cstringsecurityformat

format string vulnerability - printf


Why does this print the value of the memory address at 0x08480110? I'm not sure why there are 5 %08x arguments - where does that take you up the stack?

address = 0x08480110
address (encoded as 32 bit le string): "\x10\x01\x48\x08"
printf ("\x10\x01\x48\x08_%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x|%s|");

This example is taken from page 11 of this paper http://crypto.stanford.edu/cs155/papers/formatstring-1.2.pdf


Solution

  • I think that the paper provides its printf() examples in a somewhat confusing way because the examples use string literals for format strings, and those don't generally permit the type of vulnerability being described. The format string vulnerability as described here depends on the format string being provided by user input.

    So the example:

    printf ("\x10\x01\x48\x08_%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x|%s|");
    

    Might better be presented as:

    /* 
     * in a real program, some user input source would be copied 
     * into the `outstring` buffer 
     */
    char outstring[80] = "\x10\x01\x48\x08_%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x.%08x|%s|";
    
    printf(outstring);
    

    Since the outstring array is an automatic, the compiler will likely put it on the stack. After copying the user input to the outstring array, it'll look like the following as 'words' on the stack (assuming little endian):

    outstring[0c]               // etc...
    outstring[08] 0x30252e78    // from "x.%0"
    outstring[04] 0x3830255f    // from "_%08"
    outstring[00] 0x08480110    // from the ""\x10\x01\x48\x08"
    

    The compiler will put other items on the stack as it sees fit (other local variables, saved registers, whatever).

    When the printf() call is about to be made, the stack might look like:

    outstring[0c]               // etc...
    outstring[08] 0x30252e78    // from "x.%0"
    outstring[04] 0x3830255f    // from "_%08"
    outstring[00] 0x08480110    // from the ""\x10\x01\x48\x08"
    var1
    var2
    saved ECX
    saved EDI
    

    Note that I'm completely making those entries up - each compiler will use the stack in different ways (so a format string vulnerability has to be custom crafted for a particular exact scenario. In other words, you won't always use 5 dummy format specifiers like in this example - as the attacker you'd need to figure out how many dummies the particular vulnerability would need.

    Now to call printf(), the argument (the address of outstring) is pushed on to the stack and printf() is called, so the argument area of the stack looks like:

    outstring[0c]               // etc...
    outstring[08] 0x30252e78    // from "x.%0"
    outstring[04] 0x3830255f    // from "_%08"
    outstring[00] 0x08480110    // from the ""\x10\x01\x48\x08"
    var1
    var2
    var3
    saved ECX
    saved EDI
    &outstring   // the one real argument to `printf()`
    

    However, printf doesn't really know anything about how many arguments have been placed on the stack for it - it goes by the format specifiers it finds in the format string (the one argument it's 'sure' to get). So printf() gets the format string argument and starts processing it. When it gets to the 1st "%08x" that will correspond to the 'saved EDI' in my example, then next "%08x" will print the saved ECX' and so on. So the "%08x" format specifiers are just eating up data on the stack until it gets back to the string the attacker was able to input. Determining how many of those are needed is something an attacker would do by a kind of trial and error (probably by a test run that has a whole slew of "%08x" formats until he can 'see' where the format string starts).

    Anyway, when printf() gets to processing the "%s" format specifier, it has consumed all the stack entries up to where the outstring buffer resides. The "%s" specifier treats its stack entry as a pointer, and the string that the user has put into that buffer has been carefully crafted to have a binary representation of 0x08480110, so printf() will print out whatever is at that address as an ASCIIZ string.