Because task ports have been abused in so many exploits over the years, Apple decided to add a mitigation that protects platform binaries (i.e., binaries with an Apple code signature) from being modified by non-platform binaries via task ports. However, there was a significant limitation to this design: an API called task_threads() that would return the thread ports for all the threads in the task. In this post, we’ll look at the mitigation, the workaround, and implications for exploitation. My threadexec library uses this technique to achieve code execution in platform binaries via a task or thread port on macOS and iOS.

A brief history of task ports

A task port, or more precisely a send right to a task port, is basically just a send right to a Mach port for which the kernel owns the receive right. What makes a task port special is that when the kernel receives a message sent to a task port, rather than enqueueing the message, the kernel will perform an action on the corresponding task. This means that userspace processes can send messages to a task port in order to inspect or control the task. For example, the Mach trap mach_vm_allocate() takes a task port as its first argument and allocates virtual memory in that task, while mach_vm_read() and mach_vm_write() will directly read and write virtual memory in the task.

While this API is has many legitimate uses in a microkernel system like Mach, it also happens to make exploitation much easier: once we obtain the task port of a process, we own it. This fact has made task ports a promising target for exploits, and Apple has taken note.

One relatively recent example is Ian Beer’s mach_portal, which exploited a kernel bug in order to man-in-the-middle connections between the Mach service and its clients. Mach_portal used this capability to get a copy of the task port of powerd, an unsandboxed root process, which was being sent in a Mach message to Once mach_portal had powerd’s task port, it effectively had powerd’s privileges. Sometime after the exploit was disclosed to Apple, unsandboxed root processes no longer sent their task ports in Mach messages.

Not much later, Ian Beer released triple_fetch, an exploit of a shared memory issue in libxpc. This exploit relied heavily on abusing task ports in order to perform actions in other processes. In particular, after getting the task port of coreauthd, triple_fetch could obtain the task port of any other process on the system using the processor_set_tasks() trick, meaning triple_fetch had complete control over every process in userspace. That is, frankly, a shocking amount of privilege: it’s not clear that any process should have that level of control.

The platform binary mitigation

As of iOS 11, Apple has introduced a mitigation designed to prevent such trivial abuse of task ports in exploits. Like most mitigations it is not supposed to block all task port abuse, but it should make the attacker’s job much more difficult. In particular, it should prevent attackers from being able to execute arbitrary code in a process given just a task port.

The mitigation consists of a new function called task_conversion_eval() that gets called when the kernel converts an ipc_port object to a task object using convert_port_to_task(). Here’s the code of this function; caller is the task that wants to operate on the task port, and victim is the task being operated on:

task_conversion_eval(task_t caller, task_t victim)
	 * Tasks are allowed to resolve their own task ports, and the kernel is
	 * allowed to resolve anyone's task port.
	if (caller == kernel_task) {
		return KERN_SUCCESS;

	if (caller == victim) {
		return KERN_SUCCESS;

	 * Only the kernel can can resolve the kernel's task port. We've established
	 * by this point that the caller is not kernel_task.
	if (victim == kernel_task) {

	 * On embedded platforms, only a platform binary can resolve the task port
	 * of another platform binary.
	if ((victim->t_flags & TF_PLATFORM) && !(caller->t_flags & TF_PLATFORM)) {
		if (cs_relax_platform_task_ports) {
			return KERN_SUCCESS;
		} else {
#endif /* SECURE_KERNEL */
#endif /* CONFIG_EMBEDDED */


While the entire function is interesting (especially as it pertains to protecting kernel_task), the part relevant to us is at the bottom, where it says: “On embedded platforms, only a platform binary can resolve the task port of another platform binary.” The subsequent check will deny access if the victim is a platform binary while the calling task is not.

What does this mean in practice? A process is granted platform binary status based on its code signature: in particular, it has to be signed by Apple1. Since any exploit code we write will obviously never be signed by Apple, our attacking process is not a platform binary, and hence task_conversion_eval() will deny us from using convert_port_to_task() on the task port for a platform binary.

Concretely, this means that we can no longer perform some operations on the task ports of Apple-signed processes, which prevents us from using an ill-gotten task port to take control of the process and elevate privileges. mach_vm_*() operations will all fail, as will other APIs like task_set_exception_ports() and thread_create_running(). As prior code injection frameworks relied on these functions, they were all effectively blocked by this mitigation.

What does it actually protect?

I discovered this mitigation while developing an exploit for a system service on iOS 11.2. My exploit payload would run in the context of a privileged process and then send the victim’s task port back to me, so that I could execute code in the victim without having to exploit the bug every time. However, I noticed that operations like mach_vm_read() would fail on the returned task port, and the investigation brought me to the aforementioned mitigation.

Any time you are confronted with a new mitigation, it is worth investigating. Why did they add this mitigation? What is it designed to protect? How does it implement that protection? What does it actually protect? The goal of these questions is to understand both the theory and the practice of the mitigation, and to hopefully find areas where the two disagree.

In our case, that starts with understanding where task_conversion_eval() gets called.

A task port’s many faces

Let’s construct the (reverse) call graph to find all the ways in which task_conversion_eval() can be reached:

├── convert_port_to_locked_task
│   ├── convert_port_to_space               intran ipc_space_t
│   └── convert_port_to_map                 intran vm_map_t
│       └── convert_port_entry_to_map       intran vm_task_entry_t (vm_map_t)
└── convert_port_to_task_with_exec_token
    ├── ipc_kobject_server
    │   └── ...
    └── convert_port_to_task                intran task_t
        ├── task_info_from_user
        └── port_name_to_task
            └── ...

The intran annotations indicate an implicit call site generated by MIG. When the kernel receives a Mach message containing a special type of Mach port, it will automatically translate the ipc_port object to the corresponding kernel object using a translation function specified in MIG when the type was defined. For example, here’s the definition of task_t in mach_types.defs:

type task_t = mach_port_t
		intran: task_t convert_port_to_task(mach_port_t)
		outtran: mach_port_t convert_task_to_port(task_t)
		destructor: task_deallocate(task_t)
#endif	/* KERNEL_SERVER */

This definition tells the autogenerated MIG code in the kernel to convert ipc_port objects into task objects using convert_port_to_task(). For example, here’s the MIG definition for thread_create_running():

 *      Create a new thread within the target task, returning
 *      the port representing that new thread.  The new thread 
 *	is not suspended; its initial execution state is given
 *	by flavor and new_state. Returns the port representing 
 *	the new thread.
                parent_task     : task_t;
                flavor          : thread_state_flavor_t;
                new_state       : thread_state_t;
        out     child_act       : thread_act_t);

When a process calls thread_create_running() in userspace to create a new thread in a task, the userspace MIG code will create a Mach message containing information about the operation and then invoke the mach_msg() Mach trap to transfer control to the kernel. The kernel will see that the destination port (parent_task) is owned by the kernel and handle the message itself, passing the message to the MIG handler. The MIG handling routine will parse the contents of the message and convert the in-kernel task port to the actual task object using convert_port_to_task(). Finally, the MIG handler will call the in-kernel implementation of thread_create_running_from_user() to perform the actual work.

Thus, any time the kernel handles a Mach message directed to a task_t, ipc_space_t, vm_map_t, or vm_task_entry_t, the kernel will use a conversion function that eventually calls out to task_conversion_eval() to check if the current process should be granted access.

Before we go further, it’s worth discussing why a mitigation protecting task ports seems to involve other types besides task_t. In userspace, task_t, ipc_space_t, vm_map_t, and vm_task_entry_t are all identically typedef‘d to mach_port_t (a 32-bit integer). In the kernel, task_t is a pointer to a struct task, ipc_space_t is a pointer to a struct ipc_space, and vm_map_t is a pointer to a struct _vm_map. (vm_task_entry_t actually doesn’t exist in the kernel; convert_port_entry_to_map() returns a vm_map_t.) However, these kernel objects do not get distinct IPC port types: they are all represented by task ports. The reason for this is that a task_t can be uniquely converted into a vm_map_t or ipc_space_t, so using a task port in a place that expects either of the other types is unambiguous. The effect of this from userspace is that even though thread_create_running() claims to take a task_t while mach_vm_read() claims to take a vm_map_t, you pass a task port to both.

Going back to the mitigation, calling task_conversion_eval() when a process wants to operate on these types seems like a robust defense; after all, every code injection library that operates on task ports relies on at least one function that sends a message to one of the four restricted types.

However, there are other types besides ipc_space_t, vm_map_t, and vm_task_entry_t to which a task port can be converted: if you look in mach_types.defs and ipc_tt.c, you’ll see that a task port also has conversions defined for the MIG types task_name_t, task_inspect_t, and ipc_space_inspect_t. A little digging reveals that these are restricted versions of their more-powerful siblings: they are used for routines that will inspect a task without modifying it in any way. You can see the difference in this example from task.defs:

 *	Returns the current value of the selected special port
 *	associated with the target task.
routine task_get_special_port(
		task		: task_inspect_t;
		which_port	: int;
	out	special_port	: mach_port_t);

 *	Set one of the special ports associated with the
 *	target task.
routine task_set_special_port(
		task		: task_t;
		which_port	: int;
		special_port	: mach_port_t);

Here, task_get_special_port() is an inspection routine: it can be used to get a copy of a task’s special ports. On the other hand, task_set_special_port() is a modification routine: it can be used to change the value of a task’s special ports. The semantic distinction between the behavior of these functions is encoded in the type of task port to which the message is sent. Since task_get_special_port() operates on a task_inspect_t, this indicates that the function cannot modify the task; conversely, since task_set_special_port() operates on a task_t, this indicates that the function can modify the task.

Thus, we’ve discovered an important limitation of the mitigation: it does not restrict using a task port in functions that take a task_name_t, task_inspect_t, or ipc_space_inspect_t. Thus, while we could not call mach_vm_read() on the task port of a platform binary, we could call task_get_special_port() on it.

Where to search for workarounds

While ostensibly we can’t use an inspection right to modify a task, there are 2 huge caveats.

First, it’s important to note that the kernel itself makes no distinction between a task_t and a task_inspect_t: they are both typedefs to a struct task pointer. Thus, the semantics of task_t versus task_inspect_t govern how processes should expect the kernel to behave, not how the kernel will necessarily behave in reality. Nothing prevents a kernel implementation of task_get_special_port() that modifies the corresponding task. If we can find a MIG routine that takes an inspection right and yet still modifies the task, then we may be able to bypass the mitigation.

Second, even if a task_inspect_t cannot be used to modify a task directly, that does not mean that it cannot be used to modify a task indirectly. For example, task_get_special_port() does not modify the corresponding task, but it does give us a copy of the task’s special ports, which could in theory be used to modify the task (for example, by sending messages to a port used by the task). If we can find a MIG routine that takes an inspection right and produces another object we can control, then we may be able to bypass the mitigation.

This gives us a pretty good idea of how to search for bypasses to the mitigations: look at all MIG routines that handle a task_name_t, task_inspect_t, or ipc_space_inspect_t and see whether any of them modifies the task or produces a capability to modify the task.


Early in this search I came across the function task_threads():

 *	Returns the set of threads belonging to the target task.
routine task_threads(
		target_task	: task_inspect_t;
	out	act_list	: thread_act_array_t);

This function takes a task_inspect_t right and returns a list of thread ports for the threads in a task. The returned threads are actually thread_act_t rights, not thread_inspect_t rights, which means we can call functions like thread_set_state() on them. This is critical, since thread_set_state() sets the values of the registers in a thread!

This means that we have a complete bypass to the platform binary task port mitigation: call task_threads() on the task port to get a list of thread ports, then call thread_set_state() on one of the returned thread ports to directly set the pc register in that thread.

Arbitrary code execution via task ports on iOS 11

Of course, there’s still a very practical gap between being able to set the pc register and being able to call arbitrary functions with arbitrary arguments. To bridge that gap I wrote threadexec. The rest of this post describes how threadexec uses a task port to obtain arbitrary code execution in that task.

For simplicity, I will refer to the context of the injecting process as “local” and the context of the injected process as “remote”.

Our goal is to use the task port of the remote process to:

  1. call arbitrary functions with arbitrary arguments in the remote process and get the return value;
  2. read and write memory in the remote process; and
  3. transfer Mach ports (send or receive rights) between the local and remote tasks.

These capabilities are sufficient for most exploits.

Step 1: Thread hijacking

The first thing we do is call task_threads() on the task port to get a list of threads in the remote task and then choose one of them to hijack. Unlike traditional code injection frameworks, we can’t create a new remote thread because thread_create_running() will be blocked by the new mitigation.

Hijacking an existing thread means that we will be interfering with the normal functionality of the process into which we are injecting. However, this library was specifically designed to be used in exploits where we don’t care about breaking functionality of the victim.

Once we have the thread port of the remote thread we will hijack, we can call thread_suspend() to stop the thread from running.

At this point, the only useful control we have over the remote thread is stopping it, starting it, getting its register values, and setting its register values.2 In particular, we have no ability to read or write memory in the remote thread, which is crucial for more complex tasks we may want to make the victim process do. Thus, we will have to figure out how to gain full control of the remote thread’s memory by building some sort of execution primitive out of this access.

Fortunately, the arm64 architecture and calling convention make it easy to build a function calling primitive even without a read/write primitive. The standard calling convention allows us to place the first 8 (integral) arguments in registers; as long as the functions we want to call take no more than 8 arguments (which is a very generous requirement), we do not have to set up the stack prior to the call, allowing us to get by without a memory write capability. Also, the return value is specified in a register (rather than on the stack like x86-64), which gives us an easy way to control what happens after the executed function returns.

That being said, even if we don’t write to its memory, we still need a valid stack pointer to begin with. Fortunately, we hijacked a previously initialized and running thread, so the sp register already points to a valid stack.

Thus, we can initiate a remote function call by setting registers x0 through x7 in the remote thread to the arguments, setting pc to the function we want to execute, and starting the thread. This will cause the remote thread to run the function with the supplied arguments, and then the function will return. At this point, we need to detect the return and make sure that the thread doesn’t crash.

There are a few ways to go about this. One way would be to register and exception handler for the remote thread using thread_set_exception_ports() and to set the return address register, lr, to an invalid address before calling the function; that way, after the function runs an exception would be generated and a message would be sent to our exception port, at which point we can inspect the thread’s state to retrieve the return value. However, for simplicity I copied the strategy used in Ian Beer’s triple_fetch exploit, which was to set lr to the address of an instruction that would infinite loop and then poll the thread’s registers repeatedly until pc pointed to that instruction.

At this point we have a basic execution primitive: we can call arbitrary functions with up to 8 arguments and get the return value. However, we are still a long way from our goal.

Step 2: Mach ports for communication

The next step is to create Mach ports over which we can communicate with the remote thread. These Mach ports will be useful later in helping transfer arbitrary send and receive rights between the tasks.

In order to establish bidirectional communication, we will need to create two Mach receive rights: one in the local task and one in the remote task. Then, we will need to transfer a send right to each port to the other task. This will give each task a way to send a message that can be received by the other.

Let’s first focus on setting up the local port, that is, the port to which the local task holds the receive right. We can create the Mach port just like any other, by calling mach_port_allocate(). The trick is to get a send right to that port into the remote task.

A convenient trick we can use to copy a send right from the current task into a remote task using only a basic execute primitive is to stash a send right to our local port in the remote thread’s THREAD_KERNEL_PORT special port using thread_set_special_port(); then, we can make the remote thread call mach_thread_self() to retrieve the send right.

Next we will set up the remote port, which is pretty much the inverse of what we just did. We can make the remote thread allocate a Mach port by calling mach_reply_port(); we can’t use mach_port_allocate() because the latter returns the allocated port name in memory and we don’t yet have a read primitive. Once we have a port, we can create a send right by calling mach_port_insert_right() in the remote thread. Then, we can stash the port in the kernel by calling thread_set_special_port(). Finally, back in the local task, we can retrieve the port by calling thread_get_special_port() on the remote thread, giving us a send right to the Mach port just allocated in the remote task.

At this point, we have created the Mach ports we will use for bidirectional communication.

Step 3: Basic memory read/write

Now we will use the execute primitive to create basic memory read and write primitives. These primives won’t be used for much (we will soon upgrade to much more powerful primitives), but they are a key step in helping us to expand our control of the remote process.

In order to read and write memory using our execute primitive, we will be looking for functions like these:

uint64_t read_func(uint64_t *address) {
    return *address;
void write_func(uint64_t *address, uint64_t value) {
    *address = value;

They might correspond to the following assembly:

    ldr     x0, [x0]
    str     x1, [x0]

A quick scan of some common libraries revealed some good candidates. To read memory, we can use the property_getName() function from the Objective-C runtime library:

const char *property_getName(objc_property_t prop)
    return prop->name;

As it turns out, prop is the first field of objc_property_t, so this corresponds directly to the hypothetical read_func above. We just need to perform a remote function call with the first argument being the address we want to read, and the return value will be the data at that address.

Finding a pre-made function to write memory is slightly harder, but there are still great options without undesired side effects. In libxpc, the _xpc_int64_set_value() function has the following disassembly:

    str     x1, [x0, #0x18]

Thus, to perform a 64-bit write at address address, we can perform the remote call:

_xpc_int64_set_value(address - 0x18, value)

With these primitives in hand, we are ready to create shared memory.

Step 4: Shared memory

Our next step is to create shared memory between the remote and local task. This will allow us to more easily transfer data between the processes: with a shared memory region, arbitrary memory read and write is as simple as a remote call to memcpy(). Additionally, having a shared memory region will allow us to easily set up a stack so that we can call functions with more than 8 arguments.

To make things easier, we can reuse the shared memory features of libxpc. Libxpc provides an XPC object type, OS_xpc_shmem, which allows establishing shared memory regions over XPC. By reversing libxpc, we determine that OS_xpc_shmem is based on Mach memory entries, which are Mach ports that represent a region of virtual memory. And since we already have shown how to send Mach ports to the remote task, we can use this to easily set up our own shared memory.

First things first, we need to allocate the memory we will share using mach_vm_allocate(). We need to use mach_vm_allocate() so that we can use xpc_shmem_create() to create an OS_xpc_shmem object for the region. xpc_shmem_create() will take care of creating the Mach memory entry for us and will store the Mach send right to the memory entry in the opaque OS_xpc_shmem object at offset 0x18.

Once we have the memory entry port, we will create an OS_xpc_shmem object in the remote process representing the same memory region, allowing us to call xpc_shmem_map() to establish the shared memory mapping. First, we perform a remote call to malloc() to allocate memory for the OS_xpc_shmem and use our basic write primitive to copy in the contents of the local OS_xpc_shmem object. Unfortunately, the resulting object isn’t quite correct: its Mach memory entry field at offset 0x18 contains the local task’s name for the memory entry, not the remote task’s name. To fix this, we use the thread_set_special_port() trick to insert a send right to the Mach memory entry into the remote task and then overwrite field 0x18 with the remote memory entry’s name. At this point, the remote OS_xpc_shmem object is valid and the memory mapping can be established with a remote call to xpc_shmem_remote().

Step 5: Full control

With shared memory at a known address and an arbitrary execution primitive, we are basically done. Arbitrary memory reads and writes are implemented by calling memcpy() to and from the shared region, respectively. Function calls with more than 8 arguments are performed by laying out additional arguments beyond the first 8 on the stack according to the calling convention. Transferring arbitrary Mach ports between the tasks can be done by sending Mach messages over the ports established earlier. We can even transfer file descriptors between the processes by using fileports (special thanks to Ian Beer for demonstrating this technique in triple_fetch!).

In short, we now have full and easy control over the victim process. You can see the full implementation and the exposed API in the threadexec library.


This post has analyzed a new mitigation Apple implemented to prevent the abuse of task ports in exploits and has shown how that mitigation can be bypassed with task_threads() to abuse task ports once again. We have also seen a way to build a full-featured arbitrary code execution library on top of the bare-bones execution primitive provided by the loophole. The full code is available in my threadexec repository.

I reported this bypass to Apple on April 13, 2018, as part of my blanket exploit.


  1. There is a way to spawn non-Apple signed binaries with TF_PLATFORM if you have task_for_pid-allow; see amfidupe, which is part of blanket

  2. In fact, there’s a lot more we could do, including messing with exception and debug state. However, I limited threadexec to execution-only primitives to show how it could be done.