Piece of PIE

Modern ELF systems can randomize the address at which shared libraries are loaded. This is generally referred to as Address Space Layout Randomization, or ASLR. Shared libraries are always position independent, which means that they can be loaded at any address. Randomizing the load address makes it slightly harder for attackers of a running program to exploit buffer overflows or similar problems, because they have no fixed addresses that they can rely on. ASLR is part of defense in depth: it does not by itself prevent any attacks, but it makes it slightly more difficult for attackers to exploit certain kinds of programming errors in a useful way beyond simply crashing the program.

Although it is straightforward to randomize the load address of a shared library, an ELF executable is normally linked to run at a fixed address that can not be changed. This means that attackers have a set of fixed addresses they can rely on. Permitting the kernel to randomize the address of the executable itself is done by generating a Position Independent Executable, or PIE.

It turns out to be quite simple to create a PIE: a PIE is simply an executable shared library. To make a shared library executable you just need to give it a PT_INTERP segment and appropriate startup code. The startup code can be the same as the usual executable startup code, though of course it must be compiled to be position independent.

When compiling code to go into a shared library, you use the -fpic option. When compiling code to go into a PIE, you use the -fpie option. Since a PIE is just a shared library, these options are almost exactly the same. The only difference is that since -fpie implies that you are building the main executable, there is no need to support symbol interposition for defined symbols. In a shared library, if function f1 calls f2, and f2 is globally visible, the code has to consider the possibility that f2 will be interposed. Thus, the call must go through the PLT. In a PIE, f2 can not be interposed, so the call may be made directly, though of course still in a position independent manner. Similarly, if the processor can do PC-relative loads and stores, all global variables can be accessed directly rather than going through the GOT.

Other than that ability to avoid the PLT and GOT in some cases, a PIE is really just a shared library. The dynamic linker will ask the kernel to map it at a random address and will then relocate it as usual.

This does imply that a PIE must be dynamically linked, in the sense of using the dynamic linker. Since the dynamic linker and the C library are closely intertwined, linking the PIE statically with the C library is unlikely to work in general. It is possible to design a statically linked PIE, in which the program relocates itself at startup time. The dynamic linker itself does this. However, there is no general mechanism for this at present.

2 Comments »

  1. vapier said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

    i don’t think that last part is correct. the ldso does not ask the kernel to map the PIE. the kernel ELF binary format loader processes all the PT_LOAD’s for the executable ELF, and if it has a PT_INTERP, additionally loads that. then it sets the entry point based on that (to the interp if it has one, or to the executable).

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

    vapier: You’re right, thanks for the correction.

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