This is a short post about another bug I discovered mostly by accident. While reversing libxpc, I noticed that XPC string deserialization does not check whether the deserialized string is actually as long as the serialized length claims: it could be shorter. That is, the serialized XPC message might claim that the string is 1000 bytes long even though the string contains a null byte at index 100. The resulting OS_xpc_string object will then think its C string on the heap is longer than it actually is.

While directly exploitating this vulnerability to execute arbitrary code is difficult, there’s another path we can take. The length field of an OS_xpc_string object is trusted when serializing the string into a message, so if we can get an XPC service to send us back the string it just deserialized, it will over-read from the heap C-string buffer and send us all of that extra data in the message, giving us a snapshot of that process’s heap memory. The resulting exploit primitive is similar to how the Heartbleed vulnerability could be used to over-read heap data from an OpenSSL-powered server’s memory.

(XP)C strings and null bytes

I was actually disassembling libxpc in order to understand the wire format when I noticed a peculiarity about the string deserialization function, _xpc_string_deserialize:

OS_xpc_string *__fastcall _xpc_string_deserialize(OS_xpc_serializer *xserializer)
    OS_xpc_string *xstring; // rbx@1
    char *string; // rax@4
    char *contents; // [rsp+8h] [rbp-18h]@1
    size_t size; // [rsp+10h] [rbp-10h]@1 MAPDST

    xstring = 0LL;
    contents = 0LL;
    size = 0LL;
    if ( _xpc_string_get_wire_value(xserializer, (const char **)&contents, &size) )
        if ( contents[size - 1] || (string = _xpc_try_strdup(contents)) == 0LL )
            xstring = 0LL;
            xstring = _xpc_string_create(string, size - 1);
            LOBYTE(xstring->flags) |= 1u;
    return xstring;

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that a particular check is missing. The function _xpc_string_get_wire_value seems to get a pointer to the data bytes of the string and the reported length of the string. The code then checks whether the byte at index size - 1 is null before duplicating the string and creating the actual OS_xpc_string object with _xpc_string_create, passing the duplicated string and size - 1.

The check that contents[size - 1] is null does ensure that the serialized string is no longer than size bytes, but it does not ensure that the string is not shorter than size bytes: there could be a null byte earlier in the serialized string data. This is problematic because the unchecked size value gets propagated to the resulting OS_xpc_string object through the function _xpc_string_create, which leads to inconsistencies between the string object’s reported length and actual length on the heap.

Exploitation by XPC message reflection

Any nontrivial exploit would have to leverage the disagreement between the resulting XPC string object’s length and the contents of its heap buffer. This means that we need to find code in some XPC service that uses both length field and the string contents in a significant way. Unfortunately, usage patterns that could lead to memory corruption seemed unlikely; you’d need to write some pretty convoluted code to make a too-short string overwrite a buffer:

xpc_object_t string = xpc_dictionary_get_value(message, "key");
char buf[strlen(xpc_string_get_string_ptr(string))];
memcpy(buf, xpc_string_get_string_ptr(string), xpc_string_get_length(string));

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any iOS services that use XPC strings in a way that could lead to memory corruption.

However, there’s still another way to exploit this bug to perform useful work, and that’s by leveraging libxpc’s own behavior in services that reflect XPC messages back to the client.

Even though no clients of libxpc use an OS_xpc_string object’s length field in a significant way, there are parts of the libxpc library itself that do: in particular, the XPC string serialization code does trust the stored length field while copying the string contents into the XPC message.

This is the decompiled implementation of _xpc_string_serialize:

void __fastcall _xpc_string_serialize(OS_xpc_string *string, OS_xpc_serializer *serializer)
    int type; // [rsp+8h] [rbp-18h]@1
    int size; // [rsp+Ch] [rbp-14h]@1

    type = *((_DWORD *)&OBJC_CLASS___OS_xpc_string + 10);
    _xpc_serializer_append(serializer, &type, 4uLL, 1, 0, 0);
    size = LODWORD(string->length) + 1;
    _xpc_serializer_append(serializer, &size, 4uLL, 1, 0, 0);
    _xpc_serializer_append(serializer, string->string, string->length + 1, 1, 0, 0);

The OS_xpc_string’s length parameter is trusted when serializing the string, causing that many bytes to be copied from the heap into the serialized message. If the deserialized string was shorter than its reported length, the message will be filled with out-of-bounds heap data.

Exploitation is still limited to XPC services that reflect some part of the XPC message back to the client, but this is much more common.

Targeting diagnosticd

On macOS and iOS, diagnosticd is a promising candidate for exploitation, not least because it is unsandboxed, root, and task_for_pid-allow. Diagnosticd is responsible for processing diagnostic messages (for example, messages generated by os_log) and streaming them to clients interested in receiving these messages. By registering to receive our own diagnostic stream and then sending a diagnostic message with a shorter than expected string, we can obtain a snapshot of some of the data in diagnosticd’s heap, which can aid in getting code execution in the process.

I wrote up a proof-of-concept exploit called xpc-string-leak that can be used to sample arbitrarily-sized sections of out-of-bounds heap content from diagnosticd.

The exploit flow is fairly straightforward: we register a Mach port with diagnosticd to receive a stream of diagnostic messages from our own process, generate a diagnostic message with a malformed too-short string, then listen on the port we registered earlier for the message from diagnosticd containing out-of-bounds heap data.

Interestingly, because diagnosticd receives logging messages from other processes, it is possible that the out-of-bounds heap data might contain sensitive information from other processes as well. Thus, there are user privacy implications to this bug even without achieving code execution in diagnosticd.


I discovered this bug early in 2018 (January or February), but forgot to investigate it until May. I reported the issue to Apple on May 9, and it was assigned CVE-2018-4248 and patched in iOS 11.4.1 and macOS 10.13.6 on July 9.