This guide provides instruction on securing your system by using the pax-utils package to find and identify problematic binaries.
- 1 What is this guide about?
- 2 Extracting ELF Information from Binaries
- 3 Listing PaX Flags and Capabilities
- 4 Programming with ELF files
- 5 Acknowledgements
What is this guide about?
The security of a system goes beyond setting up a decent firewall and good service configurations. The binaries you run, the libraries you load, might also be vulnerable against attacks. Although the exact vulnerabilities are not known until they are discovered, there are ways to prevent them from happening.
One possible attack vector is to make advantage of writable and executable segments in a program or library, allowing malicious users to run their own code using the vulnerable application or library.
This guide will inform you how to use the
pax-utils package to find and identify problematic binaries. We will also cover the use of
pspax (a tool to view PaX-specific capabilities) and
dumpelf (a tool that prints out a C structure containing a workable copy of a given object).
But before we start with that, some information on objects is in place. Users familiar with segments and dynamic linking will not learn anything from this and can immediately continue with #scanelf .
Every executable binary on your system is structured in a specific way, allowing the Linux kernel to load and execute the file. Actually, this goes beyond plain executable binaries: this also holds for shared objects; more about those later.
The structure of such a binary is defined in the ELF standard. ELF stands for Executable and Linkable Format . If you are really interested in the gory details, check out the Generic ELF spec or the
elf(5) man page.
An executable ELF file has the following parts:
- The ELF header contains information on the type of file (is it an executable, a shared library, ...), the target architecture, the location of the Program Header, Section Header and String Header in the file and the location of the first executable instruction
- The Program Header informs the system how to create a process from the binary file. It is actually a table consisting of entries for each segment in the program. Each entry contains the type, addresses (physical and virtual), size, access rights, ...
- The Section Header is a table consisting of entries for each section in the program. Each entry contains the name, type, size, ... and what information the section holds.
- Data, containing the sections and segments mentioned previously.
A section is a small unit consisting of specific data: instructions, variable data, symbol table, relocation information, and so on. A segment is a collection of sections; segments are the units that are actually transferred to memory.
Way back when, every application binary contained everything it needed to operate correctly. Such binaries are called statically linked binaries. They are, however, space consuming since different applications use the same functions over and over again.
A shared object contains the definition and instructions for such functions. Every application that wants can dynamically link against such a shared object so that it can benefit from the already existing functionality.
An application that is dynamically linked to a shared object contains symbols , references for the real functionality. When such an application is loaded in memory, it will first ask the runtime linker to resolve each and every symbol it has. The runtime linker will load the appropriate shared objects in memory and resolve the symbolic references between them.
Segments and Sections
How the ELF file is looked upon depends on the view we have: when we are dealing with a binary file in Execution View, the ELF file contains segments. When the file is seen in Linking View, the ELF file contains sections. One segment spans just one or more (continuous) sections.
Extracting ELF Information from Binaries
The scanelf Application
scanelf application is part of the
app-misc/pax-utils package. With this application you can print out information specific to the ELF structure of a binary. The following table sums up the various options.
|-p||--path||Scan all directories in PATH environment|
|-l||--ldpath||Scan all directories in /etc/ld.so.conf|
|-R||--recursive||Scan directories recursively|
|-m||--mount||Don't recursively cross mount points|
|-y||--symlink||Don't scan symlinks|
|-A||--archives||Scan archives (.a files)|
|-L||--ldcache||Utilize ld.so.cache information (use with -r/-n)|
|-X||--fix||Try and 'fix' bad things (use with -r/-e)|
|-z [arg]||--setpax [arg]||Sets EI_PAX/PT_PAX_FLAGS to [arg] (use with -Xx)|
|-x||--pax||Print PaX markings|
|-e||--header||Print GNU_STACK/PT_LOAD markings|
|-t||--textrel||Print TEXTREL information|
|-r||--rpath||Print RPATH information|
|-n||--needed||Print NEEDED information|
|-i||--interp||Print INTERP information|
|-b||--bind||Print BIND information|
|-S||--soname||Print SONAME information|
|-s [arg]||--symbol [arg]||Find a specified symbol|
|-k [arg]||--section [arg]||Find a specified section|
|-N [arg]||--lib [arg]||Find a specified library|
|-g||--gmatch||Use strncmp to match libraries. (use with -N)|
|-T||--textrels||Locate cause of TEXTREL|
|-E [arg]||--etype [arg]||Print only ELF files matching etype ET_DYN,ET_EXEC ...|
|-M [arg]||--bits [arg]||Print only ELF files matching numeric bits|
|-a||--all||Print all scanned info (-x -e -t -r -b)|
|-q||--quiet||Only output 'bad' things|
|-v||--verbose||Be verbose (can be specified more than once)|
|-F [arg]||--format [arg]||Use specified format for output|
|-f [arg]||--from [arg]||Read input stream from a filename|
|-o [arg]||--file [arg]||Write output stream to a filename|
|-B||--nobanner||Don't display the header|
|-h||--help||Print this help and exit|
|-V||--version||Print version and exit|
The format specifiers for the
-F option are given in the following table. Prefix each specifier with
% (verbose) or
# (silent) accordingly.
|Specifier||Full Name||Specifier||Full Name|
|f||Base file name||k||Section|
Using scanelf for Text Relocations
As an example, we will use
scanelf to find binaries containing text relocations.
A relocation is an operation that rewrites an address in a loaded segment. Such an address rewrite can happen when a segment has references to a shared object and that shared object is loaded in memory. In this case, the references are substituted with the real address values. Similar events can occur inside the shared object itself.
A text relocation is a relocation in the text segment. Since text segments contain executable code, system administrators might prefer not to have these segments writable. This is perfectly possible, but since text relocations actually write in the text segment, it is not always feasible.
If you want to eliminate text relocations, you will need to make sure that the application and shared object is built with Position Independent Code (PIC), making references obsolete. This not only increases security, but also increases the performance in case of shared objects (allowing writes in the text segment requires a swap space reservation and a private copy of the shared object for each application that uses it).
The following example will search your library paths recursively, without leaving the mounted file system and ignoring symbolic links, for any ELF binary containing a text relocation:
If you want to scan your entire system for any file containing text relocations:
Using scanelf for Specific Header
The scanelf util can be used to quickly identify files that contain a given section header using the -k .section option.
In this example we are looking for all files in /usr/lib/debug recursively using a format modifier with quiet mode enabled that have been stripped. A stripped elf will lack a .symtab entry, so we use the '!' to invert the matching logic.
Using scanelf for Specific Segment Markings
Each segment has specific flags assigned to it in the Program Header of the binary. One of those flags is the type of the segment. Interesting values are PT_LOAD (the segment must be loaded in memory from file), PT_DYNAMIC (the segment contains dynamic linking information), PT_INTERP (the segment contains the name of the program interpreter), PT_GNU_STACK (a GNU extension for the ELF format, used by some stack protection mechanisms), and PT_PAX_FLAGS (a PaX extension for the ELF format, used by the security-minded PaX Project .
If we want to scan all executables in the current working directory, PATH environment and library paths and report those who have a writable and executable PT_LOAD or PT_GNU_STACK marking, you could use the following command:
Using scanelf's Format Modifier Handler
A useful feature of the
scanelf utility is the format modifier handler. With this option you can control the output of
scanelf , thereby simplifying parsing the output with scripts.
As an example, we will use
scanelf to print the file names that contain text relocations:
Listing PaX Flags and Capabilities
PaX is a project hosted by thegrsecurity project. Quoting thePaX documentation , its main goal is "to research various defense mechanisms against the exploitation of software bugs that give an attacker arbitrary read/write access to the attacked task's address space. This class of bugs contains among others various forms of buffer overflow bugs (be they stack or heap based), user supplied format string bugs, etc."
To be able to benefit from these defense mechanisms, you need to run a Linux kernel patched with the latest PaX code. The Hardened Gentoo project supports PaX and its parent project, grsecurity. The supported kernel package is
The Gentoo/Hardened project has a Gentoo PaX Quickstart Guide for your reading pleasure.
Flags and Capabilities
If your toolchain supports it, your binaries can have additional PaX flags in their Program Header. The following flags are supported:
|P||PAGEEXEC||Refuse code execution on writable pages based on the NX bit (or emulated NX bit)|
|S||SEGMEXEC||Refuse code execution on writable pages based on the segmentation logic of IA-32|
|E||EMUTRAMP||Allow known code execution sequences on writable pages that should not cause any harm|
|M||MPROTECT||Prevent the creation of new executable code to the process address space|
|R||RANDMMAP||Randomize the stack base to prevent certain stack overflow attacks from being successful|
|X||RANDEXEC||Randomize the address where the application maps to prevent certain attacks from being exploitable|
The default Linux kernel also supports certain capabilities, grouped in the so-called POSIX.1e Capabilities . You can find a listing of those capabilities in our POSIX Capabilities document.
pspax application, part of the
pax-utils package, displays the run-time capabilities of all programs you have permission for. On Linux kernels with additional support for extended attributes (such as SELinux) those attributes are shown as well.
pspax shows the following information:
|USER||Owner of the process|
|PAX||Run-time PaX flags (if applicable)|
|MAPS||Write/eXecute markings for the process map|
|ELF_TYPE||Process executable type: ET_DYN or ET_EXEC|
|NAME||Name of the process|
|CAPS||POSIX.1e capabilities (see note)|
|ATTR||Extended attributes (if applicable)|
pspax does not show any kernel processes. If you want those to be taken as well, use the
Programming with ELF files
The dumpelf Utility
dumpelf utility you can convert a ELF file into human readable C code that defines a structure with the same image as the original ELF file.
We would like to thank the following authors and editors for their contributions to this guide:
- Sven Vermeulen
- Ned Ludd
- Joshua Saddler