totally not insane
idea of the day

How to crash gdb on OS X

or how to use gdb on iTunes

13 November 2012

In recent years the "Apple is evil" discussion started recurring more and more often.

In last week's edition on the YCombinator, jrockway mentioned a very interesting technical quirk:

[...] I tried to run gdb on iTunes, and gdb segfaulted. I did some research and found that Apple added extra code to the OS just to prevent someone from doing exactly that. They spent additional engineering effort just to lock me out of my own computer. [...]

I won't comment on the evilness, but I can confirm the gdb crash:

$ ps aux|grep iTunes
marek 28880 /Applications/
$ gdb -p 28880
Attaching to process 28880.
Segmentation fault: 11

Whoo! That's interesting. Fortunately comex quickly explained what's going on: there exists a PT_DENY_ATTACH flag to ptrace that explicitly forbids running ptrace on that process. iTunes uses exactly that. Here goes an extract from the manpage ptrace(2):

    [...] it allows a process that is not currently being
    traced to deny future traces by its parent. [...]
    If the process is currently being traced, it will exit
    with the exit status of ENOTSUP; otherwise, it sets
    a flag that denies future traces.  An attempt by the
    parent to trace a process which has set this flag will
    result in a segmentation violation in the parent.

It's pretty funny. According to OS X crashing parent process is sometimes a valid and defined behaviour. I wonder if that signal can be handled and if the kernel code for sending SIGSEGV isn't racy.

mikeash explained how to get around this stupid flag - you just need to override ptrace syscall before iTunes calls it:

$ gdb /Applications/
> b ptrace
> commands
>return 0
> r

That's it. Another day, another useless API.

BTW. Charlie Miller have described this hack in his excellent 2008 Black Hat presentation on OS X.