An introduction to binary exploitation

Binary Exploitation is about finding vulnerabilities in programs and utilising them to do what you wish. Sometimes this can result in an authentication bypass or the leaking of classified information, but occasionally (if you're lucky) it can also result in Remote Code Execution (RCE). The most basic forms of binary exploitation occur on the stack, a region of memory that stores temporary variables created by functions in code.

When a new function is called, a memory address in the calling function is pushed to the stack - this way, the program knows where to return to once the called function finishes execution. Let's look at a basic binary to show this.


The binary has two files - source.c and vuln; the latter is an ELF file, which is the executable format for Linux (it is recommended to follow along with this with a Virtual Machine of your own, preferably Linux).

We're gonna use a tool called radare2 to analyse the behaviour of the binary when functions are called.

$ r2 -d -A vuln

The -d runs it while the -A performs analysis. We can disassemble main with

s main; pdf

s main seeks (moves) to main, while pdf stands for Print Disassembly Function (literally just disassembles it).

0x080491ab      55             push ebp
0x080491ac      89e5           mov ebp, esp
0x080491ae      83e4f0         and esp, 0xfffffff0
0x080491b1      e80d000000     call
0x080491b6      054a2e0000     add eax, 0x2e4a
0x080491bb      e8b2ffffff     call sym.unsafe
0x080491c0      90             nop
0x080491c1      c9             leave
0x080491c2      c3             ret

The call to unsafe is at 0x080491bb, so let's break there.

db 0x080491bb

db stands for debug breakpoint, and just sets a breakpoint. A breakpoint is simply somewhere which, when reached, pauses the program for you to run other commands. Now we run dc for debug continue; this just carries on running the file.

It should break before unsafe is called; let's analyse the top of the stack now:

[0x08049172]> pxw @ esp
0xff984af0 0xf7efe000         [...]

pxw tells r2 to analyse the hex as words, that is, 32-bit values. I only show the first value here, which is 0xf7efe000. This value is stored at the top of the stack, as ESP points to the top of the stack - in this case, that is 0xff984af0.

Note that the value 0xf7efe000 is random - it's an artefact of previous processes that have used that part of the stack. The stack is never wiped, it's just marked as usable, so before data actually gets put there the value is completely dependent on your system.

Let's move one more instruction with ds, debug step, and check the stack again. This will execute the call sym.unsafe instruction.

[0x08049172]> pxw @ esp
0xff984aec  0x080491c0 0xf7efe000 [...]

Huh, something's been pushed onto the top of the stack - the value 0x080491c0. This looks like it's in the binary - but where? Let's look back at the disassembly from before:

0x080491b6      054a2e0000     add eax, 0x2e4a
0x080491bb      e8b2ffffff     call sym.unsafe
0x080491c0      90             nop

We can see that 0x080491c0 is the memory address of the instruction after the call to unsafe. Why? This is how the program knows where to return to after unsafe() has finished.


But as we're interested in binary exploitation, let's see how we can possibly break this. First, let's disassemble unsafe and break on the ret instruction; ret is the equivalent of pop eip, which will get the saved return pointer we just analysed on the stack into the eip register. Then let's continue and spam a bunch of characters into the input and see how that could affect it.

[0x08049172]> db 0x080491aa
[0x08049172]> dc
Overflow me

Now let's read the value at the location the return pointer was at previously, which as we saw was 0xff984aec.

[0x080491aa]> pxw @ 0xff984aec
0xff984aec  0x41414141 0x41414141 0x41414141 0x41414141  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA


It's quite simple - we inputted more data than the program expected, which resulted in us overwriting more of the stack than the developer expected. The saved return pointer is also on the stack, meaning we managed to overwrite it. As a result, on the ret, the value popped into eip won't be in the previous function but rather 0x41414141. Let's check with ds.

[0x080491aa]> ds

And look at the new prompt - 0x41414141. Let's run dr eip to make sure that's the value in eip:

[0x41414141]> dr eip

Yup, it is! We've successfully hijacked the program execution! Let's see if it crashes when we let it run with dc.

[0x41414141]> dc
child stopped with signal 11
[+] SIGNAL 11 errno=0 addr=0x41414141 code=1 ret=0

radare2 is very useful and prints out the address that causes it to crash. If you cause the program to crash outside of a debugger, it will usually say Segmentation Fault, which could mean a variety of things, but usually that you have overwritten EIP.

Of course, you can prevent people from writing more characters than expected when making your program, usually using other C functions such as fgets(); gets() is intrinsically unsafe because it doesn't check the length of the input, meaning that the presence of gets() is always something you should check out in a program. It is also possible to give fgets() the wrong parameters, meaning it still takes in too many characters.


When a function calls another function, it

  • pushes a return pointer to the stack so the called function knows where to return

  • when the called function finishes execution, it pops it off the stack again

Because this value is saved on the stack, just like our local variables, if we write more characters than the program expects, we can overwrite the value and redirect code execution to wherever we wish. Functions such as fgets() can prevent such easy overflow, but you should check how much is actually being read.

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