CS 208 s20 — Buffer Overflow Attacks

Table of Contents

1 Video

Here is a video lecture for the material outlined below. It covers CSPP section 3.10.3 and 3.10.4 (p. 279–290). It contains sections on

  1. introduction (0:05)
  2. stack frame review (0:48)
  3. what is a buffer? (4:33)
  4. what is a buffer overflow? (6:57)
  5. gets known to be harmful (14:09)
  6. buffer overflow in action (19:36)
  7. spreadsheet example (22:54)
  8. code injection attack (30:41)
  9. buffer overflow exercise (34:22)
  10. real-world examples (38:47)
  11. defenses against buffer overflows (44:57)
  12. end notes (55:57)

The Panopto viewer has table of contents entries for these sections. Link to the Panopto viewer: https://carleton.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=9d4d9870-abf5-4171-b6a0-abba0100ccc6

2 Background

2.1 Stack Frame Review

  • In x86-64 Linux
    • stack segment of memory starts at 0x00007fffffffffff and grows down
    • code segment of memory starts at 0x400000 and grows up


2.2 What is a Buffer?

  • array used to temporarily store data
  • video buffering is the video being written to a buffer before being played
  • bufferes are often used to store user input

2.3 What is a Buffer Overflow?

  • arrays can be stored on the stack alongside procedure data like the return address
  • C does not prevent writing to elements beyond the end of an array
  • together, these two facts allow for a buffer overflow where program state on the stack is corrupted
    • for example, overwritting the return address pushed on the stack by the caller would cause the program to jump to an unexpected or invalid place

Input that does not overflow the buffer:


Input that does overflow the buffer, overwriting part of the return address:


  • attacker just has to choose the right inputs to overwrite interesting data
  • simple attack: overwrite the current return address (sometimes called stack smashing)
  • for a long time this was the #1 technical cause of security vulnerabilities
    • I say technical cause because the #1 overall cause is pretty much always humans (social engineering, ignorance, etc.)

2.3.1 Example

/* Get string from stdin */
char* gets(char* dest) {
    int c = getchar();
    char* p = dest;
    while (c != EOF && c != '\n') {
        *p++ = c;
        c = getchar();
    *p = '\0';
    return dest;
  • what could go wrong here?
    • we could read in a lot more data than dest has room for, overwriting things
    • gets has no information about the size of dest (just passed as a pointer to the start of the array)

2.3.2 gets Known to be Harmful

  • bugs section of gets man page

Never use gets(). Because it is impossible to tell without knowing the data in advance how many characters gets() will read, and because gets() will continue to store characters past the end of the buffer, it is extremely dangerous to use. It has been used to break computer security. Use fgets() instead.

  • also a problem with strcpy, scanf, fsnanf, sscanf
  • gcc even gives you a warning: the `gets' function is dangerous and should not be used.

3 Buffer Overflow In Action

Consider this (very insecure) code:

/* Echo Line */
void echo() {
    char buf[8];  /* Way too small! */

void call_echo() {
  • full source code here
  • entering 01234567890123456789012 works fine
    • overwriting unused space on the stack
  • entering 012345678901234567890123 causes an illeagal instruction error
    • overwriting least significant byte of return address with '\0' (0x00), making it 0x400500
    • causes program to return into the middle of another instruction, CPU triggers an exception when we try to execute it as code
  • entering 0123456789012345678901234 causes a segmentation fault
    • overwriting two low-order bytes of return address with '4' and '\0', making it 0x400034
    • this isn't a valid memory address for our program, triggering a segmentation fault when we try to access it

From objdump -d buf-nsp:

0000000000400566 <echo>:
  400566:       48 83 ec 18             sub    $0x18,%rsp
  40056a:       48 89 e7                mov    %rsp,%rdi
  40056d:       b8 00 00 00 00          mov    $0x0,%eax
  400572:       e8 d9 fe ff ff          callq  400450 <gets@plt>
  400577:       48 89 e7                mov    %rsp,%rdi
  40057a:       e8 b1 fe ff ff          callq  400430 <puts@plt>
  40057f:       48 83 c4 18             add    $0x18,%rsp
  400583:       c3                      retq

0000000000400584 <call_echo>:
  400584:       48 83 ec 08             sub    $0x8,%rsp
  400588:       b8 00 00 00 00          mov    $0x0,%eax
  40058d:       e8 d4 ff ff ff          callq  400566 <echo>
  400592:       48 83 c4 08             add    $0x8,%rsp
  400596:       c3                      retq

Spreadsheet example

4 Code Injection Attack


  • very common attack to get a program to execute an arbitrary function
    • over a network, program given a string containing executable code (exploit code) with extra data to overwrite a return address with the location of the exploit
    • exploit might use a system call to start a shell giving the attacker access to the system
    • exploit might do some mischief, then repair the stack and call ret again, giving the appearance of normal behavior

4.1 Exercise

    subq  $0x40, %rsp
    leaq  0x10(%rsp), %rdi
    call  gets

What is the minimum number of characters that gets must read in order for us to change the return address to a stack address?

For example, change 0x00 00 00 00 00 40 05 D1 to 0x00 00 7F FF CA FE F0 0D1

4.2 Real World examples

  • buffer overflow exploits are alarmingly common in real programs
    • programmers keep making the same mistakes
    • recent innovations have improved the situation

4.2.1 Internet Worm (1988)

  • protocol for getting the status of a server (fingerd) used gets to read its argument
  • worm sent exploit code that executed a root shell on the target machine
  • scanned other machines to attack, invaded about 6000 computers in a matter of hours (10% of the Internet at that time)
  • author (Robert Morris) was first person ever convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, now faculty at MIT (so I guess things turned out all right for him)

4.2.2 Heartbleed (2014)


  • affected Tumblr, Google, Yahoo, Intuit (makers of TurboTax), Dropbox, Netflix, Facebook, and many, many smaller sites

4.2.3 Hacking Cars

  • in 2010, UW researchers demonstrated wirelessly hacking a car using buffer overflow
  • overwrote the onboard control system’s code
    • disable brakes
    • unlock doors
    • turn engine on/off

4.2.4 Hacking DNA Sequencing Machines

  • in 2017, security researchers demonstrated that a buffer overflow exploit could be encoded in DNA
  • when read by vulnerable sequencing software, the attack could compromise the sequencing machine

5 Countermeasures

5.1 System Level

5.1.1 Non-Executable Stack

x86-64 added execute permission (not all systems have hardware support, doesn't block all exploits)

5.1.2 Stack Randomization

  • in the past, stack addresses were highly predictable, meaning if an attacker could determine addresses for a common web server, than many machines were vulnerable
  • make it unpredictable by allocating between 0 and \(n\) bytes on the stack at the start of the program
  • part of a larger class of techniques called address-space layout randomization (ASLR)
  • in general, this randomization can greatly increase the effort required for a successful attack, but cannot guarantee safety

5.2 Writing Better Code

  • Use the safe versions of C library functions: fgets instead of gets, strncpy instead of strcpy
  • Avoid using the %s format specifier—provide a max width like %20s
  • Use a safer programming language! C has unique vulnerabilities.

5.2.1 Stack Corruption Detection

  • detect when stack corruption occurs before it can have harmful effects
  • gcc now uses stack protectors to detect buffer overflows
    • canary value (or guard value) between buffer and rest of the stack
    • generated each time the program runs, so hard for attacker to know what it will be
    • stored in a read-only segment of memory (so attacker can't modify it)
  • prevents many common attack strategies

6 Homework

  1. CSPP practice problem 3.46 (p. 282)
  2. Remember that we're switching to handins on Moodle for lab 2: upload your solutions.txt to the lab 2 assignment on Moodle.
  3. Quiz due at 9pm tonight.



gets would need to read in 54 character (bytes) to overwrite the return address with a stack address. subq 0x40, %rsp tells us that the stack frame for the function is 64 bytes. leaq 0x10(%rsp), %rdi tells us that the start of the buffer passed to gets is 16 bytes above the top of the stack, making it 48 bytes from the start of the stack frame. The stack address we want to replace the return address with is 6 non-zero bytes, so we need to pass 48 bytes of filler followed by 6 bytes of address to gets in order to execute this part of our attack, for a total of 54 bytes.