Writing shellcode in Rust

September 1, 2020 - 5 min read

In my Google CTF entry for writeonly this year, I wrote my first stage shellcode in C, which was somewhat novel in and of itself, as it seemed like few people were willing to brave linker scripts to be able to write shellcode in C. My hubris does not stop at C, however, and the crab language seemed well suited for a port.

Source code here

As with the previous C implementation, what we are doing here, with this particular CTF challenge is fundamentally the same thing as operating system kernels generally do, where they are loaded into memory with memcpy, then jumped to without any real setup.

The first step was figuring out how to generate an executable with nothing in it. I consulted an OS dev guide for how to do this, and we do essentially the same thing here, but adding our own section attribute to make sure the linker places the function correctly.



fn panic(_: &core::panic::PanicInfo) -> ! {
    loop {}

#[link_section = ".text.prologue"]
pub extern "C" fn _start() -> ! {
    loop {}

The next step was to set up Cargo. A trivial Cargo.toml is written, with panic = "abort" set to avoid any unwinding machinery. opt-level = "z" initially ballooned my code size, but after turning on LTO on advice of a Rust size optimization guide, I got a massive win in code size, for the first time getting under 255 bytes.


name = "shellcode"
edition = "2018"
version = "0.0.0"

panic = "abort"

panic = "abort"
# these two cut code size by 2/3
opt-level = "z"
lto = true


rustflags = ["-C", "link-arg=-nostdlib", "-C", "link-arg=-static", "-C", "link-arg=-Wl,-Tshellcode.ld,--build-id=none"]

Internally, on Linux, Rust uses gcc as a linker, so I took the meaningful gcc linking-stage flags and ported them directly over, and they just worked.

Back to programming, I needed system calls. After very briefly considering using a libc to deal with this stuff and throwing out the idea out of code size concerns, I just grabbed the same assembly routines from the C implementation. Rust has a really nice inline asm syntax which makes asm declarations clearer, and also has far better error messages than Clang or GCC provide with their respective assemblers, so this required a slight bit of porting.

unsafe fn syscall2(scnum: u64, arg1: u64, arg2: u64) -> u64 {
    let ret: u64;
        in("rax") scnum,
        in("rdi") arg1,
        in("rsi") arg2,
        out("rcx") _,
        out("r11") _,
        lateout("rax") ret,

Compare to the C equivalent:

static inline long syscall2(long n, long a1, long a2)
    unsigned long ret;
    __asm__ __volatile__ ("syscall" : "=a"(ret) : "a"(n), "D"(a1), "S"(a2) : "rcx", "r11", "memory");
    return ret;

which uses hard-to-see colons as delimeters for the input, output, and clobber lists and shortened single character versions of the registers that are sometimes capitals if there are two with the same letter, e.g. rdx and rdi. Also, if you're using Clang, there is no way to use Intel syntax for inline assembly.

The final step was to port the shellcode itself, which needs steal the child PID from its caller's stack, make a path to /proc/1234/mem, where 1234 is the child PID, then call open(2), lseek(2), then write(2). I got most of the way through a direct port, struggling a little bit with string manipulation in fixed stack buffers, until someone on the Rust Discord pointed out that extra slashes in paths are discarded, allowing a special itoa function to be written that simply overwrites the path in place.

Specifically, it's possible to just do this:

    let mut buf: [u8; 21] = *b"/proc////////////mem\0";
    //                     start writing here ^
    my_itoa(pid, &mut buf[6..16]);

and not worry about any extra slashes, which will be ignored. This also allows the itoa implementation to avoid having to reverse the string simply by writing from the end to the start. This also cut the code size in half, avoiding having to construct a string dynamically.

The rest of the shellcode was essentially the same as the C implementation, which I also ported to using this trick, out of interest in code size comparison.


Rust: 168 bytes of code

C: 157 bytes of code

I have not further dug into why there is an extra 11 bytes of code size for Rust. I believe that this result demonstrates that Rust can indeed be used for writing simple shellcode payloads with the same fitness for purpose as C, however at the size and level of complexity tested, nothing can be concluded about the relative developer productivity benefits of the two languages for this application.

One annoying disadvantage of Rust is that I can't just #include <sys/syscall.h> or other headers and get the various constants used in system calls. It was not difficult to write a short C program to get these numbers, but it wouldn't have been necessary in a C payload.