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Thursday, May 19, 2005
Solaris: hijacking a function call (interposing)

Sometimes it is necessary to alter the functionality of a routine, or collect some data from a malfunctioning routine, for debugging. It works well, as long as we have the access to source code. But what if we don't have access to source code or changes to the source code is not feasible? With dynamic libraries, it is very easy to intercept any call to a routine of choice, and can do whatever we wish to do in that routine, including calling the real routine the client intended to call.

In simple words, the hacker (who writes the interposing library, in this context) writes a new library with the exact interfaces of the routines, that (s)he wish to intercept, and preloads the new library before starting up the application. It works well, as long as the targeted interfaces are not protected. On Solaris, with linker's -Bsymbolic option or Sun Studio compiler's -xldscope=symbolic option, all symbols of a library can be made non-interposable (those symbols are called protected symbols, since no one else can interpose on them). If the targeted routine is interposable, dynamic linker simply passes the control to whatever symbol it encounters first, that matches the function call (callee). Now with the preloaded library in force, hacker gets control over the routine. At this point, it is upto the hacker whether to pass the control to the actual routine that the client is intended to call. If the intention is just to collect data and let go, the required data can be collected and the control will be passed to the actual routine with the help of libdl routines. Note that the control has to be passed explicitly to the actual routine; and as far as dynamic linker is concerned, it is done with its job once it passes the control to the function (interposer in this case). If the idea is to completely change the behavior of the routine (easy to write a new routine with the new behavior, but the library and the clients have to be re-built to make use of the new routine), the new implementation will be part of the interposing routine and the control will never be passed to the actual routine. Yet in worst cases, a malicious hacker can intercept data that is supposed to be confidential (eg., passwords, account numbers etc.,) and may do more harm at his wish.

[Off-topic] To guard against such attacks, it is recommended to make most of the symbols local in scope, with the help of linker supported map files or compiler supported linker scoping mechanism. Read to learn more about linker scoping.

The above mentioned technique is commonly referred as library interposition; and as we can see it is quite useful for debugging, collecting run-time data, and for performance tuning of an application.

It would be more interesting to see some interceptor in action. So, let's build a very small library with only one routine fopen(). The idea is to collect the number of calls to fopen() and to find out the files being opened. Our interceptor, simply prints a message on the console with the file name to be opened, everytime there is a call to fopen() from the application. Then it passes the control to fopen() routine of libc. For this, first we need to get the signature of fopen(). fopen() is declared in stdio.h as follows:
FILE *fopen(const char *filename, const char *mode);

Here is the source code for the interposer:

% cat interceptfopen.c
#include <stdio.h>
#include <dlfcn.h>

FILE *fopen(const char *filename, const char *mode) {
FILE *fd = NULL;
static void *(*actualfunction)();

if (!actualfunction) {
actualfunction = (void *(*)()) dlsym(RTLD_NEXT, "fopen");

printf("\nfopen() has been called. file name = %s, mode = %s \n
Forwarding the control to fopen() of libc", filename, mode);
fd = actualfunction(filename, mode);

% cc -G -o interceptfopen.c
% ls -lh
-rwxrwxr-x 1 build engr 3.7K May 19 19:02*

actualfunction is a function pointer to the actual fopen() routine, which is in libc. dlsym is part of libdl and the RTLD_NEXT argument directs the dynamic linker ( to find the next reference to the specified function, using the normal dynamic linker search sequence.

Let's proceed to write a simple C program, that writes and reads a string to and from a file.

% cat fopenclient.c
#include <stdio.h>

int main () {
FILE * pFile;
char string[30];

pFile = fopen ("myfile.txt", "w");
if (pFile != NULL) {
fputs ("Some Random String", pFile);
fclose (pFile);

pFile = fopen ("myfile.txt", "r");
if (pFile != NULL) {
fgets (string , 30 , pFile);
printf("\nstring = %s", string);
fclose (pFile);
} else {
perror("fgets(): ");
return 0;
% cc -o fopenclient fopenclient.c
% ./fopenclient
string = Some Random String

With no interceptor, everything works as expected. Now let's introduce the interceptor and collect the data, during run-time.

% setenv LD_PRELOAD ./

% ./fopenclient
fopen() has been called. file name = myfile.txt, mode = w
Forwarding the control to fopen() of libc
fopen() has been called. file name = myfile.txt, mode = r
Forwarding the control to fopen() of libc
string = Some Random String

%unsetenv LD_PRELOAD

As we can see from the above output, the interceptor received the calls to fopen(), instead of the actual implementation in libc. And the advantages of this technique is evident from this simple example, and it is up to the hacker to take advantage or abuse the flexibility of symbol interposition.

Suggested Reading:
  1. Debugging and Performance Tuning with Library interposers
  2. Profiling and Tracing Dynamic Library Usage Via Interposition

Your posts are birthday gifts for me :)

Please keep posting them
Hello :-)

I have a question maybe you can answer. What if the function I want to interpose is compiled in the binary and I don't have the header for it?

nm(1) does not show any symbol for it, but strings(1) shows the header of the function so it exists.

Can I interpose it?

Thank you ;)
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