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Theses Doctoral

Protecting Commodity Operating Systems through Strong Kernel Isolation

Kemerlis, Vasileios

Today’s operating systems are large, complex, and plagued with vulnerabilities that allow perpetrators to exploit them for profit. The constant rise in the number of software weaknesses, coupled with the sophistication of modern adversaries, make the need for effective and adaptive defenses more critical than ever. In this dissertation, we develop a set of novel protection mechanisms, and introduce new concepts and techniques to secure commodity operating systems against attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in kernel code.
Modern OSes opt for a shared process/kernel model to minimize the overhead of operations that cross protection domains. However, this design choice provides a unique vantage point to local attackers, as it allows them to control—both in terms of permissions and contents—part of the memory that is accessible by the kernel, easily circumventing protections like kernel-space ASLR and WˆX. Attacks that leverage the weak separation between user and kernel space, characterized as return-to-user (ret2usr) attacks, have been the de facto kernel exploitation technique in virtually every major OS, while they are not limited to the x86 platform, but have also targeted ARM and others.
Given the multi-OS and cross-architecture nature of ret2usr threats, we propose kGuard: a kernel protection mechanism, realized as a cross-platform compiler extension, which can safeguard any 32- or 64-bit OS kernel from ret2usr attacks. kGuard enforces strong address space segregation by instrumenting exploitable control transfers with dynamic Control- Flow Assertions (CFAs). CFAs, a new confinement (inline monitoring) concept that we introduce, act as guards that prevent the unconstrained transition of privileged execution paths to user space. To thwart attacks against itself, kGuard also incorporates two novel code diversification techniques: code inflation and CFA motion. Both countermeasures randomize the location of the inline guards, creating a moving target for an attacker that tries to pinpoint their exact placement to evade kGuard. Evaluation results indicate that kGuard provides comprehensive ret2usr protection with negligible overhead (∼1%).
Furthermore, we expose a set of additional kernel design practices that trade stronger isolation for performance, all of which can be harnessed to deconstruct kernel isolation. To demonstrate the significance of the problem, we introduce a new kernel exploitation technique, dubbed return-to-direct-mapped memory (ret2dir), which relies on inherent properties of the memory management (sub)system of modern OSes to bypass every ret2usr defense to date. To illustrate the effectiveness of ret2dir, we outline a principled methodology for constructing reliable exploits against hardened targets. We further apply it on real-world kernel exploits for x86, x86-64, and ARM Linux, transforming them into ret2dir-equivalents that bypass deployed ret2usr protections, like Intel SMEP and ARM PXN.
Finally, we introduce the concept of eXclusive Page Frame Ownership (XPFO): a memory management approach that prevents the implicit sharing of page frames among user processes and the kernel, ensuring that user-controlled content can no longer be injected into kernel space using ret2dir. We built XPFO on Linux and implemented a set of optimizations, related to TLB handling and page frame content sanitization, to minimize its performance penalty. Evaluation results show that our proposed defense offers effective protection against ret2dir attacks with low runtime overhead (<3%).

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Computer Science
Thesis Advisors
Keromytis, Angelos D.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2015
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