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Heap Sprays are a common method attackers use to introduce determinism in a program’s address space. They aim to control a program’s memory layout in such a way that an attacker can reliably predict what will be in memory at a certain address (Address of Interest) at a certain point in execution.
For example, if there is a Use-After-Free bug, on an object with a V-Table, the object can be reallocated and the offset of the V-Table pointer in the object can point to an address that the attacker knows will contain the spray (Address of Interest). This knowledge often comes from trial and error when writing the exploit.
The Address of Interest makes a big difference in the quality of the exploit. For example, a very popular Address of Interest is 0x0c0c0c0c. The reasoning behind this Address of Interest is that the address must be low in the process’s address space (the highest Nibble of this address is 0x0), yet must be at a higher address in memory than the heap being sprayed (the second highest Nibble is 0xc) so that when the heap grows due to the memory pressure of the spray, it will grow into this address. Using high addresses such as 0xc0c0c0c (the highest Nibble is 0xc) would require that the application freezes for a longer period of time before the heap spray is complete. A victim that is being targeted might get bored and close the process (web browser in this case) due to the fact that it has appeared to freeze during the long time taken to spray, thereby precluding any possibility of successful exploitation.
Below are some memory usage visualizations taken with the vmmap tool from SysInternals before and after the heap spray. The orange color represents the Backend Heap in the process’s address space. Two things to notice are the large growth in the orange segment of the graphs below and the difference in the “Committed” usage before and after the spray (it grows from about 136 MB to about 698 MB).
Memory Usage before Heap Spray
Memory Usage after Heap Spray
Below are graphical representations of the memory layout before and after the spray. The “After Spray” visualization has the approximate address of 0x0c0c0c0c marked for the reader’s convenience. One might make the argument that since 0x0c0c0c0c is relatively early in the heap spray, the heap spray could have been reduced to minimize the time the victim has to wait for the spray to finish.
Memory Layout before Heap Spray
Memory Layout after Heap Spray
How to Heap Spray in Internet Explorer:
for (var z = primeAmount; z < numObjects; z++)
objectArray[z].title = pattern;
The Heap Spraying technique does not come without some drawbacks, leading to some researchers referring to heap sprays as “For the 99%”. In some cases, exploitation can be made more reliable by finding multiple “good” bugs rather than heap spraying:
- It might take a long time to spray (user might get impatient and terminate the program).
- Depending on preexisting memory layout due to external factors (loaded plugins, other webpages visited prior to this one, etc), spraying can be unreliable.
- New IE mitigations might prevent highjacking virtual function calls.
- There is no guarantee that the Address of Interest will contain the spray-an executable image or something else might be mapped at the Address of Interest, depending on the address space and system configuration unique to the victim.
The community has done some great work to reduce the barrier of entry into this space. Multiple open source libraries have been written by researchers to abstract away the details of heap mechanics. In the example presented in this article, the heap reallocation/spray was done manually, but libraries such as HeapLib by Alex Sotirov and HeapLib2 by Chris Valasek allow users to just call into them in order to perform reallocation/sprays. Code review of HeapLib2 shows that this article, the prerequisite readings and HeapLib2 all use the same technique to reallocate and spray the heap.
By: Neil Sikka