Modern platforms like Android devices enforce execute protections on memory, so injecting code into the process is often no longer the lowest hanging fruit for exploitation. Reusing the existing code and data has become the norm, and statistical defense via Address-Space Layout randomization is still the only widely available countermeasure. Control Flow Integrity (CFI) techniques can be used to protect against hijacking the return address and/or function pointers (including those in virtual function tables) but still leaves data-only attacks wide open and isn’t fully ironed out. GCC, Android’s default compiler, has no implementation and the recently landed implementation in Clang/LLVM is very limited. Since ASLR is pretty much the only game in town for the vast amounts of code written in memory unsafe languages, the quality of implementation is a very important aspect of a platform’s security.
Identifying and addressing the weaknesses in Android’s ASLR implementation is one of the many steps taken by Copperhead’s Android fork to harden the system. Most of the relevant code is already available on GitHub and the rest will be there in the future.
The Linux kernel was the birth place of ASLR, as part of the out-of-tree PaX patches. The techniques were pioneered there and a weaker implementation was eventually adopted by the Linux kernel and other mainstream operating systems. These days, ASLR is one of the least interesting components of PaX as there are many other compelling features without the same adoption by other operating systems.
ASLR on Linux (including PaX kernels) works by randomizing various base addresses used to define the layout of the address space. Enabling full ASLR relies on cooperation from userspace, since the executable needs to be position independent (PIE) like a dynamic library in order to be relocated, which was not historically true. Each instance of an executable will be given a randomized address space layout at execution time. This is in contrast to Windows where relocations (runtime rewrites) are used instead of position independent code, and the operating system caches the randomized addresses of executables and libraries to share the pages between instances.
The vanilla implementation is lower entropy than the one in PaX and lacks the robust mitigation of brute force attacks provided by grsecurity’s (a superset of PaX, developed alongside it) GRKERNSEC_BRUTE feature. Most Android devices are 32-bit, where brute-forcing is very practical even without local code execution. The other common approach to bypassing it relies on information leaks giving up part or all of an address. There’s often no information channel to the attacker, so this isn’t an option even if the code does have this kind of uninitialized read or read overflow vulnerability.
Brief history of ASLR on Android
Early Android versions only had stack randomization due to lack of kernel support for ASLR on ARM. The 4.0 release introduced mmap randomization thanks to upstream progress. The kernel also gained support for ARM exec and brk randomization but Android still lacked userspace support. The 4.1 release introduced support for full ASLR by enabling heap (brk) randomization and adding linker support for self-relocation and Position Independent Executables (PIE).
Lollipop is the latest step forwards, as non-PIE executable support was dropped and all processes now have full ASLR.
At first glance, it appears to be ahead of most Linux distributions as only a few like Alpine Linux and Hardened Gentoo use full ASLR (i.e. compiling/linking as PIE) across the board. However, there are several problems unique to Android.
Zygote process spawning model
A traditional Unix-like system spawns processes by using
fork() to duplicate a process and then
exec(...) to replace it with an executable image after the environment (file descriptors, working directory, etc.) is set up as desired. A forked process shares the same address space layout and the
exec(...) call is where ASLR determines a new layout (the set of bases).
Android doesn’t use the traditional spawning model for applications and most of the system services. Instead, a “zygote” service is spawned during early boot, and is responsible for spawning nearly all processes that come after it. It does this by using
fork() and then loading process-specific code and data without calling
exec(...). This spawning model is simply an optimization, reducing both start-up time and memory usage.
The Zygote reduces memory usage thanks to the usage of copy-on-write across processes, which is able to share data that would otherwise be duplicated like the relocation sections that are rewritten based on where code ends up. In fact, Android has infrastructure in the system server (the core service), linker and elsewhere to support dynamically sharing relocation sections across executables. This takes advantage of immediate binding and RELRO making the relocation sections read-only at runtime. The WebView library has a 2M RELRO section and is currently the only library that’s handled this way, although the infrastructure is generic. The Zygote also spends ~800ms (on a Nexus 5) preloading over 3000 classes (most apps use ~80-250) and ~500ms preloading over 500 graphical resources (typically even sparser usage), various shared libraries and an EGL (OpenGL) context in order to perform lots of work up-front and then reuse it.
The consequence of zygote spawning model is that there are shared ASLR bases across applications and most services. This defeats ASLR as a local security mechanism between processes of different privilege levels and severely weakens it against remote attackers. An information leak in one application gives away the ASLR bases for all others and the bases remain constant across executions rather than being randomized again after a process is restarted. This makes brute forcing even more practical.
The simplest fix is to switch to the
exec(...) spawning model with no preloading. This increases memory usage by ~3M to ~15M depending on the process. The start-up time is acceptable once preloading is disabled (~1.2s wasted!), but there’s a noticeable regression. This is currently the path taken by Copperhead OS as it’s simple and fast enough for the niche. A faster but more complex approach is to use a pre-spawning pool as done in the Morula research paper. This does not reduce memory usage but it does go a long way to fixing the start-up time regression. It’s likely going to be the approach for Copperhead OS in the future and may even be acceptable upstream for high memory devices. The Morula proof of concept code has some issues like file descriptor leaks and needs to be ported to Lollipop. It’s much less important now that ART has drastically improved start-up time without the zygote.
/proc/$PID/maps output for the vanilla phone service and calendar app demonstrates the impact of the zygote spawning model. The stack, executable and mmap bases are identical across both processes along with the base image file and the garbage collected heap alongside it.
com.android.phone on vanilla Android (5.0.1)
12c00000-12e01000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 12e01000-13745000 rw-p 00201000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 13745000-32c00000 ---p 00b45000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 32c00000-32c01000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 7600 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 32c01000-52c00000 ---p 00001000 00:04 7600 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 70724000-710d3000 rw-p 00000000 b3:19 253461 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 710d3000-72c5e000 r--p 00000000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 72c5e000-7425e000 r-xp 01b8b000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 7425e000-7425f000 rw-p 0318b000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com [...] a2cad000-a3000000 r--s 00020000 b3:17 1752 /system/priv-app/TeleService/TeleService.apk [...] b6d71000-b6dd4000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so b6dd4000-b6dd7000 r--p 00062000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so b6dd7000-b6dda000 rw-p 00065000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so [...] b6ef4000-b6f01000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f01000-b6f02000 r-xp 00000000 00:00 0 [sigpage] b6f02000-b6f03000 r--p 0000d000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f03000-b6f04000 rw-p 0000e000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f04000-b6f05000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 b6f05000-b6f08000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 153 /system/bin/app_process32 b6f08000-b6f09000 r--p 00002000 b3:17 153 /system/bin/app_process32 b6f09000-b6f0a000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 be615000-be615000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 be615000-bee14000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [stack] [...]
com.android.calendar on vanilla Android (5.0.1)
12c00000-12e01000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 12e01000-13745000 rw-p 00201000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 13745000-32c00000 ---p 00b45000 00:04 7599 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 32c00000-32c01000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 7600 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 32c01000-52c00000 ---p 00001000 00:04 7600 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 70724000-710d3000 rw-p 00000000 b3:19 253461 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 710d3000-72c5e000 r--p 00000000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 72c5e000-7425e000 r-xp 01b8b000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 7425e000-7425f000 rw-p 0318b000 b3:19 253460 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com [...] b5025000-b502c000 r--s 0024f000 b3:17 32 /system/app/Calendar/Calendar.apk [...] b6d71000-b6dd4000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so b6dd4000-b6dd7000 r--p 00062000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so b6dd7000-b6dda000 rw-p 00065000 b3:17 1209 /system/lib/libc.so [...] b6ef4000-b6f01000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f01000-b6f02000 r-xp 00000000 00:00 0 [sigpage] b6f02000-b6f03000 r--p 0000d000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f03000-b6f04000 rw-p 0000e000 b3:17 227 /system/bin/linker b6f04000-b6f05000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 b6f05000-b6f08000 r-xp 00000000 b3:17 153 /system/bin/app_process32 b6f08000-b6f09000 r--p 00002000 b3:17 153 /system/bin/app_process32 b6f09000-b6f0a000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 be615000-be615000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 be615000-bee14000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [stack] [...]
The output from Copperhead OS is much different, as PaX ASLR is different from vanilla and ignores mmap hints. The two applications have distinct address spaces since an
exec(...) spawning model is used.
com.android.phone on CopperheadOS:
02755000-02757000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 155 /system/bin/app_process32 02757000-02758000 r--p 00002000 b3:19 155 /system/bin/app_process32 02758000-02759000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 02759000-0389f000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 0389f000-038a0000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [heap] 6f77f000-702e3000 rw-p 00000000 b3:1c 105877 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 702e3000-71e7e000 r--p 00000000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 71e7e000-733f9000 r-xp 01b9b000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 733f9000-733fa000 rw-p 03116000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 733fa000-73d03000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 11159 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 73d03000-73dfb000 ---p 00909000 00:04 11159 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 73dfb000-933fa000 ---p 00a01000 00:04 11159 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) [...] a89e5000-a89f1000 r--s 003e8000 b3:19 1494 /system/priv-app/TeleService/TeleService.apk [...] af5d8000-af629000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so af629000-af62b000 r--p 00051000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so af62b000-af62e000 rw-p 00053000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so [...] af642000-af64f000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker af64f000-af650000 r--p 0000c000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker af650000-af651000 rw-p 0000d000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker af651000-af652000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 bc1db000-bc1dc000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 bc1dc000-bc9db000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [stack] [...]
com.android.calendar on CopperheadOS:
0fe32000-0fe34000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 155 /system/bin/app_process32 0fe34000-0fe35000 r--p 00002000 b3:19 155 /system/bin/app_process32 0fe35000-0fe36000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 0fe36000-10c2a000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 10c2a000-10c2b000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [heap] 6f77f000-702e3000 rw-p 00000000 b3:1c 105877 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 702e3000-71e7e000 r--p 00000000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 71e7e000-733f9000 r-xp 01b9b000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@firstname.lastname@example.org 733f9000-733fa000 rw-p 03116000 b3:1c 105876 /data/dalvik-cache/arm/system@email@example.com 733fa000-739fb000 rw-p 00000000 00:04 327533 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) 739fb000-933fa000 ---p 00601000 00:04 327533 /dev/ashmem/dalvik-main space (deleted) [...] 9d9fe000-9da06000 r--s 0024c000 b3:19 33 /system/app/Calendar/Calendar.apk [...] a45c8000-a4619000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so a4619000-a461b000 r--p 00051000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so a461b000-a461e000 rw-p 00053000 b3:19 945 /system/lib/libc.so [...] a4632000-a463f000 r-xp 00000000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker a463f000-a4640000 r--p 0000c000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker a4640000-a4641000 rw-p 0000d000 b3:19 232 /system/bin/linker [...] a4641000-a4642000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 b5384000-b5385000 ---p 00000000 00:00 0 b5385000-b5b84000 rw-p 00000000 00:00 0 [stack] [...]
Android Runtime (ART)
ART moved Android to generating specialized native code from bytecode upon installation rather than using a just-in-time compiler to do it at runtime. This is a significant security improvement because writable executable memory is now mostly restricted to applications making use of the Chromium-based WebView widget. The generated code is mapped from storage into the address space of the process spawned from the Zygote rather than a traditional model where
exec is called on an executable.
The generated code has a hard-wired base address just like native binaries, and is always relocated by default on a production Android system. Since this occurs in userspace, the Android Runtime code is responsible for choosing an address. The main base image is currently chosen by applying a delta generated with the following code to the base address:
std::default_random_engine generator; generator.seed(NanoTime() * getpid()); std::uniform_int_distribution<int32_t> distribution(min_delta, max_delta);
The main garbage collected heap is then placed directly next to it.
It would be far saner if the generated value came from a cryptographically secure source of entropy like Bionic’s arc4random() implementation. The default range of deltas also only picks an offset within 16MiB in either direction, even on 64-bit. With typical 4096 byte pages, there are only 4096 possible bases (12-bit entropy). The mapping includes everything an attacker needs to take control of the process so it weakens the overall effectiveness of ASLR.
With PaX ASLR, the usual mmap base is used because mmap hints are ignored. As is the case here, this is usually a good thing for security. There isn’t a compelling reason to map read-only code anywhere but the kernel’s chosen location because there are already dynamic libraries there.
Dynamic allocations in the Android userspace are performed via allocators implemented on top of the kernel memory mapping APIs: the legacy brk system call for expanding or shrinking the data section (dss) and the more modern mmap, mremap and munmap calls. It’s not safe to have concurrent users of brk, so it is typically used only in the standard C library’s
malloc implementation if it is used at all.
The kernel chooses random base addresses for brk and mmap but allocator design in userspace can significantly reduce the available entropy. It’s possible to improve upon the randomization offered by the kernel by using isolated heaps with different random bases or fine-grained randomization but it’s difficult to do this in a disciplined way where there are tangible security benefits. The most important thing is simply preserving the security offered by the kernel.
Up until Lollipop, the allocator in Android’s standard C library implementation (Bionic) was good old dlmalloc. It’s a decent general purpose allocator despite the age and the memory space API for managing isolated heaps was used to implement Dalvik’s non-compacting garbage collector on top of a contiguous memory mapping.
The dlmalloc allocator doesn’t perform any randomization itself but it also doesn’t degrade the entropy offered by the kernel. The main memory space uses brk until it’s exhausted for allocations below the mmap threshold so there’s some isolation from mmap allocations. It also benefits from intra-page brk randomization by the kernel, although that’s not available in vanilla Android as it’s a feature still limited to PaX kernels.
In Lollipop, Android moved to a compacting garbage collector as part of replacing Dalvik with the new Android Runtime (ART) but still uses dlmalloc to implement a separate garbage collected heap for the remaining non-movable objects. The malloc implementation in Bionic was replaced with jemalloc for improved performance and scalability along with with lower fragmentation and lazy purging of unused page spans.
Unlike dlmalloc, jemalloc does reduce heap randomization entropy. It’s a side effect of the low-level chunk allocation model, where all memory is allocated via naturally aligned chunks of the same size. The jemalloc version used in the current release of Lollipop uses 4MiB chunks (4MiB aligned) while the upcoming release will use 256kiB chunks (256kiB aligned) due to changes in the upstream jemalloc design (for reasons unrelated to ASLR). With 4MiB chunks, it loses 10 bits of ASLR entropy relative to 4k page granularity (2^12 -> 2^22) while the new default chunk size causes a less severe 6-bit loss of entropy.
The randheap2 test from the paxtest suite can be used to confirm this. The following output is with a vanilla kernel on x86_64, but the number of bits lost is the same across architectures:
% /usr/lib/paxtest/randheap2 Heap randomisation test (PIE) : 28 quality bits (guessed) % LD_PRELOAD=/usr/lib/libjemalloc.so /usr/lib/paxtest/randheap2 Heap randomisation test (PIE) : 18 quality bits (guessed) % LD_PRELOAD=/usr/lib/libjemalloc.so MALLOC_CONF=lg_chunk:22 /usr/lib/paxtest/randheap2 Heap randomisation test (PIE) : 18 quality bits (guessed) % LD_PRELOAD=/usr/lib/libjemalloc.so MALLOC_CONF=lg_chunk:18 /usr/lib/paxtest/randheap2 Heap randomisation test (PIE) : 22 quality bits (guessed)
The rationale for the chunk allocation design in jemalloc is very compelling so it’s unlikely that this will be changed. Allocations smaller than the chunk size are stored within chunks after the chunk’s metadata header and huge allocations are spans of chunks. This allows identifying allocations smaller than the chunk size from the fact that they’re not chunk aligned and the metadata can be found in O(1) time in the header. It’s also the basis for a chunk recycling scheme allowing jemalloc to avoid the overhead and lack of scalability of mapping and unmapping memory by recycling spans of chunks itself and doing lazy page purging rather than ever unmapping memory. It also has better worst-case time complexity than the kernel (logarithmic, not linear) and greatly reduced address space fragmentation.
Another difference between jemalloc and traditional allocators like dlmalloc is that it doesn’t have much use for brk. It only allocates chunks from the operating system and handles recycling non-contiguous spans in O(log n) time already. It defaults to using mmap and then brk but can be configured to use brk and then mmap, which would offer some isolation from mmap allocations such as writable executable memory from a JIT compiler. There aren’t currently any performance differences between the two options, especially since it’s only used to expand the peak virtual memory. However, mmap will likely have performance advantages in the future if it becomes possible to move pages between mappings with
mremap as a
Copperhead OS is currently using a port of OpenBSD’s memory allocator, which is zone-based like jemalloc but with page-size zones (no loss of entropy) and a bit of fine-grained randomization for small allocations and zone caching. It would be unacceptable for vanilla Android because it has a global lock like dlmalloc and is slower and more prone to fragmentation then dlmalloc for allocations larger than the page size. It’s more than good enough for a hardened OS, but not one targeted at running performance-critical code like games or professional audio applications.
There are many other security-relevant aspects to the system allocator(s) and future posts will delve much deeper into this.
PaX ASLR (and more) on Android
PaX works very well out-of-the-box on Android, with no need for exceptions from PaX ASLR for the base system. All of the kernel hardening features work fine with some minor adjustments for out-of-tree code, and there are fewer problems with the userspace features than there are with typical desktop systems. A few broken third party applications like Firefox require a RANDMMAP exception. Some MPROTECT exceptions are needed to allow runtime code generation, as would be expected. ART itself doesn’t require this and even Dalvik didn’t need it because it would happily fall back to interpretation, so many Android applications work fine with MPROTECT enabled.
PaX’s executable exception system is too coarse in Android’s executation model. Most Android applications run as
/system/bin/app_process even if the standard fork model is used and changing this is unrealistic. A solid alternative would be gid-based exceptions, since that’s the basis of Android’s permission model. It may be possible to implement this via PaX’s hooks from a module rather than actually adding a core feature. Copperhead OS currently applies the exceptions to executables via extended attributes but will likely move to an Android-specific system.
Android currently has two actively maintained kernel branches: 3.4 kernels for most current devices, and 3.10 for some recent devices and most upcoming ones. Sadly, this doesn’t match up with either of the PaX/grsecurity LTS branches: 3.2 and 3.14. Copperhead OS is currently targeting a 3.4 kernel (for the Nexus 5 and Samsung S4) with many bug fixes ported from the 3.2 LTS. The move to 3.10 will hopefully happen within a year or two when more devices are available, with backports from the 3.14 LTS. Maintaining a proper port is a lot of work with a lot of room for mistakes, so collaboration with other interested parties would be ideal.
Android has done a great job adopting standard Linux security technologies like full ASLR. It is comparable to hardened distributions like Alpine Linux and Hardened Gentoo in that sense but it doesn’t make the same improvements over the mediocre status quo by incorporating features from PaX/grsecurity. The atypical design of Android platform has also introduced weaknesses that aren’t present in traditional distributions, and addressing some of them means reversing performance and memory usage optimizations to some extent.
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