Thursday, January 28, 2021

A Look at iMessage in iOS 14

Posted By Samuel Groß, Project Zero

On December 20, Citizenlab published “The Great iPwn”, detailing how “Journalists [were] Hacked with Suspected NSO Group iMessage ‘Zero-Click’ Exploit”. Of particular interest is the following note: “We do not believe that [the exploit] works against iOS 14 and above, which includes new security protections''. Given that it is also now almost exactly one year ago since we published the Remote iPhone Exploitation blog post series, in which we described how an iMessage 0-click exploit can work in practice and gave a number of suggestions on how similar attacks could be prevented in the future, now seemed like a great time to dig into the security improvements in iOS 14 in more detail and explore how Apple has hardened their platform against 0-click attacks.

The content of this blog post is the result of a roughly one-week reverse engineering project, mostly performed on a M1 Mac Mini running macOS 11.1, with the results, where possible, verified to also apply to iOS 14.3, running on an iPhone XS. Due to the nature of this project and the limited timeframe, it is possible that I have missed some relevant changes or made mistakes interpreting some results. Where possible, I’ve tried to describe the steps necessary to verify the presented results, and would appreciate any corrections or additions.

The blog post will start with an overview of the major changes Apple implemented in iOS 14 which affect the security of iMessage. Afterwards, and mostly for the readers interested in the technical details, each of the major improvements is described in more detail while also providing a walkthrough of how it was reverse engineered. At least for the technical details, it is recommended to briefly review the blog post series from last year for a basic introduction to iMessage and the exploitation techniques used to attack it.


Memory corruption based 0-click exploits typically require at least the following pieces:

  1. A memory corruption vulnerability, reachable without user interaction and ideally without triggering any user notifications
  2. A way to break ASLR remotely
  3. A way to turn the vulnerability into remote code execution
  4. (Likely) A way to break out of any sandbox, typically by exploiting a separate vulnerability in another operating system component (e.g. a userspace service or the kernel)

With iOS 14, Apple shipped a significant refactoring of iMessage processing, and made all four parts of the attack harder. This is mainly due to three central changes:

1. The BlastDoor Service

One of the major changes in iOS 14 is the introduction of a new, tightly sandboxed “BlastDoor” service which is now responsible for almost all parsing of untrusted data in iMessages (for example, NSKeyedArchiver payloads). Furthermore, this service is written in Swift, a (mostly) memory safe language which makes it significantly harder to introduce classic memory corruption vulnerabilities into the code base.

The following diagram shows the rough new iMessage processing pipeline, with the name of the respective service process shown at the top of each box.

The iMessage processing pipeline in iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur. An iMessage arrives in apsd as a push notification from Apple’s servers. From there, it is first passed to identityservicesd, which decrypts its payload using the local iMessage private key, then to imagent. Imagent then delegates the majority of the parsing work to the BlastDoor service. Afterwards, if the iMessage contains any attachments, they are downloaded from iCloud servers by IMTransferAgent. If the iMessage contains plugin data (such as a URL with a preview image), the serialized plugin data is again processed by the BlastDoor service and a preview message is generated from it. Finally, IMDPersistenceAgent stores the iMessage into the messages database, triggers a user notification, and returns to imagent, which sends the delivery receipt to the iMessage servers and thus to the sender.

As can be seen, the majority of the processing of complex, untrusted data has been moved into the new BlastDoor service. Furthermore, this design with its 7+ involved services allows fine-grained sandboxing rules to be applied, for example, only the IMTransferAgent and apsd processes are required to perform network operations. As such, all services in this pipeline are now properly sandboxed (with the BlastDoor service arguably being sandboxed the strongest).

2. Re-randomization of the Dyld Shared Cache Region

Historically, ASLR on Apple’s platforms had one architectural weakness: the shared cache region, containing most of the system libraries in a single prelinked blob, was only randomized per boot, and so would stay at the same address across all processes. This turned out to be especially critical in the context of 0-click attacks, as it allowed an attacker, able to remotely observe process crashes (e.g. through timing of automatic delivery receipts), to infer the base address of the shared cache and as such break ASLR, a prerequisite for subsequent exploitation steps.

However, with iOS 14, Apple has added logic to specifically detect this kind of attack, in which case the shared cache is re-randomized for the targeted service the next time it is started, thus rendering this technique useless. This should make bypassing ASLR in a 0-click attack context significantly harder or even impossible (apart from brute force) depending on the concrete vulnerability.

3. Exponential Throttling to Slow Down Brute Force Attacks

To limit an attacker’s ability to retry exploits or brute force ASLR, the BlastDoor and imagent services are now subject to a newly introduced exponential throttling mechanism enforced by launchd, causing the interval between restarts after a crash to double with every subsequent crash (up to an apparent maximum of 20 minutes). With this change, an exploit that relied on repeatedly crashing the attacked service would now likely require in the order of multiple hours to roughly half a day to complete instead of a few minutes.

The remainder of this blog post will now look at each of these three changes in greater depths.

The BlastDoor Service

The new BlastDoor service and its role in the processing of iMessages can be studied by following the flow of an incoming iMessage. On the wire, a simple text iMessage would look something like this, encoded as binary plist:


    // Group UUID

    gid = "008412B9-A4F7-4B96-96C3-70C4276CB2BE";

    // Group protocol version

    gv = 8;

    // Chat participants

    p =     (




    // Participants version

    pv = 0;

    // Message being replied to, usually the last message in the chat 

    r = "6401430E-CDD3-4BC7-A377-7611706B431F";

    // The plain text content

    t = "Hello World!";

    // Probably some other version number

    v = 1;

    // The rich text content    

    x = "<html><body>Hello World!</body></html>";  


As such, the minimal steps required to parse it are:

  1. If necessary, decompress the binary data
  2. Decode the plist from its binary serialization format
  3. Extract its various fields and ensure they have the correct type
  4. Decode the `x` key if present, using an XML decoder

Previously, all of this work happened in imagent. With iOS 14, however, it all moved into the new BlastDoor service. While the main processing flow still starts in imagent, which receives the raw but unencrypted payload bytes from identityservicesd (part of the IDS framework) in -[IMDiMessageIDSDelegate service:account:incomingTopLevelMessage:fromID:messageContext:], messages are then more or less immediately forwarded to the BlastDoor service through +[IMBlastdoor sendDictionary:withCompletionBlock:] which creates the reply handler block and then calls -[IMMessagesBlastDoorInterface diffuseTopLevelDictionary:resultHandler:]. At that point processing ends up in Swift code that deserializes the binary payload and sends it to the BlastDoor service over XPC.

Inside BlastDoor, the work mostly happens in BlastDoor.framework and MessagesBlastDoorService. As most of it is written in Swift, it is fairly unpleasant to statically reverse engineer it (no symbols, many virtual calls, swift runtime code sprinkled all over the place), but fortunately, that is also not really necessary for the purpose of this blog post. However, it is worth noting that while the high level control flow logic is written in Swift, some of the parsing steps still involve the existing ObjectiveC or C implementations. For example, XML is being parsed by libxml, and the NSKeyedArchiver payloads by the ObjectiveC implementation of NSKeyedUnarchiver.

The responses from BlastDoor can be seen by breaking on the reply handler function in imagent (the function can be found in +[IMBlastdoor sendDictionary:withCompletionBlock:] or by searching for XREFs to the string “Blastdoor response %p received (command: %hhu, guid: %@)” in IMDaemonCore.framework). A typical BlastDoor response for a simple text message is shown below:

(lldb) po $x2


    metadata: BlastDoor.Metadata(

        messageGUID: D391CC96-9CC6-44C6-B827-1DEB0F252529,

        timestamp: Optional(1610108299117662350),

        wantsDeliveryReceipt: true,

        wantsCheckpointing: false,

        storageContext: BlastDoor.Metadata.StorageContext(

            isFromStorage: false, isLastFromStorage: false



    messageSubType: MessageType.textMessage(BlastDoor.Message(

        plainTextBody: Optional("Hello World"),

        plainTextSubject: nil,

        content: Optional(BlastDoor.AttributedString(

            attributes: [


                    range: Range(0..<11), direction: WritingDirection.natural



                    range: Range(0..<11), partNumber: 0



            string: "Hello World"


        _participantDestinationIdentifiers: [




        attributionInfo: []


    encryptionType: BlastDoor.TextMessage.EncryptionType.pair_ec,

    replyToGUID: Optional(6401430E-CDD3-4BC7-A377-7611706B431F),

    _threadIdentifierGUID: nil,

    _expressiveSendStyleIdentifier: nil,

    _groupID: Optional("008412B9-A4F7-4B96-96C3-70C4276CB2BE"),

    currentGroupName: nil,

    groupParticipantVersion: Optional(0),

    groupProtocolVersion: Optional(8),

    groupPhotoCreationTime: nil,

    messageSummaryInfo: nil,

    nicknameInformation: nil,

    truncatedNicknameRecordKey: nil


One can roughly associate every field in this data structure with parts of the on-wire iMessage format. For example, the plainTextBody field contains the content of the `t` field, while the content field corresponds to the content of the `x` field.

Besides simple text messages, iMessages can additionally contain attachments (essentially arbitrary files which are encrypted and temporarily uploaded to iCloud) as well as rather complex serialized NSKeyedArchiver archives, which have been the source of bugs in the past.

For these types of iMessages, the following additional parsing steps are necessary:

  1. Unpack attachment metadata (NSKeyedArchiver format)
  2. Download attachments from iCloud server
  3. Deserialize NSKeyedArchiver plugin archives and generate a preview for the notification

As an example, consider what happens when a user sends a link to a website over iMessage. In that case, the sending device will first render a preview of the webpage and collect some metadata about it (such as the title and page description), then pack those fields into an NSKeyedArchiver archive. This archive is then encrypted with a temporary key and uploaded to the iCloud servers. Finally, the link as well as the decryption key are sent to the receiver as part of the iMessage. In order to create a useful user notification about the incoming iMessage, this data has to be processed by the receiver on a 0-click code path. As that again involves a fair amount of complexity, it is also done inside BlastDoor: after receiving the BlastDoor reply from above and realizing that the message contains an attachment, imagent first instructs IMTransferAgent to download and decrypt the iCloud attachment. Afterwards, it will call into -[IMTranscodeController decodeiMessageAppPayload:bundleID:completionBlock:blockUntilReply:] which forwards the relevant data to the IMTranscoderAgent, which then proceeds into +[IMAttachmentBlastdoor sendBalloonPluginPayloadData:withBundleIdentifier:completionBlock:] and finally calls -[IMMessagesBlastDoorInterface defuseBalloonPluginPayload:withIdentifier:resultHandler:].

In the BlastDoor service, the plugin data decoding is then again performed in Swift, and dispatched to the corresponding plugin type, as determined by the plugin id. For RichLinks (plugin id, processing ends up in LinkPresentation.MessagesPayload.init(dataRepresentation:), which deserializes the NSKeyedArchiver payload and to extract the preview image and URL metadata from it in order to generate a preview message.


The sandbox profile can be found in System/Library/Sandbox/Profiles/ and appears to be identical on iOS and macOS. It can be studied statically, and for that purpose can be found here, or dynamically, for example by using the sandbox-exec tool:

> echo "(allow process-exec (literal \"$(pwd)/test\"))" >> ./

> clang -o test test.c   # try to open files, network connections, etc.

> sandbox-exec -f ./ ./test

The sandbox profile states:

;;; This profile contains the rules necessary to make BlastDoor as close to

;;; compute-only as possible, while still remaining functional.

And indeed, the sandbox profile is quite tight:

  • only a handful of local IPC services, namely diagnosticd, logd, opendirectoryd, syslogd, and notifyd, can be reached
  • almost all file system interaction is blocked
  • any interaction with IOKit drivers (historically a big source of vulnerabilities) is forbidden
  • outbound network access is denied

Furthermore, the profile makes use of syscall filtering to restrict the interactions with the core kernel. However, as of now the syscall filter seems to be in “permissive” mode:

;; To be uncommented once the system call whitelist is complete...

;; (deny syscall-unix (with send-signal SIGKILL))

As such, the BlastDoor service is still allowed to perform any syscall, but it is to be expected that the syscall filtering will soon be put into “enforcement mode”, which would further boost its effectiveness.

Crash Monitoring?

An interesting side effect of the new processing pipeline is that imagent is now able to detect when an incoming message caused a crash in BlastDoor (it will receive an XPC error). Even more interesting is the fact that imagent appears to be informing Apple’s servers about such events, as can be seen by setting a breakpoint on -[APSConnectionServer handleSendOutgoingMessage:] in apsd, the daemon responsible for implementing Apple’s push services (on top of which iMessage is built). Displaying the outgoing message will show the following:

(lldb) po [$x2 dictionaryRepresentation]


    APSCritical = 1;

    APSMessageID = 543;

    APSMessageIdentifier = 1520040396;

    APSMessageTopic = "";

    APSMessageUserInfo =     {

        c = 115;

        fR = 13500;

        fRM = "";

        fU = {length = 16, bytes = 0x3a4912626c9645f98cb26c7c2d439520};

        i = 1520040396;

        nr = 1;

        t = {length = 32, bytes = ... };

        ua = "[macOS,11.1,20C69,Macmini9,1]";

        v = 7;


    APSOutgoingMessageSenderTokenName = 501;

    APSPayloadFormat = 1;

    APSTimeout = 120;

    APSTimestamp = "2021-01-06 19:52:10 +0000";


As can be seen, imagent is apparently informing the iMessage servers that the message with the UUID 0x3a4912626c9645f98cb26c7c2d439520 (fU key) has caused a crash in BlastDoor.

It is unclear what the purpose of this is without access to the server’s code. While these notifications may simply be used for statistical purposes, they would also give Apple a fairly clear signal about attacks against iMessage involving brute-force and a somewhat weaker signal about any failed exploits against the BlastDoor service.

In my experiments, after observing one of these crash notifications, the server would start directly sending delivery receipts to the sender for messages that hadn't actually been processed by the receiver yet. Possibly this is another, independent effort to break the crash oracle technique by confusing the sender, but that is hard to verify without access to the code running on the server. In any case, it is worth noting that this “spoofing” of delivery receipts by the server is generally possible as the message UUID, which is more or less the only content of a delivery receipt, is part of the non-end2end encrypted payload and is thus known to the server (break on -[APSConnectionServer handleSendOutgoingMessage:] and inspect outgoing iMessages to verify this, the UUID will be in the U key, while the e2e-encrypted data will be in the P key). This is most likely necessary so the server can track which messages have already been delivered and which ones it still needs to keep around for delivery in the future.

Shared Cache Resliding

Previously, when exploiting an iMessage memory corruption bug, a “crash oracle” could be used to reveal the location of the shared cache region in memory: the attacker would trigger the memory corruption bug in a way that would cause an access to a memory location somewhere in the region 0x180000000 - 0x280000000 (where the shared cache can be mapped). If the memory was valid, no crash would occur and imagent would then send a delivery receipt to the attacker. However, If a crash occurred, no such receipt would be delivered, informing the attacker that the address was unmapped. Through clever selection of the queried addresses, the location of the shared cache could be revealed in logarithmic time, with only about 20 messages.

However, with iOS 14 Apple has added a mechanism to re-randomize the location of the shared cache region for an “attacked” process, thus breaking a fundamental assumption of this technique and rendering it ineffective. This is significant as the crash oracle technique was likely one of very few, if not the only, fairly generic ASLR bypass techniques usable in 0-click iMessage attacks.

To understand how the shared cache resliding works, one can start by looking at the kernel. In iOS 14, the kernel can now have two active shared cache regions: the “regular” region and a “reslided” region. During an attack, the following then happens:

  1. When an attacker attempts to use a crash-oracle-based technique, the attacked process would quickly end up accessing unmapped memory in the range 0x180000000 - 0x280000000 (where the shared cache is mapped) and crashes
  2. The kernel handles the segmentation fault generated by the CPU, and sets a specific flag in the crash info that signals that the crash happened inside the shared cache region
  3. At the same time, the kernel will mark the currently active reslided shared cache region (if one exists) as stale, causing it to be recreated and thus re-randomized the next time it is used
  4. launchd (as the parent process of the crashed service) receives the crash info, notices the OS_REASON_FLAG_SHAREDREGION_FAULT flag, and sets the ReslideSharedCache property on the service associated with the crashed process (see `launchctl procinfo $pid` and search for `reslide shared cache = 1`)
  5. The next time the service is restarted, launchd then adds the POSIX_SPAWN_RESLIDE attribute for posix_spawn due to the ReslideSharedCache property
  6. In the kernel, this flag now causes the newly created process to be given the reslided shared cache image. However, as no active reslided region currently exists (the previous one was marked as stale in step 3.), a new one is created at a newly randomized address.

The result of this is that whenever an attacker attempts to use a crash-oracle to break ASLR, the attacked service would receive a different shared cache region every time it is launched, thus preventing the attack from succeeding. For the time being, this feature appears to only be active on iOS though, but it would be expected to come to macOS as well.

While this mechanism would in principle also protect 3rd party apps from similar attacks, protection for those is currently somewhat weaker, likely in order to first evaluate the real-world performance impact of this change (the shared cache is a significant performance optimization of the OS). In particular, step 3 is currently only performed if the crashing process is a platform binary (essentially binaries that ship with the OS and are directly signed by Apple) such as the services handling iMessages. However, for 3rd party processes, it would only happen if the global vm_shared_region_reslide_restrict is set to zero:


 * Flag to control what processes should get shared cache randomize resliding

 * after a fault in the shared cache region:


 * 0 - all processes get a new randomized slide

 * 1 - only platform processes get a new randomized slide


Which is controlled by the vm_shared_region_reslide_restrict bootarg. This currently seems to be set to one. In essence, for 3rd party apps this means:

  1. When the attacked process first crashes, the kernel will still set the OS_REASON_FLAG_SHAREDREGION_FAULT flag, and launchd will add the ReslideSharedCache property, but the current reslided region won’t be invalidated
  2. The restarted service is then restarted and now uses the “reslided” shared cache region
  3. When the service crashes the next time, and if that service is the only one currently using the reslided shared cache region (which should usually be the case, but could possibly be influenced by the attacker), the region’s refcount drops to zero, and the shared cache region is marked for removal.
  4. However, removal will only actually happen after two minutes. As such, if the service is restarted within two minutes, it will receive the same shared cache region at the same location in memory.

As a result, a third-party app could still be attacked through a crash-oracle technique if it automatically sends some form of delivery receipt to the sender and restarts quickly enough after a crash. This could, however, be prevented for example by enabling ExponentialThrottling for these services. Ideally, and assuming that the performance penalty is reasonable, Apple would enable re-randomization for all apps in the future.

Exponential Throttling

Another thing we suggested back in 2019 was to limit the number of attempts an attacker gets when attempting to exploit a vulnerability. This was mostly important to defend against the crash-oracle technique, but would also help to prevent brute force attacks (e.g., given enough attempts, one could simply brute force the location of the shared cache region). The new ExponentialThrottling feature in launchd seems to achieve just that.

To use it, a system daemon or agent has to opt-in by setting "_ExponentialThrottling = 1” in its Info.plist (essentially the service metadata), as can be seen below for the BlastDoor service:

> plutil -p /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/MessagesBlastDoorSupport.framework/Versions/A/XPCServices/MessagesBlastDoorService.xpc/Contents/Info.plist


  "CFBundleDisplayName" => "MessagesBlastDoorService"

  "CFBundleExecutable" => "MessagesBlastDoorService"

  "CFBundleIdentifier" => ""


  "XPCService" => {

    "_ExponentialThrottling" => 1



Apart from the BlastDoor service, it is also used for imagent:

> plutil -p /System/Library/LaunchAgents/


  "_ExponentialThrottling" => 1


but doesn’t appear to be used for any other service, as can, for example, be seen by looking at the output of the launchctl dumpstate command, which will only show “exponential throttling = 1” for and

Presumably, the _ExponentialThrottling property instructs launchd (the macOS and iOS init process), to delay subsequent restarts of a crashing service. While it is somewhat challenging to statically reverse engineer launchd due to the lack of source code or binary symbols, it is fortunately fairly easy to experimentally determine the impact of the _ExponentialThrottling property, for example by installing a custom daemon that writes the current timestamp to a file before crashing. By default, so without ExponentialThrottling, one would see the following:

Service started on Wed Jan  6 13:56:03 2021

Service started on Wed Jan  6 13:56:13 2021

Service started on Wed Jan  6 13:56:23 2021

Service started on Wed Jan  6 13:56:33 2021

As can be seen, by default, a service is, at the earliest, restarted ten seconds after it was previously started. However, using the following service plist which enables ExponentialThrottling:

> # Start service with

> # launchctl bootstrap system /Library/LaunchDaemons/net.saelo.test.plist

> plutil -p /Library/LaunchDaemons/net.saelo.test.plist


  "_ExponentialThrottling" => 1

  "KeepAlive" => 1

  "Label" => "net.saelo.test"

  "POSIXSpawnType" => "Interactive"

  "Program" => "/path/to/program"


One can observe the following:

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:42:43 2021

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:42:53 2021 (+10s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:43:03 2021 (+10s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:43:13 2021 (+10s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:43:33 2021 (+20s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:44:13 2021 (+40s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:45:33 2021 (+80s)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:48:13 2021 (+160s [~2.5m])

Service started on Wed Jan  6 10:53:33 2021 (+320s [~5m])

Service started on Wed Jan  6 11:04:13 2021 (+640s [~10m])

Service started on Wed Jan  6 11:24:13 2021 (+20m)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 11:44:13 2021 (+20m)

Service started on Wed Jan  6 12:04:13 2021 (+20m)

Here, the exponential increase in the time between subsequent restarts is clearly visible, and goes up to an apparent maximum of 20 minutes. And indeed, launchd does contain the following bit of code in a function presumably responsible for computing the next restart delay (search for XREFs to the string "%s: service throttled by %llu seconds"):

  if ( delay >= 1200 )

    result = 1200LL;                 // 20 minutes


    result = delay;

With this change, an exploit that relied on brute force would now only get one attempt every 20 minutes instead of every 10 seconds.

(Upcoming?) ObjectiveC ISA PAC

The PoC exploit against iMessage on iOS 12.4 relied heavily on faking ObjectiveC objects to gain a form of arbitrary code execution despite the presence of pointer authentication (PAC). This was mainly possible because the ISA field, containing the pointer to the Class object and thus making a piece of memory appear like a valid ObjectiveC object, was not protected through PAC and could thus be faked. With iOS 14, this now seems to be changing: while previously, the top 19 bits of the ISA value contained the inline refcount, it now appears that this field has been reduced to 9 bits (of which the LSB appears to be reserved for some purpose, leaving an 8-bit inline refcount, see the bit shifting logic in objc_release or objc_retain), while the freed-up bits now hold a PAC, as can be seen in objc_rootAllocWithZone in libobjc.dylib:

    ; Allocate the object

    BL              j__calloc_3

    CBZ             X0, loc_1953DA434

    MOV             X8, X0

    ; “Tag” the address with a constant to get a PAC modifier value

    MOVK            X8, #0x6AE1,LSL#48        

    MOV             X9, X19

    ; Compute PAC of Class pointer with tagged object address as modifier

    PACDA           X9, X8

    ; Clear top 9 bits (inline refcnt) and bottom 3 bits (other bitfields)       

    AND             X8, X9, #0x7FFFFFFFFFFFF8

    ; Set LSB and inline refcount to one

    MOV             X9, #0x100000000000001

    ORR             X9, X8, X9

    ; Presumably, the refcnt isn’t used for all types of classes...

    TST             W20, #0x2000

    CSEL            X8, X9, X8, EQ

    ; Store the resulting value into the ISA field

    STR             X8, [X0]

However, currently the ISA PAC appears to never be checked, as such, it doesn’t yet affect any exploits. The most likely reason for this is that the ISA PAC feature is being rolled out in multiple phases, with the current implementation meant to allow in-depth performance evaluation, in particular of the reduced size of the inline refcount, which will likely cause more objects to use the more expensive out-of-line refcounting (used once the inline refcount saturates). With that, it can be expected that, in the absence of major performance issues, future releases of iOS and macOS will use PAC for the ObjC ISA field, thus likely breaking exploits that have to rely on faking ObjectiveC objects to achieve arbitrary code execution.


This blog post discussed three improvements in iOS 14 affecting iMessage security: the BlastDoor service, resliding of the shared cache, and exponential throttling. Overall, these changes are probably very close to the best that could’ve been done given the need for backwards compatibility, and they should have a significant impact on the security of iMessage and the platform as a whole. It’s great to see Apple putting aside the resources for these kinds of large refactorings to improve end users’ security. Furthermore, these changes also highlight the value of offensive security work: not just single bugs were fixed, but instead structural improvements were made based on insights gained from exploit development work.

As for the alleged NSO iMessage exploit, it may have been prevented from working against iOS 14 by any of the following:

  • The bug was fixed in iOS 14, for example due to the rewrite of large parts of the iMessage processing pipeline in Swift
  • The mere fact that processing happens in a different process, which could for example break a heap layouting primitive
  • The shared cache resliding would break their exploit if their exploit relied on some form of crash oracle to break ASLR
  • The stronger sandbox of the BlastDoor service, which could prevent the exploitation of a privilege escalation vulnerability after compromising the BlastDoor process

While these are some possible scenarios, and it could be the case that the exploit “just” needs some re-engineering to function again, the fact that these security improvements were shipped is certainly a positive outcome.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Windows Exploitation Tricks: Trapping Virtual Memory Access

Posted by James Forshaw, Project Zero

This blog is a continuation of my series of Windows exploitation tricks. This one describes an exploitation trick I’ve been trying to develop for years, succeeding (mostly, more on that later) on the latest versions of Windows 10. It’s a trick to trap access to virtual memory, get feedback when it occurs and delay access indefinitely. The blog will go into some of the background for why this technique is useful, an overview of the research I did to find the trick as well as an overview of the types of vulnerabilities it can be used with.


When would you need such an exploitation trick? A good example of the types of security vulnerabilities which can benefit can be found in the seminal Bochspwn research by Mateusz Jurczyk and Gynvael Coldwind. The research showed a way of automating the discovery of memory double-fetches in the Windows kernel.

If you’ve not read the paper, a double-fetch is a type of Time-of-Check Time-of-Use (TOCTOU) vulnerability where code reads a value from memory, such as a buffer length, verifies that value is within bounds and then rereads the value from memory before use. By swapping the value in memory between the first and second fetches the verification is bypassed which can lead to security issues such as privilege escalation or information disclosure. The following is a simple example of a double fetch taken from the original paper.

DWORD* lpInputPtr = // controlled user-mode address

UCHAR  LocalBuffer[256];


if (*lpInputPtr > sizeof(LocalBuffer)) { ①



RtlCopyMemory(LocalBuffer, lpInputPtr, *lpInputPtr);②

This code copies a buffer from a controlled user mode address into a fixed sized stack buffer. The buffer starts with a DWORD size value which indicates the total size of the buffer. Memory corruption can occur if the size value pointed to by lpInputBuffer changes between the first read of the size value to compare against the buffer size ① and the second read of the size when copying into the buffer ②. For example, if the first time the value is read it’s 100 and the second it’s 400 then the code will pass the size check as 100 is less than 256 but will then copy 400 bytes into that buffer corrupting the stack.

Once a vulnerability such as this example was discovered Mateusz and Gynvael needed to exploit it. How they achieved exploitation is detailed in section 4 of the paper. The exploit techniques that were identified were all probabilistic. Exploitation typically required two threads racing each other, with one reading and one writing. The probabilistic nature of success is due to the probability that in between the first read from a memory location and the second read the writing thread sets a new value which exploits the vulnerability.

To widen the TOCTOU window many of the techniques described abuse the behavior of virtual memory on Windows. A process on Windows can typically access a large virtual memory region up to 8TiB size. This size is likely to be significantly larger than the physical memory in the system, especially considering the limit is per-process, not per-system. Therefore to maintain the illusion of such a large memory address space the kernel uses on-demand memory paging.

When memory is allocated in the process the CPU’s page tables are set up to indicate the presence of the memory region but are marked as invalid. At this point the virtual memory region has been allocated but there is no physical memory backing it. When the process tries to access that memory region the CPU will generate an exception, generally referred to as a page-fault, which is handled by the kernel.

The kernel can look up the memory address which was accessed to cause the page-fault and try and fix the address. How the page-fault is fixed depends on the type of memory access. A simple example is if the memory was allocated but not yet used the kernel will get a physical memory page, initialize it to zeros then adjust the page tables to map that new physical memory page at the faulting address. Once the page-fault has been fixed the faulting thread can be restarted at the instruction which accessed the memory and the memory access should now succeed as if it was always present.

A more complex scenario is if the page is part of a memory mapped file. In this case the kernel will need to request that the page’s data is read back from disk before it can satisfy the page-fault. This can take quite a long time, at least for spinning rust disks, so it might require the faulting thread to be suspended while it waits for the page to be read. Once the page has been read the memory can be fixed up, the original thread can be resumed and the thread restarted at the faulting instruction.

Overview diagram of page fault causing access to the file system. A user application is shown reading memory from a file mapped into memory. When the memory read occurs a page fault is generated in the kernel. As the memory is part of a file mapping this calls into the IO Manager which then requests the file data from the file system. The read data is then returned back through the kernel to satisfy the page fault and the user application can complete the memory read.

The end result is it can take a significant amount of time, relative to a CPU’s native speed that is, to handle a page-fault. However, abusing these virtual memory behaviors only widens the TOCTOU window, it didn’t allow for precise timing to swap values in memory. The result is the exploitation techniques still came with limitations. For example, it was very slow if not impossible in some cases to exploit on a machine with a single CPU core as it relies on having concurrent threads reading and writing.

An ideal exploit primitive would be one where the exploitation window can be made arbitrarily large so that it becomes trivial to win the race. Taking previous experience and knowledge of existing bug classes my ideal primitive would be one which meets a set of criteria:

  • Works on a default installation of Windows 10 20H2.
  • Gives a clear signal when memory is read or written.
  • Works when memory is accessed from both user and kernel mode.
  • Allows for delaying memory access indefinitely.
  • The data in the memory accessed is arbitrary.
  • The primitive can be set up from a range of privilege levels.
  • Can trap multiple times during the same exploit.

While meeting all these criteria would be ideal, there’s no guarantee we’ll meet all or any of them. If we only meet some then the range of exploitation vulnerabilities might be limited. Let’s start with a quick overview of the existing work which might give us an idea of how to proceed to find a primitive.

Existing Work

Having spoken to Mateusz and made an effort to look for any subsequent work there seems to be little novel work over and above the original Bochspwn paper on the exploitation of these types of TOCTOU issues. At least this is true for exploitation on Windows, however, novel techniques have been developed on other platforms, specifically Linux. Both of these techniques rely on the behavior of virtual memory I previously described.

The first technique in Linux makes use of Userfault File Descriptor (userfaultfd) to get notifications when page-faults occur in a process. With userfaultfd enabled a secondary thread in the process can read a notification and handle the page-fault in user mode. Handling the fault could be mapping memory at the appropriate location or changing page protection. The key is the faulting thread is suspended until the page-fault is handled by another thread. Therefore if a kernel function accessed the memory the request will be trapped until it's completed. This allows for a primitive where the memory access can be delayed indefinitely as well as having a timing signal for the access. Using userfaultfd also allows the fault to be distinguished between read and write faults as the memory page can be write-protected

Using userfaultdd works for in-process access such as from the kernel, but is not really useful if the code accessing the memory is in another process. To solve that problem you can use the FUSE file system as Jann Horn demonstrated in a previous Project Zero blog post. A FUSE file system is implemented entirely in user mode, but any requests for the file go through the Linux kernel’s Virtual File System APIs. As a file is accessed as if it was implemented by an in-kernel file system it’s possible to map that file into memory using mmap. When a page-fault occurs on a FUSE backed memory region a request will be made to the user-mode file system daemon which can delay the read or write request indefinitely.

Remote File Systems

As far as I can tell there’s nothing equivalent to Linux’s userfaultd on Windows. One feature which caught my eye was memory write watches. But those seem to just allow an application to query if memory had been written to since the last time it was checked and doesn’t allow memory writes to be trapped.

If we can’t just trap page-faults to virtual memory what about mapping a file on a user-mode filesystem like FUSE? Unfortunately there is no built-in FUSE driver in Windows 10 (yet?), but that doesn’t mean there’s no mechanism to implement a file system in user-mode. There are some efforts to make a real FUSE on Windows, such as the WinFsp project, but I’d expect the chances of them being installed on a real system to be vanishingly small.

The first thought I had was to try to exploit Multiple UNC Provider (MUP) clients. When you access a file via a UNC path, e.g. \\server\share\file.bin, this will be handled by a MUP driver in the kernel, which will pass it to one of the registered client drivers. As far as the kernel is concerned the opened file is a regular file (with some caveats) which generally means the file can be mapped into memory. However, any requests for the contents of that file will not be handled directly, but instead handled by a server over a network protocol.

Ideally we should be able to implement our own server, handle the read or write requests to a file mapping which will allow us to detect or delay the request so that we can exploit any TOCTOU. The following table contains only Microsoft MUP drivers that I identified. The table contains what versions of Windows 10 the driver is supported on and whether it’s something enabled by default.

Remote File System

Supported Version




Yes (SMBv1 might be disabled)



Yes (except Server SKUs)





Windows 10 1903

No (needs WSL)

Remote Desktop Client



While MUP was designed for remote file systems there’s no requirement that the file system server is actually remote. SMB, WebDAV and NFS are IP based protocols and can be redirected to localhost. P9 uses a local Unix Socket which can’t be remoted anyway. The terminal services client sends file access requests back to the client system over the RDP protocol. For all these protocols we can implement the server with varying degrees of effort and see if we can detect and delay reads and writes to the file mapping.

I decided to focus only on two, SMB and WebDAV. These were the only two which are enabled by default and are trivially usable. While the Remote Desktop Client is in theory installed by default the RDP server is not normally enabled by default. Also setting up the RDP session is complex and might require valid authentication credentials therefore I decided against it.

Server Message Block

SMB is almost as old as Windows itself, having been introduced in Lan Manager 1.0 back in 1987. The latest SMB version 3.1 protocol only bears a passing resemblance to that original version having shed its NetBIOS roots for a TCP/IP connection. Its lineage does mean it’s the best integrated of any of the network file systems, with the MUP APIs being designed around the needs of SMB.

I decided to do a simple test of the behavior of mapping a file over SMB. This is fairly easy as you can access SMB on the same machine via localhost. I first created a 1GiB file on a local disk, the rationale being if SMB supports caching file data it’s unlikely to read something that large in one go. I then started Wireshark and monitored the loopback interface to capture the SMB traffic as shown below.

Overview diagram of SMB test with wireshark in place to inspect the network traffic from the SMB client to the SMB server. The diagram starts overview with a user application reading memory of a mapped file which causes a page fault. As the file is on an SMB share this calls into the SMB client which sends a request to the SMB server and from there to the file system. In between the SMB client and SMB server components the Wireshark logo indicates where we are monitoring the network traffic.

I then wrote a quick PowerShell script which will map the file into memory and then reads a few bytes from memory at a few different offsets.

Use-NtObject($f = Get-NtFile "\\localhost\c$\root\file.bin" -Win32Path) {

    Use-NtObject($s = New-NtSection -File $f -Protection ReadWrite) {

        Use-NtObject($m = Add-NtSection -Section $s -Protection ReadWrite) {

            $m.ReadBytes(0, 4)

            $m.ReadBytes(256*1024*1024, 4)

            $m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024, 4)

            $m.ReadBytes(768*1024*1024, 4)




This just reads 4 bytes from offset, 0, 256MiB, 512MiB and 768MiB. Going back to Wireshark I filtered the output to only SMBv2 read requests using the display filter smb2.cmd == 8, and the following four packets can be observed.

Read Request Len:32768 Off:0 File: root\file.bin

Read Request Len:32768 Off:268435456 File: root\file.bin

Read Request Len:32768 Off:536870912 File: root\file.bin

Read Request Len:32768 Off:805306368 File: root\file.bin 

This corresponds with the exact memory offsets we accessed in the script although the length is always 32KiB in size, not the 4 we requested. Note, that it’s not the typical Windows memory allocation granularity of 64KiB which you might expect. In my testing I’ve never seen anything other than 32KiB requested.

All the bytes we’ve tested are aligned to the 32KiB block, what if the bytes were not aligned, for example if we accessed 4 bytes from address 512MiB minus 2? Changing the script to add the following allows us to check the behavior:

$m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024 - 2, 4)

In Wireshark we see the following read requests.

Read Request Len:32768 Off:536838144 File: root\file.bin

Read Request Len:32768 Off:536870912 File: root\file.bin

The accesses are still at 32KiB boundaries, however as the request straddles two blocks the kernel has fetched the preceding 32KiB of data from the file and then the following 32KiB. You might think that all makes sense, however this behavior turned out to be a fluke of testing.

</span><span class=Overview diagram of memory read layout. In the middle is a set of boxes representing the native 4KiB pages being read. All the boxes are contained within a single larger region which is the large page size. Above the boxes are arrows which show that from the base of the 4KiB box a 32KiB read will be made into the file which can satisfy the reads from other 4KiB pages. The final box shows that the last 32KiB of the large page size will always be read as a single page regardless of where in the box the read occurs." style="max-height: 750; max-width: 600;" />

The diagram above shows the structure of how mapped file reads are handled. When an address is read the kernel will request 32KiB from the closest 4KiB page boundary, not the 32KiB boundary. However, there’s then a secondary structure on top based on the supported size of large pages. If the read is anywhere within 32KiB of the end of a large page the read offset is always for the last 32KiB.

For example, on my system the large page size (as queried using the GetLargePageMinimum API) is 2MiB. Therefore if you start at offset 512MiB, between 512 and 514 - 32KiB the kernel will read 32KiB from the offset truncated to the closest 4KiB boundary. Between 514 - 32KiB and 514MiB the read will always request offset 514 - 32KiB so that the 32KiB doesn’t cross the large page boundary.

This allows reads at 4KiB boundaries, however the amount of data read is still 32KiB. This means that once one 4KiB page is accessed the kernel will populate the current page and 7 following pages. Is there any way to only populate a single native page? Based on a comment from Mateusz I tested returning short reads. If the SMB server returns fewer bytes than requested from the read then rather than failing it only populates the pages covered by the read. By returning these short reads we can get trap granularity down to the native page size except for the final 32KiB of a large page. If a read request is shorter than the native page size the rest of the page is zeroed.

What about writing? Let’s change the script again to call WriteBytes rather than ReadBytes, for example:

$m.WriteBytes(256*1024*1024, @(0xAA, 0xBB, 0xCC, 0xDD))

You will see a write request to the file in Wireshark, similar to the following:

Write Request Len:4096 Off:268435456 File: root\file.bin

However, if you dig a bit deeper you’ll notice that the write only happens once the file is closed, not in response to the WriteBytes call. This makes sense, there isn’t any easy way to detect when the write happened to force the page to be flushed back to the file system. Even if there was a way flushing to a network server for every write would have a massive performance impact.

All is not lost however, before the memory is safe to write it must be populated with the contents from the file. Therefore if you look before the write you’ll see a corresponding read request for the 32KiB region which encompasses the write location which is synchronous with the read. You can detect a write through its corresponding read but you can’t distinguish read from a write at the protocol level.

All this testing indicates if we have control over the server we can detect memory access to the mapped file. Can we delay the access as well? I wrote a simple SMB server in .NET 5 using the SMBLibrary by Tal Aloni. I implemented the server with a custom filesystem handler and added some code to the read path which delays for 10 seconds when the file offset is greater than 512MiB.

if (Position >= (512 * 1024 * 1024)) {

    Console.WriteLine("====> Delaying at Position {0:X}", Position);


    Console.WriteLine("====> Continuing.");


The data returned by the read operation can be arbitrary, you just need to fill in the appropriate byte buffers in the read. To test the access times I wrapped the memory read requests inside a Measure-Command call to time the memory access.

Measure-Command { $m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024 - 4, 4) }

Measure-Command { $m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024 - 4, 4) }

Measure-Command { $m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024, 4) }

Measure-Command { $m.ReadBytes(512*1024*1024, 4) }

To compare the access time a read request is made to a location 4 bytes below the 512MiB boundary and then at the 512MiB boundary. By making two requests we should be able to see if the results differ per-read. The results were as follows:

# Below 512MiB (Request 1)

Days              : 0

Hours             : 0

Minutes           : 0

Seconds           : 1

Milliseconds      : 25


# Below 512MiB (Request 2)

Days              : 0

Hours             : 0

Minutes           : 0

Seconds           : 0

Milliseconds      : 1


# Above 512MiB (Request 1)

Days              : 0

Hours             : 0

Minutes           : 0

Seconds           : 10

Milliseconds      : 358


# Above 512MiB (Request 2)

Days              : 0

Hours             : 0

Minutes           : 0

Seconds           : 0

Milliseconds      : 1


The first access for below 512MiB takes around a second, this is because the request still needs to be made to the server and the server is written in .NET which can have a slow startup time for running new code. The second request takes significantly less that 1 second, the memory is now cached locally and so there doesn’t need to be any request.

For the accesses above 512MiB the first request takes around 10 seconds, which correlates with the added delay. The second request takes less than a second because the page is now cached locally. This is exactly what we’d expect, and proves that we can at least delay for 10 seconds. In fact you can delay the request at least 60 seconds before the connection is forcibly reset. This is based on the session timeout for the SMB client. You can query the SMB client timeout using the following command in PowerShell:

PS> (Get-SmbClientConfiguration).SessionTimeout


A few things to note about the SMB client’s behavior which came out of testing. First the client or the Windows cache manager seem to be able to do some caching of the remote file. If you request a specific access when opening the file, such as GENERIC_READ | GENERIC_WRITE for the desired access then caching is enabled. This means the read requests do not go to the server if they’re previously been cached locally. However if you specify MAXIMUM_ALLOWED for the desired access the caching doesn’t seem to take place. Secondly, sometimes parts of the file will be pre-cached, such as the first and last 32KiB of the file. I’ve not worked out what is the cause, oddly it seems to happen more often with native code than .NET code, so perhaps it’s Windows Defender peeking at memory or perhaps Superfetch. In general as long as you keep your memory accesses somewhere in the middle of a large file you should be safe.

If you’ve run the example code you might notice a problem, running the example server locally fails with the following error:

System.Net.Sockets.SocketException (10013): An attempt was made to access a socket in a way forbidden by its access permissions.

By default Windows 10 has the SMB server enabled. This takes over the TCP ports and makes them exclusive so it’s not possible to bind to them from a normal user. It is possible to disable the local SMB server, but that would require administrator privileges. Still, it was worth verifying whether the SMB server approach will work even if we have to communicate with a remote server.

I did do some investigation into tricks I could use to get the built-in SMB server to work for our purposes. For example I tried to use the fact that you can set an Opportunistic Lock which will trap file reads. I used this trick to exploit a TOCTOU vulnerability in the LUAFV driver. Unfortunately the SMB server detects the file is already in a lock and waits for the OpLock break to occur before allowing access to the file. This made it a non-starter.

For testing you can disable the LanmanServer service and its corresponding drivers. If you wanted to use this on an arbitrary system you'd almost certainly need to connect to a remote server. I’ve released the example server code here, which can be repurposed, although it is only a demonstrator. It allows for read granularity of the native page size, which is assumed to be 4KiB. The server code should work on Linux but as of version 1.4.3 of SMBLibrary on NuGet there’s a bug which causes the server to fail when starting. There is a fix in the github repository but at the time of writing there’s no updated package.

How well does abusing the SMB client meet with our criteria from earlier? I’ve crossed out all the ones we’ve met.

  • Works on a default installation of Windows 10 20H2.
  • Gives a clear signal when memory is read or written.
  • Works when memory is accessed from both user and kernel mode.
  • Allows for delaying memory access indefinitely.
  • The data in the memory accessed is arbitrary.
  • The primitive can be set up from a range of privilege levels.
  • Can trap multiple times during the same exploit.

Using the SMB client does meet the majority of our criteria. I verified that it doesn’t matter whether kernel or user mode code accesses the memory it will still trap. The biggest problem is it’s hard to use this from a sandboxed application where it would perhaps be most useful. This is because MUP restricts access to remote file systems by default from restricted and low IL processes and AppContainer sandboxes need specific capabilities which are unlikely to be granted to the majority of applications. That’s not to say it’s completely impossible but it’d be hard to do.

While our trick doesn’t really delay the memory read indefinitely, for our purposes the limit of 60 seconds based on the SMB session timeout is going to be enough for most vulnerabilities. Also once the trap has been activated you can’t force the memory manager to request the same page from the server. I tried playing with memory caching flags and direct IO but at least for files over SMB nothing seemed to work. However, you can specify your own base address when mapping a file so you could map different offsets in the file to the same virtual address by unmapping the original and mapping in a new copy. This would allow you to use the same address multiple times.


As SMB can’t be easily used locally, what about WebDAV? By default TCP port 80 is unused on Windows 10 so we can start our own web server to communicate with. Also unlike on Linux there’s no requirement for having administrator privileges to bind to TCP ports under 1024. Even if either of these were not the case the WebDAV client supports a syntax to specify the TCP port of the server. For example if you use the path \\localhost@8080\share then the WebDAV HTTP connection will be made over port 8080.

However, does the WebDAV client expose the right read and write primitives to allow us to trap on memory access? I wrote a simple WebDAV server using the NWebDav library to serve local files. Running the script but specifying the WebDAV server on port 8080 to open the 1GiB file I’m immediately faced with a problem:

Get-NtFile : (0xC0000904) - The file size exceeds the limit allowed and cannot be saved.

Just opening the file fails with the error code STATUS_FILE_TOO_LARGE. The reason for that can be found in one of many Microsoft Knowledge Base articles such as this one. There’s a default limit of 50MB (that’s decimal megabytes) for any file accessed on a WebDAV share because it used to be possible to cause a denial of service by tricking a Windows system into downloading an arbitrarily large file.

The reason this size limiting behavior is in place is why WebDAV isn’t suitable for this attack. If you resize the file to below 50MB you’ll find the WebDAV client pulls the file in its entirety to the local disk before returning from the file open call. That file is then mapped into memory as a local file. The WebDAV server never receives a GET or PUT request for reads/writes to the memory mapping synchronously so there’s no mechanism to detect or trap specific memory requests.

File System Overlay APIs

Abusing the SMB client does work, but it can’t be used locally on a default installation. I decided I need to look for another approach. As I was looking at Windows Filter Drivers (see last blog post) I noticed a few of the drivers provided a mechanism to overlay another file system on top of an existing one. I trawled through MSDN to find the API documentation to see if anything would be suitable. The three I looked at are shown in the table below.

File system

Supported Version


Projected File System

Windows 10 1809


Windows Overlay (WOF)



Cloud Files API

Windows 10 1709

Yes (except non-Desktop Server SKUs)

By far the most interesting one is the Projected File System. This was developed by Microsoft to provide a virtual file system for GIT. It allows placeholder files to be “projected” into a directory on disk and the contents of those files are only “rehydrated” to a full file on demand. In theory this sounds ideal, as long as it would populate the file’s contents piecemeal we could add the delays when receiving the PRJ_GET_FILE_DATA_CB callback.

However a basic implementation based on Microsoft’s ProjectedFileSystem sample code would always rehydrate the entire file during file open, similar to WebDAV. Perhaps there’s an option I missed to stream the contents rather than populate it in one go but I couldn’t find it immediately. In any case the Projected File System is not installed by default making it less useful.

WOF doesn’t really allow you to implement your own file system semantics. Instead it allows you to overlay files from either a secondary Windows Image File (WIM) or compressed on the same volume. This really doesn’t give us the control we’re looking for, you might be able to finagle something to work but it seems a lot of effort.

That leaves us with the Cloud Files API. This is used by OneDrive to provide the local online filesystem but is documented and can be used to implement any file system overlay you like. It works very similar to the Projected File System, with placeholders for files and the concept of hydrating the file on demand. The contents of the files do not need to come from any online service such as OneDrive, it can all be sourced locally. Crucially after some basic testing it supports streaming the contents of the file based on what was being read and you could delay the file data requests and the reading thread would block until the read has been satisfied. This can be enabled by specifying the CF_HYDRATION_POLICY_PRIMARY hydration policy with the value CF_HYDRATION_POLICY_PARTIAL when configuring the base sync root. This allows the Cloud File API to only hydrate the file's parts which were accessed.

This seemed perfect, until I tested with the PowerShell file mapping script where it didn’t work, my cloud file provider would always be requested to provide the entire file. Checking the Cloud Filter driver, when a request is received for mapping a placeholder file, the IRP_MJ_ACQUIRE_FOR_SECTION_SYNCHRONIZATION handler always fully rehydrates the file before completing. If the file is not hydrated fully then the call to NtCreateSection never returns which prevents the file being mapped into memory.

I was going to go back to doing my filter research until I realized I might be able to combine the SMB client loopback with the Cloud Filter API. I already knew that the SMB client doesn’t really map a file, even locally, instead it would read it on-demand via the SMB protocol. And I also knew that the Cloud Filter API would allow streaming of parts of the file on-demand as long as the file wasn’t being mapped into memory. The final setup is shown in the following diagram:

Overview of the operation of the exploitation trick. Memory is read by the application from a mapped file, which causes a page fault. That then requests the contents of the file to be pulled over SMB which goes to the local Cloud Filter Driver and back to the original application where the read is handled.

To use the primitive we first setup our own cloud provider by registering the sync root directory using the CfRegisterSyncRoot API configuring it with the partial hydration policy. Then a 1GiB placeholder can be created in the directory using CfCreatePlaceholders. At this point the file does not have any contents on disk. If we now open and map the placeholder file via the SMB loopback client the file will not be rehydrated immediately.

Any memory access into the mapping will cause the SMB client to make a request for a 32KiB block, which will be passed to our user-mode cloud provider, which we can detect and delay as necessary. It goes without saying that the contents of the file can also be arbitrary. Based on testing it doesn’t seem like you can force the read granularity down to the native page size like when implementing a custom SMB server, however you can still make requests at native page size boundaries within the large page size constraint. It might be possible to modify the file size to trick the SMB server into doing short reads but this behavior has not been tested. A sample implementation of the cloud provider is available here.

Usage Examples

We now have an exploitation trick which allows us to trap and delay virtual memory reads and writes. The big question is, does this improve the exploitation of vulnerabilities such as double fetches? The answer depends on the actual vulnerability. A quick note, when I use the word page I’m meaning the unit of memory which will cause a request to the SMB server, e.g. 32KiB not the native page size such as 4KiB.

Let’s take the example given at the start of this blog post. This vulnerability reads the value from the same memory address, lpInputPtr, twice. First for the comparison, then for the size to copy.  The problem for exploitation is one of the limitations of the technique is the memory trap is one shot. Once the trap has fired to read the size for the comparison you can delay it indefinitely. However, once you provide the requested memory page and the faulting thread is resumed it won’t fire on the second read, it’ll just be read from memory as if it was always there.

You might wonder if you could remap the memory page when you detect the first read? Unfortunately this doesn’t work. When the thread is resumed it restarts at the faulting instruction and will perform the read again, therefore what would happen is the following:

Directory graph showing states of the double fetch. ① Read Size from Pointer -> ② Page Fault -> ③ Remap Page -> ④ Resume Thread -> Back to ①

As you can tell from the diagram you end up trapped in an infinite loop, as you remap a fresh page which just triggers another page fault ad infinitum. If you don’t perform step ③ then the operation will complete and there is a time window between resuming the thread, reading the now valid memory for the size comparison and the second read. However, in this example the time window is likely to be the order of a couple of instructions so using our exploitation trick isn’t better than the existing probabilistic approaches. That said one advantage is you do know when the read occurs which allows you to target the brute force window more accurately.

This example is the worst case, what if there was more time between the reads? Another example from a the Bochspwn paper is shown below:

PDWORD BufferSize = // controlled user-mode address

PUCHAR BufferPtr  = // controlled user-mode address

PUCHAR LocalBuffer;


LocalBuffer = ExAllocatePool(PagedPool, *BufferSize);①

if (LocalBuffer != NULL) {

  RtlCopyMemory(LocalBuffer, BufferPtr, *BufferSize);②

} else {

  // bail out


The same double fetch behavior is present, however what’s different is the value is passed to another function, in this case ExAllocatePool which allocates kernel memory. Depending of the current memory configuration or how large the allocation requested there might be a significant time delay between ① and ②. Is there any way we can win the race?

Well not that I know of, at least not deterministically. But we can exploit one behavior to try to synchronize the reading and writing threads a little. Recall that in order to write to an unresolved page the contents of the page must first be read from the server. Therefore, to maintain consistency any thread writes to the unresolved page must generate a page fault and wait on the same lock as another thread which is just reading from the page, as shown in the following diagram:

Diagram showing separate read and write threads accessing the same pointer, one for read and one for write. When the page fault occurs both threads enter the same lock and they are both resumed once the lock is released.

By synchronizing the reading and writing threads you’re giving yourself a reasonable chance of causing a write to happen during the time window for exploitation. This is still a probabilistic approach, it depends on the scheduler. For example, it’s possible that the write thread is woken before the read thread which will cause the pointer to always take the final value. Or the read thread could run to completion before the write thread is ever scheduled to run making the value never change. It’s possible there’s some scheduler magic such as using multiple reader or writer threads or by selecting appropriate priorities which you could exploit to guarantee read and write ordering. I’d be surprised if something is reliable across multiple Windows 10 systems. I’d be very interested in anyone who’s got better ideas on how to improve the reliability of this.

One approach you might be wondering about is unaligned access, say splitting the value across two separate pages. From a microarchitecture perspective it’s likely that the read will be split up into two parts, first touching one page then another. However, remember how the page fault works, it generates an exception which causes a handler to execute in the kernel. At this point any work the instruction has already done will have been retired while the kernel deals with the page fault. When the thread is resumed it will restart the faulting instruction, which will reissue the appropriate micro operations to read from the unaligned address. Unless the compiler generated two loads for the unaligned access (which might happen on some architectures) then there is no way I know of to restart the memory access instruction part of the way through.

This all seems slightly downbeat on the usefulness of the exploitation trick. Thing is, there’s as many different types of vulnerability as there are fish in the sea (if you’re reading this in 2100, I apologize for the acidification of the seas which killed all marine life, choose your own apocalypse-appropriate proverb instead). For example if we modify the original example as follows:

PDWORD lpInputPtr = // controlled user-mode address

UCHAR  LocalBuffer[256];


if (lpInputPtr[0] > sizeof(LocalBuffer) || lpInputPtr[1] != 2) {



RtlCopyMemory(LocalBuffer, lpInputPtr, *lpInputPtr);

The check now ensures the buffer is large enough and a second DWORD in the buffer is not set to 2. The second field might represent the buffer type, and type 2 isn’t valid for this request. If you check the compiler output for this code, such as on Godbolt, the difference in native code is 2 or 3 instructions. This would seem to not materially improve the odds of winning the TOCTOU race when using a naïve probabilistic approach. But with our exploitation trick we can now build a deterministic exploit.

Diagram showing access memory for the two reads which can generate a page fault which can allow us to modify the original size value. The central part of the diagram shows a previous page which only contains the Size field and the next page which contains the Type field and the rest of the structure.

The diagram above shows how we can achieve this deterministic exploit. We can place the Size field on a different page to the rest of the input buffer, although the buffer is still contiguous in virtual memory. The first page (N-1) should already be faulted into memory and contain the Size field which is smaller than the LocalBuffer size. We can let the read for the size ① complete normally.

Next the code will read the Type field which is on page N ②. This page isn’t currently in memory and so when it’s accessed a page fault will occur ③. This requires the kernel to read the contents from the file, which we can detect and delay. When the read is detected we have as long as we need to modify the Size field to contain a value larger than the LocalBuffer size ④. Finally we complete the read, which will restart the thread back at the Type field read instruction ⑤. The code can continue and will now read the overly large Size field and cause memory corruption.

The key takeaway is that if between the double fetch points the code touches any user mode memory under your control which is not the one being double fetched it should be possible to convert that into a deterministic exploit. It doesn’t matter if the target system only has a single CPU, what the scheduling algorithm is in the kernel, how many instructions are between the double fetch points or what day of the week it is etc, it should “just work”.

The followup blog post on double-fetch exploitation gives some figures for exploitability. The examples shown up to now, when the right timing window is chosen the chance of success can hit 100% after some number of seconds. However, as shown here we can get 100% reliability on some classes of the same bug, but in the best case this isn’t an improvement other than it being deterministic.

All examples up to now only demonste the exploitation of what the blog post refers to as arithmetic races. The blog also mentions a second class of bug, binary races, which are harder to exploit and never reach 100% success. Let’s look at the example in the blog and see if our exploitation trick would do better.

PVOID* UserPointer = // controlled user-mode address

__try {

   ProbeForWrite(*UserPointer, sizeof(STRUCTURE), 1);①

   RtlCopyMemory(*UserPointer, LocalPointer, sizeof(STRUCTURE));②

} __except {

   return GetExceptionCode();


On the face of it this doesn’t look massively different to previous examples, however in this case the destination pointer is being changed rather than the size. The ProbeForWrite kernel API which checks the pointer is both at a user-mode address and the memory is writable. This is a commonly used idiom to verify a user supplied pointer is not pointing into kernel memory.

If the pointer value is changed between ① and ② from a user mode address to a kernel mode address the example would overwrite kernel memory. The behavior is harder to exploit with a probabilistic exploit as there are only two valid values of the pointer, either a user-mode address or a kernel mode address. If you’re brute forcing the pointer value then it’s possible to end up where both fetches read a user-mode pointer even though it might change to a kernel pointer in between the fetches.

Fortunately, due to the call to ProbeForWrite this is trivial to exploit if you can trap on user memory access as shown in the following diagram:

Diagram showing access to the UserPointer which is then passed to ProbeForWrite. We can generate a page fault when probing the buffer which can allow us to modify the original pointer.

From the diagram the first read from UserPointer is made ① and the resulting pointer value passed to ProbeForWrite. The ProbeForWrite API first checks if the pointer is in the user-mode address space, then probes each page of memory up to the size of the length parameter ②. If the page is invalid or is not writable then an exception will be generated and caught by the example's __except block. This gives us our exploit opportunity, we can use the exploitation trick on the one of the user-mode pages which is being probed which will cause ProbeForWrite to generate a page fault we can trap ③. However as the address being probed is not the same as the one storing the pointer we can modify it to contain a kernel mode address while the request is trapped ④. The result is we can deterministically win the race.

Of course I’ve been focussing on kernel double fetches as it’s what originally drew me to look for this behavior. There are many scenarios where this can be used to aid exploitation of user-mode applications. The most obvious one is where a service is sharing memory with a lower privileged application. An example of this sort of issue was a double-fetch in the DfMarshal COM marshaler. The COM marshaler shared a memory section between processes so it was possible to provide a section which exploited our trick. In the end this trick wasn’t necessary as the logic of the vulnerable code allowed me to create an infinite loop to extend the double fetch window. However if that didn't exist we could use this trick to detect and delay when the code was at the point where the handle could be switched.

Another more subtle use is where a privileged process reads memory from a less privileged process. This might be explicit use of APIs such as ReadProcessMemory or it could be indirect, for example querying for the process’ command line using NtQueryInformationProcess will read out memory locations under our control.

The thing to remember with this exploitation trick is it can be used to open up the window to win a timing race. In this case it’s similar to my previous work on oplocks, but instead for memory access. In fact the access to memory might be incidental to the vulnerable code, it doesn’t have to be a memory double fetch or necessarily even a TOCTOU vulnerability. For example you might be trying to win a race between two file paths with symbolic links. As long as the vulnerable code can be made to probe a user mode address we control then you can use it as a timing signal and to widen the exploitation window.


I’ve described an exploitation trick by combining SMB and the Cloud File API which can aid in demonstrating exploitation of certain types of the application and kernel vulnerabilities. It’s possible that there are other ways of achieving a similar result with APIs I haven’t looked at, but for now this is the best approach I’ve come up with. It allows you to trap on reads from user-mode memory, detect when the access occurs and delay the read for at least 60 seconds. Examples of code to implement the SMB and Cloud File API tricks are available here.

It’s worth just reiterating some more of the limitations of this exploitation trick before we conclude.

  • Can’t be used in a sandbox, only from a normal user privilege.
  • Only allows a one shot for any page mapped from the file. If something else (such as AV) tries to read that page or from the file then the trap may fire early.
  • Can’t detect the exact location of a read, limited to a granularity of 4KiB. For local access via the Cloud File API this will always populate the next 7 pages as well as part of the 32KiB read. If accessing a custom SMB server the read size can be reduced to 4KiB. Would prevent exploitation of certain bugs which require precise trapping only on a small area within a larger structure.
  • Can only detect writes indirectly, can’t specifically trap on a write.

From a practical perspective the trick presented here doesn’t significantly improve the win rates for traditional kernel double fetches outlined in the Bochspwn paper. Realistically for most of those classes of vulnerability you’d probably want to use a probabilistic approach, if anything due to its simplicity of implementation. However the trick is applicable to other bug classes where the memory trap is used as a deterministic timing signal adjunct to the vulnerability.

The one shot nature of the trick also makes it of no real benefit to exploiting simple double fetch code paths. Also more complex code which might read and write to a memory address more than once before you get to the vulnerable code which might make managing traps more difficult.