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Posted Nov 8, 2008
Authored by Derek Soeder

By exploiting either of the VMware flaws described in this document, user-mode code executing in a virtual machine may gain kernel privileges within the virtual machine, dependent upon the guest operating system. The flaws have been proven exploitable on x64 versions of Windows, and they have produced potentially exploitable crashes on x64 versions of *BSD. The Linux kernel does not allow exploitation of these flaws on x64 versions of Linux.

tags | advisory, kernel
systems | linux, windows, bsd
advisories | CVE-2008-4279, CVE-2008-4915, CVE-2008-3890
SHA-256 | 00028132b68b6b52ccbf9adca27a78831980d6aa94845933c21f512a28b129b3


Change Mirror Download
VMware Emulation Flaw x64 Guest Privilege Escalation (2/2)

Derek Soeder

Discovered: January 18, 2008 (Flaw #1), and February 27, 2008 (Flaw #2)
Reported: June 26, 2008
Published: November 7, 2008


(for a complete list, see:
http://www.vmware.com/security/advisories/VMSA-2008-0018.html or
VMware Player 2.0.5-Build 109488
VMware Server 1.0.7-Build 108231
VMware Workstation 6.0.5-Build 109488

VMware Server 1.0.8-Build 126538
(some fixes were silently released with VMSA-2008-0014, see:

VMware Player 2.5
VMware Server 2.0
VMware Workstation 6.5

By exploiting either of the VMware flaws described in this document,
user-mode code executing in a virtual machine may gain kernel
privileges within the virtual machine, dependent upon the guest
operating system. The flaws have been proven exploitable on x64
versions of Windows, and they have produced potentially exploitable
crashes on x64 versions of *BSD. The Linux kernel does not allow
exploitation of these flaws on x64 versions of Linux.

This document describes two x64 instruction emulation flaws,
discovered by the author in the aforementioned versions of VMware
products, which allow user-mode code to cause an illegitimate
kernel-mode exception inside the virtual machine. If the guest
operating system kernel is not written to safely handle such an
exception, it may be possible for user-mode code to interfere with
kernel execution in a way that allows elevation of privileges.

Currently, the only scenario which the author knows to be exploitable
is when the unexpected kernel exception occurs during the very
beginning or very end of a kernel-mode service routine (a generic term
referring to interrupt handlers and system call handlers), on certain
x64 operating systems. Exploitability in such a case depends on the
operating system's use of the x64 SWAPGS instruction as the sole
mechanism for switching the GS base address between user-mode and
kernel-mode system data structures, and it requires that the operating
system act on the data at GS: in an exploitable way, without any
preclusive safety checks. (For more information on SWAPGS and the GS:
segment override in the x64 architecture, see "AMD64 Architecture
Programmer's Manual" Volumes 2 and 3, "24593.pdf" and "24594.pdf".)

The following pseudo-assembly snippet provides a brief illustration of
a typical x64-specific interrupt handler that permits exploitation of
the VMware emulation flaws:


; For a long-mode (64-bit) ISR, RSP points to the following QWORDs:
; [<error code>]
; <return RIP> <return CS> <return RFLAGS>
; [<return RSP> <return SS>]
; The first act of typical ISR prologue code is to build a standard
; "trap frame" on the stack -- saving registers, etc.

... ; GS -> user or kernel

; If the CPL at the time of the fault (recorded in the two least
; significant bits of <return CS>) was zero, then the fault occurred
; in kernel mode; some OSes then assume that kernel GS is already
; active, and will therefore skip the SWAPGS instruction.

TEST [return CS], (1, 2, or 3) ; GS -> user or kernel
JZ Skip_Swap ; GS -> user or kernel

; If the previous mode was user mode, then it is assumed that the
; user GS base address is loaded, so SWAPGS will exchange the
; value in the KernelGSbase MSR (MSR C000_0102h) with the base
; address in the GS shadow descriptor, in effect switching from
; user GS to kernel GS.

SWAPGS ; before: GS -> user; after: GS -> kernel


; Now it's (supposedly) safe to use GS: to access GS-relative kernel
; data structures.

... ; GS -> kernel

; At this point the ISR switches back to user GS if returning to
; user mode; if returning to kernel mode, it leaves kernel GS loaded
;and therefore doesn't need to do SWAPGS.

TEST [return CS], (1, 2, or 3) ; GS -> kernel
JZ Skip_Swap_Back ; GS -> kernel

SWAPGS ; before: GS -> kernel; after: GS -> user


IRETQ ; GS -> user or kernel

If any exception occurs during execution of a kernel-mode service
routine's prologue prior to the initial SWAPGS instruction, or in the
epilogue after the final SWAPGS instruction, then the fault handler
will be invoked with a "return CS" indicating kernel mode, but with a
GS base not guaranteed to be kernel GS, because the interrupted
prologue code did not yet have a chance to execute the SWAPGS
instruction. In other words, the interrupt handler for the exception
could execute with user GS still active, and yet it will not use
SWAPGS to switch to kernel GS because the previous mode was kernel
mode, meaning the handler could then act upon user-controlled data as
though it were trusted kernel data.

The robustness of the SWAPGS model illustrated above is contingent
upon the kernel's ability to prevent exceptions from happening in
kernel-mode code where user GS may still be in effect. Although the
design is not inherently vulnerable, it potentially permits privilege
elevation if user-mode code can force an exception to occur in one of
these delicate regions of kernel code. If the kernel can be tricked
by user-mode code into causing such an exception, then that is a
vulnerability in the operating system. If the CPU provides an
undocumented or unintended means of generating one of these dangerous
exceptions, that is a flaw in the CPU. The two VMware emulation flaws
described in the following paragraphs are essentially defects in the
VMware "virtual CPU" -- they are VMware's responsibility, but
operating system vendors could treat the flaws like processor errata
and update their kernels with appropriate workarounds.

The remainder of this section is devoted to a detailed discussion of
how to reproduce the two VMware emulation flaws.

Flaw #1: Interrupt Can Occur at Non-Canonical RIP After Indirect Jump
(Details of this flaw were published previously on October 3, 2008,
but are reiterated here for the sake of continuity.)

Current x64 architectures define a "canonical" address as a 64-bit
address in which the 16 most significant bits each equal bit 47, or in
other words, a 48-bit address properly sign-extended to 64 bits. Any
other address is non-canonical.

If an indirect jump ("JMP mem") attempts to transfer execution to a
non-canonical RIP, a proper CPU will raise a general protection fault
(#GP) at the address of the JMP instruction, before executing the
instruction. Affected versions of VMware, on the other hand, will
improperly execute the instruction, which assigns a non-canonical
address to RIP, and will then raise a #GP fault because RIP is
non-canonical. Therefore, when the #GP handler is invoked, it will
have a non-canonical address on the stack as its "return RIP" -- this
is an invalid state that will cause the handler to experience a
separate #GP fault if it tries to IRETQ back to the non-canonical RIP.
As depicted in the earlier pseudo-assembly, the IRETQ instruction may
be returning to user mode or to kernel mode, and therefore it may
execute with user GS active. If this IRETQ faults when user GS is
active, an exploitable situation results.

In fact, the #GP fault handler on x64 Windows will not IRETQ back to
user mode at the non-canonical RIP; instead, it invokes the exception
dispatching mechanism, which transfers execution to user mode at a
static canonical address inside NTDLL. However, if an indirect jump
to a non-canonical address is performed repeatedly, a hardware
interrupt will eventually (after a few seconds) occur while execution
is at the non-canonical RIP, meaning the hardware interrupt handler
will receive an invalid stack frame that will cause it to fault at its
IRETQ instruction. The #GP handler will then execute with user GS
active but a return CS indicating kernel mode, yielding the
exploitable scenario described above.

When executed in a loop, the following x64 assembly instructions will
produce a proof-of-concept crash that manifests as a triple fault
(reboot) in affected versions of VMware:

MOV RAX, 0x8000000000000000

Equivalently, in AT&T syntax:

movq $0x8000000000000000, %rax
pushq %rax
jmp *(%rsp)

This emulation flaw does not appear to be reproducible if the "Disable
acceleration" advanced option is selected for the virtual machine.

As an aside, when a similar VMware emulation flaw was disclosed by the
author in September 2006
(http://eeyeresearch.typepad.com/blog/2006/09/another_vmware_.html), a
VMware engineer responded to the effect that the flaw was not
important and would not be fixed because the VMware VMM depends on it
internally (http://x86vmm.blogspot.com/2006/09/yes-virginia-we-deliver-gps-on-control.html).
Nevertheless, the flaw and all known variations have been fixed in
the unaffected versions of VMware software listed above.

Flaw #2: Trap Flag Set by IRET Not Cleared for CCh Instruction (CVE-2008-4915)

If an interrupt occurs when the Trap Flag is set, a proper CPU clears
the Trap Flag before transferring execution to the interrupt handler.
The affected versions of VMware, however, exhibit a flaw in that the
Trap Flag persists across the mode switch when a single-byte "INT 3"
instruction (CCh only, not CDh/03h) executes, if the Trap Flag was set
by a kernel-mode IRET. The result is that user-mode code can cause a
single-step debug trap (#DB) to occur at the very first instruction of
the INT 3 breakpoint (#BP) handler, if it can persuade the kernel to
set the Trap Flag via an IRET. On x64 versions of Windows there are
multiple techniques for accomplishing this, including the
SetThreadContext and ZwContinue APIs, and the method used below.

The following x64 assembly will take advantage of this emulation flaw
on x64 Windows to produce a proof-of-concept triple fault:

PUSH 0x100 ; set RFLAGS.TF (Trap Flag) after POPFQ
POPFQ ; #DB occurs *after* next instruction
LOCK LAHF ; trick to make kernel IRETQ and set TF
INT 3 ; emulation flaw pertains to CCh opcode

Just executing "PUSH 0x100 / POPFQ / INT 3" is insufficient, as a Trap
Flag set in user mode apparently will not be preserved across the "INT
3" switch into kernel mode. Although a SetThreadContext call that
redirects RIP to an "INT 3" instruction and sets RFLAGS.TF would work,
the above assembly takes a different approach.

The LOCK prefix is not allowed on most instructions, including LAHF,
so "LOCK LAHF" causes an undefined opcode (#UD) fault. On x64
Windows, however, the #UD fault handler will actually emulate the LAHF
instruction if it faults, because some x64 processors may not support
SAHF and LAHF in 64-bit mode. (See ECX bit 0, "LahfSahf," for CPUID
function 8000_0001h in the AMD "CPUID Specification", 25481.pdf.) The
LOCK prefix will always force the instruction to cause a #UD fault,
and the Windows instruction decoder (NT!KiOpDecode, called from
NT!KiPreprocessFault) ignores the prefix when determining the
instruction's opcode, so "LOCK LAHF" is as good as an unsupported
LAHF. After determining the faulting instruction's opcode, the
exception dispatching mechanism indirectly calls NT!KiOp_LSAHF, which
advances RIP to point past the instruction, modifies RFLAGS (but not
RFLAGS.TF) or AH as appropriate to accomplish emulation, and indicates
that the fault handler should resume execution rather than dispatch an
exception. As a result, this "LOCK LAHF" instruction leads the kernel
to IRETQ directly to the "INT 3" instruction that follows it, with
RFLAGS.TF still set from the preceding POPFQ, thereby providing an
easy means of exploiting this VMware emulation flaw.

Unlike the first flaw, this flaw is not affected by VMware's "Disable
acceleration" option, and does not require repetition due to a timing
dependency. More important, however, is that this flaw can be
reproduced easily and accidentally, during real-world usage, by
attempting to single-step an "INT 3" instruction in a debugger. It is
likely that other software developers, and possibly security
researchers, have experienced unintended manifestations of this flaw.

This section gives a detailed account of how these emulation flaws can
be exploited on Windows XP x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64.
Exploitation on x64 versions of *BSD is also believed to be possible,
but has not yet been proven, so a brief discussion of the BSD x64
kernel and also the Linux x64 kernel (which is believed to prevent
exploitation) is presented first.

BSD x64

The assembly language entry points for BSD's x64 interrupt handlers
are contained in "src/sys/arch/amd64/amd64/vector.S", and chiefly
consist of the following "INTRENTRY" macro defined in
"src/sys/arch/amd64/include/frameasm.h": (The identifier "SEL_UPL"
that appears below is defined in "segments.h" as the value 3.)

#define INTRENTRY \
subq $32,%rsp ; \
testq $SEL_UPL,56(%rsp) ; \
je 98f ; \
swapgs ; \
movw %gs,0(%rsp) ; \
movw %fs,8(%rsp) ; \
movw %es,16(%rsp) ; \
movw %ds,24(%rsp) ; \

This prologue is simple and lacks any safeguards against exploitation
of the VMware emulation flaws, and in fact, executing the three
AT&T-syntax assembly instructions provided to demonstrate the first
flaw will reboot the system. Exploitability then solely depends on
how GS: is used throughout the rest of the exception handling code.
The "INTRFASTEXIT" macro, also defined in "frameasm.h", similarly
exhibits the simplest possible GS-swapping logic, with no safety

testq $SEL_UPL,56(%rsp) ; \
je 99f ; \
cli ; \
swapgs ; \
movw 0(%rsp),%gs ; \
movw 8(%rsp),%fs ; \
movw 16(%rsp),%es ; \
movw 24(%rsp),%ds ; \
99: addq $48,%rsp ; \

Exploitation of these VMware flaws on BSD is very likely to be
identical to exploitation of FreeBSD kernel vulnerability
CVE-2008-3890 discovered by Nate Eldredge, although this has not been

Linux x64

The Linux kernel is much more careful in its exception handlers, and
although the safeguards do not seem to have been designed with
knowledge of any specific CPU flaws in mind, they nonetheless offer a
general robustness that prevents exploitation of the two VMware
emulation flaws discussed in this document. The relevant Linux kernel
source resides in "arch/x86/entry_64.S".

Most fault handlers, including the #GP fault handler
("general_protection"), are based on either the "errorentry" or
"zeroentry" macro, both of which are defined as code that sets up an
exception frame on the stack, then transfers control to the
"error_entry" routine. The following excerpt illustrates the major
safety check that thwarts exploitation of the first flaw: (Note that
capital "CS" and "RIP" correspond to the stack offsets at which the
return CS and return RIP are stored. Two definitions of
"retint_kernel" are possible, but both lead to "retint_restore_args".)

xorl %ebx,%ebx
testl $3,CS(%rsp)
je error_kernelspace
call *%rax
/* ebx: no swapgs flag (1: don't need swapgs, 0: need it) */
movl %ebx,%eax
testl %eax,%eax
jne retint_kernel
andl %edi,%edx
jnz retint_careful
jmp retint_swapgs

incl %ebx
/* There are two places in the kernel that can potentially fault with
usergs. Handle them here. The exception handlers after
iret run with kernel gs again, so don't set the user space flag.
... */
leaq iret_label(%rip),%rbp
cmpq %rbp,RIP(%rsp)
je error_swapgs
jmp error_sti

retint_swapgs: /* return to user space */
jmp restore_args

retint_restore_args: /* return to kernel space */

Although this code uses SWAPGS in the same way as exploitable kernels,
the code was written to survive kernel exceptions when user GS is
still active, as the block comment suggests. If a fault occurs at the
IRETQ instruction ("iret_label"), the code near "error_kernelspace"
will recognize this and force a GS swap, which keeps the first
emulation flaw from producing a condition where a fault on IRETQ will
lead the exception handler to improperly operate on user GS.
(Interrupt handlers, constructed using the "interrupt" macro, also
flow to the same, shared IRETQ instruction at "iret_label".)

Exploitation of the second flaw is thwarted in an even more elaborate
way, by the use of the "paranoidentry" macro for the #DB trap handler
"debug". The following excerpt shows the code responsible for
sanitizing the GS base address: (Note that "MSR_GS_BASE" refers to
MSR C000_0101h, which contains the currently effective base address of
GS, rather than MSR C000_0102h, which contains the inactive base
address that will be made active by a SWAPGS instruction.)

.macro paranoidentry sym, ist=0, irqtrace=1
movl $1,%ebx
movl $MSR_GS_BASE,%ecx
testl %edx,%edx
js 1f
xorl %ebx,%ebx

If the RDMSR instruction returns a negative EDX (bits 63..32 of the
MSR's contents), then the current GS base address resides in kernel
space, so no SWAPGS is necessary; otherwise, user GS is active, so a
SWAPGS is needed to switch to kernel GS before subsequent kernel code
can safely execute.

Because the #DB trap handler performs the extra sanitization of
"paranoidentry", causing a single-step trap to occur in the INT 3
handler will not produce an exploitable GS mismatch. In short, the
Linux x64 kernel appears immune to attempts to exploit either
emulation flaw.

Windows XP x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64

Reliable exploitation of both VMware emulation flaws has been achieved
on Windows XP x64 and Windows Server 2003 x64, allowing an
unprivileged user to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges.
Since the relevant portions of the two operating systems' kernels are
so similar, the following discussion applies equally to both.

Although the two emulation flaws discussed in this document are
entirely separate, techniques for exploiting them largely overlap.
Either flaw can be used to cause an unexpected kernel exception with
user GS active -- the first flaw causes a #GP fault on the IRETQ of a
hardware interrupt handler (typically NT!KiInterruptDispatchNoLock),
while the second flaw triggers a #DB trap on the first instruction of
the INT 3 handler (NT!KiBreakpointTrap). Whether the #GP fault
handler (NT!KiGeneralProtectionFault) or the #DB trap handler
(NT!KiDebugTrapOrFault) is invoked with user GS and kernel mode
indicated as the previous mode, both end up calling
NT!KiExceptionDispatch, and from this point exploitation is
essentially identical between the two flaws.

Since exploitability hinges entirely on user control of GS during the
execution of GS-dependent kernel code, GS-relative memory accesses in
the code path starting with the interrupt handler are of the most
interest. NT!KiGeneralProtectionFault and NT!KiDebugTrapOrFault both
include the "LDMXCSR DWORD PTR GS:[0x180]" instruction, which will
raise an undesirable #GP fault if that DWORD contains invalid set
flags, so GS:[0x180] (here referring to user GS, which will be treated
like kernel GS during exploitation) should be assigned a value of

The next important GS-relative access occurs in
NT!KiDispatchException, which is called by NT!KiExceptionDispatch.
Early in the function, the sequence "MOV RAX, GS:[0x20] / INC DWORD
PTR [RAX+0x22A0]" is executed. (GS:[0x20] is the "KPCR.CurrentPrcb"
pointer, and the field at offset 0x22A0 from there is
"KPRCB.KeExceptionDispatchCount". On Vista x64, the increment is
simply "INC DWORD PTR GS:[0x34FC]", and therefore cannot be used to
modify arbitrary kernel memory.) Although other, subsequent
GS-relative accesses are performed, controlling this increment alone
is sufficient for exploitation.

After the increment, NT!KiDispatchException calls
NT!KeContextFromKframes and then NT!KiPreprocessFault, neither of
which makes notable use of GS. The next "CALL" instruction, "CALL
QWORD PTR [NT!KiDebugRoutine]", reads a function pointer global
variable that points to NT!KdpStub if the kernel is not being
debugged, or NT!KdpTrap if a kernel debugger is attached to the
system. (This exploitation technique has only been made successful
for cases where the kernel is not being debugged, which is basically
assumed to be the only real-world attack scenario.)

The NT!KiDebugRoutine function pointer is writable and can therefore
be the target of the user-controllable increment. By pointing
GS:[0x20] to &NT!KiDebugRoutine - 0x22A0 before exploiting one of the
emulation flaws, NT!KiDebugRoutine will be incremented, and then its
modified contents (NT!KdpStub + 1) will be called. The first
instruction of NT!KdpStub is "SUB RSP, 0x58", which in machine code is
"48/83/EC/58". Therefore, the instruction that gets executed at
NT!KdpStub + 1 is "83/EC/58", or in assembly, "SUB ESP, 0x58". On the
x64 architecture, instructions that perform a 32-bit write to a
register implicitly zero the upper 32 bits of that register, so in
this case, "SUB ESP, 0x58" subtracts 0x58 from RSP, then clears bits
63..32, resulting in an RSP that points into user-land.

If the kernel stack pointer can be leaked, or even guessed to within a
reasonable range, then memory can be allocated that covers the address
of the DWORD-truncated kernel stack pointer, meaning that the kernel
stack -- and therefore kernel execution -- can be controlled once
NT!KdpStub returns. Because user GS will remain active until the
exploit payload has a chance to execute, any hardware interrupts
(interrupts are enabled before NT!KiExceptionDispatch is called) or
page faults that occur before execution reaches the payload will cause
a cascade of exceptions that culminates in a triple fault (reboot).
Fortunately, the critical window is small, and the exploit can take
steps to reduce these risks, and even relatively reckless exploitation
has proven to be reliable.

Windows Vista x64

As mentioned above, incrementing arbitrary kernel memory is not
possible on Windows Vista x64, because the "INC" instruction of
interest modifies a GS-relative DWORD directly (and therefore can only
increment a DWORD in user GS), rather than dereferencing a pointer
retrieved from a GS-relative field. By carefully crafting user GS
data, it may be possible to allow kernel execution to continue without
disruption until some other exploitable operation is reached (perhaps
RtlCaptureContext as called by KeBugCheckEx), but as of this writing,
no such technique has been attempted.

This document discloses details of two VMware emulation flaws that
have been proven exploitable on Windows XP x64 and Windows Server 2003
x64 for gaining kernel privileges. Excerpts from the *BSD and Linux
x64 kernel source are examined for the sake of illustrating their
presumed exploitability or resilience. Techniques are also presented
for exploiting the "GS mismatch" condition caused by inducing
unexpected kernel exceptions on x64 operating systems; such techniques
are not specific to these VMware flaws, and may be applied in any case
where a GS mismatch arises. Very specific implementation details of
exploitation are omitted.

Other specific means of causing an operating system to experience an
unsafely-handled kernel exception are not considered, as they would
constitute new operating system vulnerabilities. To researchers and
developers interested in finding such vulnerabilities, the author
recommends first examining any kernel code that constructs or modifies
an IRETQ stack frame, since returning to a non-canonical RIP, or
returning to 32-bit mode with RIP >= 4GB, is the most straightforward
way to experience a kernel fault with user GS active.

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