StackRot: A Significant Linux Kernel Vulnerability - A Review and Recommendations

Posted on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 by Lucas ReesNo comments


The open-source world has recently been shaken by the discovery of a new, critical security vulnerability lurking in the Linux kernel - the lifeline of numerous operating systems worldwide. This flaw, named StackRot (CVE-2023-3269), resides in Linux kernel versions 6.1 to 6.4 and has the potential to provide nefarious actors with escalated privileges on a target host. In this article, we delve into the intricacies of StackRot, review the mitigation efforts taken, and offer recommendations for users to guard against this threat.

Unveiling StackRot

StackRot, as identified by Ruihan Li, a security researcher from Peking University, poses a significant risk to the kernel's memory management subsystem, a critical component responsible for tasks such as implementing virtual memory, managing memory allocation, and mapping files into the process's address space. Worryingly, StackRot is not limited to a specific kernel configuration and can be set off even with minimal capabilities, which underscores the urgent need for effective countermeasures.

The crux of StackRot lies in a data structure known as the 'maple tree,' a B-Tree data type engineered for storing non-overlapping ranges. This structure, which debuted in Linux kernel 6.1 as a replacement for the 'red-black tree' (rbtree), is tasked with managing and storing virtual memory areas (VMAs). StackRot takes the form of a 'use-after-free' bug, which surfaces when the maple tree replaces a node without properly securing the memory management (MM) write lock.

The Exploitation Process

The exploitation of StackRot, while theoretically possible, poses considerable challenges. This stems from the mechanism involved in the liberation of maple nodes. These nodes are released using RCU callbacks, which hold off the actual memory deallocation until the RCU grace period has passed. This delayed deallocation spawns a 'use-after-free' condition, which, though currently unexploited in the wild, is potentially exploitable.

In terms of the technical process, the exploitation flow involves a series of function calls, starting with mm_read_lock(), which acquires a read lock on the memory management structure. This lock plays a crucial role in maintaining concurrency control within the kernel. The flow progresses through functions like expand_stack(), expand_downwards(), mas_store_prealloc(), and mas_wrstory_entry(), among others. The vulnerability culminates in the rcu_dereference_check(node->..) function, where the 'use-after-free' (UAF) event occurs.

Mitigating StackRot

In response to the vulnerability disclosure on June 15, 2023, a patch was developed and integrated into stable versions 6.1.37, 6.3.11, and 6.4.1 by July 1, 2023. The development of this patch, guided by Linus Torvalds, required a two-week investment due to the complex nature of the flaw.

Recommendations for Users

  1. System Updates: Users operating on Linux kernel versions 6.1 to 6.4 are advised to promptly update their systems to the patched versions (6.1.37, 6.3.11, 6.4.1) to guard against potential exploitation.
  2. Stay Informed: As the technical specifics and a proof-of-concept exploit are set to be released by the end of July, users should remain updated to gain a deeper understanding of the vulnerability and frame additional countermeasures.
  3. Consider Your Distribution: With not all major Linux distributions having adopted the affected kernel versions, it is crucial for users to know their distribution's kernel version. Users should opt for a distribution that is either unaffected by StackRot or has integrated the updated fix.


Security vulnerabilities such as StackRot underscore the critical need for proactive system maintenance and staying abreast of developments in the tech space. By rapidly responding to such threats, we can safeguard the continued security and integrity of our digital infrastructure.

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