CAV'21: research paper

Not All Bugs Are Created Equal, But Robust Reachability Can Tell The Difference

General topic

program reliability and security; reachability; symbolic execution;


Many problems in software verification are encoded as reachability queries of some undesired condition—a bug, the exploitation of a vulnerability, etc. When a verification engine establishes that a certain buggy location in the program is reachable, an input triggering the bug is reported to the developer so that it can be fixed. In the case of techniques based on an under-approximation of program behaviors, like symbolic execution or bounded model checking, we even have in principle the guarantee that the reported issue is real: there are no false positives.

However, things are more subtle in practice, as some bugs can be triggered reliably whereas others only happen in very specific and highly improbable initial conditions. While standard reachability cannot tell the difference, this distinction is crucial in many real-life scenarios, notably in security-oriented contexts (bug triage, bug prioritization, criticality assessment). For example, with symbolic execution one can prove that some executable affected by CVE-2019-15900 is vulnerable when (among others) the initial memory address 0xffefffff contains 42 and the stack starts at 0xfff0001f. On modern systems, the address of the stack is intentionally randomized and changes on each execution, and initial memory can contain anything. For this reason, these specific initial conditions are highly improbable, and the attacker cannot make them happen. As a result, this report does not tell us much about whether this can happen in practice and could be weaponized by an attacker: while symbolic execution rightfully proves that this bug is reachable, it might possibly not be a security issue, but rather a form of false positive.

In fact, we would like to prove a stronger property: can this bug be triggered reliably, e.g. independently of the address of the stack and of the content of initial memory in the example above? The goal of this paper is to introduce a formalisation of this intuition under the form of a new property called robust reachability. Our approach consists in partitioning inputs of the program into controlled inputs and uncontrolled inputs. The initial content of the memory would typically be labeled as uncontrolled (think of “uncontrolled by the attacker”) in typical threat models. A bug is robustly reachable if there exist controlled inputs, such that for all uncontrolled inputs, this bug is reached. In other words, the attacker can take advantage of the bug reliably without relying on good luck to get the right uncontrolled inputs.

Equipped with this new property, we can show that in our executable CVE-2019-15900 is robustly reachable: there are cases where the attacker wins every time, whatever the initial content of memory! This time, the result of the analysis is a clear signal of the threat posed by this bug.


  • We formally introduce the concept of robust reachability and motivate its use, giving practical examples where standard reachability leads to false positives in practice (whatever the underlying verification technology). We also characterize robust reachability in terms of temporal logic and hyperproperties, and compare it with non-interference
  • We revisit Symbolic Execution and Bounded Model Checking and show how they can be lifted to the robust case. While they both have the same deductive power in the standard case, they do not anymore in the robust setting—yet, path merging allows Robust SE to pace up with Robust BMC. Finally, we show how to adapt standard optimizations for Symbolic Execution and Bounded Model Checking
  • We implement and evaluate the first symbolic execution engine dedicated to robust reachability, namely Binsec/RSE. We show how to use it for criticality assessment of 4 existing vulnerabilities (CVEs), and compare it with standard symbolic execution. RSE appears to be tractable with reasonable overhead, yielding false-positive-free symbolic reasoning.

Further information