (aka "blind"/"dumb" fuzzzers) there was a necessity for a large corpus. Newer ones (aka "genetic" fuzzers, for example AFL) do not necessarily need such a large corpus, since they explore the state on their own.

How are fuzzers useful?

Fuzzers are mainly useful for "low hanging fruit". It won't find complicated logic bugs, but it can find easy to find bugs (which are actually sometimes easy to miss out during manual analysis). While I might say input throughout this note, and usually refer to an input file, it need not be just that. Fuzzers can handle inputs that might be stdin or input file or network socket or many others. Without too much loss of generality though, we can think of it as just a file for now.

How to write a (basic) fuzzer?

Again, it just needs to be a mutate-run-repeat loop. We need to be able to call the target often (subprocess.Popen). We also need to be able to pass input into the program (eg: files) and detect crashes (SIGSEGV etc cause exceptions which can be caught). Now, we just have to write a mutator for the input file, and keep calling the target on the mutated files.

Mutators? What?!?

There can be multiple possible mutators. Easy (i.e. simple to implement) ones might be to mutate bits, mutate bytes, or mutate to "magic" values. To increase chance of crash, instead of changing only 1 bit or something, we can change multiple (maybe some parameterized percentage of them?). We can also (instead of random mutations), change bytes/words/dwords/etc to some "magic" values. The magic values might be 0, 0xff, 0xffff, 0xffffffff, 0x80000000 (32-bit INT_MIN), 0x7fffffff (32-bit INT_MAX) etc. Basically, pick ones that are common to causing security issues (because they might trigger some edge cases). We can write smarter mutators if we know more info about the program (for example, for string based integers, we might write something that changes an integer string to "65536" or -1 etc). Chunk based mutators might move pieces around (basically, reorganizing input). Additive/appending mutators also work (for example causing larger input into buffer). Truncators also might work (for example, sometimes EOF might not be handled well). Basically, try a whole bunch of creative ways of mangling things. The more experience with respect to the program (and exploitation in general), the more useful mutators might be possible.

But what is this "genetic" fuzzing?

That is probably a discussion for a later time. However, a couple of links to some modern (open source) fuzzers are AFL and honggfuzz.

Exploitation Abstraction

Written on 7th April 2017

Influenced from a nice challenge in PicoCTF 2017 (name of challenge withheld, since the contest is still under way)

WARNING: This note might seem simple/obvious to some readers, but it necessitates saying, since the layering wasn't crystal clear to me until very recently.

Of course, when programming, all of us use abstractions, whether they be classes and objects, or functions, or meta-functions, or polymorphism, or monads, or functors, or all that jazz. However, can we really have such a thing during exploitation? Obviously, we can exploit mistakes that are made in implementing the aforementioned abstractions, but here, I am talking about something different.

Across multiple CTFs, whenever I've written an exploit previously, it has been an ad-hoc exploit script that drops a shell. I use the amazing pwntools as a framework (for connecting to the service, and converting things, and DynELF, etc), but that's about it. Each exploit tended to be an ad-hoc way to work towards the goal of arbitrary code execution. However, this current challenge, as well as thinking about my previous note on "Advanced" Format String Exploitation, made me realize that I could layer my exploits in a consistent way, and move through different abstraction layers to finally reach the requisite goal.

As an example, let us consider the vulnerability to be a logic error, which lets us do a read/write of 4 bytes, somewhere in a small range after a buffer. We want to abuse this all the way to gaining code execution, and finally the flag.

In this scenario, I would consider this abstraction to be a short-distance-write-anything primitive. With this itself, obviously we cannot do much. Nevertheless, I make a small Python function vuln(offset, val). However, since just after the buffer, there may be some data/meta-data that might be useful, we can abuse this to build both read-anywhere and write-anything-anywhere primitives. This means, I write short Python functions that call the previously defined vuln() function. These get_mem(addr) and set_mem(addr, val) functions are made simply (in this current example) simply by using the vuln() function to overwrite a pointer, which can then be dereferenced elsewhere in the binary.

Now, after we have these get_mem() and set_mem() abstractions, I build an anti-ASLR abstraction, by basically leaking 2 addresses from the GOT through get_mem() and comparing against a libc database (thanks @niklasb for making the database). The offsets from these give me a libc_base reliably, which allows me to replace any function in the GOT with another from libc.

This has essentially given me control over EIP (the moment I can "trigger" one of those functions exactly when I want to). Now, all that remains is for me to call the trigger with the right parameters. So I set up the parameters as a separate abstraction, and then call trigger() and I have shell access on the system.

TL;DR: One can build small exploitation primitives (which do not have too much power), and by combining them and building a hierarchy of stronger primitives, we can gain complete execution.

"Advanced" Format String Exploitation

Written on 6th April 2017

Influenced by this awesome live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he talks about format string exploitation

Simple format string exploits:

You can use the %p to see what's on the stack. If the format string itself is on the stack, then one can place an address (say foo) onto the stack, and then seek to it using the position specifier n$ (for example, AAAA %7$p might return AAAA 0x41414141, if 7 is the position on the stack). We can then use this to build a read-where primitive, using the %s format specifier instead (for example, AAAA %7$s would return the value at the address 0x41414141, continuing the previous example). We can also use the %n format specifier to make it into a write-what-where primitive. Usually instead, we use %hhn (a glibc extension, iirc), which lets us write one byte at a time.

We use the above primitives to initially beat ASLR (if any) and then overwrite an entry in the GOT (say exit() or fflush() or ...) to then raise it to an arbitrary-eip-control primitive, which basically gives us arbitrary-code-execution.

Possible difficulties (that make it "advanced" exploitation):

If we have partial ASLR, then we can still use format strings and beat it, but this becomes much harder if we only have one-shot exploit (i.e., our exploit needs to run instantaneously, and the addresses are randomized on each run, say). The way we would beat this is to use addresses that are already in the memory, and overwrite them partially (since ASLR affects only higher order bits). This way, we can gain reliability during execution.

If we have a read only .GOT section, then the "standard" attack of overwriting the GOT will not work. In this case, we look for alternative areas that can be overwritten (preferably function pointers). Some such areas are: __malloc_hook (see man page for the same), stdin's vtable pointer to write or flush, etc. In such a scenario, having access to the libc sources is extremely useful. As for overwriting the __malloc_hook, it works even if the application doesn't call malloc, since it is calling printf (or similar), and internally, if we pass a width specifier greater than 64k (say %70000c), then it will call malloc, and thus whatever address was specified at the global variable __malloc_hook.

If we have our format string buffer not on the stack, then we can still gain a write-what-where primitive, though it is a little more complex. First off, we need to stop using the position specifiers n$, since if this is used, then printf internally copies the stack (which we will be modifying as we go along). Now, we find two pointers that point ahead into the stack itself, and use those to overwrite the lower order bytes of two further ahead pointing pointers on the stack, so that they now point to x+0 and x+2 where x is some location further ahead on the stack. Using these two overwrites, we are able to completely control the 4 bytes at x, and this becomes our where in the primitive. Now we just have to ignore more positions on the format string until we come to this point, and we have a write-what-where primitive.

Race Conditions & Exploiting Them

Written on 1st April 2017

Influenced by this amazing live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he explains about race conditions

If a memory region (or file or any other resource) is accessed twice with the assumption that it would remain same, but due to switching of threads, we are able to change the value, we have a race condition.

Most common kind is a TOCTTOU (Time-of-check to Time-of-use), where a variable (or file or any other resource) is first checked for some value, and if a certain condition for it passes, then it is used. In this case, we can attack it by continuously "spamming" this check in one thread, and in another thread, continuously "flipping" it so that due to randomness, we might be able to get a flip in the middle of the "window-of-opportunity" which is the (short) timeframe between the check and the use.

Usually the window-of-opportunity might be very small. We can use multiple tricks in order to increase this window of opportunity by a factor of 3x or even up to ~100x. We do this by controlling how the value is being cached, or paged. If a value (let's say a long int) is not aligned to a cache line, then 2 cache lines might need to be accessed and this causes a delay for the same instruction to execute. Alternatively, breaking alignment on a page, (i.e., placing it across a page boundary) can cause a much larger time to access. This might give us higher chance of the race condition being triggered.

Smarter ways exist to improve this race condition situation (such as clearing TLB etc, but these might not even be necessary sometimes).

Race conditions can be used, in (possibly) their extreme case, to get ring0 code execution (which is "higher than root", since it is kernel mode execution).

It is possible to find race conditions "automatically" by building tools/plugins on top of architecture emulators. For further details,

Types of "basic" heap exploits

Written on 31st Mar 2017

Influenced by this amazing live stream by Gynvael Coldwind, where he is experimenting on the heap


Let us say we have a bunch of pointers to a place in heap, and it is freed without making sure that all of those pointers are updated. This would leave a few dangling pointers into free'd space. This is exploitable by usually making another allocation of different type into the same region, such that you control different areas, and then you can abuse this to gain (possibly) arbitrary code execution.


Free up a memory region, and the free it again. If you can do this, you can take control by controlling the internal structures used by malloc. This can get complicated, compared to use-after-free, so preferably use that one if possible.

Classic buffer overflow on the heap (heap-overflow):

If you can write beyond the allocated memory, then you can start to write into the malloc's internal structures of the next malloc'd block, and by controlling what internal values get overwritten, you can usually gain a read-what-where primitive, that can usually be abused to gain higher levels of access (usually arbitrary code execution, via the GOT PLT, or __fini_array__ or similar).

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