Proxy Functions – The Right Way

As much as I am an Assembly freak, I try to avoid it whenever possible. It’s just something like “pick the right language for your project” and don’t use overqualified stuff. Actually, in the beginning, when I started my patch on the IPhone, I compiled a simple stub for my proxy and then fixed it manually and only then used that code for the patch. Just to be sure about something here – a proxy function is a function that gets called instead of the original function, and then when the control belongs to the proxy function it might call the original function or not.

The way most people do this proxy function technique is using detour patching, which simply means, that we patch the first instruction (or a few, depends on the architecture) and change it to branch into our code. Now mind you that I’m messing with ARM here – iphone… However, the most important difference is that the return address of a function is stored on a register rather than in the stack, which if you’re not used to it – will get you confused easily and experiencing some crashes.

So suppose my target function begins with something like:

SUB SP, SP, #4
ADD R7, SP, #0xC

This prologue is very equivalent to push ebp; mov ebp, esp thing on x86, plus storing a few registers so we can change their values without harming the caller, of course. And the last thing, we also store LR (link-register), the register which stores the return address of the caller.

Anyhow, in my case, I override (detour) the first instruction to branch into my code, wherever it is. Therefore, in order my proxy function to continue execution on the original function, I have to somehow emulate that overriden instruction and only then continue from the next instruction as if the original patched function wasn’t touched. Although, there are rare times when you cannot override some specific instructions, but then it means you only have to work harder and change the way your detour works (instructions that use the program counter as an operand or branches, etc).

Since the return address of the caller is stored onto a register, we can’t override the first instruction with a branch-link (‘call’ equivalent on x86). Because then we would have lost the original caller’s return address. Give it a thought for a second, it’s confusing in the first time, I know. Just an interesting point to note that it so happens that if there’s a function which don’t call internally to other functions, it doesn’t have to store LR on the stack and later pop the PC (program-counter, IP register) off the stack, because nobody touched that register, unless the function needs around 14 registers for optimizations, instead of using local stack variables… This way you can tell which of the functions are leaves on the call graph, although it is not guaranteed.

Once we understand how the ARM architecture works we can move on. However, I have to mention that the 4 first parameters are passed on registers (R0 to R3) and the rest on the stack, so in the proxy we will have to treat the parameters accordingly. The good thing is that this ABI (Application-Binary-Interface) is something known to the compiler (LLVM with GCC front-end in my case), so you don’t have to worry about it, unless you manually write the proxy function yourself.

My proxy function can be written fully in C, although it’s possible to use C++ as well, but then you can’t use all features…

int foo(int a, int b)
 if (a == 1000) b /= 2;

That’s my sample foo proxy function, which doesn’t do anything useful nor interesting, but usually in proxies, we want to change the arguments, before moving on to the original function.

Once it is compiled, we can rip the code from the object or executable file, doesn’t really matter, and put it inside our patched file, but we are still missing the glue code. The glue code is a sequence of manually crafted instructions that will allow you to use your C code within the rest of the binary file. And to be honest, this is what I really wanted to avoid in first place. Of course, you say, “but you could write it once and then copy paste that glue code and voila”. So in a way you’re right, I can do it. But it’s bothersome and takes too much time, even that simple copy paste. And besides it is enough that you have one or more data objects stored following your function that you have to relocate all the references to them. For instance, you might have a string that you use in the proxy function. Now the way ARM works it is all get compiled as PIC (Position-Independent-Code) for the good and bad of it, probably the good of it, in our case. But then if you want to put your glue code inside the function and before the string itself, you will have to change the offset from the current PC register to the string… Sometimes it’s just easier to see some code:

stmfd sp!, {lr} 
mov r0, #0
add r0, pc, r0
bl _strlen
ldmfd sp! {pc}
db “this function returns my length :)”, 0

 When you read the current PC, you get that current instruction’s address + 8, because of the way the pipeline works in ARM. So that’s why the offset to the string is 0. Trying to put another instruction at the end of the function, for the sake of glue code, you will have to change the offset to 4. This really gets complicated if you have more than one resource to read. Even 32 bits values are stored after the end of the function, rather than in the operand of the instruction itself, as we know it on the x86.

So to complete our proxy code in C, it will have to be:

int foo(int a, int b)

 int (*orig_code)(int, int) = (int (*)(int, int))<addr of orig_foo + 4>; 
// +4 = We skip the first instruction which branches into this code!
 if (a == 1000) b /= 2;
// Emulate the real instruction we overrode, so stack is balanced before we continue with original function.
 asm(“sub sp, sp, #4”);
 return orig_foo(a, b);

This code looks more complete than before but contains a potential bug, can you spot it? Ok, I will give you a hint, if you were to use this code for x86, it would blow, though for ARM it would work well to some extent.

The bug lies in the number of arguments the original function receives. And since on ARM, only the 5th argument is passed through the stack, our “sub sp, sp, #4” will make some things go wrong. The stack of the original function should be as if it were running without we touched that function. This means that we want to push the arguments on the stack, ONLY then, do the stack fix by 4, and afterwards branch to the second instruction of the original function. Sounds good, but this is not possible in C. :( cause it means we have to run ‘user-defined’ code between the ‘pushing-arguments’ phase and the ‘calling-function’ phase. Which is actually not possible in any language I’m aware of. Correct me if I’m wrong though. So my next sentence is going to be “except Assembly”. Saved again ;)

Since I don’t want to dirty my hands with editing the binary of my new proxy function after I compile it, we have to fix that problem I just desribed above. This is the way to do it, ladies and gentlemen:

int foo(int a, int b)
 if (a == 1000) b /= 2;
 return orig_foo(a, b);

void __attribute__((naked)) orig_foo(int a, int b)
// Emulate the real instruction we overrode, so stack is balanced before we continue with original function.
 asm(“sub sp, sp, #4\nldr r12, [pc]\n bx r12\n.long <FOO ADDR + 4>”);

The code simply fixes the stack, reads the address of the original absolute foo address, again skipping the first instruction, and branches into that code. Though, it won’t change the return address in LR, therefore when the original function is over, it will return straight to the caller of orig_foo, which is our proxy function, that way we can still control the return values, if we wish to do so.

We had to use the naked attribute (__declspec(naked) in VC) so that the compiler won’t put a prologue that will unbalance our stack again. In any way the epilogue wouldn’t get to run…

This technique will work on x86 the same way, though for branching into an absolute address, one should use: push <addr>; ret.

In the bottom line, I don’t mind to pay the price for a few code lines in Assembly, that’s perfectly ok with me. The problem was that I had to edit the binary after compilation in order to fix it so it’s becoming ready to be put in the original binary as a patch. Besides, the Assembly code is a must, if you wish to compile it without further a do, and as long as the first instruction of the function hasn’t changed, your code is good to go.

This code works well and just as I really wanted, so I thought so share it with you guys, for a better “infrastructure” to make proxy function patches.

However, it could have been perfect if the compiler would have stored the functions in the same order you write them in the source code, thus the first instruction of the block would be the first instruction you have to run. Now you might need to add another branch in the beginning of the code so it skips the non-entry code. This is really compiler dependent. GCC seems to be the best in preserving the functions’ order. VC and LLVM are more problematic when optimizations are enabled. I believe I will cover this topic in the future.

One last thing, if you use -O3, or functions inline, the orig_foo naked function gets to be part of the foo function, and then the way we assume the original function returns to our foo proxy function, won’t happen. So just be sure to peek at the code so everything is fine ;)

2 Responses to “Proxy Functions – The Right Way”

  1. A much simper way of accomplishing this whole mess is how I do it in WinterBoard (which copies the first two instructions into a dynamically generated thunk, and using a PC-relative indirect to directly move the PC to the opposing function), which also has the benefit of not being a binary patch (which is always kind of sketchy and makes upgrades harder; also, with MobileSubstrate, the hope is to centralize such patches to give the user an option of a “Safe Mode” of sorts: running without patches temporarily if something is causing a problem).

  2. arkon says:

    Hi Saurik,
    I took a look at your code, we pretty much did the same thing, (not speaking of disc/runtime patch). So yes, it is simpler in runtime. The only thing, is that you support, what is called, “long calls” (full 32 bit offsets).
    I liked the ‘ldr pc, [pc, #-4]’, as you can see that I used R12, I’m still used to x86 way of thought :(

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