Reflection I

Wow. It's been a while since I said anything here.

Probabably because right after the internship, I entered a rather busy semester at college. Much busier than I have thought. Much busier than the first year.

Well looking back, these past four months, even though I had been very busy, I found that I had learned quite a bit of depth. But I think what I say here, even though it seems like you are reading from someone who has a lot of experience, I could not say that I am someone who learned this for a long time. It is humbling to remember that:

  • Four months ago, if you asked me about any of this below, I could not tell you a lot of detail...
  • An year ago, I would still label myself as a noob within the security field. I may have done a few CTF events, but I would say that I was pretty bad in the more difficult "college" or "adult" CTF competitions. I was also very naive in thinking how much I actually knew about any infosecurity stuff.
  • Two years ago, I actually knew nothing about infosecurity. I had absolutely NO knowledge about anything, nor have I played any CTF's at all. At that point I didn't even know I liked to do cyber security.

Bottomline, I think it is never too late to start learning. I think how much you put in even over a short time, that is what you will get out.

Under the hood

So this summer I have been able to do and learn a lot, I think really one I was really proud of learning is exploiting Linux kernel code. It is really a wonder to see how bugs scale up into the kernel. I think one of the cool stuff you get to play with that isn't as practical in regular user programs are race conditions:

Each time you make a request to access system resources (system call), you get an opportunity to run the one single copy of the kernel in parallel. This type of concurrency is not a commonplace thing in userspace programs because often times there is only one user that interacts with the program, and any internal states managed by the program do not need to be synchronized or restricted since it only needs to be accessed by one running instance at a time. However, in a kernel, there are multiple concurrently running userspace programs that can access the same kernel, which if unchecked, can result in two programs concurrently modifying a single state, possibly making it undefined.

Wow! The kernel level has opened up a whole new vector of vulnerabilities that I have not thought of beforehand. I think to show this, sometime later I will actually walk through an example of this bug because I feel information like this cannot simply be understand by words alone, but by trial and error, as well as thinking through the problem.

Diving Deeper...

Another thing I have done was actually go even deeper than the kernel. Deeper you say? It began with a story a month or two later:

One day I was walking, lugging my laptop around in my backpack, and by now I had a terrible habit of simply closing the lid (not turning off the laptop). That day I found my laptop would not turn on. Astonished, I thought perhaps my battery ran out, so I tried charging it. Huh... weird, it still doesn't turn on, maybe it's because the outlet is bad. I know there were a few of the university outlets that actually do not work. But even after trying multiple outlets and different chargers I realized my computer motherboard burned out.

At that point I realized I just had a hard drive with virtually everything I've done for the past year, (which believe me is a lot!), but no bootloader (I realized I put my grub bootloader on my attached SSD, along with my Windows partition). So at first I thought, wait a minute, I could plug the drive into my desktop (which has Linux), and just mount the hard drive. Then I can chroot into it and actually use it as a virutal container. Well it almost worked; somehow anything that required networks doesn't seem to work. At one point I even found myself with just a computer with a worthless Windows 10 that takes eons to boot up. But I just want a way to boot up from my harddrive, which I have in my hand as well...

The magic of booting up?

At one point I stumbled upon an idea. Perhaps, maybe I can figure out how to boot a system from a grub command prompt. You know, that thing that you get when somehow your boot partition gets sort of screwed up and grub can't boot up your Ubuntu partition. Anyone? Okay nevermind... So I had tried creating a Linux kernel image plus initrd image from scratch for something else... so this shouldn't be too difficult, right? So after suffering for a bit, I stumbled upon yet another thing. Some thing called an MBR (Master boot record). So apparently, I can say take a USB stick, and then install just the grub bootloader onto the MBR (and some other places if needed) of the USB. Then when I boot up the computer from that USB stick, the computer will execute the grub bootloader, and grub will first read from the /boot/grub/grub.cfg file determining which partitions are bootable, which I found out was automatically generated each time you updated the kernel on Ubuntu (which explains the messages where they say found some xxx kernel version that you forgot to remove), and then it shows you a menu of that.

If it fails somehow, it will revert to a shell, or you can ask it to go into shell mode. This allows you to specify bootloader commands (i.e. loading certain partitions, loading the kernel/initrd image, etc...). After messing around with this a lot, I found that (after fixing some missing partition issues) I can finally! boot from my hard drive onto some rando computer (even if that did not have Linux installed!). Eventually my laptop was fixed, but I have learned how the bootloader loads itself into memory.

Even deeper...?

Now let's go even even deeper into the system. What would an MBR look like? Originally, I thought at the MBR, you basically have no support for any hardware/devices. I thought the MBR was the beginning of any code...

In the beginning there was nothing...

Well not quite yet. I realized that even at the MBR, there is still support for a lot of basic I/O stuff, (hence BIOS :), more than I intially thought. There are actually some interrupt stuff that is already initialized that is done with the BIOS firmware stuff. Well at this level, it is basically just 16-bit x86 code, but it is far from nothing. I have then recently looked at a last year's CSAW bootloader problem, that I thought I could've never been able to understand. It is definitely different, but not totally unintellectable.

I think I will want to write out a future post about going through one of these MBR type problems. I think they deserve some mention for it.

In summary

Yeah I think a lot of this seems very scary, but if you read down to here, I like to congratulate you! Yeah at first I think a lot of this under the hood processes seem quite daunting, but I think if you take these parts bit by bit, I think you will find it not too difficult after all. It has been a fun journey to learn through all of this, through various coincidences, and competitions (and also I recently done a lot of challenges in this past four months. I think one thing I really liked about them was the fact that they have so many cool kernel challenges to tackle. Definitely, a good way to learn about the kernel and about exploiting is through!