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Date: Wed, 23 Sep 2020 14:41:04 -0500
From: "Madhavan T. Venkataraman" <>
To: Solar Designer <>, Pavel Machek <>
Cc:,,,,,,,,,, David.Laight@...LAB.COM,,,, Rich Felker <>
Subject: Re: [PATCH v2 0/4] [RFC] Implement Trampoline File Descriptor

On 9/23/20 4:14 AM, Solar Designer wrote:
>>> The W^X implementation today is not complete. There exist many user level
>>> tricks that can be used to load and execute dynamic code. E.g.,
>>> - Load the code into a file and map the file with R-X.
>>> - Load the code in an RW- page. Change the permissions to R--. Then,
>>>   change the permissions to R-X.
>>> - Load the code in an RW- page. Remap the page with R-X to get a separate
>>>   mapping to the same underlying physical page.
>>> IMO, these are all security holes as an attacker can exploit them to inject
>>> his own code.
>> IMO, you are smoking crack^H^H very seriously misunderstanding what
>> W^X is supposed to protect from.
>> W^X is not supposed to protect you from attackers that can already do
>> system calls. So loading code into a file then mapping the file as R-X
>> is in no way security hole in W^X.
>> If you want to provide protection from attackers that _can_ do system
>> calls, fine, but please don't talk about W^X and please specify what
>> types of attacks you want to prevent and why that's good thing.
> On one hand, Pavel is absolutely right.  It is ridiculous to say that
> "these are all security holes as an attacker can exploit them to inject
> his own code."

Why? Isn't it possible that an attacker can exploit some vulnerability such
as buffer overflow and overwrite the buffer that contains the dynamic code?

> On the other hand, "what W^X is supposed to protect from" depends on how
> the term W^X is defined (historically, by PaX and OpenBSD).  It may be
> that W^X is partially not a feature to defeat attacks per se, but also a
> policy enforcement feature preventing use of dangerous techniques (JIT).
> Such policy might or might not make sense.  It might make sense for ease
> of reasoning, e.g. "I've flipped this setting, and now I'm certain the
> system doesn't have JIT within a process (can still have it through
> dynamically creating and invoking an entire new program), so there are
> no opportunities for an attacker to inject code nor generate previously
> non-existing ROP gadgets into an executable mapping within a process."
> I do find it questionable whether such policy and such reasoning make
> sense beyond academia.
> Then, there might be even more ways in which W^X is not perfect enough
> to enable such reasoning.  What about using ptrace(2) to inject code?
> Should enabling W^X also disable ability to debug programs by non-root?
> We already have Yama ptrace_scope, which can achieve that at the highest
> setting, although that's rather inconvenient and is probably unexpected
> by most to be a requirement for having (ridiculously?) full W^X allowing
> for the academic reasoning.

I am not suggesting that W^X be fixed. That is up to the maintainers of that
code. I am saying that if the security subsystem is enhanced in the future with
policies and settings that prevent the user tricks I mentioned, then it becomes
impossible to execute dynamic code except by making security exceptions on a case
by case basis.

As an alternative to making security exceptions, one could convert dynamic code
to static code which can then be authenticated.

> Personally, I am for policies that make more practical sense.  For
> example, years ago I advocated here on kernel-hardening that we should
> have a mode where ELF flags enabling/disabling executable stack are
> ignored, and non-executable stack is always enforced.  This should also
> be extended to default (at program startup) permissions on more than
> just stack (but also on .bss, typical libcs' heap allocations, etc.)
> However, I am not convinced there's enough value in extending the policy
> to restricting explicit uses of mprotect(2).
> Yes, PaX did that, and its emutramp.txt said "runtime code generation is
> by its nature incompatible with PaX's PAGEEXEC/SEGMEXEC and MPROTECT
> features, therefore the real solution is not in emulation but by
> designing a kernel API for runtime code generation and modifying
> userland to make use of it."  However, not being convinced in the
> MPROTECT feature having enough practical value, I am also not convinced
> "a kernel API for runtime code generation and modifying userland to make
> use of it" is the way to go.

In a separate email, I will try to answer this and provide justification
for why it is better to do it in the kernel.

> Having static instead of dynamically-generated trampolines in userland
> code where possible (and making other userland/ABI changes to make that
> possible in more/all cases) is an obvious improvement, and IMO should be
> a priority over the above.

> While I share my opinion here, I don't mean that to block Madhavan's
> work.  I'd rather defer to people more knowledgeable in current userland
> and ABI issues/limitations and plans on dealing with those, especially
> to Florian Weimer.  I haven't seen Florian say anything specific for or
> against Madhavan's proposal, and I'd like to.  (Have I missed that?)
> It'd be wrong to introduce a kernel API that userland doesn't need, and
> it'd be right to introduce one that userland actually intends to use.
> I've also added Rich Felker to CC here, for musl libc and its possible
> intent to use the proposed API.  (My guess is there's no such need, and
> thus no intent, but Rich might want to confirm that or correct me.)
> Alexander


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