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SECCOMP as a Sandboxing Solution ?

Sandboxing technology?

SECCOMP is a Linux feature introduced in 2.6.23 (2005) by Andrea Arcangeli, initially designed for grid computing applications. The idea was to sell CPU times to the public by running untrusted binaries.

When a process goes into SECCOMP mode, it can only do 4 syscalls: read, write, _exit and sigreturn. The kernel will enforce this limitation by killing (by a SIGKILL signal) the process if an unauthorized system call is made.

The security warranty here is pretty strong: the only way to evade the protection is to use file descriptors already opened or access to shared memory.

SECCOMP is the perfect solution for a sandbox because the kernel attack surface is really small! For the record, in the whole kernel security history, no vulnerability was ever found in theses syscalls.

The downside of this feature is its limitation! Once in SECCOMP mode, it is impossible to do anything except some arithmetics. Another SECCOMP problem is that the action of entering in SECCOMP mode is voluntary: the program needs to issue itself a prctl() call with appropriate arguments: that means the application needs to be developed specifically.

The purpose of a sandbox is to run untrusted binaries without requiring sources modifications. Currently, there are two main problems:

  • Enter in SECCOMP mode
  • Prevent the untrusted process from issuing system call

Both problems need to be solved without requiring a recompilation. How to do it despite this constraint?

Entering in SECCOMP mode

Basically, we need to inject a call to prctl() into a given process. The best known method is to write directly into the memory of the process by using the ptrace() interface.

Beside the evident problems of portability and the inherent difficulties of injecting instructions in a process, this solution was not investigated because of its hackish nature.

Instead, let’s take a look at a simple binary:

$ objdump -f a.out
a.out:     file format elf32-i386
architecture: i386, flags 0x00000112:
start address 0x080482e0

The entry point of the binary, 0x080482e0, is the _start routine provided by the compiler and shown here:

080482e0 <_start>:
 80482e0:       31 ed                   xor    ebp,ebp
 80482e2:       5e                      pop    esi
 80482e3:       89 e1                   mov    ecx,esp
 80482e5:       83 e4 f0                and    esp,0xfffffff0
 80482e8:       50                      push   eax
 80482e9:       54                      push   esp
 80482ea:       52                      push   edx
 80482eb:       68 b0 83 04 08          push   0x80483b0
 80482f0:       68 c0 83 04 08          push   0x80483c0
 80482f5:       51                      push   ecx
 80482f6:       56                      push   esi
 80482f7:       68 94 83 04 08          push   0x8048394
 80482fc:       e8 c7 ff ff ff          call   80482c8 <__libc_start_main@plt>

It initializes the stack and then calls the “init function” of the GNU libc which will eventually execute the main() function. At this point, the program is effectively ran.

The interesting property of this routine is how the libc function is called: by using the Procedure Linkage Table (PLT). In a few words, that means the linker will have to resolve the symbol.

Thanks to the LD_PRELOAD feature, it’s possible to overload ELF symbols. This is how we are issuing the prctl() call: by overriding the __libc_start_main function and calling it on our own to be totally transparent, here is how it’s done:

typedef int (*main_t)(int, char **, char **);
main_t realmain;

int __libc_start_main(main_t main,
                      int argc,
                      char *__unbounded *__unbounded ubp_av,
                      ElfW(auxv_t) *__unbounded auxvec,
                      __typeof (main) init,
                      void (*fini) (void),
                      void (*rtld_fini) (void), void *__unbounded
        void *libc;
        int (*libc_start_main)(main_t main,
                               char *__unbounded *__unbounded,
                               ElfW(auxv_t) *,
                               __typeof (main),
                               void (*fini) (void),
                               void (*rtld_fini) (void),
                               void *__unbounded stack_end);

        libc = dlopen("libc.so.6", RTLD_LOCAL  | RTLD_LAZY);
        if (!libc)
                ERROR("  dlopen() failed: %s\n", dlerror());
        libc_start_main = dlsym(libc, "__libc_start_main");
        if (!libc_start_main)
                ERROR("     Failed: %s\n", dlerror());

        realmain = main;
        void (*__malloc_initialize_hook) (void) = my_malloc_init;
        return (*libc_start_main)(wrap_main, argc, ubp_av, auxvec,
        init, fini, rtld_fini, stack_end);

In a nutshell:

  1. The first parameter of the function is the address of the main
  2. We open the libc library object
  3. We find the location of the original __libc_start_main
  4. We save the original main function into a global variable
  5. We call the original __libc_start_main by replacing the original main by our own (wrap_main) shown here:
int wrap_main(int argc, char **argv, char **environ)
        if (prctl(PR_SET_SECCOMP, 1, 0, 0) == -1) {
                perror("prctl(PR_SET_SECCOMP) failed");
                printf("Maybe you don't have the CONFIG_SECCOMP support built into your kernel?\n");

        (*realmain)(argc, argv, environ);

At this point, the original main() is called and the program is executed under SECCOMP. The drawback of this method is its incompatibility with statically linked binary. In this case, the _start routine calls directly __libc_start_main function without using the PLT.

The big vulnerability here is the case of a malicious binary with a _start routine not calling __libc_start_main, in that case, the prctl() would not be done and the program would run without sandboxing. This issue was ignored for the moment but it will require some thought…

There is still the option of modifying the memory with some ptrace() calls or rewriting some memory mapping thanks to the method of Sebastian Krahmer presented in lasso.

Interception of syscalls

Now that the application is running under SECCOMP, it’s not possible anymore to do a syscall (except read, write, _exit and sigreturn). Because we made the assumption that the sandboxed program was not designed to run SECCOMP, we have to prevent it from issuing such forbidden call.

Thus, we need to intercept the syscall before the kernel, process it if possible and emulate the kernel behavior. The interception of syscalls is usually done, again, with the ptrace() interface, the main drawback of this method is the lack of debugging mean: because all debuggers use ptrace and a process can only be traced once, that means that each bug would be a nightmare.

Furthermore, the ptrace interface is known to be crippled and a lot of security bugs have been found, fortunately, this was from the tracer side, but there was some advisories where the tracee could harm the tracer process.

Another solution was investigated based on the analysis of the syscall handling in the Libc. We saw in my previous post “How system calls work on Linux?” that the GNU Libc was making syscalls by doing a call *%gs:0x10 (where 0x10 is variable).

Hijacking VDSO

In order to intercept (legit) sycalls, we need to intercept the previous call instruction. This is easy, we have to overwrite the pointer stored at the address %gs:0x10 and redirect the process to our own function.

This what we do immediatly after turning on SECCOMP:

static void hijack_vdso_gate(void) {
        asm("mov %%gs:0x10, %%ebx\n"
            "mov %%ebx, %0\n"

            "mov %1, %%ebx\n"
            "mov %%ebx, %%gs:0x10\n"

            : "=m" (real_handler)
            : "r" (handler)
            : "ebx");
} __attribute__((always_inline));

From now on, every syscalls are trapped by our handler, even the one which are “allowed” by SECCOMP.

Demultiplexing syscalls

The purpose of the handler is to look at the syscall requested, see if we need to honor it ourself (because it’s a forbidden syscall) or run the original VDSO’s function.

Our handler needs to be carefully written in order to not mess up with the registers: our function must not modify any register. That is the reason why it was written in assembly:

void handler(void) {
        /* syscall_proxy() is the "forbidden syscalls" handler */
        void (*syscall_proxy_addr)(void) = syscall_proxy;

        asm("cmpl $4, %%eax\n"
            "je do_syscall\n"

            "cmpl $3, %%eax\n"
            "je do_syscall\n"

            "cmpl $0xfc, %%eax\n"
            "jne wrapper\n"

            "movl $1, %%eax\n"
            "jmp do_syscall\n"

            "                   call *%0\n"
            "                   jmp out\n"

            "                   call *%1\n"
            "out:               nop\n"

            : /* output */
            : "m" (syscall_proxy_addr),
              "m" (real_handler)); /* real_handler is the original
                                    * VDSO function, performing 
                                    * effectively the syscall 

Each time the libc makes a syscall, we either perform the action directly or we call our “syscall proxy”. More on that later…