CY 2550 - Foundations of Cybersecurity

Project 5: Exploits

This project is due at 11:59pm on Friday, April 12, 2019.

Description and Deliverables

In this project, you will gain hands on experience leveraging exploits to make a program do unexpected things that were not intended by the programmer. The assignment is structured as a Capture The Flag (CTF), which is a common format in cybersecurity competitions. You will be given access to a vulnerable program, and your task is to locate six flags hidden in the program and its surrounding files. You are required to find five flags; the sixth flag is considerably more challenging, and is worth bonus points.

To receive full credit for this project, you will turn in a single file:

  1. A file named flags.txt.asc that contains the flags that you will capture from the target program. This file must be signed using your private GPG key, and encrypted using the class GPG public key.
The exact format of this deliverable is described in detail below.

Getting Started with Expense Management

Happy Funtime Plastic Co, Inc. uses a piece of software developed in-house for tracking expenses made by employees. This software is run on the command line, and allows users to add expenses (with a description and an amount), view their saved expenses, and delete expenses that were entered incorrectly. The program uses a SQLite3 database to store expenses. The command line syntax of the program is as follows:
/home/accounting$ ./expense 
This program allows users to track their expenses. It has commands for adding, viewing, and deleting
expenses. Administrators may add, view, or delete expenses for any user. The program also keeps a log
of all changes to facilitate offline auditing.

Usage: ./expense [--admin] <--command> [arguments]
    --help                           Displays this message
    --add <Description> <Amount>     Adds an expense for the current user
    --list                           Lists all expenses for the current user
    --del <ID>                       Deletes the current user's expense with the given ID

Additional commands are available to administrators. See the developer docs for more information.
The basic commands available to users are --add, --list, and --del. There are other commands and options available to system administrators; this additional functionality is accessed by passing the --admin option to the program. However, access to admin functionality is password protected.

As security auditors, you have been given access to the expense program in a secure environment for testing. To access the expense program, SSH into For example:

$ ssh <username>@
where <username> is your Khoury College username. You will be emailed a password to access this system.

The expense program is available in the /home/accounting directory on

The expense program is written in C. The (slightly redacted) source code for the program is available here.

Identifying Flags

Your goal is to locate the six flags hidden in the expense program and it's surrounding files. You are required to find at least five flags; the sixth flag is a bonus. All flags are located somewhere within the the /home/accounting directory; there is no need to search other locations in the file system. All flags follow the following format:
SECRET_FLAG_<10 characters of random uppercase, lowercase, and digits>
For example, a secret flag might look like this:
The secret flags can be anywhere within the /home/accounting directory: inside the expense program, inside databases, inside files, etc. It is 100% feasible to find all six flags; none have been hidden in such a way that it requires wizard-level exploitation skills, or raw amounts of brute force, to locate.


To make this assignment fun for everyone, we ask that students obey some basic rules of decorum. Any student that fails to follow these rules, i.e. intentionally attempts to make mischief, will receive a zero on the assignment. That said, we understand that mistakes happen! If you accidentally make changes to project files that you believe may hinder others' abilities to complete the assignment, let us know immediately and we will repair the situation.

If you so desire, attacking the operating system is considered within bounds. If you achieve root, getting all the flags should be trivial. If you do choose to attack the OS, all we ask is that you do not take destructive actions that (1) leave the server in an unusable state; (2) harm your classmates or their files; or (3) generally prevent other students from completing the assignment.

Exploitation Tips

Locating all six flags will require you to examine the C source code of the expense program, carefully investigate the program's command line behavior, and investigate the file system around the expense program. Several of the exploits necessary to find the flags are related to topics we discussed in class. Others will require you to think creatively ;)

The source code for the expense program is relatively simple, and well documented. However, online C language tutorials may be useful for students who have never seen code in the language before.

The expense program makes use of a SQLite3 database. Many online resources exist that describe SQL query syntax in general, and SQLite3-specific queries in particular.

Unfortunately, the source code for the expense program has been redacted. Thus, you may need to employ binary analysis tools that allow you to inspect and disassemble the contents of compiled programs. Tools like hexdump, strings, and objdump may come in handy; the man pages for these programs offer help about their capabilities and syntax. A debugger like gdb may be useful for more advanced exploits.

Common programming tools like Python, gcc, g++, nasm, and make are available on the server. If there are additional tools available via apt that you would like installed, send an email or private Piazza message to Professor Wilson.

File Format for flags.txt.asc

To receive full credit on this assignment, you must turn in a single (ASCII formatted with Unix-style line breaks) text file named flags.txt.asc that contains the flags that you have recovered. Note the .asc file extension: this is the default extension used by GPG when it produces encrypted files.

You should create a file named flags.txt that contains your captured flags. Each flag should be on its own line. For example, your flags.txt file might look like the following:

Your file should contain at least five flags.

Take your flags.txt file and encrypt and sign it with GPG. By default, this will produce a new, encrypted and signed file named flags.txt.asc. This is the file you will turn in. Make sure to sign the file using your private key, and encrypt it using the class GPG public key.

Submitting Your Project

Before turning in the project, you must register yourself for our grading system using the following command:
$ /course/cs2550sp19/bin/register-student [NUID]
NUID is your Northeastern ID number, including any leading zeroes. This command is available on all of the Khoury College lab machines.

In this assignment, you will turn in exactly one file:

You submit your project by running the turn-in script as follows:
$ /course/cs2550sp19/bin/turnin project5 <project directory>
where <project directory> is the name of the directory with your submission. The script will print out every file that you are submitting, so make sure that it prints out all of the files you wish to submit! The turn-in script will not accept submissions that are missing flags.txt.asc. You may submit as many times as you wish; only the last submission will be graded, and the time of the last submission will determine whether your assignment is late.

At any time, you can run the following command to see all of your current grades for projects, essays, quizzes, and tests.

$ /course/cs2550sp19/bin/gradesheet


This project is worth 10% of your final grade, broken down as follows (out of 100): Points can be lost for turning in files in incorrect formats (e.g. not UNIX-line break ASCII), failing to follow specified formatting and naming conventions, or encrypting/signing your file using the wrong keys.


CTF projects are puzzles: they're best when students are allowed to figure things out for themselves. Thus, we're reluctant to post tips openly that would give away key aspects of the game. That said, if you feel stuck, or like you don't know where to begin, that is okay! Please talk to the professor or the TAs privately, either on Piazza, email, or office hours, and we will be happy to help you get started. We want everyone to enjoy the CTF, so if you feel like you're not making progress and the project is giving you grief, come talk to us!