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Format String Vulnerability

A format string vulnerability is a bug where user input is passed as the format argument to printf, scanf, or another function in that family.

The format argument has many different specifiers which could allow an attacker to leak data if they control the format argument to printf. Since printf and similar are variadic functions, they will continue popping data off of the stack according to the format.

For example, if we can make the format argument "%x.%x.%x.%x", printf will pop off four stack values and print them in hexadecimal, potentially leaking sensitive information.

printf can also index to an arbitrary "argument" with the following syntax: "%n$x" (where n is the decimal index of the argument you want).

While these bugs are powerful, they're very rare nowadays, as all modern compilers warn when printf is called with a non-constant string.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>

int main() {
    int secret_num = 0x8badf00d;

    char name[64] = {0};
    read(0, name, 64);
    printf("Hello ");
    printf("! You'll never get my secret!\n");
    return 0;

Due to how GCC decided to lay out the stack, secret_num is actually at a lower address on the stack than name, so we only have to go to the 7th "argument" in printf to leak the secret:

$ ./fmt_string
Hello 8badf00d3ea43eef
! You'll never get my secret!