ARCUS: Symbolic Root Cause Analysis of Exploits in Production Systems


Carter Yagemann, Georgia Institute of Technology; Matthew Pruett, Georgia Tech Research Institute; Simon P. Chung, Georgia Institute of Technology; Kennon Bittick, Georgia Tech Research Institute; Brendan Saltaformaggio and Wenke Lee, Georgia Institute of Technology


End-host runtime monitors (e.g., CFI, system call IDS) flag processes in response to symptoms of a possible attack. Unfortunately, the symptom (e.g., invalid control transfer) may occur long after the root cause (e.g., buffer overflow), creating a gap whereby bug reports received by developers contain (at best) a snapshot of the process long after it executed the buggy instructions. To help system administrators provide developers with more concise reports, we propose ARCUS, an automated framework that performs root cause analysis over the execution flagged by the end-host monitor. ARCUS works by testing “what if” questions to detect vulnerable states, systematically localizing bugs to their concise root cause while finding additional enforceable checks at the program binary level to demonstrably block them. Using hardware-supported processor tracing, ARCUS decouples the cost of analysis from host performance.

We have implemented ARCUS and evaluated it on 31 vulnerabilities across 20 programs along with over 9,000 test cases from the RIPE and Juliet suites. ARCUS identifies the root cause of all tested exploits — with 0 false positives or negatives — and even finds 4 new 0-day vulnerabilities in traces averaging 4,000,000 basic blocks. ARCUS handles programs compiled from upwards of 810,000 lines of C/C++ code without needing concrete inputs or re-execution.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {272110,
author = {Carter Yagemann and Matthew Pruett and Simon P. Chung and Kennon Bittick and Brendan Saltaformaggio and Wenke Lee},
title = {{ARCUS}: Symbolic Root Cause Analysis of Exploits in Production Systems},
booktitle = {30th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 21)},
year = {2021},
isbn = {978-1-939133-24-3},
pages = {1989--2006},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

Presentation Video