How to break everything by fuzz testing

Published on Apr 26, 2020

Chimp sat at a typewriter
Fuzz testing is a bit like the infinite monkey theorem, but instead of Shakespeare you get crashes.

Fuzz testing, if you’re not aware, is a form of testing that uses procedurally generated random inputs to see how a program behaves. For instance, if you were fuzz testing a web page renderer you might generate a bunch of HTML - some valid, and some not - and make sure the rendering process didn’t unexpectedly crash.

Fuzz testing doesn’t readily lend itself to all types of software, but it particularly shines in cases where some kind of complex user input is accepted and processed in some way - like the aforementioned web page renderer. I was recently adding a library to parse EXIF data to images to an Internet-facing service and realised it was a perfect opportunity to do some fuzz testing. Even if I didn’t find any issues, I’d improve my confidence that the library was safe enough to expose to the Internet.

Breaking my EXIF library

I wrote a quick harness to run go-fuzz on the library, and gave it some pre-existing demo files as sample input. The way go-fuzz works is that it instruments your code and then mutates the inputs to try to improve the coverage. For example, if I had some sample data that had an EXIF tag with a value of 1 then go-fuzz might change it to a 2 and see if the code follows a different path. In most cases it won’t but when it does, they tend to be very interesting cases.

One of the first issues that go-fuzz found was that some values in a maker note field would cause the library to panic (i.e., crash). This happened because there was a check to see if the first six characters were “Nikon” and a null byte, without first checking to see if there were actually six characters available. This is a kind of bug that doesn’t happen much with “real” data - as the field is either not present or completed correctly - but could easily be exploited once this code is exposed to the Internet.

Another interesting bug that go-fuzz found was that if a tag had a particularly large count, the library would try to allocate an obscene amount of memory and die. There was already a check in the code that was meant to avoid this exact scenario, but go-fuzz managed to find a way around it. Each tag has a size (for example an integer tag takes a fixed number of bytes) and a count; the existing check multiplied the two together and made sure that the result wasn’t too large. For most cases this was fine but go-fuzz found a case where the count was so large that when multiplied by the size of the tag it overflowed the integer and became negative, thus passing the sanity check but then subsequently failing when it came around to actually allocating the memory.

The final bug of note that go-fuzz found was the most interesting. EXIF data is stored in IFDs (“Image File Directories”), and each IFD provides what is effectively a pointer (a byte offset) to the next one. The EXIF library already had a check to make sure that these didn’t loop, but it only checked the immediately preceding IFD - so if IFD 1 linked to IFD 2, it would catch IFD 2 linking back to IFD 1 and break the loop with an error. Go-fuzz found that having three interlinked IFDs had the same issue, though, and the guard code wasn’t triggered. This created an infinite loop, maxing out a CPU core until the process was eventually killed - one of the worst kind of bugs you could have in an Internet-facing service which doesn’t deal with private data! The fix for this was fairly straightforward - I just made the library keep a record of the previously visited IFDs and bail out if it found a loop.

Breaking my IDE

When go-fuzz detects an issue it outputs not only the details of the problem (the stack trace, error message, and so forth) but also the input that generated the problem. This is useful for reproducing and making sure the issue is fixed, but it also makes it really easy to write a test to ensure that the behaviour never regresses in the future.

As I was working through fixing the bugs that go-fuzz found, I dutifully added new tests where needed. After adding the sample input with looping IFDs to the project, I switched to IDEA to write a test to use it. I clicked on the input file to copy the file name, and then the entire IDE hung and had to be restarted. Uh oh! When I restarted IDEA, it immediately began indexing the project and again hung. It turns out IDEA parses EXIF data (presumably, even if it does nothing else with the data, to get the rotation property for images), and the library they use - an independent one written on Java - had the same bug as the Go library I was using.

In order to stop IDEA from indexing the file and becoming unusable I renamed it from a ‘.tif’ extension to ‘.dat’, and everything went back to normal. I thought I’d best report the bug to JetBrains, though, so they could put a proper fix in.

Breaking YouTrack

JetBrains use their own issue tracker called YouTrack for reporting bugs in IDEA. I dutifully went over and described the problem, attaching the log files from the IDE, a description of how the file was malformed, and carefully selected the .dat version of the file to upload so that it wouldn’t cause anyone else the same immediate problem.

After trying to upload the file I got a strange error back. Uh oh! I submitted the IDEA issue as it stood, unable to see if the attachments had even uploaded, and went and wrote up an issue for YouTrack itself about the error message. While I was doing that, YouTrack seemed to slow down and become really annoying to use. I had a sinking feeling the exact same thing was probably happening as with IDEA and my library - but this time YouTrack had content-sniffed the file instead of relying on the file extension. In hindsight, I should’ve put the file in a passworded archive to ensure no automated tools got hold of it. I marked the issue as a security problem as in a service like YouTrack it presents a denial-of-service opportunity1 (remember when I said it was one of the worst kinds of bugs you could have in an Internet-facing service?…)

Shortly after I raised my YouTrack ticket, a notice appeared at the top of the page saying they were investigating the current performance issues. Uh oh! I was holding out hope that this was unrelated to me uploading the buggy dat file, but the timing all seemed a bit suspect. I shot support an e-mail saying I think I might be the root cause for their performance issues and linked to the ticket. In the time it took me to e-mail them, the entire site had been put into maintenance mode. I got an e-mail back a few hours later confirming the outage was in fact all my fault, as I’d feared. Within the space of days the JetBrains security team had fixed the issue in YouTrack, which was a pretty nice turnaround.

So if you were trying to access YouTrack at the start of March and couldn’t - I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to! Also, if you’re building an Internet-facing service that takes user input you should really consider running a fuzz tester against it!


  1. “We have a problem”. “Remember, there are no such things as problems, only opportunities”. “Well then we have a DDoS opportunity.” – @J4vv4d ↩︎

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