Project 4: Application SecurityFall 2023

This project counts for 9% of your course grade. Late submissions will be penalized by 10% of the maximum attainable score, plus an additional 10% every 4 hours until received. Late work will not be accepted after the start of the next lab (of any section) following the day of the deadline. If you or your partner have a conflict due to travel, interviews, etc., please plan accordingly and turn in your project early.

This is optionally a group project; you may work in teams of two and submit one project per team. You may also work alone. Note that the final exam will cover project material, so you and your partner should collaborate closely on each part.

The code and other answers you submit must be entirely your team’s own work, and you are bound by the Honor Code. You may discuss the conceptualization of the project and the meaning of the questions, but you may not look at any part of someone else’s solution or collaborate with anyone other than your partner. You may consult published references, provided that you appropriately cite them (e.g., with program comments). Visit the course website for the full collaboration policy.

Solutions must be submitted via the Autograder, following the submission details at the end of this spec.


This project will introduce you to control-flow hijacking vulnerabilities in application software, including buffer overflows. We will provide a series of vulnerable programs and a virtual machine environment in which you will develop exploits.


  • Be able to identify and avoid buffer overflow vulnerabilities in native code.
  • Understand the severity of buffer overflows and the necessity of standard defenses.
  • Gain familiarity with machine architecture and assembly language.
  • Understand the mechanics of buffer overflow exploitation.

Read this First

This project asks you to develop attacks and test them in a virtual machine you control. Attempting the same kinds of attacks against others’ systems without authorization is prohibited by law and university policies and may result in fines, expulsion, and jail time. You must not attack anyone else’s system without authorization! Per the course ethics policy, you are required to respect the privacy and property rights of others at all times, or else you will fail the course. See the “Ethics, Law, and University Policies” section on the course website.


Buffer-overflow exploitation depends on details of the target system. You must develop and test your attacks inside the Project 4 VM, as it has been configured to disable certain security features that would complicate your work.

  1. Follow the setup instructions on the Project 4 VM page.

  2. Check out your starter code from GitHub inside the VM. You must do this in a folder in the native Linux filesystem. It won’t work correctly if you use a shared folder located in the host OS.

  3. Run ./ It will prompt you for uniqnames. Each group’s targets will be slightly different, so make sure your uniqnames are correct!

  4. Run ./ to build the targets and test the (currently empty) solutions. The test script will report an error for each of the targets.

Resources and Guidelines

No attack tools allowed!

You may not use special-purpose tools meant for testing security or exploiting vulnerabilities except for what comes preinstalled in the VM. You may only use the version that comes preinstalled in the VM (even if it has the same version number).

Using a prohibited tool to complete your project can be an honor code violation. If you have any questions about whether a certain tool is allowed, please ask on Piazza first so that you don’t accidentally violate this policy.

Control hijacking tutorials

Before you begin this project, review the slides from the control-hijacking lectures and attend lab for additional details. Read the classic article Smashing the Stack for Fun and Profit for an introduction to buffer overflow exploitation.


You will make use of the GDB debugger for dynamic analysis within the VM, which you should recall from EECS 280. Useful commands that you may not know are disassemble, info reg, x, and stepi. See the GDB help for details, and donā€™t be afraid to experiment. The GDB reference sheet may also be useful.

x86_64 assembly

These are many good references for Intel’s assembly language, but note that our project targets use the 64-bit x86_64 ISA (sometimes abbreviated to x64), not the older 32-bit x86 ISA. The stack is organized differently in x86_64 and x86. If you are reading any online documentation, ensure that it is based on the x86_64 architecture, not x86.

Also note that there are 2 different syntaxes for this assembly language, known as Intel syntax and AT&T syntax. They’re just 2 ways of expressing the same code. In this class we’re always using Intel syntax, but keep in mind that online resources might be using AT&T syntax. You can tell which is which because AT&T syntax uses percent signs (%) everywhere and Intel syntax doesn’t.

If you are getting a segfault

A segfault means that you’re either jumping execution to or dereferencing an address that is incorrect. This means you’re on the right track because you’ve overwritten something! If you are stuck as to where to start looking, check the addresses that your exploit has, and make sure they are both correct and in the correct place.


The target programs for this project are simple, short C programs with (mostly) clear security vulnerabilities. We have provided source code and a build script that compiles all the targets. Your exploits must work against the targets as compiled and executed within the provided VM.

target0: Overwriting a variable on the stack Easy

This program takes input from a file and prints a message. Your job is to provide input that causes the program to output: “Hi uniqname! Your grade is A+.” (You can use either group member’s uniqname.) To accomplish this, your input will need to overwrite another variable stored on the stack.

The read_input(char *destination, char *filename) function can be found in read_input.c. It opens the file given to it, then copies the entire contents of the file into memory starting at the address where destination points.

Here’s one approach you might take:

  1. Examine target0.c. Where is the buffer overflow?

  2. Disassemble _main (not to be confused with main). What is its starting address?

  3. Set a breakpoint at the beginning of _main and run the program.

  4. Using GDB from within the VM, set a breakpoint at the beginning of _main and run the program.

    (gdb) break _main
    (gdb) run <(python3
  5. Draw a picture of the stack. How are name[] and grade[] stored relative to each other?

  6. How could a value read into name[] affect the value contained in grade[]? Test your hypothesis by running ./target0 on the command line with different inputs.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target0 <(python3

The above is a little shell trick. It runs python3, then saves the output to a “temporary file”. It then uses the name of that temporary file as a command-line argument for ./target0.


In Python 3, you should work with bytes rather than Unicode strings. To construct a byte literal, use this syntax: b'\xnn', where nn is a 2-digit hex value. To repeat a byte n times, you can do: b'\xnn'*n. To output a sequence of bytes, use:

import sys


Don’t use print, because it automatically encodes whatever is being printed with the default encoding of the console. We don’t want our payload to be encoded, so we use sys.stdout.buffer.write.

target1: Overwriting the return address Easy

This program takes input from a file and prints a message. Your job is to provide input that makes it output: “Your grade is A+.” Your input will need to overwrite the return address so that the function vulnerable transfers control to print_good_grade when it returns.

  1. Examine target1.c. Where is the buffer overflow?

  2. Examine the function print_good_grade. What is its starting address?

  3. Using GDB from within the VM, set a breakpoint at the beginning of vulnerable and run the program.

    (gdb) break vulnerable
    (gdb) run <(python3

  4. Disassemble vulnerable and draw the stack. Where is input[] stored relative to rbp? How long would an input have to be to overwrite this value and the return address?

  5. Examine the rsp and rbp registers:

    (gdb) info reg

  6. What are the current values of the saved frame pointer and return address from the stack frame? You can examine two giant words (8 bytes each) of memory at rbp using:

    (gdb) x/2gx $rbp

  7. What should these values be in order to redirect control to the desired function?

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target1 <(python3

When debugging your program, it may be helpful to view a hex dump of the output. Try this:

$ python3 | hd

Remember that x86_64 is little endian. Use Python’s to_bytes method to output 64-bit little-endian values like so:

import sys

sys.stdout.buffer.write(0x0123456789abcedf.to_bytes(8, 'little'))

target2: Redirecting control to shellcode Easy

Targets 2 through 7 are owned by the root user and have the suid bit set. Your goal is to cause them to launch a shell, which will therefore have root privileges. Unless otherwise noted, you should use the shellcode we have provided in Successfully placing this shellcode in memory and setting the instruction pointer to the beginning of the shellcode (e.g., by returning or jumping to it) will open a shell.

  1. Examine target2.c. Where is the buffer overflow?

  2. Create a Python 3 program named that outputs the provided shellcode:

    import sys
    from shellcode import shellcode

  3. Disassemble vulnerable. Where does buf begin relative to rbp? What is the offset from the start of the shellcode to the saved return address?

  4. Set up the target in GDB:

    $ gdb ./target2

  5. Set a breakpoint in vulnerable and start the target.

  6. Identify the address after the call to read_input and set a breakpoint there:

    (gdb) break *<address>

    Run the program. It will stop it reaches that breakpoint.

    (gdb) run <(python3
  7. Examine the bytes of memory where you think the shellcode is to confirm your calculation:

    (gdb) x/32bx <address>
  8. Disassemble the shellcode:

    (gdb) disas/r <address>,+32

    How does it work?

  9. Modify your solution to overwrite the return address and cause it to jump to the beginning of the shellcode.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target2 <(python3

If you are successful, you will see a root shell prompt (#). Running whoami will output “root”. Running exit will return to your normal shell.

If your program segfaults, you can examine the state at the time of the crash using GDB with the core dump: gdb ./target2 core. To enable creating core dumps, run ulimit -c unlimited. The file core won’t be created if a file with the same name already exists. Also, since the target runs as root, you will need to run it using sudo ./target2 in order for the core dump to be created.

target3: Overwriting the return address indirectly Medium

In this target, the buffer overflow is restricted and cannot directly overwrite the return address. You’ll need to find another way. Your input should cause the provided shellcode to execute and open a root shell.

The read_input_with_limit(char *destination, char *filename, size_t limit) function can be found in read_input.c. It opens the file given to it, then copies the contents of the file into memory starting at the address where destination points. However, it will only copy the first limit bytes, even if the file is longer than that.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target3 <(python3

target4: Beyond strings Medium

This target takes as its command-line argument the name of a data file it will read. The file format is a 64-bit count followed by that many 32-bit integers (all little endian). Create a data file that causes the provided shellcode to execute and opens a root shell.

Hint: First figure out how an attacker can cause a buffer overflow in this program. Note that the read_elements function breaks the for-loop once the end of the file is reached, so the 64-bit count does not need to be truthful.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target4 <(python3

target5: Bypassing DEP Medium

This program resembles target2, but it has been compiled with data execution prevention (DEP) enabled. DEP means that the processor will refuse to execute instructions stored on the stack. You can overflow the stack and modify values like the return address, but you can’t jump to any shellcode you inject. You need to find another way to run the command /bin/sh and open a root shell.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target5 <(python3

Warning: Do not try to create a solution that depends on you manually setting environment variables. You cannot assume that the autograder will run your solution with the same environment variables that you have set.

target6: Variable stack position Medium

When we constructed the previous targets, we ensured that the stack would be in the same position every time the vulnerable function was called, but this is often not the case in real targets. In fact, a defense called ASLR (address-space layout randomization) makes buffer overflows harder to exploit by changing the starting location of the stack and other memory areas on each execution. This target resembles target2, but the stack position is randomly offset by 0ā€“256 bytes each time it runs. You need to construct an input that always opens a root shell despite this randomization.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target6 <(python3

Warning: If you see any output before the root shell is opened, you have not done this target correctly and your solution will not be accepted by the autograder.

target7: Return-oriented programming Hard

This target is identical to target2, but it is compiled with DEP enabled. Implement a ROP-based attack to bypass DEP and open a root shell.

It will be helpful to use a tool such as ROPgadget. The ROPgadget command is already installed on the provided VM. View its usage by running ROPgadget -h. The --binary and --multibr flags will be particularly helpful.

  1. Though there are a number of ways you could implement a ROP exploit, for this target you should use the setuid syscall to become root, followed by the execve syscall to run the /bin/sh binary. This is equivalent to:

    execve("/bin/sh", 0, 0);

  2. syscall is the assembly instruction for making a syscall. In order specify which kind of syscall you want to make (and what arguments you want to make it with), you have to set certain registers to specific values. Consult this table for a reference.

  3. You may want to look at the assembly in for some inspiration. You probably won’t be able to find gadgets that work exactly the same way as this shellcode, but it should be a good starting point.

  4. We recommend that you start by getting the execve call to work on its own, without setuid. When you do this correctly, it will open a shell, but you won’t be root. Then modify your solution to make it call setuid first, and you’ll get a root shell.

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target7 <(python3

target8: Reverse-engineering with Ghidra Hard

Because this target centers around reverse-engineering and requires extensive exploration, any information that you learn about the binary—even if it is not code written by you—is considered part of your solution. Please use discretion and refrain from discussing details of the target outside of your group, including on Piazza.

For this target, you are provided only a compiled binary named target8 and an input file named input8.dat. The program is closed-source.

Try running the target with the provided input:

$ ./target8 input8.dat
The output should be:
Hello, world!

What to submit

Create a Python 3 program named that prints a line to be passed as input to the target. Doing so should cause the lights on the BBB spiral staircase to blink. Test your program with the command line:

$ ./target8 <(python3

If you’re not in the BBB, you can view the live state of the blinkenlights at

It’s fine if the target also prints some output, but it should not crash.

  1. First, use Ghidra to determine how the program works. We’ll give a Ghidra tutorial in lab.

    • Import target8 into Ghidra and analyze it. The VM has Ghidra pre-installed, as explained in the instructions. For this assignment, you don’t need to change any of the default options.

    • Concentrate on the Functions, Decompiler, and Listing views, all available from the Window menu. As a starting point, use Functions to select main, then examine it in the Decompiler.

    • The Decompiler produces an approximation of the original C code, but its output is sometimes very different from how a programmer would tend to express the same operation. The original variable names and comments were stripped by the compiler, and often the original data types cannot be automatically inferred. To make the program more readable, the Decompiler lets you manually add comments, rename variables, and correct variable types and function signatures (all by right-clicking). To navigate into a function call, double-click; use the back button (in the upper left) to return to where you were.

    • The Listing view shows the disassembled instructions, which are more accurate but harder to read than the Decompiler view. Use both views together to get a clearer picture of what’s going on. If you select lines of code in the Decompiler, the Listing will highlight the equivalent portion of the disassembly, and vice versa.

  2. Inspect the provided input file using hd input8.dat. As an intermediate goal, create an input file that causes the target to output Ghidra rocks!. This will require understanding the target using Ghidra, but you won’t need to do any control-flow hijacking. (You do not need to submit anything for this.)

  3. The target contains a simple-to-exploit vulnerability similar to one of the earlier targets. It also contains some unused code that will be very useful for accomplishing your objective. Since you don’t have the source code, you’ll need to discover both using Ghidra. Happy hacking!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I get a root shell when I run sudo ./ Am I done?

A: No! You should only run without sudo. If you run it under sudo, then your shells will always be spawned as the root user, whether you have accomplished the task of opening a root shell or not. If you previously ran with sudo, you might get permission errors from Git when you run the test script without sudo. To fix this, run the following in the root directory of your local repository:

$ sudo chown -R eecs388:eecs388 .git

Q: My solution works in GDB but not from the command line.

A: The most likely explanation is that you’re referencing data from argv[]. Since argv[] comes from outside of _main‘s stack frame, its position can vary depending on the size of the environment and arguments, which can be slightly different when running under gdb. The best solution is to find the data you need in the stack frame of the vulnerable function, rather than from argv[].

Submission Details

  1. Create a repo using the GitHub template. Make sure that the repo you create is private.

  2. Establish a team on the autograder. Only teams created on the autograder will be able to join the online office hours queue.

    Project 4 Autograder

    Although the autograder submission screen shows the 6 p.m. deadline, you can still submit after this time subject to a lateness penalty, up until the start of the first lab following the deadline. Any submissions after the posted deadline will result in a late deduction, even if your best submission occurred before the deadline. The autograder will not warn you of this. (You don’t get to attempt a higher score after the deadline with no risk.)

Your files can make use of standard Python 3 libraries and the provided, but they must be otherwise self-contained. Do not modify or include the targets, build script,, etc. Be sure to test that your solutions work correctly in an unmodified copy of the provided VM, without installing or updating any packages or changing any environment variables.