Fall in City Creek Canyon

I’ve lived in Utah for a while now, in three different houses, but always a short walk from City Creek Canyon. This drainage starts right at the edge of downtown SLC and goes 14 miles up into the Wasatch Range. A service road provides easy walking access all year, although the upper parts are not plowed in winter. In summer, bikes are permitted on odd days; on even days there is light car traffic. Bikes are allowed and cars forbidden every day in fall, winter, and spring (though sometimes there are vehicles going to and from the water treatment plant a few miles up the canyon). The lower part of the canyon is heavily walked on nice days, for example by worker bees from downtown on their lunch break. The upper canyon receives light usage and there are many miles of trails and off-trail routes in upper City Creek where you are much more likely to see an elk or a moose than a person. Several of my favorite local mountains, Dude Peak, Burro Peak, Grandview Peak, and Little Black Mountain all overlook the upper canyon. Here are a few pictures from a bike ride the other morning.

Fun with Shellshock

[I don’t seem to be getting blog entries written lately. The semester has turned out to be surprisingly busy and, also, I’m working on a few longer pieces that have ended up being harder to write than I’d hoped. Anyhow, the piece below isn’t the sort of thing I usually post, you can think of it as sort of a guest post. The context is the recent Bash bug which — unlike Heartbleed — completely failed to stir up a pile of “here’s how to find it using static analysis” posts, for reasons that Pascal explains very nicely.]

A3 Mitigation of Shellshock Vulnerability
Aaron Paulos, Brett Benyo, Partha Pal, Shane Clark, Rick Schantz (Raytheon BBN Technologies)
Eric Eide, Mike Hibler, David Johnson, John Regehr (University of Utah)

[Distribution Statement “A” (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited)]


The shellshock/Bash bug has been in the news a lot recently and it seemed like a great opportunity for us to test our A3 fully automated repair technology against a real zero-day attack. We found that the mandatory mediation policy enforced by A3 blocked the effect of the injected command attack. The policy violation triggered A3 to automatically explore and repair the underlying security hole. A3 took around 2 minutes to automatically find a repair using virtual machine introspection to insert a system call block, preventing a sys_clone call made by Bash, and an additional 1.5 minutes to find a source code repair in the Bash code. The A3 shellshock experiment is an example that illustrates the recent progress made by the survivability and resiliency research community to automate post-incident response management and to reduce the time to patch.


We have been developing the A3 (Advanced Adaptive Applications) Environment for the past four years as part of the DARPA Clean-slate design of Resilient, Adaptive, Secure Hosts (CRASH) program. A3 aims to make network facing services and applications resilient against zero-day attacks through the use of containerization, mandatory I/O mediation, execution introspection, and defensive adaptation. Recently, our focus has been on automatically reasoning about attack manifestations and dynamically producing new network filters, system call policies, and even source patches to mitigate the underlying vulnerability. A3’s adaptive experimentation utilizes record and replay, machine learning algorithms, and execution tracing across the OS and application boundaries.

For the shellshock experiment, we applied A3 to a simple app store web application built on a standard LAMP stack with a vulnerable Bash version. It took us a few hours to get the source, build environment, and regression tests for Bash 4.2 into the “laboratory” area of the A3 environment (i.e., a set up for in-situ and online testing of new security adaptations of the protected application). This was only necessary to generate a source code level repair; generating the system call block repair did not require any code, build environment, or regression tests.

Constructing an attack to exploit the vulnerability was trivial. We simply inserted an exploit that attempted to cat a “passwd” file into a GET request:

GET /appstore/index.php HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: () { :;}; /bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt
Accept: */* 

This style of attack was chosen because it mimicked what hackers attempted during a capture the flag experiment. We launched the attack, and watched A3 work.

First, A3’s mandatory mediation blocked the attack because the attack was trying to access a directory that is not allowed by the mediation policy of the protected application. It is not guaranteed that all attacks will be stopped there, of course — mediation policies are not guaranteed to be perfect, and the attack may involve operations that are permitted but cause an undesired effect at a later stage. However, the unauthorized access attempt triggered A3’s automated repair process, much like a later-stage undesired condition would. A3 took ~2 minutes to find a repair using virtual machine introspection to block a sys_clone call made by Bash. This was accomplished by replaying the attack within A3 (i.e., in the “laboratory” area), running a full system call analysis, and testing system call block policies for any unique calls or call parameters found. A3 took an additional ~1.5 minutes to find a source code repair in the Bash code by analyzing the call stack when the sys_clone call was attempted. Below are the call stack and a slightly more readable figure for our particular attack payload:

#0  0x00007f17a8f5f936 in __libc_fork () at ../nptl/sysdeps/unix/sysv/linux/x86_64/../fork.c:131
#1  0x0000000000448ebe in make_child (command=0xc7eb08 "/bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt", async_p=0) at jobs
#2  0x000000000043a271 in execute_disk_command (words=0xc7a688, redirects=0xc7e688, command_line=0xc7ea48 "/bin/cat /home
/mitll/passwd > /tmp/hello.txt", pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, async=0, fds_to_close=0xc7a4c8, cmdflags=0) at execute_cmd.c:46
#3  0x0000000000438fd0 in execute_simple_command (simple_command=0xc7e648, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, async=0, fds_to_close
=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:3977
#4  0x0000000000433179 in execute_command_internal (command=0xc7e608, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_clo
se=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:735
#5  0x0000000000435d26 in execute_connection (command=0xc7e708, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_close=0xc
7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:2319
#6  0x00000000004334d4 in execute_command_internal (command=0xc7e708, asynchronous=0, pipe_in=-1, pipe_out=-1, fds_to_clo
se=0xc7a4c8) at execute_cmd.c:891
#7  0x0000000000487ee3 in parse_and_execute (string=0xc7dc08 "HTTP_USER_AGENT () { :;}; /bin/cat /home/mitll/passwd > /tm
p/hello.txt", from_file=0x7fff289f6c4e "HTTP_USER_AGENT", flags=5) at evalstring.c:319
#8  0x000000000043af8c in initialize_shell_variables (env=0x7fff289f50e0, privmode=0) at variables.c:350
#9  0x000000000041de8f in shell_initialize () at shell.c:1709

Looking for a place to stop the manifestation, A3 developed the following patch at line 3979 in execute_cmd.c, which just unconditionally skips the function call leading directly to our observed attack. This repair does not fix the Bash parser, but instead disables functionality that is unnecessary for processing legitimate requests by the protected application (app store running on the LAMP stack).

if (0) {  
	result = execute_disk_command ( words, simple_command->redirects, 
					  command_line, pipe_in, pipe_out, 
					  async, fds_to_close,

For this experiment we started with a single malicious request sent to the application and A3 used benign traffic and a subset of the tests shipped with Bash to reason about and develop its patch. We are not claiming that the A3-derived code repair is the right fix (although it is fairly close to the location of the proposed fix). With a little more time and tweaking (e.g., additional attack attempts trying to cause different manifestations, regression tests), we can refine it further.

What we are claiming is that A3 was able to automatically localize and find a patch that makes the protected application (our LAMP exemplar) resilient in seconds. If the adversary tries another exploit and causes an undesired condition in the protected application, A3 will find a refinement. A3’s explanation also provides a wealth of localization and causal relation information along with the patch by outputting the malicious message and the full call stack. This can be extremely helpful for a human developer trying to address the problem.

Vulnerabilities and attacks relying on arcane parsing bugs or obscure protocol features seem to get all the attention these days. However, progress is being made in faster, more efficient and more effective ways to deal with these thorny issues as well. The ability to block attack manifestations, and deliver useful debugging/forensic information along with repair candidates in the form of code patches has great potential to mitigate some of the major issues faced with network-facing software today, including the large average lifespan of zero-day vulnerabilities, difficulty in pinpointing vulnerable code, patch validation, and time and level of expertise needed to keep ubiquitous services and infrastructure like OpenSSL and Bash safe.

Further Information:

If you are interested in learning more about the A3 project, we have a list of published papers available at the project page. For more details on the repair technology, we are working on a paper that includes more technical details and experiments run with other bugs. For information about the CRASH program, contact the DARPA Public Affairs office at outreach@darpa.mil.