A simple buffer overflow exploit (MIPS architecture)

1 – What’s a buffer overflow?

Have you ever poured some water in a glass without looking at it?
If yes, why?! If not…probably it’s because you were too afraid of spilling the water all around once the glass was filled up.

That’s more or less what happens with a buffer overflow. When a program doesn’t check for the amount of data that it’s receiving and keep storing it all without checking if the container (buffer) already got full, it risks to spread it all around.

Let’s see an example:


We will call this program the Alan server. What it does is pretty simple:

It asks for an username and a password, and stores them is two differents arrays. Then it checks if the username and password correspond to Turing 1234, if yes it will print a welcome message (and hypothetically do some more stuff…) otherwise it will finish running printing a message of login failed.

Note: please never use 1234 as your password

Well, 100 characters (99 for the sake of correctness) should be enough to contain whatever kind of password or username. That’s probably true but it doesn’t stop anybody from giving more than 100 characters to the program and here is the problem: the function scanf will accept them all blindly, without perform any bounds checking.

2 – When the stack gets smashed

Now that we know more or less what buffer overflow stands for, we can have a closer look to the memory of our program.

Here it’s how the stack looks like when the program is executed:

3You can see two big blocks of memory reserved for the password and the username. After them there are two other values stored in memory: the value of the previous frame pointer (it’s the reference to the stack used by the previous function) and the return address (the address of the next instruction to execute once the current function will finish running).

Let’s see what happens when we give an username too big for the Alan server:


The program runs normally until the end of the function main, then it stops showing a segmentation fault.
That’s what just happened inside the stack:


The length of the username we gave was long enough to cover all the space reserved for both username and password and overwrite the content of the stored values of $fp and $ra.  As I said before the stored value of $ra contains the address of the next instruction to execute once the running function will complete the job (in our case main). When the current function will finish executing, the content of the actual register $ra will be restored with the old value stored in the stack that has been overwritten by the (way too big) given username. The register $ra is a 32 bits register, so it will contain 4 times the length of a character, in our case it will contain: AAAA or in hex values 0x41414141. Now, the program will try to execute whatever instruction is at the address 0x41414141, this can lead to unpredictable results, most of the time to a memory access violation like in our case.

3 – Exploiting a buffer overflow

3.1 – Understanding the flaw

What we just did was actually fooling the program in order to make it execute the instructions at the address we want. That’s actually a big power in our hands. It means that if we will ever know the exact address of a sensitive instruction that we are usually not allowed to execute, we will be able to fool the program in order to execute it.

In the Alan server for example we could hopefully make the program execute the set of instructions who ensue a successful login even if we don’t actually know the username and password.

Note: This is usually way more complicate than that…the wrong values in the registers $ra and $fp will most likely bring the program to crash very soon for some reason.

So far we need to find the address of a set of instructions which will give us some sort of privileges useful  to achieve what we aim for. This is a difficult task, we could realize after hours reading the disassembled code of a program that no part of it offers the privileges we are looking for.

But wait, there is a part of the memory over which we have the complete control, they are the two arrays containing the password and the username.
Then we could fill them with the code we would like to execute and give to the $ra register the address of our code.

Finally our method will look a bit like this:


3.2 – The shellcode

Now the question: what would we like to execute?
The payload of a buffer overflow exploit is usually called shellcode because most of the time it aims to spawn a shell that will be completely under our control (especially if the program runs with root privileges like in the case of suid programs).

So let’s see how it looks like the code to spawn a shell:


Now in order to create our payload we need to compile it and get the binary code of the single instructions. When compiling we need to use the -static flag, otherwise the library who contains the function execve will be linked dynamically at load time and we will not be able to clearly see all the code disassembling our executable.

That’s how it looks like our shellcode after compiling :
(note that in this article I’m referring to a machine who uses a mips processor, so we will be working using the mips instructions set)


Note the call to <.pic.execve>, that’s what we are interested in.
Note also that the compiler adds a bunch of instructions who are completely useless to us (like move at, at who is used here as delay slot after a jump instruction).

Lets try to understand what the code does:

  1. It reserves space on the stack
  2. Stores the registers $ra and $s8 in the stack (note that $s8 is another   way to call the frame pointer $fp)
  3. Stores some address into the stack and a NULL/zero value after it. It must be the content of the array named “name” (0x41 is probably a reference to the memory segment where is stored the string “/bin/sh”).
  4. It puts in the following registers the following data:
    $a0  —–> the address of the string “/bin/sh”
    $a1  —–> the address to the part of the stack who contains the
    address to the string “/bin/sh” and a NULL pointer.
    $a2 ——> a NULL pointer
  5. Load the code 4011 on the register $v0 and make a syscall

According with the mips conventions, the registers $a0, $a1 and $a2 are used as parameters for the function execve.

Taking out the unnecessary instructions and putting everything together that’s what we obtain:


Note that we need to specify the address of the string “/bin/sh”

There are still unnecessary instructions, then we can make this code even smaller:


But we need to remember that in the flaw we are trying to exploit we will not have a data section who contains  the string “/bin/sh”, so we need to store it somewhere on our own. Let’s try to store it on the stack.


In this way we are storing the string “/bin/sh” in the stack.
Let’s compile and try to execute it!


It works as we want, the program spawn a shell.
Now we need the get the binary code of our program in order to put something the computer can read in our payload. One of the easiest way to do that is using gdb to analyse the memory.


The code of our payload will be something like “27bdffd83c08…”, of course those characters who represent hexadecimal values needs to be translated in the binary value they are representing.
But before doing that there is something I didn’t talk about until here. When injecting our shellcode we want the target program to read it all and then continue reading the new return address in order to overwrite the old one. Well, it happens that most (I would say all) of the programs stop reading when they meet a null character ( “\x00” ). If we don’t want the server Alan to ignore what’s after a null character, we need to take it out.

Unfortunately our payload has different null characters. I could spend time changing the code  in order to remove them all (for this I found a nice resource here) but for this time I will just pick a shellcode made from somebody else. I found this one who seems to be nice.

Note: shellcodes can be found easily on the web, especially for widely used architecture like x86. That are even software who are specialized on creating this kind of payloads.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 04:ee22:13

There is still a  little problem: the Alan server is using the function scanf to get the username and the password, this means that it will stop reading if receiving a whitespace character. The character \x0c at the end of our shellcode represent a form feed, a whitespace character that will make scanf stop reading. We need to remove it.

This character is part of the system call code. Having a look to the Mips instruction reference  we can see that the code of a syscall has a big group of bits that can be freely changed. Bringing to 1 the last of those bits will change our character from \x0c to \x4c. This should be enough to allow our shellcode to pass.

> Little plus about unwanted bytes

This time we where lucky, but what would happen if the previous byte couldn’t be changed? It is part of an important command which is a system call who (…I guess) can’t be replaced with something else.

Well, a possible solution could be to replace the unwanted bytes with whatever content and overwrite them with the good values during the execution of the shellcode.

Here is an example of this technique based on the previous shellcode:

void main(void)
char sc[] = {
        "\x24\x17\x8c\xb0"      /* li s7, -0x7350      */
        "\x06\xf0\xff\xff"      /*dpatch: bltzal s7, dpatch   */
        "\x22\xf7\x43\x50"      /* add s7, s7 0x4350  (delay slot) */
        "\x23\xff\xff\x06"      /* addi ra, ra, -250   */
        "\x24\x19\x01\x1c"      /* li t9, 0x11c        */
        "\x23\x39\xfe\xf0"      /* addi t9, t9, -0x110 */
        "\xa3\xf9\x01\x39"      /* sb t9, 310(ra)      */
        "\x28\x06\xff\xff"        /* slti    a2,zero,-1   */
        "\x3c\x0f\x2f\x2f"        /* lui     t7,0x2f2f    */
        "\x35\xef\x62\x69"        /* ori     t7,t7,0x6269 */
        "\xaf\xaf\xff\xf4"        /* sw      t7,-12(sp)   */
        "\x3c\x0e\x6e\x2f"        /* lui     t6,0x6e2f    */
        "\x35\xce\x73\x68"        /* ori     t6,t6,0x7368 */
        "\xaf\xae\xff\xf8"        /* sw      t6,-8(sp)    */
        "\xaf\xa0\xff\xfc"        /* sw      zero,-4(sp)  */
        "\x27\xa4\xff\xf4"        /* addiu   a0,sp,-12    */
        "\x28\x05\xff\xff"        /* slti    a1,zero,-1   */
        "\x24\x02\x0f\xab"        /* li      v0,4011      */
        "\x01\x01\x01\xff"        /* syscall 0x40404 (with dummy byte) */
       printf("size: %d\n", strlen(sc));
       s = sc;

3.3  Exploit

So we have now a shellcode who works perfectly. We can check it by compiling this program:

Screenshot 2015-11-23 05:01:36

Screenshot 2015-11-23 05:05:00Yes it works perfectly. Time to use it against the server Alan.

To make things easier we will disable the address space layout randomization in our system. For that we need to enter as a root.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 05:11:01

Note: of course this kind of exploit could be done without disabling the ASLR but it would take way more time to work.

We are almost ready to execute our exploit, we miss just one thing:
the address of our code. How do we get it?

Usually there is no way to get it directly, you can get an idea using some debugger (still, be aware that the debugger will store some data in the stack for his purposes. Have a look here and here) or generating a core dump (more or less like in here) but generally we need to guess.

In order to make things easier we will use a nop slide. A nop slide is the repetition of an instruction in the space immediately behind our shellcode.  This instruction doesn’t do anything interesting except bringing us to the beginning of the shellcode whenever we will jump inside it’s space. Usually the instruction nop is used for this purpouse (that’s why it’s called nop slide). In our case we will use a simple slti instruction (the one at the beginning of our shellcode).

Screenshot 2015-11-23 06:18:06

Let’s now calculate how big should it be our nop slide.
We have 200 bytes of space – 48 bytes for the sellcode, it means that we have 152 bytes of free space for the nop slide.
Every instruction is coded in 32 bits, then 152/4 = 38 instructions.


Screenshot 2015-11-23 06:29:26

In order to go a little bit faster, I made a super simple (and quite orrible) script who takes a file with the shellcode (nop slide included) a number N who indicates how many times the return address must be repeted, a string containing the return address, and prints out the complete payload.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 06:39:51

I will take a 33 as N, that should be more then enough. For the return address I make another program who take 200 bytes from the stack, and print the address of first of those bytes, so now I have un idea…the address of the buffer should be somewhere around \x7f\xff\x69\x10.
I will start trying from there going down with the address.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 06:58:41

Something happens when we reach the address “\x7f\xff\x67\xA0”. The program seems to execute normally. Let’s check what is happening using gdb. I will put the payload in a file called payload.

Screenshot 2015-11-23 07:17:44

We can see that the Alan server actually does execute the shell but it exits before we could use it.
I searched a bit around and I found some people talking about this:





It turns that /bin/sh has has some problem when trying to read from the stdin. So let’s try how suggested in here to close and reopen the fd of the stdin before the execution of execve.

That’s more or less what we need to execute:

Screenshot 2015-11-23 07:45:56

Following the same way we used before we generate a new shellcode.
(unfortunately this time I couldn’t find any shellcode ready to use and I made one on my own)

Screenshot 2015-11-23 07:49:04

Note: this shellcode writes back in the stack so it risk to overwrite himself so give him enough space if you want to use it, it’s not the best shellcode ever but I made it fast and it works

And now we try again with our new shellcode:

Screenshot 2015-11-23 08:27:20


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