Dangers of using dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT

Jan 5

Dangers of using dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT


There are times when you want to wrap a library function in order to provide some additional functionality. A common example of this is wrapping the standard library’s malloc() and free() so that you can easily track memory allocations in your program. While there are several techniques for wrapping library functions, one well-known method is using dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT to locate the wrapped function’s address so that you can correctly forward calls to it.


So what can go wrong? Let’s look at an example:


void* memAlloc(size_t s);
// Allocate a memory block of size 's' bytes.
void memDel(void* p);
// Free the block of memory pointed to by 'p'.


#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <dlfcn.h>
#include "LibWrap.h"

static void* malloc(size_t s) {
   // Wrapper for standard library's 'malloc'.
   // The 'static' keyword forces all calls to malloc() in this file to resolve
   // to this functions.
   void* (*origMalloc)(size_t) = dlsym(RTLD_NEXT,"malloc");
   return origMalloc(s);

static void free(void* p) {
   // Wrapper for standard library's 'free'.
   // The 'static' keyword forces all calls to free() in this file to resolve
   // to this functions.
   void (*origFree)(void*) = dlsym(RTLD_NEXT,"free");

void* memAlloc(size_t s) {
   return malloc(s);
   // Call the malloc() wrapper.

void memDel(void* p) {
   // Call the free() wrapper.


#include <malloc.h>
#include "LibWrap.h"

int main() {
   struct mallinfo beforeMalloc = mallinfo();
   printf("Bytes allocated before malloc: %d\n",beforeMalloc.uordblks);

   void* p = memAlloc(57);
   struct mallinfo afterMalloc = mallinfo();
   printf("Bytes allocated after malloc: %d\n",afterMalloc.uordblks);

   struct mallinfo afterFree = mallinfo();
   printf("Bytes allocated after free: %d\n",afterFree.uordblks);

   return 0;

First compile LibWrap.c into a shared library:

$ gcc -Wall -Werror -fPIC -shared -o libWrap.so LibWrap.c

Next compile Main.c and link it against the libWrap.so that we just created:

$ gcc -Wall -Werror -o Main Main.c ./libWrap.so -ldl

Time to run the program!

$ ./Main
Bytes allocated before malloc: 0
Bytes allocated after malloc: 80
Bytes allocated after free: 0

So far, so good. No surprises. We allocated a bunch of memory and then freed it. The statistics returned by mallinfo() confirm this.

Out of curiosity, let’s look at ldd output for the application binary we created.

$ ldd Main
       linux-vdso.so.1 =>  (0x00007fff1b1fe000)
       ./libWrap.so (0x00007fe7d2755000)
       libdl.so.2 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 (0x00007fe7d2542000)
       libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007fe7d217c000)
       /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007fe7d2959000)
Note The ldd output is from Ubuntu 14.04.1 LTS for x86-64. Your output may differ.

Take note of the relative placement of libWrap.so with respect to libc.so.6: libWrap.so comes before libc.so.6. Remember this. It will be important later.

Now for fun, let’s re-compile Main.c with libc.so.6 explicitly specified on the command-line and coming before libWrap.so:

$ gcc -Wall -Werror -o Main Main.c /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 ./libWrap.so -ldl


$ ./Main
Bytes allocated before malloc: 0
Bytes allocated after malloc: 80
Bytes allocated after free: 80

Uh oh, why are we leaking memory all of a sudden? We de-allocate everything we allocate, so why the memory leak?

It turns out that the leak is occurring because we are not actually forwarding malloc() and free() calls to libc.so.6‘s implementations. Instead, we are forwarding them to malloc() and free() inside ld-linux-x86-64.so.2!

“What are you talking about?!” you might be asking.

Well, it just so happens that ld-linux-x86-64.so.2, which is the dynamic linker/loader, has its own copy of malloc() and free(). Why? Because ld-linux has to allocate memory from the heap before it loads libc.so.6. But the version of malloc/free that ld-linux has does not actually free memory!

Note See elf/dl-minimal.c in glibc source code for ld-linux‘s malloc/free implementation.

But why does libWrap.so forward calls to ld-linux instead of libc? The answer comes down to how dlsym() searches for symbols when RTLD_NEXT is specified. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the dlsym(3) man page:

[RTLD_NEXT] will find the next occurrence of a function in the search order after the current library. This allows one to provide a wrapper around a function in another shared library.

— dlsym(3)

To understand this better, take a look at ldd output for the new Main binary:

$ ldd Main
        linux-vdso.so.1 =>  (0x00007fffe1da0000)
        libc.so.6 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libc.so.6 (0x00007f32c2e91000)
        ./libWrap.so (0x00007f32c2c8f000)
        libdl.so.2 => /lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/libdl.so.2 (0x00007f32c2a8a000)
        /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f32c3267000)

Unlike earlier, libWrap.so comes after libc.so.6. So when dlsym() is called inside libWrap.so to search for functions, it skips libc.so.6 since it precedes libWrap.so in the search order list. That means the searches continue through to ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 where they find linker/loader’s malloc/free and return pointers to those functions. And so, libWrap.so ends up forwading calls to ld-linux instead of libc!

Tip Exercise to the reader: Verify that malloc/free calls are getting forwarded to ld-linux instead of libc by stepping through Main with GDB.

At this point you might be wondering: We ran a somewhat funky command to build our application and then encountered a memory leak due to weird library linking order caused by said command. Isn’t this whole thing a silly contrived scenario?

The answer is unfortunately no. At OptumSoft, we recently encountered this very same memory leak with a binary compiled using the standard ./configure && make on x86-64 Ubuntu 14.04.1 LTS. For reasons we don’t understand, the linking order for the binary was such that using dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT to lookup malloc/free resulted in pointers to implementations inside ld-linux. It took a ton of effort and invaluable help from Mozilla’s rr tool to root-cause the issue. After the whole ordeal, we decided to write a blog post about this strange behavior in case someone else encounters it in the future.


If you find dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT returning pointers to malloc/free inside ld-linux, what can you do?

For starters, you need to detect that a function address indeed does belong to ld-linux using dladdr():

void* func = dlsym(RTLD_NEXT,"malloc");
Dl_info dlInfo;
if(!dladdr(func,&dlInfo)) {
   // dladdr() failed.
if(strstr(dlInfo.dli_fname,"ld-linux")) {
   // 'malloc' is inside linker/loader.

Once you have figured out that a function is inside ld-linux, you need to decide what to do next. Unfortunately, there is no straightforward way to continue searching for the same function name in all other libraries. But if you know the name of a specific library in which the function exists (e.g. libc), you can use dlopen() and dlsym() to fetch the desired pointer:

void* handle = dlopen("libc.so.6",RTLD_LAZY);
// NOTE: libc.so.6 may *not* exist on Alpha and IA-64 architectures.
if(!handle) {
   // dlopen() failed.
void* func = dlsym(handle,"free");
if(!func) {
   // Bad! 'free' was not found inside libc.
Warning dlopen‘ing a library to replace malloc/free is generally frowned upon. Use at your own risk.


  • One can use dlsym() with RTLD_NEXT to implement wrappers around malloc() and free().
  • Due to unexpected linking behavior, dlsym() when using RTLD_NEXT can return pointers to malloc/free implementations inside ld-linux (dynamic linker/loader). Using ld-linux‘s malloc/free for general heap allocations leads to memory leaks because that particular version of free() doesn’t actually release memory.
  • You can check if an address returned by dlsym() belongs to ld-linux via dladdr(). You can also lookup a function in a specific library using dlopen() and dlsym().