Theses Doctoral

Preventing Code Reuse Attacks On Modern Operating Systems

Pomonis, Marios

Modern operating systems are often the target of attacks that exploit vulnerabilities to escalate their privilege level. Recently introduced hardening features prevent attackers from using traditional kernel exploitation methodologies and force them to employ techniques that were originally designed for user space exploitation —such as code reuse— to execute arbitrary code with elevated privileges. In this dissertation, we present novel protection mechanisms that render such methodologies ineffective and improve the security of today’s operating systems. Specifically, we present solutions that prevent the leakage and corruption of kernel code pointers without employing entities that execute on super-privileged mode (e.g., hypervisors). The leakage of code pointers is an essential step for the construction of reliable code reuse exploits and their corruption is typically necessary for mounting the attack. More concretely, we present the design and implementation of two systems: kR^X and kSplitStack.

kR^X is a system that diversifies the code layout to thwart attackers from constructing code reuse exploits statically. It also prevents the leakage of return addresses through XOR- based encryption or by hiding them among decoys (fake pointers to instructions that trap the kernel when executed). Finally, it couples the above with a self-protection mechanism that prevents attackers from leaking the diversified code layout, either by instrumenting every memory read instruction with range checks on x86-64 systems or by imposing limits through the segmentation unit on x86 systems. Evaluation results show that it imposes small runtime overhead on real-world applications when measured on legacy x86-64 systems (~3.63%) and significantly lower on x86 systems (~1.32%) and newer x86-64 CPUs that provide hardware assistance (~2.32%).

kSplitStack, on the other hand, provides stronger protection against leaks of return addresses and guarantees both their secrecy and their integrity by augmenting the isolation mechanism of kR^X on x86-64 systems. This is achieved through a split stack scheme: functions use an unprotected stack for their local variables but switch to a protected one when pushing or poping return addresses. Moreover, kSplitStack protects the secrecy and integrity of control data (e.g., the value of the instruction pointer) in interrupt contexts by redirecting them to protected stacks, thus thwarting attackers from leaking or corrupting code pointers by inducing interrupts or other hardware events. Finally, the evaluation of kSplitStack shows that it imposes a small runtime overhead, comparable to the one of kR^X, both on legacy x86-64 systems (~3.66%) and on newer CPUs with hardware assistance (~2.50%).


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Computer Science
Thesis Advisors
Geambasu, Roxana
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 13, 2020