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Re-Entrancy Attack Patterns

These attack patterns were discovered during evaluation of Sereum a runtime monitoring solution for re-entrancy attacks, which utilizes taint tracking and dynamic write locks to detect and prevent re-entrancy attacks. For more information please refer to our paper "Sereum: Protecting Existing Smart Contracts Against Re-Entrancy Attacks" (arxiv preprint).

For every type of attack pattern, this repository contains a small example implementation of a vulnerable contract and an attack. The source code of the vulnerable and attacker contracts are contained in the *.sol files. We also provide a *_setup.js file for every example, which deploys the contracts on a dev blockchain and exploits the vulnerability in the example contract. The scripts assume they're run in the geth dev mode blockchain (geth --dev).

Cross-function re-entrancy

Example: ./cross-function.sol

The Token contract in the example is vulnerable to a re-entrancy attack starting with the withdrawAll function. However, the attacker cannot re-enter the withdrawAll. Instead the attacker has to re-enter the contract at the exchangeAndWithdrawToken to exploit the bug and drain the vulnerable contract from ether.

Delegated re-entrancy

Example: ./delegated.sol

The Bank contract utilizes a library, called via delegatecall, for performing the ether sending. This obfuscates the re-entrancy vulnerability in the withdraw function. Any static analysis tool will not be able to detect this vulnerability when analyzing only the Bank contract and not the combination of the contract and its libraries.

Create-based re-entrancy

Example: ./create-based.sol

In this example, multiple contracts interact with each other. The Bank contract utilizes the CREATE instruction (i.e., new in solidity) to create new subcontracts. Contract creation immediately triggers the execution of the constructor of the newly created contract. This constructor can perform external calls to the unknown. This can lead to re-entrancy scenarios, where the attacker re-enters a contract, during execution of a sub-contracts constructor. For static analysis tools to catch these kinds of problems, they must (1) also analyze combination of contracts and (2) consider the CREATE instruction as an external call, similar to the CALL instruction.

Tested Tools

The following table lists the tools and versions we tested. If the tool detects the test-case, we mark it with "Yes", otherwise "No". Mythril, Securify and Slither use a conservative policy, that marks every state update after an external call. This would prevent all re-entrancy vulnerabilities, but also results in a rather high number of false positives. For example, for create-based re-entrancy vulnerabilities, it is highly likely that the creater of the contract, will want to modify the state (e.g., registering the address of the newly created contract). Another example would be the use of manual locking with mutexes, which is always reported with this policy.

Tool Version Simple Cross-Function Delegated Create-based
Oyente 0.2.7 Yes No No1 No
Mythril v0.19.9 Partial (conservative) Partial (conservative) No Partial (conservative)
Securify 2018-08-01 Partial (conservative) Partial (conservative) No No
Manticore2 0.2.2 Yes Yes3 No No
Slither5 0.6.4 Yes (conservative) Yes (conservative) Yes (conservative) No
ECFChecker geth1.8port Yes Yes4 Yes No
Sereum Yes Yes Yes Yes
  • 1 Oyente detects a re-entrancy in the Library contract. However, the library contract itself is arguably not vulnerable to re-entrancy.
  • 2 We evaluate the detector enabled with --detect-reentrancy-advanced. The other detector --detect-reentrancy uses a similar policy to Mythril and Securify.
  • 3 However, other tests (e.g., manual-lock.sol) show that Manticore is sometimes not as accurate and reports re-entrancy attacks even though they're not really possible.
  • 4 However, we crafted a different example for a cross-function re-entrancy attack that is not detected by ECFChecker. See the next section for details.
  • 5 In contrast to the other tools Slither works on the Solidity source code level. It has a similar policy to Mythril and Securify, i.e. it reports any state update after an external call using either the low-level Solidity call or delegatecall functions.

Testcase: manual lock

The file manual-lock.sol contains several versions of the same contract. These contracts can be used to investigate the quality of re-entrancy detection tools. This file contains three functionally equivalent contracts:

  • VulnBankNoLock is vulnerable to simple same function re-entrancy.
  • VulnBankBuggyLock is vulnerable to cross-function re-entrancy, due to a incomplete locking mechanism.
  • VulnBankSecureLock is not vulnerable due to the locking mechanism. However, the locking mechanism can result in a false positive.

Furthermore, there are two types of attacks implemented against all of these contracts.

  • MallorySameFunction implements simple same-function re-entrancy
  • MalloryCrossFunction implements a cross-function re-entrancy attack

Static analysis tools have a hard time correctly analysing the contracts. Oyente detects only the simple re-entrancy vulnerability and does not report the cross-function re-entrancy. Manticore on the other hand detects a re-entrancy bug in both the BuggyLock and SecureLock version, resulting in a false positive. Slither and Mythril mark any state update after an external call as a problem and therefore report a problem with every of those contract, even though the SecureLock variant is not exploitable.

Tool \ Testcase NoLock BuggyLock SecureLock
Oyente Yes No No
Manticore Yes Yes Yes
Mythril Yes Yes Yes
Slither Yes Yes Yes
Expected Yes Yes No

For the dynamic analysis tools, we use several combinations of vulnerable contracts and attack contracts. We verify whether the tool detects an attack against the same-function and cross-function re-entrancy attack.

Testcase \ Tool ECFChecker Sereum Expected
NoLock + SameFunction Yes Yes Yes
NoLock + CrossFunction No Yes Yes
BuggyLock + SameFunction No Yes No
BuggyLock + CrossFunction No Yes Yes
SecureLock + SameFunction No Yes No
SecureLock + CrossFunction No Yes No

The reason, Sereum reports all contracts, is that the locking mechanism itself does exhibit exactly the same pattern as an re-entrancy attack. So Sereum reports an re-entrancy attack on the lock variables, because Sereum cannot know the semantics of the lock variables.

Unconditional Re-Entrancy

Example: ./unconditional.sol

Typically a re-entrancy attack will try to subvert a business logic check of an application. Every check (if, require, assert, etc.) is implemented as a conditional jump (JUMPI) on the EVM level. While certainly unlikely it is possible to write a contract, which does not perform any check on anything before sending ether. In this example the functionality transfers all the ether a user has invested. This example is exploitable only with a re-entrancy vulnerability. Currently this example is not detected by Sereum, since we assume that this is a rather unlikely case. We plan to detect this kind of vulnerabilities in a future versions of sereum.

Tool Detected
Oyente Yes
Manticore Yes
Slither Yes
Mythril Yes
ECFChecker Yes
Sereum No Yes1
  • 1 We have extended Sereum to cover this type of re-entrancy by tracking data-flow from storage variables to the parameters of calls.

Another very simple example is the following contract, which is deployed on the Ethereum blockchain at 0xb7c5c5aa4d42967efe906e1b66cb8df9cebf04f7.

Citing in Academic Work

If you want to refer to these attack patterns in academic work, please cite the following paper:

  title     = "Sereum: Protecting Existing Smart Contracts Against Re-Entrancy Attacks",
  booktitle = "Proceedings of the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium ({NDSS'19})",
  author    = "Rodler, Michael and Li, Wenting and Karame, Ghassan and Davi, Lucas",
  year      =  2019


Re-entrancy attack patterns from our paper "Sereum: Protecting Existing Smart Contracts Against Re-Entrancy Attacks"



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