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Re: Smashing the Stack: prevention?
From: newsham () ALOHA NET (Tim Newsham)
Date: Sun, 27 Apr 1997 19:40:43 -1000


3.  'ok, what about the CPU/OS kernel stack exec permission?'
        What about stopping the buffer overflow problem at the kernel
level?  This might mean that you wouldn't have to inspect thousands of
lines of code, rebuild gcc, or recompile anything except the kernel.
Sounds nice, doesn't it.. well...
        This has been a favorite one lately on BUGTRAQ and has come up a
few times on the linux-kernel mailing list.  Solar Designer's recent
patches to the Linux kernel to remove stack exec permission, posted to
this list earlier this month, raised some interesting questions about
the buffer overflow problem, and how it can be implemented into an OS,
as well and the problems and dangers of doing this.  In terms of Linux,
this type of patch has the danger of breaking things that use
"trampoline functions"(gcc & glibc), high level lisp interpreters,
objective C.  Furthermore, returning from a signal requires an
executable stack (in Linux, anyways)..  Workarounds for these problems
introduce new problems (buffer overflows in signal handlers?)  and may
not be a suitable solution?  I am assuming there are similar problems in
implementing this under other operating systems?

-Nate Smith <nate () millcomm com> | http://millcomm.com/~nate/

In my opinion this fix is a hack and a bad one at that.  It
breaks existing programs by taking away a legitimate operation.
It also doesn't fix the problem.  What it does is protects
against the current exploits.  If you can overwrite the
values of the stack you can cause a program to misbehave in
other ways than hand crafting assembly and jumping to it.
If you can overwrite other variables (wether they are on
the stack or in some other part of memory), you may be
able to alter the behavior of a program to suit your needs.

The ability to overwrite the stack with arbitrary data
is very powerful.   Besides return addresses the stack
is also used to save register values and to hold variables.
Most programs have segments of code that look like:

     restore some registers from the stack
     return from subroutine

If an attacker knows the address of such code, he can
provide register contents on the stack and set the return
address to point to this code.  When the next return
happens, registers are set with whatever values he put
on the stack, another return is done pulling another
address off the stack.  Say the next return address on
the stack pointed to code that trapped to the system call
vector.  We just put arbitrary values in registers and
then trapped to the system - we have the ability to
do arbitrary system calls.  All the code that was executed
was from the code segment.

By controlling the stack, an attacker can cause execution
to thread through segments of existing code with a great
degree of freedom.  The attacks have to accurately compute
the location of stack positions and code addresses so
the attack is definitely a lot harder than the cookie-cutter
stack overflows that you see today, but its still
``just a simple matter of coding''.

Real attacks have additional constraints, such as "no
null bytes on the stack".  This might make a complicated
attack a bit harder,  but I believe a clever attacker will
be able to surmount these difficulties.

I hope this gives everyone warm fuzzies about taking
exec permissions off of their stack.

                                      Tim N.



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