Getting Tricky With Shellcode

For those who read my previous blog regarding a very interesting shellcode exploit running inside a PDF, I got a little curious during my spare time and, upon further research, I realized that there is yet another way to insert shellcode inside a Windows program.

The assumption here is that the reader knows about the Windows executable format (hence PE headers) and has some knowledge of DEP, ASLR, and some exploit techniques such as ROP chains.

Bypassing DEP

For a while now, Windows has been using DEP to prevent a lot of exploits from working. The way it works is quite simple.

Memory (in the form of subsequent pages) is allocated with certain protection attributes, those being:

  • Read
  • Write
  • Execute
  • Combination of all the above

Code is normally flagged as Read/Executable, while data is Read/Write. Some other things like resources (Icons, Bitmaps, etc.) are set as Read Only.

If memory is allocated as Read/Write and a program attempts to execute from that location, an exception will be thrown and the program will be stopped. Windows will then inform the user that DEP prevented something bad from happening.

Currently, shell code is using ROP as a mean to bypass DEP. By creating ROP gadgets  on the stack, the code that is executed is valid and won’t trigger DEP. Most of the time, ROP gadgets will make a call to VirtualProtect:

BOOL WINAPI VirtualProtect(

  _In_   LPVOID lpAddress,

  _In_   SIZE_T dwSize,

  _In_   DWORD flNewProtect,

  _Out_  PDWORD lpflOldProtect


There are other APIs that can be used to accomplish the same thing, but for simplicity's sake, I will only use VirtualProtect.

By using this API, the malware, once the memory has been allocated or found otherwise, will change the protection flags to include EXECUTE. From that point on, the battle is pretty much won since DEP won’t see anything.

Filling the gap

The issue with the aforementioned approach is that a call to VirtualProtect can be detected fairly easily. So how can we do without it?

Windows Executable Files And Their Sections

As shown in my other post, a Windows executable is made of several, contiguous chunks of bytes.

DOS headers DOS headers
PE headers PE headers
Code segment(s) Code segment(s)
Data segment(s) Data segment(s)
Resources Resources

You can find a much better explanation here.

Let’s look at a real sample. I am running Regedit.exe on Windows XP SP3.


Figure 1. PEB

In Figure 1, we can see the PEB of Regedit.exe. I have outlined RPCRT4.dll because it is of particular interest.

The module is located at 0x77E70000 and here’s the output of [!dh 0x77E70000]:

0:001> !dh 77e70000

File Type: DLL


     14C machine (i386)
       5 number of sections
49E5F46D time date stamp Wed Apr 15 07:51:25 2009
       0 file pointer to symbol table
       0 number of symbols
      E0 size of optional header
    210E characteristics
            Line numbers stripped
            Symbols stripped
            32 bit word machine
     10B magic #
    7.10 linker version
   89200 size of code
    5C00 size of initialized data
       0 size of uninitialized data
    628F address of entry point
    1000 base of code
         ----- new -----
77e70000 image base
    1000 section alignment
     200 file alignment
       3 subsystem (Windows CUI)
    5.01 operating system version
    5.01 image version
    4.10 subsystem version
   92000 size of image
     400 size of headers
   938E3 checksum
00040000 size of stack reserve
00001000 size of stack commit
00100000 size of heap reserve
00001000 size of heap commit
       0  DLL characteristics
    19C8 [    436F] address [size] of Export Directory
   82290 [      64] address [size] of Import Directory
   8C000 [     408] address [size] of Resource Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Exception Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Security Directory
   8D000 [    4488] address [size] of Base Relocation Directory
   836EC [      38] address [size] of Debug Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Description Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Special Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Thread Storage Directory
   30468 [      40] address [size] of Load Configuration Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Bound Import Directory
    1000 [     378] address [size] of Import Address Table Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Delay Import Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of COR20 Header Directory
       0 [       0] address [size] of Reserved Directory

   .text name
   8274B virtual size
    1000 virtual address
   82800 size of raw data
     400 file pointer to raw data
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
60000020 flags
         (no align specified)
         Execute Read
Debug Directories(2)
     Type       Size     Address  Pointer
     cv           23       83728    82b28 Format: RSDS, guid, 2, rpcrt4.pdb
     (    10)       4       83724    82b24

   .orpc name
    690D virtual size
   84000 virtual address
    6A00 size of raw data
   82C00 file pointer to raw data
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
60000020 flags
         (no align specified)
         Execute Read

   .data name
     EC8 virtual size
   8B000 virtual address
     C00 size of raw data
   89600 file pointer to raw data
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
C0000040 flags
         Initialized Data
         (no align specified)
         Read Write

   .rsrc name
     408 virtual size
   8C000 virtual address
     600 size of raw data
   8A200 file pointer to raw data
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
40000040 flags
         Initialized Data
         (no align specified)
         Read Only


  .reloc name

    4488 virtual size
   8D000 virtual address
    4600 size of raw data
   8A800 file pointer to raw data
       0 file pointer to relocation table
       0 file pointer to line numbers
       0 number of relocations
       0 number of line numbers
42000040 flags
         Initialized Data
         (no align specified)
         Read Only

If we look at the optional header values, we can see that the size of the code for the entire module is 0x89200.

Now, if you look at the two first sections, [.text] and [.orpc] we can see that [.text] has a size of 0x82800 and [.orpc] has a size of 0x6A00.

0x82800 + 0x6A00 = 0x89200, so far so good.

Let’s look closely at those two sections…


Virtual Address: 0x1000, which goes with the Optional Header.

Therefore, the code starts at 0x77E71000 and ends at 0x77EF3800.


Virtual Address: 0x8B000

Therefore, the code starts at 0x77EFB000 and ends at 0x77F01A00.

If we were to compute the size of those sections combined we would end up with 0x90A00 which is 0x7800 (30720d) bytes larger than the given code size.

Section Padding

The 30720 extra bytes are basically just padding. Most are set to zero and some may contain some random looking values. That space between [.text] and [.orpc] is not part of those sections, and its use is unknown. Since it is not declared data or code, we can assume that those bytes can be overwritten.


Figure 2. End of .text section

As the figure above shows, the end of the [.text] code section ends with some debug info and the rest of the page is padded with zeros.

Then, there is more padding until the address reaches 0x77EFB000, which is the start of the [.orpc] section.

Those padded gaps are very interesting because they are part of some code section, but obviously are not used. In this particular case, the padding spreads across a fair amount of memory and the protection of that chunk of memory is marked as EXECUTE. Of course, in order to write the shellcode in that spot, we would have to temporarily

change the page protection to [W]rite, or call WriteProcessMemory() which would

essentially do this for us.

Let’s go back to the fictitious ROP exploit I was talking about earlier. Since we know that there is available memory with the proper protection flag, there is no longer a need to bother with VirtualProtect. The compiler used to create the DLL is kind enough to provide our exploit with that little piece of malware heaven.

We can now craft a targeted exploit (on the same OS/Service Pack) since we know the location of the padded area, or if we want to be fancy, we could read the sections from the PE header and figure out a spot to write our code into.

There is nothing DEP can do about this since the page protection never changes and the shell code resides within the code segment. The only way to detect the shellcode is to validate the address it runs at.

For instance, looking at Figure 2, if the shellcode was to be written at [0x77EF3800], we would be able to find it because the section actually ends there. The detection algorithm would have to go through each Code section, calculate the address range and check whether or not the code runs within those limits.

By placing the shell code within those tiny gaps in the executable, malware writers could potentially defeat anti-malware software that make sloppy checks as to from where APIs are called. Therefore, it is crucial for the "good guys" to be thorough in their work and to make sure to check every nook and cranny where malware could hide.