Purdue University Graduate School
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Taking Back Control: Closing the Gap Between C/C++ and Machine Semantics

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posted on 2019-01-03, 18:49 authored by Nathan H. BurowNathan H. Burow
Control-flow hijacking attacks allow adversaries to take over seemingly benign software, e.g., a web browser, and cause it to perform malicious actions, i.e., grant attackers a shell on
a system. Such control-flow hijacking attacks exploit a gap between high level language semantics and the machine language that they are compiled to. In particular, systems
software such as web browsers and servers are implemented in C/C++ which provide no runtime safety guarantees, leaving memory and type safety exclusively to programmers. Compilers are ideally situated to perform the required analysis and close the semantic gap between C/C++ and machine languages by adding instrumentation to enforce full or partial memory safety.

In unprotected C/C++, adversaries must be assumed to be able to control to the contents of any writeable memory location (arbitrary writes), and to read the contents of any readable memory location (arbitrary reads). Defenses against such attacks range from enforcing full memory safety to protecting only select information, normally code pointers to prevent control-flow hijacking attacks. We advance the state of the art for control-flow hijacking
defenses by improving the enforcement of full memory safety, as well as partial memory safety schemes for protecting code pointers.

We demonstrate a novel mechanism for enforcing full memory safety, which denies attackers both arbitrary reads and arbitrary writes at half the performance overhead of the
prior state of the art mechanism. Our mechanism relies on a novel metadata scheme for maintaining bounds information about memory objects. Further, we maintain the application
binary interface (ABI), support all C/C++ language features, and are mature enough to protect all of user space, and in particular libc.

Backwards control-flow transfers, i.e., returns, are a common target for attackers. In particular, return-oriented-programming (ROP) is a code-reuse attack technique built around corrupting return addresses. Shadow stacks prevent ROP attacks by providing partial memory safety for programs, namely integrity protecting the return address. We provide a full taxonomy of shadow stack designs, including two previously unexplored designs, and demonstrate that with compiler support shadow stacks can be deployed in practice. Further we examine the state of hardware support for integrity protected memory regions within a process’ address space. Control-Flow Integrity (CFI) is a popular technique for securing forward edges, e.g., indirect function calls, from being used for control-flow hijacking attacks. CFI is a form of partial memory safety that provides weak integrity for function pointers by restricting them to a statically determined set of values based on the program’s control-flow graph. We survey existing techniques, and quantify the protection they provide on a per callsite basis.
Building off this work, we propose a new security policy, Object Type Integrity, which provides full integrity protection for virtual table pointers on a per object basis for C++
polymorphic objects.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Computer Science

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Mathias Payer

Additional Committee Member 2

Dongyang Xu

Additional Committee Member 3

Xiangyu Zhang

Additional Committee Member 4

Benjamin Delaware

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