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Lab 7 - Bomb

A Mad Programmer got really mad and created a slew of “binary bombs”. Each binary bomb is a program, running a sequence of phases. Each phase expects you to type a particular string. If you type the correct string, then the phase is defused and the bomb proceeds to the next phase. Otherwise, the bomb explodes by printing “BOOM!!!”, telling us it did so, and then terminating.

Work together

In lab, we strongly encourage you to work with one another. Reading binary is much more fun and effective with someone else to talk to.

You should not work together on phase 2, that is HW.


You’ll use the same bomb for this lab and for the following HW.

For lab, you need to either (a) have a TA record that you were part of a team that defused phase 1 or (b) defuse phase 1 on your bomb.

For the HW, you’ll need to defuse additional phases on your own.

Each time your bomb explodes it notifies the bomblab server. If we’re notified of your bomb exploding 20 times we’ll start removing points.

How to proceed

  1. Download a binary bomb.
  2. Copy the bomb.tar file to the portal
    • You should either scp bomb.tar or add the tar file to a git repository.
    • We strongly suggest using the portal node for running and defusing your bomb.
  3. Extract the bomb using tar -xvf bomb.tar.
  4. cd bomb# (where # is your bomb number).
  5. Read the README
  6. You are welcome to look at bomb.c – it isn’t very interesting, though
  7. Do whatever you need to understand what the bomb is doing
  8. Only run the bomb ./bomb once you are confident you can defuse a phase (or at least avoid an explosion)
  9. Once you pass a phase visit the scoreboard to verify that we saw your success.


If you run your bomb with a command line argument, for example, ./bomb psol.txt, then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches EOF (end of file), and then switch over to the command line. This will keep you from having re-type solutions.

Because you want to avoid explosions, you’ll want to set a breakpoint before you run the program so that you can stop the program before it gets to a the function that does the exploding.

You might find it useful to run, objdump --syms bomb to get a list of all symbols in the bomb file, including all function names, as a starting point on where you want your breakpoint.

The best way is to use your favorite debugger to step through the disassembled binary. Almost no students succeed without using a debugger like lldb or gdb. We recommend using lldb. On the department machines, you can enable lldb buy running module load clang-llvm. You will need to run this module load command in each new terminal (the setting will not persist).

To avoid accidentally detonating the bomb, you will need to learn how to single-step through the assembly code and how to set breakpoints. You will also need to learn how to inspect both the registers and the memory states.

It may be helpful to use various utilities for examining the bomb program outside a debugger, as described in “examining the executable” below.

Bomb Usage

  • The bomb ignores blank input lines.

  • If you run your bomb with a command line argument, for example,

     linux> ./bomb psol.txt

    then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches EOF (end of file), and then switch over to stdin. This will keep you from having re-type solutions.

Examining the Executable

  • objdump -t will print out the bomb’s symbol table. The symbol table includes the names of all functions and global variables in the bomb, the names of all the functions the bomb calls, and their addresses. You may learn something by looking at the function names!

  • objdump -d will disassemble all of the code in the bomb. You can also just look at individual functions. Reading the assembler code can tell you how the bomb works.

    If you prefer to get Intel syntax disassembly from objdump, you can use objdump -M intel -d.

  • strings is a utility which will display the printable strings in your bomb.

Using LLDB

  • If you are on a department Unix machine, module load clang-llvm first (this needs to be done once per terminal), so lldb is available.

  • Run bomb from a debugger like lldb instead of running it directly. The debugger will allow you to stop the bomb before it detonates.

    For example, if I ran

    linux> lldb bomb
    (lldb) b methodName
    (lldb) run
    (lldb) kill

    this will start lldb, set a breakpoint at methodName, and run the code. The code will halt before it runs methodName; calling kill will stop the bomb and exit the current debugging session without methodName running.

  • Walk through code using one of

    • nexti goes one assembly instruction at a time, skipping over function calls
    • stepi goes one assembly instruction at a time, entering function calls
    linux> lldb bomb
    (lldb) b lineNumberForPhase1Call
    (lldb) run

    input test passphrase here

    (lldb) register read
    (lldb) fame variable

    Generally some parameters are local variables and some are stored in registers and others on the stack; if none are on the stack, frame variables prints nothing. Strings are stored as pointers so you’ll need to “examine” what they point to. Try looking at several as if they are strings:

    (lldb) x/s anAddressDisplayedByRegisterReadOrFrameVariable

    You can also look at the assembly directly

    (lldb) disas

    And walk through it instruction by instruction

    (lldb) nexti

    keep nextiing until you see strings_not_equal method (a suspicious name that might be checking your passphrase)

    (lldb) register read
    (lldb) frame variable

    Which one holds your passphase? Try “examining” that and others…

  • Some useful lldb commands:

    (lldb) frame variable
    prints out the name and value of local variables in scope at your current place in the code, if any.

    (lldb) register read
    prints the values of all registers except floating-point and vector registers

    (lldb) x/20bx 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in hexadecimal bytes.

    (lldb) x/20bd 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in decimal bytes.

    (lldb) x/gx 0x...
    examine the value of the 8-byte integer stored at the specified memory address.

    (lldb) x/s 0x...
    examines the value stored at the specified memory address. Displays the value as a string.

    (lldb) x/s $someRegister
    examines the value at register someRegister. Displays the value as a string (assuming the register contains a pointer).

    Note it is x/s $rdi in lldb, not %rdi like it would be in assembly.

    (lldb) print expr
    evaluates and prints the value of the given expression

    call (void) puts (0x...)
    calls the built-in output method puts with the given char * (as a memory address). See man puts for more.

    (lldb) disas methodName
    get the machine instruction translation of the method methodName.

    (lldb) disas
    get the machine instruction translation of the currently executing method.

    (lldb) x/6i 0x...
    try to disassemble 6 instructions in memory starting at the memory address 0x…

    (lldb) b *0x...
    set a breakpoint at the specified memory address (0x…).

    (lldb) b function_name.
    set a breakpoint at the beginning of the specified function.

    (lldb) nexti
    step forward by one instruction, skipping any called function.

    (lldb) stepi
    step forward by one instruction, entering any called function.

    (lldb) kill
    termiante the program immediately

    (lldb) help
    brings up lldb’s built-in help menu

On interpreting the disassembly

  • Reviewing the x86-64 calling convention may be helpful.

  • The C standard library function sscanf is called __isoc99_sscanf in the executable. Try man sscanf for more information about this library function.

  • %fs:0x1234 refers to a value in a “thread-local storage” region at offset 0x1234. The bomb only has one thread (using multiple threads would allow the bomb to do multiple things at once, but that is not something the bomb needs), so this is effectively a region for extra global variables. In the bomb, this appears mostly to implement stack canaries, a security feature designed to cause out-of-bounds accesses to arrays on the stack to more consistently trigger a crash.

  • Pay attention to the names of functions being called.

  • Disassembling a standard library function instead of reading the documentation for the function is probably a waste of time.

  • Some of the things later phases might be using include:

    • calls to scanf (which is a formatted read; try man scanf or Wikipedia for more)
    • linked data structure traversal
    • recursion
    • string literals
    • switch statements

Copyright © 2022 John Hott, portions Luther Tychonievich.
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