Weird machines, exploitability, and provable unexploitability

Weird machines, exploitability, and provable unexploitability by Thomas Dullien (IEEE pre-print, to appear IEEE Transactions on Emerging Topics in Computing)


The concept of exploit is central to computer security, particularly in the context of memory corruptions. Yet, in spite of the centrality of the concept and voluminous descriptions of various exploitation techniques or countermeasures, a good theoretical framework for describing and reasoning about exploitation has not yet been put forward.

A body of concepts and folk theorems exists in the community of exploitation practitioners; unfortunately, these concepts are rarely written down or made sufficiently precise for people outside of this community to benefit from them.

This paper clarifies a number of these concepts, provides a clear definition of exploit, a clear definition of the concept of a weird machine, and how programming of a weird machine leads to exploitation. The papers also shows, somewhat counterintuitively, that it is feasible to design some software in a way that even powerful attackers – with the ability to corrupt memory once – cannot gain an advantage.

The approach in this paper is focused on memory corruptions. While it can be applied to many security vulnerabilities introduced by other programming mistakes, it does not address side channel attacks, protocol weaknesses, or security problems that are present by design.

A common vocabulary to bridge the gap between ‘Exploit practitioners’ (EPs) and academic researchers. Whether it will in fact bridge that gap remains to be seen. Even the attempt will prove to be useful.

Tracing the use/propagation of Dullien’s vocabulary across Google’s Project Zero reports and papers would provide a unique data set on the spread (or not) of a new vocabulary in computer science.

Not to mention being a way to map back into earlier literature with the newer vocabulary, via a topic map.

BTW, Dullien’s statement “is is feasible to design some software in a way that even powerful attackers … cannot gain an advantage,” is speculation and should not dampen your holiday spirits. (I root for the hare and not the hounds as a rule.)

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