Jay Bosamiya Software Security Researcher

Exploitation Abstraction

Influenced from a nice challenge in PicoCTF 2017 (name of challenge withheld, since the contest is still under way)

WARNING: This note might seem simple/obvious to some readers, but it necessitates saying, since the layering wasn't crystal clear to me until very recently.

Of course, when programming, all of us use abstractions, whether they be classes and objects, or functions, or meta-functions, or polymorphism, or monads, or functors, or all that jazz. However, can we really have such a thing during exploitation? Obviously, we can exploit mistakes that are made in implementing the aforementioned abstractions, but here, I am talking about something different.

Across multiple CTFs, whenever I've written an exploit previously, it has been an ad-hoc exploit script that drops a shell. I use the amazing pwntools as a framework (for connecting to the service, and converting things, and DynELF, etc), but that's about it. Each exploit tended to be an ad-hoc way to work towards the goal of arbitrary code execution. However, this current challenge, as well as thinking about my previous note on "Advanced" Format String Exploitation, made me realize that I could layer my exploits in a consistent way, and move through different abstraction layers to finally reach the requisite goal.

As an example, let us consider the vulnerability to be a logic error, which lets us do a read/write of 4 bytes, somewhere in a small range after a buffer. We want to abuse this all the way to gaining code execution, and finally the flag.

In this scenario, I would consider this abstraction to be a short-distance-write-anything primitive. With this itself, obviously we cannot do much. Nevertheless, I make a small Python function vuln(offset, val). However, since just after the buffer, there may be some data/meta-data that might be useful, we can abuse this to build both read-anywhere and write-anything-anywhere primitives. This means, I write short Python functions that call the previously defined vuln() function. These get_mem(addr) and set_mem(addr, val) functions are made simply (in this current example) simply by using the vuln() function to overwrite a pointer, which can then be dereferenced elsewhere in the binary.

Now, after we have these get_mem() and set_mem() abstractions, I build an anti-ASLR abstraction, by basically leaking 2 addresses from the GOT through get_mem() and comparing against a libc database (thanks @niklasb for making the database). The offsets from these give me a libc_base reliably, which allows me to replace any function in the GOT with another from libc.

This has essentially given me control over EIP (the moment I can "trigger" one of those functions exactly when I want to). Now, all that remains is for me to call the trigger with the right parameters. So I set up the parameters as a separate abstraction, and then call trigger() and I have shell access on the system.

TL;DR: One can build small exploitation primitives (which do not have too much power), and by combining them and building a hierarchy of stronger primitives, we can gain complete execution.