Saturday, 18 January 2014


Code seems to age much quicker that anything else. Way back - not so long ago - in 2009 there was a bug in the FreeBSD kernel PIPE and EVENT handling code. This turned out to be exploitable in versions 6.x of the kernel. It was never truly patched, however the code was redesigned in order to eliminate a whole set of potential vulnerabilities including this one. The bug was published by the FreeBSD security advisory FreeBSD-SA-09:13.pipe.asc. A proof of concept exploit is available for this vulnerability:

For this analysis I needed to figure out what sequences of events lead to the vulnerability manifestation. I won't go into details about how the corruption happened and how the exploit works. Also, I haven't actually tried to execute it - so, I'm merely assuming that it works.

Unless you know the details of how kqueues, knote lists and pipes work, this vulnerability is actually quite hard to spot even if the patch is available. The patch covers a lot of code and does not highlight the bug itself. So, if for some strange reason you're trying to figure out this vulnerability then this post should give you the initial steps.

The vulnerable version of the kernel is still available in the current (as of this writing) FreeBSD SVN: All analysis below follows that code.

We start with function pipe_close which gets called via the close system call.
static int
pipe_close(fp, td)
    struct file *fp;
    struct thread *td;
    struct pipe *cpipe = fp->f_data;

    fp->f_ops = &badfileops;
    fp->f_data = NULL;
    return (0);
This function obtains the pipe structure and sends it on to the pipeclose function. It is important to note that a pipe has two parts. The read and write, however it is one entity. The pipe pair is allocated in the same UMA (Upper Memory Area) zone as one chunk of memory. So, really the read/write pipes refer to the same general space.

Pipeclose then obtains the pair and tries to flush the pipe and clear out any knotes attached to it. A knote is a special mechanism used for kernel to user event notification. In very basic terms it is a select optimized for a special case. In select the user has to pass a whole list of identifiers to the kernel while with a knote a user subscribes to a filter (the event criteria) and allows for a much more granular event notification. The user process maintains a kqueue of the events it is listening on while each identifier being listened on maintains a knote linked list to know who to notify. A much more detailed description of this mechanism can be found in this paper: kqueue.pdf.

Once various closing/flushing processes are complete the pipeclose function tries to clear out the pipe by starting with the knote list. About half way down the list, the following sequence is executed:
static void
      struct pipe *cpipe;
      struct pipepair *pp;
      struct pipe *ppipe;
      cpipe->pipe_present = 0;
      knlist_clear(&cpipe->pipe_sel.si_note, 1);

Can you spot the bug? The above code is basically it. I wouldn't expect you to, unless you're a kernel hacker for this particular portion of the kernel. Specifically, the last two lines in the above listing cause the problem.

  • The PIPE_LOCK mutex isn't protecting the pipe, it is protecting the pipelock mutex.
  • The pipe is UNLOCKED by the pipeunlock call before calls to knlist_clear and knlist_destroy are made.
This means that two processes can be calling knlist_clear and knlist_destroy unsafely. Both of those functions are not thread safe. So, it can happen that a linked list of knotes for the pipe is reinitialized (via the destroy call) while it is still being cleared. The clearing is a blocking procedure that sends out notifications to processes on the knote list. While the clearing function is traversing the same linked list it could easily be destroyed by another process because that process sees an already cleared list.

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