Use-after-Free: New Protections, and how to Defeat them

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The Problem

Memory corruption has plagued computers for decades, and these bugs can often be transformed into working cyber-attacks. Memory corruption is a situation where an attacker (malicious user of an application or network protocol) is able to send some data that is improperly processed by the native computer code. That can lead to important control structure changes that allow the attacker unexpected influence over the path a program will travel.

High-level protections, such as anti-virus (AV), have done little to stop the tide. That is because AV is poor at reacting to threats if they do not exist in their list of known attacks. Recent low-level operating system (OS) protections have helped. Non-executable memory and code module randomization help prevent attackers from leveraging memory corruption bugs, by stopping injected code from successfully executing.

Yet a new memory corruption exploit variant called return-oriented programming (ROP) has survived these defenses. ROP operates by leveraging existing code in memory to undo non-executable memory protections. New medium-level defenses, such as Microsoft’s anti-ROP add-on called EMET, have helped some. But a particularly troublesome bug known as Use-after-Free (UaF) has been applied in conjunction with other techniques to bypass EMET (See Prior Blog HERE). UaFs have been the basis of many current cyber attacks including Operation SnowMan (CVE-2014-0322) and Operation Clandestine Fox (CVE-2014-1776). Thus, it is clear that further low-level mitigations are required.

The Solution

To address the problem of UaF attacks, browser vendors have implemented new protections within the browser process. A UaF happens when (1) a low-level data structure (called an object in C++) is released prematurely. (2) An attacker knows about this release and quickly fills that space with data they control. (3) A dangling reference to the original object, which another part of the program assumes is still valid, is used. But of course, an attacker unwittingly changed the objects data. The intruder can now leverage the influence afforded by the corrupted memory state to hijack the compromised program.

Microsoft choose to tackle this serious UaF problem with two new protections. These protections work together to stop attackers from being able to allocation new data in the spot where a dangling reference points. They call the new protections Heap Isolation and Delayed Free. The premise of these protections is simple. Heap Isolation creates a new heap. A heap is a place that a program uses to create/free internal data as needed throughout execution. This new isolated heap houses many internal Internet Explorer objects. While objects likely to be under the influence of attacks (like strings created via Java Script) will still be allocated on the typical default heap. Thus, if a UaF condition appears, the attacker should not be able to replace the memory of the dangling pointer with malicious data. We could liken this situation to forcing naughty school kids to use a separate playground from the trusted kids. But who is naughty and who is good? So also an obvious weakness with this approach is that with the many different objects used in a complex program like a browser, it is difficult for developers to perfectly separate the two groups of objects.

So Microsoft also created a second cleaver protection. Delayed free operates by not releasing an objects memory right away. In our analogy, if we assume the goal of the naughty kid is to steal the place in line from a good kid that unexpected stepped out of line, we can think of this protection as the playground teacher watching that place in line for a while, before the slot is finally opened. Even though the program has asked the allocator to free a chunk of memory, the object is not freed, but is instead put on a list to be freed later, when the playground looks safer. That way even if an attacker knows of an object type on both heaps that could be used to replace the memory backing a dangling reference, they cannot since the memory has not actually been freed yet. The memory will not be truly freed until the following conditions are meet: there are no references to the object on the stack and there are at least 100,000 bytes waiting to be freed, or the per-thread call stack unwinds fully to its original starting point.


Though the new protections are definitely helpful, and I even recommend applying them to other applications, no native mitigation is enough. If we look back at the history of memory corruption, we see that every time vendors put forth a new OS security measure, it worked in slowing attackers for a season, but before long each mitigation was bypassed by some clever new attack.

In my research, I show that one such bypass against these new protections involves using what I call a “long lived” dangling pointer. In my naughty child analogy, we can think of this as the sneaky and patient child that can go to either playground, and will wait for just the right moment before slipping ahead in line. In more technical terms, if an attacker can locate a UaF bug that involves code that maintains a heap reference to a dangling pointer, the conditions to actually free the object under the deferred free protection can be met (no stack references or call chain eventually unwinds). And finding useful objects in either playground to replace the original turns out not to be that difficult either. I wrote a python script to search the core Internet Explorer code module (called MSHTML.dll). The script finds all the different objects, their sizes, and notes rather it is allocated to the default or isolated heap. This information can be used to help locate useful objects to attack either heap.  And with a memory garbage collection process known as coalescing the replacement object does not even have to be the same size as the original object. This is useful for changing critical data (like the vtable pointer) at the proper offset in what was the original object. The python code is HERE. For complete details on this research, please see the slides from my January 17th ShmooCon talk HERE.

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