Better Interpreter Fuzzing with Clang

Last weekend I decided to finally put some effort into investigating Clang, the C/C++/Objective-C frontend for LLVM. Clang is interesting as it is not only designed to provide efficient parsing and processing during compilation, but also as a platform for program analysis tools. Other options for static analysis of C/C++ exist e.g. GCC extensions, cscope hackery, and the various things built on top of CIL (e.g. Frama-C). However, Clang is attractive to me as it supports both C and C++, has a very permissive license, includes a well designed, extensive and documented API and is itself written in C++ (which might be a negative point depending on your view of the world but I like it :P). It also appears to have the backing of both Apple and Google, with a number of their engineers contributing regularly to both LLVM and Clang. All in all, it feels like a maturing project with a skilled and active community behind it.

Clang supports three approaches to writing analysis tools. Using libclang is the encouraged method for most tasks and is probably what you’re looking for if all you want to do is iterate over ASTs and pull out data. The next option is to write a plugin for Clang to be run during the build phase of a project. This is slightly more involved and doesn’t have the benefit of allowing you to use a Python/whatever wrapper around the API. However, if you want to do things like automated source rewriting, or more involved static analysis as part of a build, then this is where you want to be. The final approach is using libtooling. I haven’t looked into writing anything based on this yet but it appears to offer the benefits of writing a standalone tool provided by libclang with the power of full AST control offered by a plugin. The only potential downsides, in comparison to libclang, that I can see are that you cannot write your code in a higher level language and it does not have access to as convenient an API.

After a bit of digging around in documentation and source, I think libclang offers the most gentle introduction to Clang as a program analysis platform. It’s not as powerful as the other two methods but has a stable API (check out include/clang-c/Index.h for the C interface and bindings/python/clang/ for the Python bindings) and supports a nice visitor based approach for writing tools that traverse an AST. From reading over the above code, and following Eli Bendersky’s introduction to using the Python bindings, you should be able to get up and running fairly easily. As a side note, libclang has progressed somewhat since that blog post so the limitations related to missing cursor kinds are now largely alleviated. There are still some missing features but we’ll get to that later.

A relevant question about now is probably “What the hell has all of that got to do with interpreter fuzzing?”. In general, not a whole lot =) However, when trying to think of some small problem I could tackle to get a feel for libclang I recalled an issue I previously encountered when fuzzing PHP. When fuzzing an interpreter there are typically two high level stages that are somewhat unique to interpreter fuzzing; 1) Discover the functions you can call and 2) Discover how to correctly call them e.g. the number and types of their arguments.

In this regard, PHP is a slightly easier target than say, Python or Ruby, because on the first point it has a lot of global functions that can be called without instantiating a class or figuring out what module to import. These functions can be easily discovered using get_defined_functions. Using this approach it is simple to enumerate a fairly large attack surface that calls directly into the C backend (somewhere upwards of 500 functions in a default configuration) and get fuzzing.

Point 2 remains a problem however. Each PHP function implemented in the C backend takes a number of typed parameters. Some type conversion can and does take place, which means you can specify a boolean when an int is required or other such things. Naturally, there are some types that are completely incompatible, e.g. a function callback is required and you provide an integer type. If you get this wrong the function will bail out without performing any further processing. As well as incorrect argument types, specifying an incorrect number of arguments will also often result in the function execution terminating before anything interesting happens. Precise implementation details can be found in the zend_parse_va_args and zend_parse_arg_impl functions of Zend/zend_API.c.

When fuzzing PHP we are then left with a bit of a conundrum. We can easily discover a substantial attack surface but we still need to figure out the types and number of arguments that each function expects. One solution is to just play a numbers game. Fuzzing an interpreter is fast… really fast. It is also easily distributed and instrumented. So, if we just guess at the types and parameters we’ll probably be correct enough of the time [1]. This has a slight issue, in that there is going to be a bias towards functions that take a smaller number of arguments for purely probabilistic reasons. An improvement is to just parse the error messages from PHP which give an indication as to why the function bailed out e.g. incorrect types or incorrect number of arguments. This is all kind of ugly however and it would be nice if we could just know up front the correct argument types and the exact number required.

Enter Clang! An efficient solution for this problem is simply to parse every C file included in the PHP build, find all calls to zend_parse_parameters, extract the format string that specifies the arguments and their types and then relate this information back to the function names discovered via get_all_functions. It’s a fairly straightforward task on the PHP code base and could probably be achieved via regular expressions and some scripting. That said, using libclang we can come up with a much tidier and less fragile solution. Before I delve into the solution I should mention that I’ve uploaded the code to GitHub under the name InterParser, minus the fuzzer, should you want to try it out for yourself, extend it or whatever.

I’ll explain the code using questions for which the answers were not immediately obvious from the Clang documentation or are things that were interesting/surprising to me.

How do I run my libclang based tool on all files in a build?

The solution to this is also a solution to the next problem so I’ll deal with it there!

How do I know the correct compiler arguments to use when parsing a file?

The clang_parseTranslationUnit of Index.h allows you to specify the arguments that would be passed to the compiler when parsing a particular source file. In some cases it is necessary that you specify these arguments correctly or the code that is parsed will not accurately reflect the code that is included when you run make. For example, if a chunk of code is enclosed within #if BLA / #endif tags and BLA is supposed to be defined, or not, via the compiler arguments then unless you provide the same argument when creating the translation unit the code will not be parsed.

This problem, and the previous one, could easily be solved if we could tell 1) every file processed when make is run and 2) the command line argument passed to the compiler on each invocation. After browsing the Clang documentation for a solution a friend of mine suggested the obvious answer of just wrapping the compiler in a script that logged the relevant information during the build. The script provides this functionality. By pointing the CC and CXX environment variables at it you should get a log of all files processed by the compiler when make is ran, as well as the arguments passed.

The module provides the load_project_data function which you can then use to build a Python dictionary of the above information. If there’s an inbuilt Clang API to do all this I didn’t find it [2], but if not you should be able to just drop in my code and work from there! See the main function of for exact usage details.

Once the compiler arguments have been extracted and converted to a list they can just be provided to the index.parse method when constructing the translation unit for a given file. e.g.

comp_args = load_project_data(cc_file)
args = comp_args[file_path]
index = clang.Index.create()
tu = index.parse(file_path, compiler_args)

How do I find all functions within a file?

Our first task is to find all calls to zend_parse_parameters and note the name of the top level backend API function so that we can later relate this to a user-space PHP function call. To do this we first need to find all function declarations within a translation unit for a source file. e.g the process_all_functions method:

for c in tu.cursor.get_children():
    if c.kind == clang.CursorKind.FUNCTION_DECL:
        f = c.location.file
        if file_filter and != file_filter:
        fmt_str = process_function(c)

This is a fairly simple task — we iterate over all children of the top level translation unit for the given source file and compare the cursor kind against FUNCTION_DECL, for a function declaration. It’s worth noting that the children of a translation unit can include various things from files that are #include‘d. As a result, you may want to check the the file name associated with the location for the child is the name of the file passed to index.parse.

How do I find all calls to a particular function?

For each function declaration we can then iterate over all of its children and search for those with the kind CALL_EXPR. This is performed in the process_function method. Firstly, we need to check if the function being called has the correct name. The first child of a CALL_EXPR AST node will represent the function itself, with the rest representing the arguments to this function.

The last statement isn’t quite correct. The C and C++ standards specify a number of conversions that can take place on a function call, so the direct children of a CALL_EXPR AST node will represent these conversions and then the direct child of these conversion nodes will contain the details we require. Clang does have a mode to dump the AST for a given source file so if you’re curious what the AST actually looks like try passing -ast-dump or -ast-dump-xml as parameters to the clang compiler.

As an example, on a function call we encounter a CALL_EXPR node and its first child represents the decay of the function to a pointer as specified by the C/C++ standards. This node will have the kind UNEXPOSED_EXPR. It will have a single child of type DECL_REF_EXPR from which we can retrieve the function name via the displayname attribute. The following code in process_function performs the function name extraction and comparison.

if n.kind == clang.CursorKind.CALL_EXPR:
    unexposed_exprs = list(n.get_children())
    func_name_node = get_child(unexposed_exprs[0], 0)
    if func_name_node.displayname == "zend_parse_parameters":

How do I extract the parameters to a function call?

Once we know we have the correct function call we then need to extract the format string parameter that provides the type specification for the user-space API call. As with the node representing the function, arguments may also undergo conversions. The second argument to zend_parse_parameters is the one we are interested in, and it is usually specified as a string literal. However, string literals undergo a conversion from an rvalue to an lvalue. To account for this, we again go through an UNEXPOSED_EXPR node representing the conversion to access the node for the string literal itself.

Things get a little inconvenient at this point. Once we have the node representing the string literal we ideally want some way to access the actual value specified in the source code. It turns out that this functionality hasn’t been added to the Python bindings around libclang yet. Fortunately, a guy by the name of Gregory Szorc has been working on a branch of libclang and the associated Python bindings that adds the get_tokens method to AST nodes. His code is great but also contains a bug when get_tokens is called on an empty string literal. Until that gets fixed I’ve mirrored his and files. Drop both into your clang/bindings/python/clang directory and you should be good to go!

The actual code to extract the string literal given the node representing it is then straightforward.

if tkn_container.kind != clang.CursorKind.STRING_LITERAL:
    raise VariableArgumentError()

tokens = list(tkn_container.get_tokens())
if tokens[0] is None:
    return ""

The check on the kind of the node is required as in a miniscule number of cases the format string parameter is passed via a variable rather than directly specified. This situation is so rare that it isn’t worth handling. The only other slightly odd thing is that when get_tokens is called on an AST node representing a string literal, like the first parameter in func("xyz", a), it will return a generator for two elements. The first will be the string literal itself, including the double quotes, while the second will represent the comma separator. I’m not sure if this is a bug or not but it’s not a big deal. If the string literal is empty then the generator will return None.


At this point we can associate the functions calling zend_parse_parameters with the format string passed to that call, and thus the types and number of arguments that the function expects. In a fairly small amount of Python we have a robust solution to problem 2, discussed earlier. A question you may have is How do you then associate the function name/argument specification from the C code to the corresponding user-space PHP function?. Well, PHP is nice in that it doesn’t do a massive amount of name mangling and consistently if we have a user-space function called func_one then the backend C function will be called zif_func_one (in the code it will probably look like PHP_FUNCTION(func_one) but Clang will expand the macro for you).

When terminates it will output something like the following:

INFO:main:API info for 518 functions in 68 files written to php_func_args.txt

Inspecting the output file we’ll see function to type specification mappings:

# /Users/sean/Documents/git/php-src/ext/standard/levenshtein.c
zif_levenshtein ss sss sslll
# /Users/sean/Documents/git/php-src/main/main.c
zif_set_time_limit l
# /Users/sean/Documents/git/php-src/ext/standard/versioning.c
zif_version_compare ss|s

This tells us that a user-space PHP script can correctly call levenshtein with two strings, three strings or two strings and three longs. It can call set_time_limit with a single long only. version_compare can be called with two or three strings and so on and so forth. So, with this information at hand we can construct a PHP fuzzer that no longer has to guess at the number of arguments to a function or their types.


The most obvious extension of this code that comes to mind is in pulling out numeric values and string literals from comparison operators. For example, say we’re analyzing a function with the following code:

if (x == 0xc0)

It might be an idea to pull out the constant 0xc0 and add it to a list of possible values for numeric input types when fuzzing the function in question. Naturally, you’ll end up with extra constants that are not compared with the function inputs but I would guess that this approach would lead to some gain in code coverage during fuzzing.


Introduction to writing Clang tools
Eli Bendersky’s blog post on parsing C with libclang
Unofficial Clang tutorials

[1] This is what I did when I first fuzzed PHP a long time ago. You hit a lot of incorrect type/argument count errors but you can get so many executions per second that in general it works out just fine =)

[2] Two days after I wrote this it seems that support for the compilation database functionality was added to the Python bindings. You can read about this feature here. Using this feature is probably a more portable way of gathering compiler arguments and pumping them into whatever APIs require them.

Finding Optimal Solutions to Arithmetic Constraints

This post is a follow on to my previous ones on automatically determining variable ranges and on uses for solvers in code auditing sessions. In the first of those posts I showed how we can use the symbolic execution engine of ID to automatically model code and then add extra constraints to determine how it restricts the state space for certain variables. In the second I looked at one use case for manual modelling of code and proving properties about it as part of C++ auditing.

In this post I’m going to talk about a problem that lies between the previous two cases. That is, manually modelling code, but using Python classes provided by ID in a much more natural way than with the SMT-LIB language, and looking for optimal solutions to a problem rather than a single one or all possible solutions.

Consider the following code, produced by HexRays decompiler from an x86 binary. It was used frequently throughout the binary in question to limit the ranges allowed by particular variables. The first task is to verify that it does restrict the ranges of width and height as it is designed to. Its purpose is to ensure that v3 * height is less than 0x7300000 where v3 is derived from width.


int __usercall check_ovf(int width, int height,
    int res_struct)
  int v3; // ecx@1

  v3 = ((img_width + 31) >> 3) & 0xFFFFFFFC;
  *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 12) = width;
  *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 16) = height;
  *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 20) = v3;
  if ( width <= 0 || height <= 0 ) // 1
    *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 24) = 0;
    *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 28) = 0;
    if ( height * v3 <= 0 || 120586240 / v3 <= height ) // 2
      *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 24) = 0;
      *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 24) = malloc_wrapper(res_struct,
                                       120586240 % v3,
                                       height * v3); // 3
    *(_DWORD *)(res_struct + 28) = 1;
  return res_struct;


If the above code reaches the line marked as 3 a malloc call will occur with height * v3 as the size argument. Can this overflow? Given the checks at 1 and 2 it’s relatively clear that this cannot occur but for the purposes of later tasks we will model and verify the code.

One of the things that becomes clear when using the SMT-LIB language (even version 2 which is considerably nicer than version 1) is that using it directly is still quite cumbersome. This is why in recent versions of Immunity Debugger we have added wrappers around the CVC3 solver that allow one to build a model of code using Python expressions (credit for this goes to Pablo who did an awesome job). This was one of the things we covered during the recent Master Class at Infiltrate and people found it far easier than using the SMT-LIB language directly.

Essentially, we have Expression objects that represent variables or concrete values and the operators on these expressions (+, -, %, >> etc) are over-ridden so that they make assertions on the solvers state. For example, if x and y are Expression objects then x + y is also an Expression object representing the addition of x and y in the current solver context. Using the assertIt() function of any Expression object then asserts that condition to hold.

With this in mind, we can model the decompiled code in Python as follows:


import sys
import time

sys.path.append('C:\\Program Files\\Immunity Inc\\Immunity Debugger\\Libs\\x86smt')

from prettysolver import Expression
from smtlib2exporter import SmtLib2Exporter

def check_sat():
    img_width = Expression("img_width", signed=True)
    img_height = Expression("img_height", signed=True)
    tmp_var = Expression("tmp_var", signed=True)

    const = Expression("const_val")
    (const == 0x7300000).assertIt()
    (img_width > 0).assertIt()
    (img_height > 0).assertIt()
    tmp_var = ((img_width + 31) >> 3) & 0xfffffffc
    (img_height * tmp_var > 0).assertIt()
    (const / tmp_var > img_height).assertIt()

    expr = (((tmp_var * img_height) &
            0xffffffff000000000) != 0)  # 1

    s = SmtLib2Exporter()
    s.dump_to_file(expr, 'test.smt2') # 2
    # After this we can check with z3 /smt2 /m test.smt2
    # Alternatively we can use expr.isSAT which calls CVC3 but it
    # is a much slower solver

    start_time = time.time()
    if expr.isSAT():
        print 'SAT'
        print expr.getConcreteModel()
        print 'UNSAT'

    print 'Total run time: %d seconds' % (time.time() - start_time)

if __name__ == '__main__':


The above code (which can be run from the command-line completely independently of Immunity Debugger) models the parts of the decompiled version that we care about. The added condition, marked as 1 checks for integer overflow by performing a 64-bit multiplication and then checking if the upper 32 bits are 0 or not. The first thing to note about this code is that it models the decompiled version quite naturally and is far easier to write and understand than the SMT-LIB alternative. This makes this kind of approach to analysing code much more tractable and means that once you are familiar with the API you can model quite large functions in very little time. For example, asserting that the condition if ( height * v3 <= 0 || 120586240 / v3 <= height ) must be false translates to the following, which is syntactically quite close to the C code:


tmp_var = ((img_width + 31) >> 3) & 0xfffffffc
(img_height * tmp_var > 0).assertIt()
(const / tmp_var > img_height).assertIt()


Checking if the function does in fact prevent integer overflow is then simple.

Using the solver to check if an overflow is possible on the argument to malloc

So, modulo modelling errors on our behalf, the check is safe and prevents an overflow on the size argument to malloc*. So what now? Well, in the case of this particular code-base an interesting behaviour appeared later in the code if the product of width and height is sufficiently large and the above function succeeded in allocating memory. That is, the height and width were small enough such that height * v3 was less than 0x7300000 but due to multiplication with other non-constants later in the code may then overflow. The question we then want to answer is, what is the maximum value of image * height that can be achieved that also passes the above check?

Solving Optimisation Problems with Universal Quantification**

This problem is essentially one of optimisation. There are many assignments to the input variables that will pass the overflow check but we are interested in those that maximise the resulting product image and height. Naturally this problem can be solved on paper with relative ease for small code fragments but with longer, more complex code this approach quickly becomes an more attractive.

The first thing to note is that at the line marked as 2 in the above Python code we used a useful new feature of ID, the SmtLib2Exporter***, to dump the model constructed in CVC3 out to a file in SMT-LIB v2 syntax. This is useful for two reasons, firstly we can use a solver other than CVC3, e.g. Z3 which is much faster for most problems, and secondly we can manually modify the formula to include things that our Python wrapper currently doesn’t have, such as universal quantification.

Universal quantification, normally denoted by the symbol ∀ and the dual to existential quantification, is used to apply a predicate to all members of a set. e.g. ∀x ∈ N.P(x) states that for all elements x of the natural numbers some predicate P holds. Assume that the conditions of the integer overflow check are embodied in a function called sat_inputs and M is the set of natural numbers module 2^32 then the formula that we want to check is (sat_inputs(x, y) => (∀ a, b ∈ M | sat_inputs(a, b), x * y >= a * b)), that is that we consider x and y to be solutions if x and y satisfy the conditions of sat_inputs implies that the product x * y is greater or equal to the product of any other two values a and b that also satisfy sat_inputs. This property is encoded in the function is_largest in the following SMT-LIB v2 code. The rest of the code is dumped by the previous Python script so checking this extra condition was less than 5 lines of work for us. The details of sat_inputs has been excluded for brevity. It simply encodes the semantics the integer overflow checking code.


(declare-funs ((img_width BitVec[32])(img_height BitVec[32])))

(define-fun sat_inputs ((img_width BitVec[32])(img_height BitVec[32])) Bool
         ; Model of the code goes here

(define-fun is_largest ((i BitVec[32])(j BitVec[32])) Bool
    (forall ((a BitVec[32]) (b BitVec[32]))
        (implies (sat_inputs a b)
            (bvsge (bvmul i j) (bvmul a b))

(assert (and
    (sat_inputs img_width img_height)
    (is_largest img_width img_height)

(get-info model)
Finding the maximum product of height and width

Running this through Z3 takes 270 seconds (using universal quantification results in a significant increase in the problem size) and we are provided with an assignment to the height and width variables that not only pass the checks in the code but are guaranteed to provide a maximal product. The end result is that with the above two inputs height * width is 0x397fffe0, which is guaranteed to be the maximal product, and height * (((width + 31) >> 3) & 0xfffffffc) is 0x72ffffc, as you would expect, which is less than 0x7300000 and therefore satisfies the conditions imposed by the code. Maximising or minimising other variables or products is similarly trivial, although for such a small code snippet not particularly interesting (Even maximising the product of height and width can be done without a solver in your head pretty easily but instructive examples aren’t meant to be rocket science).

This capability becomes far more interesting on larger or more complex functions and code paths. In such cases the ability to use a solver as a vehicle for precisely exploring the state space of a program can mean the difference between spotting a subtle bug and missing out.

By its nature code auditing is about tracking state spaces. The task is to discover those states implied by the code but not considered by the developer. In the same way that one may look at a painting and discover meaning not intended by the artist, an exploit developer will look at a program and discover a shadow-program, not designed or purposefully created, but in existence nonetheless. In places this shadow-program is thick, it is easily discovered, has many entry points and can be easily leveraged to provide exploit primitives. In other places, this shadow-program clings to the intended program and is barely noticeable. An accidental decrement here, an off-by-one bound there. Easy to miss and perhaps adding few states to the true program. It is from these cases that some of the most entertaining exploits derive. From state spaces that are barren and lacking in easily leveragable primitives. Discovering such gateway states, those that move us from the intended program to its more enjoyable twin, is an exercise in precision. This is why it continues to surprise me that we have such little tool support for truly extending our capacity to deal with massive state spaces in a precise fashion.

Of course we have some very useful features for making a program easier to manually analyse, among them HexRays decompiler and IDA’s various features for annotating and shaping a disassembly, as well as plugin architectures for writing your own tools with Immunity Debugger, IDA and others. What we lack is real, machine driven, assistance in determining the state space of a program and, dually, providing reverse engineers with function and basic block level information on how a given chunk of code effects this state space.

While efforts still need to be made to develop and integrate automation technologies into our workflows I hope this post, and the others, have provided some motivation to build tools that not only let us analyse code but that help us deal with the large state spaces underneath.

* As a side note, Z3 solves these constraints in about half a second. We hope to make it our solving backend pretty soon for obvious reasons.
** True optimisation problems in the domain of satisfiability are different and usually fall under the heading of MaxSAT and OptSAT. The former deals with maximising the number of satisfied clauses while the latter assigns weights to clauses and looks for solutions that minimise or maximise the sum of these weights. We are instead dealing with optimisation within the variables of the problem domain. OptSAT might provide interesting solutions for automatic gadget chaining though and is a fun research area.
*** This will be in the next release which should be out soon. If you want it now just drop me a mail.

Thanks to Rolf Rolles for initially pointing out the usefulness of Z3’s support for universal/existential quantification for similar problems.

Validity, Satisfiability and Code Semantics

In a recent post to DD I mentioned some interesting features that will be available in Immunity Debugger 2.0. These features rely on a translation layer from x86 code to SMT formulae that Pablo constructed as part of his work on DEPLIB 2.0. In the past few weeks I got some time to put together a few scripts for ID that replicate some of the more useful tasks that we can use a solver for. In this post I am going to elaborate on one such script which is designed to find ROP gadgets meeting user specified conditions. is a relatively simple piece of software which is a testament to Pablo’s API development, the Python programming language and, I think quite importantly, the suitability of mathematical logic for reasoning about machine code. This final point is of course unsurprising but it provides good motivation when considering the merits of abstracting x86 code to more logical/mathematical representations for analysis.

We begin our gadget search by running Currently this script finds any instruction sequence ending in a ret instruction (with support for pop REG/jmp REG etc. in the works). This takes about 360 seconds to run on QuickTimeAuthoring.qtx (2.16MB) and finds 80,000 candidate gadgets. For now no further analysis is done on these gadgets but we’re working on some fun stuff in that area.

At this point we can use to search the candidate gadgets for one that meets whatever semantics we have in mind. For now the semantics are specified via the -d, -n and -v/-s options, i.e. DESTINATION RELATION SOURCE/VALUE. For example, to represent EAX <= [EBX+24] we would use -d EAX -n <= -s [EBX+24]. (This is a little cumbersome and not as flexible as one might like so we built a BNF grammar based on pyparsing that allows for arbitrary semantics to be specified as constraints and that should be swapped in pretty soon.) The full set of arguments are shown in this screenshot:

Arguments to

Once we have specified our arguments the script gets on with the fun part. Our algorithm is as follows:

for gadget in candidiate_gadgets:
    sa = SequenceAnalyzer(reg_model, flag_model, mem_model) # 1
    sa.analyze(gadget.addr, gadget.depth) # 2
    if relation == '=':
         rel_expr = sa.solver.eqExpr(dest, src) # 3
    elif relation == '<=':

    preserve_expr = None
    if preserve_regs != None: # 4
         for reg in preserve_regs:
              eq_expr = sa.solver.eqExpr(sa.regs_before[reg], sa.regs_after[reg])
              preserve_expr = sa.solver.boolAndExpr(preserveExpr, eq_expr)
        rel_expr = sa.solver.boolAndExpr(rel_expr, preserve_expr)

    res = sa.solver.queryFormula(rel_expr) # 5
    if generic_gadgets_only:
         if res == VALID:
              # VALID GADGET FOUND
          if res == SATISFIABLE:

#1 Modelling registers, flags and memory
One of the arguments you may have noticed to the script is -c. This argument tells the script that we want to look for ‘context specific’ gadgets that satisfy our semantics when current values in registers, memory and flags are taken into account. The alternative is to look for generic gadgets that will meet the required semantics regardless of the context e.g. inc eax will only set eax to 0 if it previously contained -1 while xor eax, eax will always set it to zero. We’ll discuss this a little more on point #5.

#2 Gadgets to equations
The main coding effort in building this framework was building a transformer for each x86 instruction into the domain of our theorem prover. This requires one to encode accurately the semantics of the instruction over flags, registers and memory and is the backbone of any tool that reasons about assembly code using a solver. This long and drawn out functionality is hidden behind the analyze function which iterates over each instruction and updates the solver state. Once this has completed our solver internally has an accurate representation of the gadgets semantics in the form of several equations.

# 3 & # 4 Adding our gadget constraints
Once one has a representation of a sequence of instructions as equations the next step is typically to append some further constraints derived from the task at hand and then query the solver to determine if they are valid or satisfiable, and if so, to retrieve an input that makes it so. In our case our constraints simply specify a relation between an output register/memory location and an input register/memory location or a constant. We also allow the user to specify a number of registers that the gadget should preserve. We end up with a formula specifying something like (ESP_after == EAX_before+4 AND EBX_after == EBX_before), which is essentially a stack swap with the buffer pointed to by EAX and preserving the EBX register.

# 5 Context specific vs. generic gadgets
After encoding our constraints as a formula in steps #3 and #4 we can then query the solver to determine the status of these constraints in the context of the gadget encoding constructed in step #2. What do we mean by ‘status’? Well, when considering the SAT problem a formula can either be valid, invalid, satisfiable or unsatisfiable. A formula is satisfiable if there exists an assignment to free variables that makes it true and is unsatisfiable otherwise. A formula is valid if its negation is unsatisfiable or invalid otherwise. In other words, a formula is valid if any variable assignment makes it true. Why is this important? If we’re looking for generic gadgets then we want them to meet our constraints regardless of the context, therefore we leave all memory locations, registers and flags free and require that our constraints are VALID in the context of the gadget. That is, there exists no assignment to the memory locations, registers and flags that would result in the gadget not meeting our constraints.

The next few screenshots show some usage examples.

A generic gadget to set EAX to 1
A generic gadget to set EAX to 1 while preserving ESI
Finding multiple gadgets to achieve the same result is a very simple script but at the same time can find some very complicated instruction sequences in a short amount of time. In particular it can find tricky stack swapping gadgets and can process about 200,000 gadgets in 3 hours, which is probably a bit quicker than doing it by hand. In some upcoming posts I’ll elaborate a bit more on what can be done with the x86 -> SMT transformer -> solver code. For an idea of some of the things we’re hoping to implement many of the papers published in the last few years on symbolic execution and derived techniques are a good starting point and quite a few are linked from the Practical Software Verification Wiki

Finding use-after-free bugs with static analysis

Earlier this year I had a lot of fun using run-time instrumentation and analysis to tackle a variety of program analysis problems. In doing so I became curious about static solutions to the common problems encountered during dynamic analysis. One of the most obvious issues is that you can only examine those paths that you can execute and thus you need to find some way to drive a program through different paths before you can do any kind of analysis. The flip side of that is that you are guaranteed that any path you analyse is valid and so false positives in that regard are avoided. With those experiences in mind I decided to try my hand at purely static analysis recently (recently as in August, I suck at finding time to document stuff apparently). Static analysis has a large variety of sources of error and annoyances of its own but for certain bug classes it seemed like a purely static approach could find some interesting results with a tolerable level of false positives.

Before I started I considered a few different bug classes in terms of the strengths/weaknesses of static analysis. Certain types of vulnerabilities that depend on the values in registers/memory locations are probably best avoided unless you have the time to either implement a hell of theoretical ideas that can limit the innaccuracy or have the time to sift through thousands of false positives. The bug classes I decided to focus on were those that could generally be reduced to deviations from expected orderings of ‘events’ on a path. Such bug classes include use of memory before initialisation, unchecked use of return values from functions, use after X vulnerabilities (where X is an API call that marks an argument as supposedly unusable e.g. free() or fclose()) and incorrectly ordered sequences of system calls. Eventually I settled on looking for use-after-free vulnerabilities, although the code built to do that works for almost all the mentioned bug classes with a little extending.

(Before continuing I should mention exactly what assumptions and bounds I put on the work I wanted to do. Firstly, I decided to do path insensitive analysis – that is I considered all paths through a control flow graph regardless of whether the path condition is satisfiable or not. To do otherwise would have been extra work and for the vulnerability classes I was considering it didn’t turn out to be a big problem.

Secondly, I decided to do data flow analysis over both registers and memory locations. Some static dataflow analysis (I think binaudit) only considers registers, but in my opinion that misses out on a lot of useful information available at practically zero cost. For instance, if we are doing taint analysis and eax is tainted then after mov [ecx+44], eax; I consider the abstract location denoted by the literal [ecx+44] to also be tainted. It remains in the tainted set until the ecx register is untainted but up until that point it is usable as a source of information.

Thirdly, this project was basically just to give me a taste of the practical side of static analysis so spending a month implementing dataflow analysis for the entire x86 instruction set was out of the question. As a result I implemented the data flow analysis for a small subset of the instruction set I considered to be most relevant to the bug classes considered and wrote a conservative default for all other instructions. That is, for any instructions not specifically considered I make an attempt to guess only their destination operand. The effective result of this is that for such instructions the destination will be removed from whatever analysis I’m doing. This potentially introduces false negatives but also frees up about a month of my life. 😉

Fourthly, when considering loops I only expanded them for one iteration. I haven’t thought too much about the implications of this as there didn’t seem to be a better method without investing time into implementing a bounded loop unwinding technique. It would seem like it might introduce false positives but in my testing I did not encounter anything that could be directly traced back to this weakness. It’s hard to tell if that was due to my small test set, the characteristics of the vulnerabilities I was considering or that my conservative data flow analysis hid the potential false positives.

Fifthly (at this point I’m wishing I’d used 1, 2, 3…), I inititally aimed at intraprocedural analysis and then tacked on some interprocedural fun at the end. I’m quite happy with how my interprocedural hackery worked out but there are probably better (and more time consuming) ways to do it.)

Finding equivalent variables

When doing static analysis you can essentially start at any address that suits the problem at hand. This allows us to divide our algorithm for finding use-after-free bugs into two parts (well three actually, but more about that later). The first part of the algorithm is to decide at a free call what memory locations and registers we want to consider free’d. We want to know all variables that contain pointers to the memory location about to be free’d so that we can consider a use of any of these variables to be a bug.

The most common theoretical framework for this problem is called use-def analysis and is common in compiler theory. In such an analysis we take a variable use (e.g. the push of whatever variable is to be free’d) and compute all its definitions at that point by traversing backwards over all paths to that point. We then want to apply this function recursively over all the definition variables we have found, treating them as uses. By modifying the standard use-def algorithm we can do this to find all variables equivalent to the free’d variable.

In my implementation as I traverse the paths backwards from a free call to find definitions I maintain a list of all locations that are used as destination operands in instructions i.e. they are rewritten before the free call. I will refere to this as the clearedVars list. So, if we are looking for the definition of a variable x and it is found at an instruction mov x, y; we know y is equivalent to the free’d variable if and only if y is not a member of clearedVars. Regardless of whether y is in clearedVars or not we then apply our use-def algorithm to find its definitions with the same considerations. This iterative approach is continued until all paths leading to the free call have been analysed and we are left with a set of variables equivalent to the argument to free.

The following snippet of Python code will hopefully help the explanation. It shows the logic applied to the destination operand of a mov instruction.

if dst in state['needDefList']:
    src = insDataFlow.getSrcFor(dst)
    if src not in state['clearedVars']:
        if src not in self.equivVarList:

When finding the set of equivalent variables we can generally avoid many sources of false positives in static analysis by accepting false negatives. The main source of false positives I encountered (that weren’t caused by my lack of coding talent) derived from considering paths with unsatisfiable conditions.

So at this point we have an algorithm for computing a set of equivalent variables given a starting point and a source variable. In case it isn’t obvious, I should point out that the equivalent variables along each path should be stored separately. Otherwise it becomes an avoidable source of false positives in the next part of our algorithm.

Finding use-after-free instances

Most of the work for this algorithm is in the previous stage. Once we have computed the equivalent variables per backwards path we are ready to look for uses of these variables in an unsafe context. We also use the data flow information from each instruction to add/remove variables from the set of locations we consider to hold pointers to free’d memory.

For use-after-free vulnerabilities I considered unsafe use to be any instruction that used the free’d pointer in the computation of a memory address. (I also extended eventually this definition to include any instruction that pushed a free’d pointer to the stack). Checking for such a condition is relatively simple. For each instruction we just iterate over all base registers used in computing the pointer and determine if it is in the set of variables we know to hold free’d pointers or not.

def checkInsForFreeVarUse(self, ea, dst, src, state):
    for op in (dst, src):
        if isinstance(op, TaintLoc_MEMREF_REGS):
            # Usage e.g. mov [ebp+10], eax; and ebp is a free'd var
            for usedReg in op.regs:
                if usedReg in state['freedVars']:
                    self.b00m(ea, usedReg)

In my code the TaintLoc_MEMREF_REGS class represents an operand that is a memory location constructed using at least one register. The objects src and dst are the source and destination operands for a given instruction (a single source and destination suffices for the instructions instrumented in this case).

That is basically the bones of an algorithm that can operate within the bounds of any function containing a call to free; this is useful in its own right but as I thought about it I began to consider cases where a function may free one of its arguments. This could be a problem in two ways: 1) The programmer using the API call is unaware of this functionality, or forgets, or 2) The function should not free the argument and that it does is a flaw in its implementation. The latter case is more interesting in my opinion but the same approach will detect both.

Function aliases and interprocedural analysis

There is probably some other name for what I’m about to describe but let’s call it a ‘function alias’ for now. True interprocedural analysis of a function f containing a call to free would involve relatively complex analysis of the relationship between non-local variables in f and the variables defined at the call sites of f. Doing this properly is non-trivial but we can perform a more limited analysis with much less effort.

The type of interprocedural analysis I implemented begins with searching for aliases to the API call that we are using as the starting point for our algorithms. For use-after-free bugs this is the free function. Let us consider this trigger function as a tuple (f, n), where f is the function in question and n is the argument we consider to be free’d or closed or whatever the action we are interested in happens to be. An alias for a function (f, n) is then a function (g, m) such that calling the function g with the variable x as argument m results in a call to f with x as argument n. If we are provided with one or more aliases for (f, n) we can then apply the exact same analysis algorithm as described in the previous sections to find interprocedural bugs.

The question then becomes how do we build such a list? The answer is pretty simple at a high level – say we are in a function g and analysing a call to the function f that free’s its nth argument. Our first algorithm will build the set of variables equivalent to the nth argument to f, let’s call it E. If any of g‘s arguments are in this set then we know (g, m) is an alias for (f, n) where m is the index of that variable. The only tricky part of this is tracking the function arguments to g. IDA takes care of this for us and renames memory locations automatically using an identifier similar to arg_X but if using another framework you may have to do that yourself. (This turns out to be trickier than you might think, a description of how the simplex method is used in IDA can be found here.)

Righty, so at this point we can take any function and compute its aliases. For maximum fun we apply this recursively to find aliases for aliases and so on, applying our basic analysis algorithms to each discovered alias in turn.

That basically sums up the details of my approach. I used it to look for use-after-free bugs but with varying amounts of effort it could be changed to look for all sorts of fun stuff.


I tested my implementation (~850 lines of Python using IDAPython as a framework) on libxml2, which has a history of use-after-free bugs, Clam Antivirus, which has a history of sucking and TightVNC, because the name makes me giggle.

The following table summarises the results of my rather brief and unscientific testing.

Analysis results
Analysis results

Both libxml2 and Clam AV came up good for a few bugs each and multiple aliases for free. Some of these aliases were obviously on purpose with names like cl_engine_free, whereas others were more difficult to determine. All three results found in Clam AV were as a result of analysis on an alias function so it is possible that this function has unintended side effects. For libxml2 the bugs were split, two resulting from direct calls to free and two resulting from a call to an alias function. Despite its giggle inducing name, TightVNC showed no bugs and, disappointingly, not even an alias to free. For both libxml2 and Clam AV the false positives were as a result of paths with unsatisfiable conditions.


In the above table I’ve purposely used the term ‘bugs’ instead of ‘vulnerabilities’. The reason for this is the same reason that I’ve now moved on to investigating hybrid dynamic/static implementations. Finding a bug using static analysis of the type I have described gets you a location in a binary where some broken coding idiom occurs. This is useful in its own right and all valid bugs detected during my testing are concrete paths leading to use of a dangling pointer.

From an offensive point of view we must consider the issue further though. Without more analysis you have no idea how to trigger this code or even if it is triggerable in a malicious fashion. In fact, as soon as you get over the initial rush of ‘oh look, a shiney new bug’ you quickly realise you have a mountain of work to actual exercise that code, let alone craft an exploit. From a defensive point of view none of this really matters, the code is incorrect regardless and should be fixed but from an exploit writers point of view discovering the bug in this fashion merely puts your shoes on. You still have a marthon to run in order to get to an exploit.