I’d heard about AFL a few times while researching exploit development and vulnerability discovery so I wanted to learn more about it and try it out.

From the AFL home page:

“American fuzzy lop is a security-oriented fuzzer that employs a novel type of compile-time instrumentation and genetic algorithms to automatically discover clean, interesting test cases that trigger new internal states in the targeted binary.”

After downloading and building the source code, I started out with a few fuzzing runs against a couple of projects from Github to get familiar with the CLI. Once I had gotten the hang of things, I decided I wanted to try to find a bug in a core Linux utility and decided I would fuzz the GNU binutils set of tools. This resulted in a few interesting crashes that eventually led me to discover a bug in the version of the Binary File Descriptor library (libbfd) included with the target version of binutils.

This post will go over the bug and the process of root-causing the issue.

  • Target: binutils 2.24/libbfd-2.24 (Download)
  • Compiled With: gcc (Ubuntu 5.4.0-6ubuntu1~16.04.5) 5.4.0 20160609

Note: The bug described in this post has been fixed in newer version of binutils and was likely discovered in the same manner. During my research for this project I came across a few references to others who had fuzzed binutils and found issues in libbfd. I figured I would be re-discovering old bugs, but I was mostly interested in the experience I could gain from going through the process.



I downloaded binutils-2.24 from the GNU mirror and compiled it using the afl wrapper of gcc that provides the instrumentation for afl. I then began by running afl against the objdump binary. For a test case, I chose the stock binary for xgd-user-dir provided in Ubuntu Server 16.04, chosen mostly for it’s small file size. I put this binary in the testcase directory and ran afl with the following command. I chose to use objdump’s ‘-s’ flag, which reads the full contents of all sections requested

afl-fuzz -i testcases/ -o findings/ ./objdump -s @@

After running for about an hour there were around 20 unique crashes found. I then ran afl using it’s crash triage mode with a tailored selection of the crashes found in the first run. This produced another small set of unique crashes. From the final set, I chose one from each run that resulted in a SIGSEGV for testing.

The Crash

The crash file produced by afl used for debugging is named flip06.

flip06 hexdump:

0x00000000  5331 3031 3131 3131 3131 3131 3131 316e  S10111111111111n                                                  
0x00000010  6e6e 6e6e 0080 0100 6e6e 1944 475f 247b  nnnn....nn.DG_${                                                  
0x00000020  317d 5f00 8000 006e 7f19 4447 5f24 7b31  1}_....n..DG_${1                                                  
0x00000030  7d5f 4449

I ran objdump in gdb , using the -s flag and providing flip06 as the input file. Starting execution without setting a breakpoint resulted in signal SIGSEGV at fault address 0xbd1000. The backtrace shows the instruction pointer was last executing function srec_scan in source file bfd/srec.c.

Execution was in this section of source file objdump-2.24/binutils-2.24/bfd/srec.c

554             sec->filepos = pos;
555           }
557         while (bytes > 0)
558           {
559             check_sum += HEX (data);
560             data += 2;
561             bytes--;
562           }
563         check_sum = 255 - (check_sum & 0xff);

About the libbfd and S-records

The Binary File Descriptor library, libbfd, provides applications with a common interface to the parts of an object file. It is primarily used by tools like binutils and GDB. All operations on the target object file are performed as methods to the BFD. It is composed of two parts: the front end and back ends. The front-end is the interface provided to the user. The back-ends provide calls that the front-ends use to provide that interface. For example, there are back-ends for ELF, COFF, and other binary formats.

The bug found in this case occurs in the back-end for the S-record file format, also known as SREC.

Motorola S-record is a file format, created by Motorola, that conveys binary information in ASCII hex text form.

The format is defined as:

S<Type><Byte Count><Address><Data><Checksum>

1. Record type: two characters, an uppercase "S" (0x53) then a numeric digit 0 to 9, defining the type of record.
2. Byte count: two hex digits, indicating the number of bytes (hex digit pairs) that follow in the rest of the record (address + data + checksum). This field has a minimum value of 3 for 16-bit address field plus 1 checksum byte, and a maximum value of 255 (0xFF).
3. Address: four / six / eight hex digits as determined by the record type. The address bytes are arranged in big endian format.
4. Data: a sequence of 2n hex digits, for n bytes of the data. For S1/S2/S3 records, a maximum of 32 bytes per record is typical since it will fit on an 80 character wide terminal screen, though 16 bytes would be easier to visually decode each byte at a specific address.
5. Checksum: two hex digits, the least significant byte of ones' complement of the sum of the values represented by the two hex digit pairs for the byte count, address and data fields. 

Root Cause Analysis

Since the crash occurs in srec_scan(), I focused my attention there first. The function definition begins at line 296 of file binutils-2.24/bfd/srec.c.


srec_scan() declares some local variables and calls bfd_seek(), which sets the afbd->where pointer to the beginning of the file IO vector. abfd->where keeps track of the state of the file that was opened. Next, the code reads a byte from the beginning of the current position with function srec_get_byte(). This function calls bfd_bread() internally, which reads from the iovec structure containing the IO vector for the supplied input file. The call to bfd_bread in srec_get_byte increments abfd->where by the number of bytes read (1 in this case). It then checks this byte to check if it is one of 3 values (“S”,”\r”,”\n”), resulting in variable sec being set to NULL if it is not. Finally, a switch statement begins, testing against the byte read from abfd structure.

297 srec_scan (bfd *abfd)
298 {
299   int c;
300   unsigned int lineno = 1;
301   bfd_boolean error = FALSE;
302   bfd_byte *buf = NULL;
303   size_t bufsize = 0;
304   asection *sec = NULL;
305   char *symbuf = NULL;
307   if (bfd_seek (abfd, (file_ptr) 0, SEEK_SET) != 0)
308     goto error_return;
310   while ((c = srec_get_byte (abfd, &error)) != EOF)
312       /* We only build sections from contiguous S-records, so if this
313      is not an S-record, then stop building a section.  */
314       if (c != 'S' && c != '\r' && c != '\n')
315     sec = NULL;
317       switch (c)

The switch block has a case for the value ‘S’, which is present in our test case at offset 0x00. This leads execution to the the code block below. A call is made to bfd_bread() at line 467 and three bytes are read from the abfd->iovec structure and written into char array hrd[]. In our case, the three bytes would be 0x31,0x30,and 0x31 (‘1’,’0’,’1’), since abfd->where has been pushed forward to offset 0x01 by bfd_bread().

454     case 'S':
455       {
456         file_ptr pos;
457         char hdr[3];
458         unsigned int bytes;
459         bfd_vma address;
460         bfd_byte *data;
461         unsigned char check_sum;
463         /* Starting an S-record.  */
465         pos = bfd_tell (abfd) - 1;
467         if (bfd_bread (hdr, (bfd_size_type) 3, abfd) != 3)
468           goto error_return;
470         if (! ISHEX (hdr[1]) || ! ISHEX (hdr[2]))
471           {
472         if (! ISHEX (hdr[1]))
473           c = hdr[1];
474         else
475           c = hdr[2];
476         srec_bad_byte (abfd, lineno, c, error);
477         goto error_return;
478           }
480         check_sum = bytes = HEX (hdr + 1);

Detour: Following a Macro Chain

In the final line (480) of the code excerpt above, hdr + 1 is passed as an argument to the macro HEX and the result is stored in unsigned int bytes and unsigned char check_sum. HEX is defined as:

#define HEX(buffer) ((NIBBLE ((buffer)[0])<<4) + NIBBLE ((buffer)[1]))

It takes the first value pointed to in the array and passes it to the NIBBLE macro, the result of which is left-shifted by 4. It also passes the next value in the array to NIBBLE. The results of these two expressions are added together and returned.

NIBBLE is defined below. This macro takes the value passed to it and passes it to another macro, hex_value, which uses it as an index into a buffer that represents the ASCII charset, except only certain values are actually defined. Anything outside of these values is represented as a ‘bad’ byte. The only ‘good’ values are the hex values for the ASCII characters in the hex keyspace [0-1] and [A-F]. NIBBLE returns the value that was indexed.

#define NIBBLE(x)  hex_value(x)

Returning to where we left off, line 480 passes hdr + 1 to HEX. Since hdr in this use is a pointer to the first value (‘1’), hdr + 1 increments the pointer value so that it points to the second value in the array and this is what is passed to HEX. Since ‘0’ is a valid hex character, NIBBLE returns the numeric representation of the char. This value is left-shifted by 4, leaving it at 0. The next value in the buffer(‘1’) is also passed to NIBBLE and it’s decimal value is returned (1). Finally, the sum of the result of these expressions is returned.

Back To srec_scan

For this test case, the statement at line 480 breaks down to check_sum = bytes = (0 + 1). Note: bytes is an unsigned int and check_sum is an unsigned char.

With bytes set to 1, the if statement on line 481 evaluates to true since bufsize equals 0. The code in this block calls bfc_malloc() to allocate a new buffer of size bytes * 2. When this inner code segment is finished, execution continues at line 491 with a call to bfd_bread() which reads bytes * 2 bytes from the current position of the IO vector in the bfd structure. For our test case, the two bytes (1 * 2) read are ‘11’ since the position is at offset 0x5 in our input file. This data is stored in the buffer where memory was just allocated, buf.

481         if (bytes * 2 > bufsize)
482           {
483         if (buf != NULL)
484           free (buf);
485         buf = (bfd_byte *) bfd_malloc ((bfd_size_type) bytes * 2);
486         if (buf == NULL)
487           goto error_return;
488         bufsize = bytes * 2;
489           }
491         if (bfd_bread (buf, (bfd_size_type) bytes * 2, abfd) != bytes * 2)
492           goto error_return;

Next, bytes is decremented by 1, making it’s value 0. address is set to 0 and data is assigned the value of buf, which points to the newly allocated buffer that contains the two bytes that were read on line 491. Finally, a switch statement begins that tests the value of hdr[0]. As stated above, hdr[] contains the values [‘1’,’0’,’1’].

494         /* Ignore the checksum byte.  */
495         --bytes;
497         address = 0;
498         data = buf;
499         switch (hdr[0])

hdr[0] is ‘1’, so execution continues at line 520. check_sum is incremented by the value returned by HEX (data). The value of address is left-shifted 8 bytes and bitwise OR’ed with the value returned by HEX (data), effectively performing the left-shift on the return value of HEX since address equals 0. The result of this expression is saved to address. The pointer data is incremented by 2. The previous three statements are repeated again, this time using the updated value of address.

520         case '1':
521           check_sum += HEX (data);
522           address = (address << 8) | HEX (data);
523           data += 2;
524           check_sum += HEX (data);
525           address = (address << 8) | HEX (data);
526           data += 2;
527           bytes -= 2;

In this case, the value returned by the statement at line 522 is 0x00000011 since the values used by HEX are ‘1’ and ‘1’. The statement at line 523 then increments the pointer data past the end of the buffer that was previously allocated (recall that only 2 bytes were allocated at line 485). This means the call to HEX (data) at line 525 performs it’s operations using the first two bytes of the next chunk. data is then incremented by two again and bytes is decremented by 2. Since bytes had been previously decremented to 0 and it is of type unsigned int, this results in bytes containing the value 0xfffffffe.

The code then reaches the code block below. sec, which is a structure of type asection, is still set to NULL, so exection jumps to line 536:

529         if (sec != NULL
530             && sec->vma + sec->size == address)
531           {
532             /* This data goes at the end of the section we are
533                currently building.  */
534             sec->size += bytes;
535           }
536         else
537           {
538             char secbuf[20];
539             char *secname;
540             bfd_size_type amt;
541             flagword flags;
543             sprintf (secbuf, ".sec%d", bfd_count_sections (abfd) + 1);
544             amt = strlen (secbuf) + 1;
545             secname = (char *) bfd_alloc (abfd, amt);
546             strcpy (secname, secbuf);
547             flags = SEC_HAS_CONTENTS | SEC_LOAD | SEC_ALLOC;
548             sec = bfd_make_section_with_flags (abfd, secname, flags);
549             if (sec == NULL)
550               goto error_return;
551             sec->vma = address;
552             sec->lma = address;
553             sec->size = bytes;
554             sec->filepos = pos;
555           }

The code above constructs a section object with bfd_make_section_with_flags(), saving it to sec. If this is successful and sec is no longer NULL, the value of address, which had been corrupted in the code described above, is assigned to sec->vma and sec->lma. The asection structure is defined in binutils-2.24/bfd/bfd-in2.h. The relevant variables, vma and lma are shown below.

  /* End of internal packed boolean fields.  */

  /*  The virtual memory address of the section - where it will be
      at run time.  The symbols are relocated against this.  The
      user_set_vma flag is maintained by bfd; if it's not set, the
      backend can assign addresses (for example, in <<a.out>>, where
      the default address for <<.data>> is dependent on the specific
      target and various flags).  */
  bfd_vma vma;

  /*  The load address of the section - where it would be in a
      rom image; really only used for writing section header
      information.  */
  bfd_vma lma;

Execution now arrives at the location where the crash occurs. At this point, bytes = 0xfffffffe, so it is much greater than 0. This loop continues incrementing the data pointer and reading from it with the HEX macro until it reads out of bounds, causing an invalid memory access error. In the process, check_sum is also overflowed and equals 87 at the time of the segfault.

557         while (bytes > 0)
558           {
559             check_sum += HEX (data);
560             data += 2;
561             bytes--;
562           }

Wrapping Things Up

The bug itself occurs because user-controlled data is used to determine the size of a buffer that is allocated. Two operation are present that decrement this value by a total of 3 before it is used as a counter in a loop that reads from this buffer. It is possible to provide an input that causes this value to be low enough that an integer underflow occurs. This causes the loop that reads from the buffer to read far past the end of the allocated space, which eventually causes an address boundary error when it reads past the end of the heap.

I really enjoyed analyzing this bug and learned a lot of new things along the way. I became more familiar with GDB functionality and learned a bit about C macros. Overall, this was a fun project that was worth the hours of mind-melting focus. This will likely be the first part in a series since there are probably other bugs just waiting to be found :)


  1. binutils-2.24
  2. BFD documentation
  3. S-Records Wikipedia page

BONUS: Triggering a NULL Dereference

If the input provided begins with ‘S100’ (as opposed to ‘S101’, as shown above), it is possible to skip the code block between line 481-489, which performs the allocation of memory for buf.

481         if (bytes * 2 > bufsize)
482           {
483         if (buf != NULL)
484           free (buf);
485         buf = (bfd_byte *) bfd_malloc ((bfd_size_type) bytes * 2);
486         if (buf == NULL)
487           goto error_return;
488         bufsize = bytes * 2;
489           }

If this occurs, then buf still equals NULL. The address pointed to by buf is saved in data at line 498 and the next time the macro HEX is called it attempts to access the value at index 0 of data, resulting in a NULL pointer dereference.

NULL dereference