February 26, 2021

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Six Facts about Address Space Layout Randomization on Windows

15 min read

Original Post from FireEye
Author: Jacob Thompson

Overcoming address space layout randomization (ASLR) is a
precondition of virtually all modern memory corruption
vulnerabilities. Breaking ASLR is an area of active research and can
get incredibly complicated. This blog post presents some basic facts
about ASLR, focusing on the Windows implementation. In addition to
covering what ASLR accomplishes to improve security posture, we aim to
give defenders advice on how to improve the security of their
software, and to give researchers more insight into how ASLR works and
ideas for investigating its limitations.

Memory corruption vulnerabilities occur when a program mistakenly
writes attacker-controlled data outside of an intended memory region
or outside intended memory’s scope. This may crash the program, or
worse, provide the attacker full control over the system. Memory
corruption vulnerabilities have plagued software for decades, despite
efforts by large companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft to
eradicate them.

Since these bugs are hard to find and just one can compromise a
system, security professionals have designed failsafe mechanisms to
thwart software exploitation and limit the damage should a memory
corruption bug be exploited. A “silver bullet” would be a mechanism to
make exploits so tricky and unreliable that buggy code can be left in
place, giving developers the years they need to fix or rewrite code in
memory-safe languages. Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, but address
space layout randomization (ASLR) is one of the best mitigations available.

ASLR works by breaking assumptions that developers could otherwise
make about where programs and libraries would lie in memory at
runtime. A common example is the locations of gadgets used in
return-oriented programming (ROP), which is often used to defeat the
defense of data execution prevention (DEP). ASLR mixes up the address
space of the vulnerable process—the main program, its dynamic
libraries, the stack and heap, memory-mapped files, and so on—so that
exploit payloads must be uniquely tailored to however the address
space of the victim process is laid out at the time. Writing a worm
that propagates by blindly sending a memory corruption exploit with
hard-coded memory addresses to every machine it can find is bound to
fail. So long as the target process has ASLR enabled, the exploit’s
memory offsets will be different than what ASLR has selected. This
crashes the vulnerable program rather than exploiting it.

Fact 1: ASLR was introduced in Windows Vista. Pre-Vista versions of
Windows lacked ASLR; worse, they went to great lengths to maintain a
consistent address space across all processes and machines.

Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 were the first releases to
feature support for ASLR for compatible executables and libraries. One
might assume that prior versions simply didn’t randomize the address
space, and instead simply loaded DLLs at whatever location was
convenient at the time—perhaps a predictable one, but not necessarily
the same between two processes or machines. Unfortunately, these old
Windows versions instead went out of their way to achieve what we’ll
call “Address Space Layout Consistency”. Table 1 shows the “preferred
base address” of some core DLLs of Windows XP Service Pack 3.

DLL Preferred Base Address
ntdll 0x7c900000
kernel32 0x7c800000
user32 0x7e410000
gdi32 0x77f10000

Table 1: Windows DLLs contain a preferred base
address used whenever possible if ASLR is not in place

When creating a process, pre-Vista Windows loads each of the
program’s needed DLLs at its preferred base address if possible. If an
attacker finds a useful ROP gadget in ntdll at 0x7c90beef, for
example, the attacker can assume that it will always be available at
that address until a future service pack or security patch requires
the DLLs to be reorganized. This means that attacks on pre-Vista
Windows can chain together ROP gadgets from common DLLs to disable
DEP, the lone memory corruption defense on those releases.

Why did Windows need to support preferred base addresses? The answer
lies in performance and in trade-offs made in the design of Windows
DLLs versus other designs like ELF shared libraries. Windows DLLs are
not position independent. Especially on 32-bit machines, if Windows
DLL code needs to reference a global variable, the runtime address of
that variable gets hardcoded into the machine code. If the DLL gets
loaded at a different address than was expected, relocation is
performed to fix up such hardcoded references. If the DLL instead gets
loaded as its preferred base address, no relocation is necessary, and
the DLL’s code can be directly mapped into memory from the file system.

Directly mapping the DLL file into memory is a small performance
benefit since it avoids reading any of the DLL’s pages into physical
memory until they are needed. A better reason for preferred base
addresses is to ensure that only one copy of a DLL needs to be in
memory. Without them, if three programs run that share a common DLL,
but each loads that DLL at a different address, there would be three
DLL copies in memory, each relocated to a different base. That would
counteract a main benefit of using shared libraries in the first
place. Aside from its security benefits, ASLR accomplishes the same
thing—ensuring that the address spaces of loaded DLLs won’t
and loading only a single
of a DLL into memory—in a more elegant way. Because ASLR does
a better job of avoiding overlap between address spaces than
statically-assigned preferred load addresses ever could, manually
assigning preferred base addresses provides no optimization on an
ASLR-capable OS, and is not needed any longer in the development lifecycle.

Takeaway 1.1: Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 and earlier do not
support ASLR.

Clearly, these versions have been out of support for years and
should be long gone from production use. The more important
observation relates to software developers who support both legacy and
modern Windows versions. They may not realize that the exact same
program can be more secure or less secure depending on what OS version
is running. Developers who (still!) have a customer base of mixed ASLR
and non-ASLR supporting Windows versions should respond to CVE reports
accordingly. The exact same bug might appear non-exploitable on
Windows 10 but be trivially exploitable on Windows XP. The same
applies to Windows 10 versus Windows 8.1 or 7, as ASLR has become more
capable with each version.

Takeaway 1.2: Audit legacy software code bases for misguided ideas
about preferred load addresses. 

Legacy software may still be maintained with old tools such as
Microsoft Visual C++ 6. These development tools contain outdated
documentation about the role
and importance
of preferred load addresses. Since these old
tools cannot mark images as ASLR-compatible, a “lazy” developer who
doesn’t bother to change the default DLL address is actually better
off since a conflict will force the image to be rebased to an
unpredictable location!

Fact 2: Windows loads multiple instances of images at the same
location across processes and even across users; only rebooting can
guarantee a fresh random base address for all images.

ELF images, as used in the Linux implementation of ASLR, can use
position-independent executables and position-independent code in
shared libraries to supply a freshly randomized address space for the
main program and all its libraries on each launch—sharing the same
machine code between multiple processes even where it is loaded at
different addresses. Windows ASLR does not work this way. Instead,
each DLL or EXE image gets assigned a random load address by the
kernel the first time it is used, and as additional instances of the
DLL or EXE are loaded, they receive the same load address. If all
instances of an image are unloaded and that image is subsequently
loaded again, the image may or may not receive the same base address;
see Fact 4. Only rebooting can guarantee fresh base addresses for all
images systemwide.

Since Windows DLLs do not use position-independent code, the only
way their code can be shared between processes is to always be loaded
at the same address. To accomplish this, the kernel picks an address
(0x78000000 for example on 32-bit system) and begins loading
DLLs at randomized addresses
just below it. If a process loads a
DLL that was used recently, the system may just re-use the previously
chosen address and therefore re-use the previous copy of that DLL in
memory. The implementation solves the issues of providing each DLL a
random address and ensuring DLLs don’t overlap at the same time.

For EXEs, there is no concern about two EXEs overlapping since they
would never be loaded into the same process. There would be nothing
wrong with loading the first instance of an EXE at 0x400000 and the
second instance at 0x500000, even if the image is larger than 0x100000
bytes. Windows just chooses to share code among multiple instances of
a given EXE.

Takeaway 2.1: Any Windows program that automatically restarts after
crashing is especially susceptible to brute force attacks to
overcome ASLR. 

Consider a program that a remote attacker can execute on demand,
such as a CGI program, or a connection handler that executes only when
needed by a super-server (as in inetd, for example). A Windows service
paired with a watchdog that restarts the service when it crashes is
another possibility. An attacker can use knowledge of how Windows ASLR
works to exhaust the possible base addresses where the EXE could be
loaded. If the program crashes and (1) another copy of the program
remains in memory, or (2) the program restarts quickly and, as is
sometimes possible, receives the same ASLR base address, the attacker
can assume that the new instance will still be loaded at the same
address, and the attacker will eventually try that same address.

Takeaway 2.2: If an attacker can discover where a DLL is loaded in
any process, the attacker knows where it is loaded in all processes. 

Consider a system running two buggy network services—one that leaks
pointer values in a debug message but has no buffer overflows, and one
that has a buffer overflow but does not leak pointers. If the leaky
program reveals the base address of kernel32.dll and the attacker
knows some useful ROP gadgets in that DLL, then the same memory
offsets can be used to attack the program containing the overflow.
Thus, seemingly unrelated vulnerable programs can be chained together
to first overcome ASLR and then launch an exploit.

Takeaway 2.3: A low-privileged account can be used to overcome ASLR
as the first step of a privilege escalation exploit. 

Suppose a background service exposes a named pipe only accessible to
local users and has a buffer overflow. To determine the base address
of the main program and DLLs for that process, an attacker can simply
launch another copy in a debugger. The offsets determined from the
debugger can then be used to develop a payload to exploit the
high-privileged process. This occurs because Windows does not attempt
to isolate users from each other when it comes to protecting random
base addresses of EXEs and DLLs.

Fact 3: Recompiling a 32-bit program to a 64-bit one makes ASLR
more effective.

Even though 64-bit releases of Windows have been mainstream for a
decade or more, 32-bit user space applications remain common. Some
programs have a true need to maintain compatibility with third-party
plugins, as in the case of web browsers. Other times, development
teams have a belief that a program needs far less than 4 GB of memory
and 32-bit code could therefore be more space efficient. Even Visual
Studio remained
a 32-bit application
for some time after it supported building
64-bit applications.

In fact, switching from 32-bit to 64-bit code produces a small but
observable security benefit. The reason is that the ability to
randomize 32-bit addresses is limited. To understand why, observe how
a 32-bit x86 memory address is broken down in Figure 1. More details
are explained at Physical
Address Extension

Figure 1: Memory addresses are divided
into components, only some of which can be easily randomized at runtime

The operating system cannot simply randomize arbitrary bits of the
address. Randomizing the offset within a page portion (bits 0 through
11) would break assumptions the program makes about data alignment.
The page directory pointer (bits 30 and 31) cannot change because bit
31 is reserved for the kernel, and bit 30 is used by Physical Address
Extension as a bank switching technique to address more than 2GB of
RAM. This leaves 14 bits of the 32-bit address off-limits for randomization.

In fact, Windows only attempts to randomize 8 bits of a 32-bit
address. Those are bits 16 through 23, affecting only the page
directory entry and page table entry portion of the address. As a
result, in a brute force situation, an attacker can potentially guess
the base address of an EXE in 256 guesses.

When applying ASLR to a 64-bit binary, Windows is able to randomize
17-19 bits of the address
(depending on whether it is a DLL or
EXE). Figure 2 shows how the number of possible base addresses, and
accordingly the number of brute force guesses needed, increases
dramatically for 64-bit code. This could allow endpoint protection
software or a system administrator to detect an attack before it succeeds.

Figure 2: Recompiling 32-bit code as
64-bit dramatically increases the number of possible base addresses
for selection by ASLR

Takeaway 3.1: Software that must process untrusted data should
always be compiled as 64-bit, even if it does not need to use a lot
of memory, to take maximum advantage of ASLR.

In a brute force attack, ASLR makes attacking a 64-bit program at
least 512 times harder than attacking the 32-bit version of the exact
same program.

Takeaway 3.2: Even 64-bit ASLR is susceptible to brute force
attacks, and defenders must focus on detecting brute force attacks
or avoiding situations where they are feasible.

Suppose an attacker can make ten brute force attempts per second
against a vulnerable system. In the common case of the target process
remaining at the same address because multiple instances are running,
the attacker would discover the base address of a 32-bit program in
less than one minute, and of a 64-bit program in a few hours. A 64-bit
brute force attack would produce much more noise, but the
administrator or security software would need to notice and act on it.
In addition to using 64-bit software to make ASLR more effective,
systems should avoid re-spawning a crashing process (to avoid giving
the attacker a “second bite at the apple” to discover the base
address) or force a reboot and therefore guaranteed fresh address
space after a process crashes more than a handful of times.

Takeaway 3.3: Researchers developing a proof of concept attack
against a program available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions
should focus on the 32-bit one first.

As long as 32-bit software remains relevant, a proof-of-concept
attack against the 32-bit variant of a program is likely easier and
quicker to develop. The resulting attack could be more feasible and
convincing, leading the vendor to patch the program sooner.

Fact 4: Windows 10 reuses randomized base addresses more
aggressively than Windows 7, and this could make it weaker in some situations.

Observe that even if a Windows system must ensure that multiple
instances of one DLL or EXE all get loaded at the same base address,
the system need not keep track of the base address once the last
instance of the DLL or EXE is unloaded. If the DLL or EXE is loaded
again, it can get a fresh base address.

This is the behavior we observed in working with Windows 7. Windows
10 can work differently. Even after the last instance of a DLL or EXE
unloads, it may maintain the same base address at least for a short
period of time—more so for EXEs than DLLs. This can be observed when
repeatedly launching a command-line utility under a multi-process
debugger. However, if the utility is copied to a new filename and then
launched, it receives a fresh base address. Likewise, if a sufficient
duration has passed, the utility will load at a different base
address. Rebooting, of course, generates fresh base addresses for all
DLLs and EXEs.

Takeaway 4.1: Make no assumptions about Windows ASLR guarantees
beyond per-boot randomization.

In particular, do not rely on the behavior of Windows 7 in
randomizing a fresh address space whenever the first instance of a
given EXE or DLL loads. Do not assume that Windows inherently protects
against brute force attacks against ASLR in any way, especially for
32-bit processes where brute force attacks can take 256 or fewer guesses.

Fact 5: Windows 10 is more aggressive at applying ASLR, and even to
EXEs and DLLs not marked as ASLR-compatible, and this could make ASLR stronger.

Windows Vista and 7 were the first two releases to support ASLR, and
therefore made some trade-offs in favor of compatibility.
Specifically, these older implementations would not apply ASLR to an
image not marked as ASLR-compatible and would not allow ASLR to push
above the 4 GB boundary
. If an image did not opt in to ASLR,
these Windows versions would continue to use the preferred base address.

It is possible to further harden Windows 7 using Microsoft’s
Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (commonly known as EMET) to more
aggressively apply ASLR
even to images not marked as
ASLR-compatible. Windows 8 introduced
more features
to apply ASLR to non-ASLR-compatible images, to
better randomize heap allocations, and to increase the number of bits
of entropy for 64-bit images.

Takeaway 5.1: Ensure software projects are using the correct linker
flags to opt in to the most aggressive implementation of ASLR, and
that they are not using any linker flags that weaken ASLR.

See Table 2. Linker flags can affect how ASLR is applied to an
image. Note that for Visual Studio 2012 and later, the “+” flags are
already enabled by default and the best ASLR implementation will be
used so long as no “—” flags are used. Developers using Visual Studio
2010 or earlier, presumably for compatibility reasons, need to check
which flags the linker supports and which it enables by default.

  Linker Flag Effect


/DYNAMICBASE Marks the image as


the 64-bit image as free of pointer truncation bugs and
therefore allows ASLR to randomize addresses beyond 4 GB

/DYNAMICBASE:NO “Politely requests” that ASLR
not be applied by not marking the image as ASLR-compatible.
Depending on the Windows version and hardening settings,
Windows might apply ASLR anyway.

/HIGHENTROPYVA:NO Opts out 64-bit images from ASLR
randomizing addresses beyond 4 GB on Windows 8 and later (to
avoid compatibility issues).

/FIXED Removes information from the image
that Windows needs in order to apply ASLR, blocking ASLR from
ever being applied.

Table 2: Linker flags can affect how ASLR is
applied to an image

Takeaway 5.2: Enable mandatory ASLR and bottom-up randomization.

Windows 8 and 10 contain
optional features
to forcibly enable ASLR on images not marked
as ASLR compatible, and to randomize virtual memory allocations so
that rebased images obtain a random base address. This is useful in
the case where an EXE is ASLR compatible, but one of the DLLs it uses
is not. Defenders should enable these features to apply ASLR more
broadly, and importantly, to help discover any remaining
non-ASLR-compatible software so it can be upgraded or replaced.

Fact 6: ASLR relocates entire executable images as a unit.

ASLR relocates executable images by picking a random offset and
applying it to all addresses within an image that would otherwise be
relative to its base address. That is to say:

  • If two functions in an EXE are at addresses 0x401000 and
    0x401100, they will remain 0x100 bytes apart even after the image is
    relocated. Clearly this is important due to the prevalence of
    relative call and jmp instructions in x86 code. Similarly, the
    function at 0x401000 will remain 0x1000 bytes from the base address
    of the image, wherever it may be.
  • Likewise, if two static
    or global variables are adjacent in the image, they will remain
    adjacent after ASLR is applied.
  • Conversely, stack and heap
    variables and memory-mapped files are not part of the image and can
    be randomized at will without regard to what base address was

Takeaway 6.1: A leak of just one pointer within an executable image
can expose the randomized addresses of the entire image.

One of the biggest limitations and annoyances of ASLR is that
seemingly innocuous features such as a debug log message or stack
trace that leak a pointer in the image become security bugs.  If the
attacker has a copy of the same program or DLL and can trigger it to
produce the same leak, they can calculate the difference between the
ASLR and pre-ASLR pointer to determine the ASLR offset. Then, the
attacker can apply that offset to every pointer in their attack
payload in order to overcome ASLR. Defenders should train software
developers about pointer disclosure vulnerabilities so that they
realize the gravity of this issue, and also regularly assess software
for these vulnerabilities as part of the software development lifecycle.

Takeaway 6.2: Some types of memory corruption vulnerabilities
simply lie outside the bounds of what ASLR can protect.

Not all memory corruption vulnerabilities need to directly achieve
remote code execution. Consider a program that contains a buffer
variable to receive untrusted data from the network, and a flag
variable that lies immediately after it in memory. The flag variable
contains bits specifying whether a user is logged in and whether the
user is an administrator. If the program writes data beyond the end of
the receive buffer, the “flags” variable gets overwritten and an
attacker could set both the logged-in and is-admin flags. Because the
attacker does not need to know or write any memory addresses, ASLR
does not thwart the attack. Only if another hardening technique (such
as compiler hardening flags) reordered variables, or better, moved the
location of every variable in the program independently, would such
attacks be blocked.


Address space layout randomization is a core defense against memory
corruption exploits. This post covers some history of ASLR as
implemented on Windows, and also explores some capabilities and
limitations of the Windows implementation. In reviewing this post,
defenders gain insight on how to build a program to best take
advantage of ASLR and other features available in Windows to more
aggressively apply it. Attackers can leverage ASLR limitations, such
as address space randomization applying only per boot and
randomization relocating the entire image as one unit, to overcome
ASLR using brute force and pointer leak attacks.

Go to Source
Author: Jacob Thompson

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