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Johannes Lauinger
Johannes Lauinger

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Exploitation Exercise with unsafe.Pointer in Go: Information Leak (Part 1)

Go in general is a safe language. It has memory builtin safety measures that should avoid common buffer overflow vulnerabilities, like they often exist in C programs.

The unsafe standard library package defeats this memory safety. With unsafe.Pointer, we can create a pointer of arbitrary type. The compiler can't and won't enforce safety measures on this type of pointer.

In this first of a four-part series on practically exploiting unsafe.Pointer usage, we will cover the possibilities that come with unsafe.Pointer and look at a first potential vulnerability: an information leak.


  1. Information leak (enjoy!)
  2. Code flow redirection (next week and so on)
  3. ROP and spawning a shell
  4. SliceHeader literals

What is this about?

So why did I write this blog post? I am a computer science student at TU Darmstadt, Germany. I am currently writing my Master's thesis on an analysis of real-world usage patterns of the Go unsafe package. As part of the research, I look into actual use cases of unsafe.Pointer references in the biggest open source Go projects, analyze and categorize them, and identify potentially dangerous patterns and vulnerabilities. I am also comparing the unsafe features of Go to the unsafe mode in Rust, as there are some similarities.

As a first step in finding out which usage patterns are dangerous, I created some artificial proof of concepts that demonstrate applications that are vulnerable due to a wrong use of unsafe.Pointer. While doing this, I thought this could be an interesting read or even short exercise for Go developers. If you have some ideas or thoughts on this topic, I'd be very happy to know!

So grab your favorite beverage, fire up your code editor of choice, and enjoy this little journey covering different types of vulnerabilities. We will look at the exact problem in the code and explain why it arises, and discuss possible means of introducing such a problem in the real world.

Buffer overflows, part 1: the stack layout

Let's start with a short discussion of the stack. A stack is a data structure that grows like a tower of things. New items can be pushed onto the stack, and items on the stack can be removed or popped. A CPU uses a stack to keep track of data that is meaningful in the current context. Most importantly, it is used for calling functions. The stack used in the x86_64 architecture is an area in the RAM which is identified by the stack pointer register $rsp.

Pushing something onto the stack is done by decrementing the stack pointer ($rsp) by some amount, e.g. a word (8 byte on 64-bit architecture). Then the data is written to the address where $rsp now points to. Decrementing the stack pointer marks the memory region as belonging to the stack. When popping values from the stack, $rsp is incremented again, marking the memory region as free again. Because $rsp decrements with new data, we can say that the stack grows to the bottom, starting from high addresses in memory and growing to low addresses.

Stack Visualization

When the current program calls a function, the return address as well as some function parameters (more on this in part 3 of this series) are pushed onto the stack, and the processor jumps to the first instruction of the function. This jump is done by setting the instruction pointer register $rip. Then, when the function returns (by executing the ret instruction), the return address is popped from the stack and put into the $rip register. More on this can be read in Eli Bendersky's article Where the top of the stack is on x86.

The function can store local variables on the stack (inside its so-called stack frame). These are pushed onto the stack after the return address and saved registers, meaning the variables are at lower memory addresses than the return address. Furthermore, variables on the stack are located directly next to each other. This is why bounds checking is very important for buffers. Reading or writing outside the bounds of a variable means we are reading or writing other variables. We call this buffer overflow.

This is a visualization of a stack frame for a function:

Stack Frame Layout

Go memory safety

Go employs some safety techniques that prevent buffer overflows, among other vulnerabilities. The type system strictly encodes the buffer length of variables, e.g. we have [8]byte and [16]byte as completely different types with no casting from the short buffer to the long buffer. This prevents the misuse of memory regions which will eventually lead
to a potentially exploitable buffer overflow.

Dangerous operations common to C programs such as pointer casting and the infamous, no-bounds-checking gets() function are therefore impossible with safe Go programs.

However, there exists the unsafe package and with it the unsafe.Pointer type. This pointer type is special in that it can participate in type operations that would otherwise be forbidden:

  1. we can cast any pointer type into unsafe.Pointer
  2. we can cast unsafe.Pointer into any pointer type
  3. we can cast unsafe.Pointer into uintptr, which is essentially the address as an integer
  4. we can cast uintptr into unsafe.Pointer

Points 1 and 2 allow type-casting between arbitrary types, and points 3 and 4 allow pointer arithmetic. With these powers however comes great responsibility: using them removes the safety net of Go, meaning we're back at the security madness of plain C code. The unsafe package must therefore be used only with extreme caution.

Check out Vincent Blanchon's article Go: What is the Unsafe Package for some more details on the possibilities and implications of unsafe Go code.

There are some legitimate use cases for unsafe.Pointer references. Maybe the most important is low-level memory housekeeping operations. For example, the Go standard library itself uses the unsafe package for things like stack allocation and freeing. As a developer, you might need type casting between data structures with the same underlying structure, which might not be possible with standard, safe Go struct types. This can provide some extra performance because you might safe time and memory by not creating an unnecessary copy of the data.

In general, Go memory safety is based on static code analysis at compile time. It uses a conservative approach by design, because when the compiler can not deduce whether a certain program is safe or not, it has to treat it as unsafe. Therefore, you might write a program for which you as the developer know it will be safe at all times, yet the compiler is unable to proof it. In this case, you can use unsafe to tell the compiler that you guarantee the program is correct.

In the following proof of concepts, we will demonstrate some of the potential vulnerabilities that can be introduced surprisingly easy when using unsafe.Pointer.

Information leak POC

In this short proof of concept, let's assume there is a buffer of public data. It is called harmlessData and it might store e.g. the version of the program, or the public display name of a logged-in user.

Behind it, there is a declaration of a secret data buffer. For the sake of the argument, imagine that it might be some private information about a logged-in user, e.g. their password hash or a certificate private key.

func main() {
    // this could be some public information, e.g. version information
    harmlessData := [8]byte{'A', 'A', 'A', 'A', 'A', 'A', 'A', 'A'}
    // however, this could be critical private information such as a private key
    secret := [17]byte{'l', '3', '3', 't', '-', 'h', '4', 'x', 'x', '0', 'r', '-', 'w', '1', 'n', 's', '!'}

    // ...

Next, the buffer is cast into [17]byte. Using the unsafe.Pointer type, we can do any type casting we want, defeating the Go memory safety measures. Here, we cast the buffer into a new byte buffer, but with a bigger size. After this, we print the new (dangerous) buffer.

    // ...
    // (accidentally) cast harmless buffer into a new buffer type of wrong size
    var dangerousData = (*[8+17]byte)(unsafe.Pointer(&harmlessData[0]))

    // print (misused) buffer

Running this script will read the newly created, dangerous buffer. The length information will be inappropriate, and thus the program will read memory after the end of the harmless data, revealing the secret data:

$ go run main.go 

This is an information leak, because we read and send more data than we wanted.

But how could this ever happen? Let's assess a threat model!

Threat model

Admittedly, when the buffer definition and cast are located very close to each other, it is hard to imagine that such a bug would go unnoticed in a production software project. But I would argue that it is far less unlikely for such mistakes to happen if we add some human factors into the equation.

Imagine you work at a large software company which is building some application that has a client/server communication model. The development of the server and client applications has been separated into different teams, and you work in the server team. Now, at some meeting a couple of months ago, you and your colleagues drafted and agreed upon an API specification for the binary communications protocol that you want to use between the client and server. The protocol features a request definition that the client sends to the server. The request data is serialized into a binary stream. Its structure looks like this:

Binary protocol structure

It is a super simple protocol that doesn't even feature variable-length messages. It is just a static byte object with a version, message type, and the actual data. Similar to the request, there is also a response type that looks the same. Now, you and your team printed the diagram weeks ago and put it on your wall to ensure all developers can see it promptly. But what none of you realized is that the client development team agreed on a new version of the protocol, which has a 256 bytes data field to reduce the over-the-wire packet size.

When you implement the server, you are now adding a simple buffer to store request and response objects for later processing. You look at the diagram on the wall and determine that the size of protocol messages is guaranteed to be exactly 516 byte, so initialize a [516]byte variable. To avoid unnecessary copying of the data structure before reaching your buffering function, your team has decided to pass along a reference to the request object. You are using an unsafe.Pointer reference to simplify casting operations. The function you are implementing looks like this:

func buffer_request(req unsafe.Pointer) {
    var buf [516]byte
    buf = *(*[516]byte)(req)
    // use buf for some operations

Now, the problem is that the req parameter, referencing the source data structure somewhere in memory, was created with the new protocol version in mind, i.e. the request packet only takes 260 bytes. But your new buffer is reading 516 bytes, that is 256 bytes too many! When the buffer is sent somewhere else, or shown to the user, you might read and publish 256 extra bytes, containing potentially secret information.

A similar thing could happen in the other direction, when the response object is used.

When you push this new function, and your team does a thorough code review, all your colleagues see the buffer allocation, immediately look at the wall and verify that the request data packet indeed takes exactly 516 bytes. None of them catches the mistake and the software is shipped.

The problem was not a miscalculation, but a miscommunication within the organization, combined with a lack of defensive programming techniques and a missing mindset of the dangers that come with the use of unsafe.Pointer references.

By the way, reading and sending more data than the correct amount might make you remember one of the most dangerous bugs of recent times: the famous Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL (CVE-2014-0160), where a missing bounds check caused a read buffer overrun and leaked private information from the process's memory. However, this example is different in that the length is not provided by an attacker. The length information that OpenSSL failed to verify was supplied as part of the input data to OpenSSL. Here, I crafted an example where the length mismatch is statically coded into the binary because of a mistake the programmers made. A user-supplied length overrun is much more dangerous because it does not cause problems in every run of the software, which makes it even harder to detect.

An example more similar to the Heartbleed bug would require a protocol definition with a length field, and a server application crafting a buffer using that length information. This is possible when manually crafting slices in Go using the reflect.SliceHeader structure, and we will explore that in the next part of this series!

Proof of concept code

I published the proof of concept code for this post, as well as the code for the following parts 2 to 4, in a Github repository:

GitHub logo jlauinger / go-unsafepointer-poc

Golang example code showing dangers with unsafe.Pointer usages

If you'd like to check out the complete code and run it for yourself, you can save yourself some typing by using this repository.


This blog post was written as part of my work on my Master's thesis at the Software Technology Group at TU Darmstadt.

Title picture by Maria Letta. Thanks a lot for her excellent Free Gophers Pack!

Next week we are going to continue with part 2: Code flow redirection!

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