GOT and PLT for pwning.

Tags:Pwning, Linux

So, during the recent 0CTF, one of my teammates was asking me about RELRO and the GOT and the PLT and all of the ELF sections involved. I realized that though I knew the general concepts, I didn’t know as much as I should, so I did some research to find out some more. This is documenting the research (and hoping it’s useful for others).

All of the examples below will be on an x86 Linux platform, but the concepts all apply equally to x86-64. (And, I assume, other architectures on Linux, as the concepts are related to ELF linking and glibc, but I haven’t checked.)

High-Level Introduction

So what is all of this nonsense about? Well, there’s two types of binaries on any system: statically linked
and dynamically linked
. Statically linked binaries are self-contained, containing all of the code necessary for them to run within the single file, and do not depend on any external libraries. Dynamically linked binaries (which are the default when you run gcc
and most other compilers) do not include a lot of functions, but rely on system libraries to provide a portion of the functionality. For example, when your binary uses printf
to print some data, the actual implementation of printf
is part of the system C library. Typically, on current GNU/Linux systems, this is provided by
, which is the name of the current GNU Libc library.

In order to locate these functions, your program needs to know the address of printf
to call it. While this could be written into the raw binary at compile time, there’s some problems with that strategy:

  1. Each time the library changes, the addresses of the functions within the library change, when libc is upgraded, you’d need to rebuild every
    binary on your system. While this might appeal to Gentoo users, the rest of us would find it an upgrade challenge to replace every binary every time libc received an update.
  2. Modern systems using ASLR load libraries at different locations on each program invocation. Hardcoding addresses would render this impossible.

Consequently, a strategy was developed to allow looking up all of these addresses when the program was run and providing a mechanism to call these functions from libraries. This is known as relocation
, and the hard work of doing this at runtime is performed by the linker, aka
. (Note that every
dynamically linked program will be linked against the linker, this is actually set in a special ELF section called .interp
.) The linker is actually run before
any code from your program or libc, but this is completely abstracted from the user by the Linux kernel.


Looking at an ELF file, you will discover that it has a number of sections, and it turns out that relocations require several
of these sections. I’ll start by defining the sections, then discuss how they’re used in practice.

This is the GOT, or Global Offset Table. This is the actual table of offsets as filled in by the linker for external symbols.
This is the PLT, or Procedure Linkage Table. These are stubs that look up the addresses in the .got.plt
section, and either jump to the right address, or trigger the code in the linker to look up the address. (If the address has not been filled in to .got.plt
This is the GOT for the PLT. It contains the target addresses (after they have been looked up) or an address back in the .plt
to trigger the lookup. Classically, this data was part of the .got
It seems like they wanted every combination of PLT and GOT! This just seems to contain code to jump to the first entry of the .got. I’m not actually sure what uses this. (If you know, please reach out and let me know! In testing a couple of programs, this code is not hit, but maybe there’s some obscure case for this.)

TL;DR: Those starting with .plt
contain stubs to jump to the target, those starting with .got
are tables of the target addresses.

Let’s walk through the way a relocation is used in a typical binary. We’ll include two libc functions: puts
and exit
and show the state of the various sections as we go along.

Here’s our source:

// Build with: gcc -m32 -no-pie -g -o plt plt.c


int main(int argc, char **argv) {
  puts("Hello world!");

Let’s examine the section headers:

There are 36 section headers, starting at offset 0x1fb4:

Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name              Type            Addr     Off    Size   ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [12] .plt              PROGBITS        080482f0 0002f0 000040 04  AX  0   0 16
  [13]          PROGBITS        08048330 000330 000008 00  AX  0   0  8
  [14] .text             PROGBITS        08048340 000340 0001a2 00  AX  0   0 16
  [23] .got              PROGBITS        08049ffc 000ffc 000004 04  WA  0   0  4
  [24] .got.plt          PROGBITS        0804a000 001000 000018 04  WA  0   0  4

I’ve left only the sections I’ll be talking about, the full program is 36 sections!

So let’s walk through this process with the use of GDB. (I’m using the fantastic GDB environment provided by pwndbg
, so some UI elements might look a bit different from vanilla GDB.) We’ll load up our binary and set a breakpoint just before puts
gets called and then examine the flow step-by-step:

pwndbg> disass main
Dump of assembler code for function main:
   0x0804843b :	lea    ecx,[esp+0x4]
   0x0804843f :	and    esp,0xfffffff0
   0x08048442 :	push   DWORD PTR [ecx-0x4]
   0x08048445 :	push   ebp
   0x08048446 :	mov    ebp,esp
   0x08048448 :	push   ebx
   0x08048449 :	push   ecx
   0x0804844a :	call   0x8048370 
   0x0804844f :	add    ebx,0x1bb1
   0x08048455 :	sub    esp,0xc
   0x08048458 :	lea    eax,[ebx-0x1b00]
   0x0804845e :	push   eax
   0x0804845f :	call   0x8048300 
   0x08048464 :	add    esp,0x10
   0x08048467 :	sub    esp,0xc
   0x0804846a :	push   0x0
   0x0804846c :	call   0x8048310 
End of assembler dump.
pwndbg> break *0x0804845f
Breakpoint 1 at 0x804845f: file plt.c, line 7.
pwndbg> r
Breakpoint *0x0804845f
pwndbg> x/i $pc
=> 0x804845f :	call   0x8048300 

Ok, we’re about to call puts. Note that the address being called is local to our binary, in the .plt
section, hence the special symbol name of [email protected]
. Let’s step through the process until we get to the actual puts

pwndbg> si
pwndbg> x/i $pc
=> 0x8048300 :	jmp    DWORD PTR ds:0x804a00c

We’re in the PLT, and we see that we’re performing a jmp, but this is not a typical jmp. This is what a jmp to a function pointer would look like. The processor will dereference the pointer, then jump to resulting address.

Let’s check the dereference and follow the jmp. Note that the pointer is in the .got.plt
section as we described above.

pwndbg> x/wx 0x804a00c
0x804a00c:	0x08048306
pwndbg> si
0x08048306 in [email protected] ()
pwndbg> x/2i $pc
=> 0x8048306 :	push   0x0
   0x804830b :	jmp    0x80482f0

Well, that’s weird. We’ve just jumped to the next instruction! Why has this occurred? Well, it turns out that because we haven’t called puts
before, we need to trigger the first lookup. It pushes the slot number (0x0) on the stack, then calls the routine to lookup the symbol name. This happens to be the beginning of the .plt
section. What does this stub do? Let’s find out.

pwndbg> si
pwndbg> si
pwndbg> x/2i $pc
=> 0x80482f0: push   DWORD PTR ds:0x804a004
   0x80482f6: jmp    DWORD PTR ds:0x804a008

Now, we push the value of the second entry in .got.plt
, then jump to the address stored in the third entry. Let’s examine those values and carry on.

pwndbg> x/2wx 0x804a004
0x804a004:  0xf7ffd918  0xf7fedf40

Wait, where is that pointing? It turns out the first one points into the data segment of
, and the 2nd into the executable area:

0xf7fd9000 0xf7ffb000 r-xp    22000 0      /lib/i386-linux-gnu/
0xf7ffc000 0xf7ffd000 r--p     1000 22000  /lib/i386-linux-gnu/
0xf7ffd000 0xf7ffe000 rw-p     1000 23000  /lib/i386-linux-gnu/

Ah, finally, we’re asking for the information for the puts
symbol! These two addresses in the .got.plt
section are populated by the linker/loader (
) at the time it is loading the binary.

So, I’m going to treat what happens in
as a black box. I encourage you to look into it, but exactly how
it looks up the symbols is a little bit too
low level for this post. Suffice it to say that eventually we will reach a ret from the code that resolves the symbol.

pwndbg> x/i $pc
=> 0xf7fedf5b:  ret    0xc
pwndbg> ni
pwndbg> info symbol $pc
puts in section .text of /lib/i386-linux-gnu/

Look at that, we find ourselves at puts
, exactly where we’d like to be. Let’s see how our stack looks at this point:

pwndbg> x/4wx $esp
0xffffcc2c: 0x08048464  0x08048500  0xffffccf4  0xffffccfc
pwndbg> x/s *(int *)($esp+4)
0x8048500:  "Hello world!"

Absolutely no trace of the trip through .plt
, or anything but what you’d expect from a direct call to puts.

Unfortunately, this seemed like a long
trip to get from main
to puts
. Do we have to go through that every time? Fortunately, no. Let’s look at our entry in .got.plt
again, disassembling [email protected]
to verify the address first:

pwndbg> disass '[email protected]'
Dump of assembler code for function [email protected]:
   0x08048300 :	jmp    DWORD PTR ds:0x804a00c
   0x08048306 :	push   0x0
   0x0804830b :	jmp    0x80482f0
End of assembler dump.
pwndbg> x/wx 0x804a00c
0x804a00c:	0xf7e4b870
pwndbg> info symbol 0xf7e4b870
puts in section .text of /lib/i386-linux-gnu/

So now, a call [email protected]
results in a immediate jmp
to the address of puts
as loaded from libc. At this point, the overhead of the relocation is one extra jmp. (Ok, and dereferencing the pointer which might cause a cache load, but I suspect the GOT is very often in L1 or at least L2, so very little overhead.)

How did the .got.plt
get updated? That’s why a pointer to the beginning of the GOT was passed as an argument back to
did magic and inserted the proper address in the GOT to replace the previous address which pointed to the next instruction in the PLT.

Pwning Relocations

Alright, well now that we think we know how this all works, how can I, as a pwner, make use of this? Well, pwning usually involves taking control of the flow of execution of a program. Let’s look at the permissions of the sections we’ve been dealing with:

Section Headers:
  [Nr] Name              Type            Addr     Off    Size   ES Flg Lk Inf Al
  [12] .plt              PROGBITS        080482f0 0002f0 000040 04  AX  0   0 16
  [13]          PROGBITS        08048330 000330 000008 00  AX  0   0  8
  [14] .text             PROGBITS        08048340 000340 0001a2 00  AX  0   0 16
  [23] .got              PROGBITS        08049ffc 000ffc 000004 04  WA  0   0  4
  [24] .got.plt          PROGBITS        0804a000 001000 000018 04  WA  0   0  4

Key to Flags:
  W (write), A (alloc), X (execute), M (merge), S (strings), I (info),

We’ll note that, as is typical for a system supporting NX, no section has both the Write and eXecute flags enabled. So we won’t be overwriting any executable sections, but we should be used to that.

On the other hand, the .got.plt
section is basically a giant array of function pointers! Maybe we could overwrite one of these and control execution from there. It turns out this is quite a common technique, as described in a 2001 paper from team teso
. (Hey, I never said the technique was new.) Essentially, any memory corruption primitive that will let you write to an arbitrary (attacker-controlled) address will allow you to overwrite a GOT entry.


So, since this exploit technique has been known for so long, surely someone has done something about it, right? Well, it turns out yes, there’s been a mitigation since 2004
. Enter relocations read-only, or RELRO
. It in fact has two levels of protection: partial and full RELRO.

Partial RELRO (enabled with -Wl,-z,relro

  • Maps the .got
    section as read-only (but not
  • Rearranges sections to reduce the likelihood of global variables overflowing into control structures.

Full RELRO (enabled with -Wl,-z,relro,-z,now

  • Does the steps of Partial RELRO, plus:
  • Causes the linker to resolve all symbols at link time (before starting execution) and then remove write permissions from .got
  • .got.plt
    is merged into .got
    with full RELRO, so you won’t see this section name.

Only full RELRO protects against overwriting function pointers in .got.plt
. It works by causing the linker to immediately look up every symbol in the PLT and update the addresses, then mprotect
the page to no longer be writable.


The .got.plt
is an attractive target for printf
format string exploitation and other arbitrary write exploits, especially when your target binary lacks PIE, causing the .got.plt
to be loaded at a fixed address. Enabling Full RELRO protects against these attacks by preventing writing to the GOT.


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