• 3 September 2019: Corrected link to department machine connection instructions to more current version.


A Mad Programmer got really mad and planted a slew of “binary bombs” on our class machines. A binary bomb is a program that consists of a sequence of phases. Each phase expects you to type a particular string on stdin. If you type the correct string, then the phase is defused and the bomb proceeds to the next phase. Otherwise, the bomb explodes by printing "BOOM!!!" and then terminating. The bomb is defused when every phase has been defused.

There are too many bombs for us to deal with, so we are giving each student a bomb to defuse. Your mission is to defuse your bomb before the due date. Good luck, and welcome to the bomb squad!

Your task

  • Obtain a “binary bomb” as described below.
    • Note that this program will automatically communicate with our server. This is how you will be graded.
    • If your bomb “explodes”, it will notify our server. Too many explosions will lose you points.
  • The bomb program will ask you for a secret input.
  • Defuse the “phases” of the bomb by figuring out (e.g. using a debugger) what the secret input for each “phase” is.
    (You will not get credit for using the debugger to jump over the code that checks whether the input is valid;
    the bomb must send a correct input to our server.)
  • For lab: defuse phase 1.
    • You will get full credit for defusing phase 1 with less than 20 explosions.
    • There is a small grade penalty for explosions beyond 20.
  • For homework: defuse phases 2 and 3.
    • You will get full credit for defusing phases 2 and 3 with less than 30 explosions.
    • There is a small amount of extra credit for each additional phase defused.
    • There is a small grade penalty for explosions beyond 30.


There is no explicit submission. The bomb will notify your instructor automatically about your progress as you work on it.

Viewing your results

You can see your grade, updated with about a 1-hour delay on the gradebook.

There is scoreboard showing how many explosions and phases defused all bombs have here,
which is updated more frequently.

About Collaboration

For phase 1, anything goes. Being a lab, you can work together as much as you want.

For phases 2 and beyond, it is homework so more restrictions apply.
You are welcome to discuss with one another the process and tools you use, but please do not look at or describe one another’s code.

Obtaining your bomb

  1. Use Linux. This lab only works on 64-bit Linux machines.
    The department Unix machines qualify; see these instructions if you need help accessing them remotely.
  2. You can obtain your bomb by pointing your Web browser at: will display a binary bomb request form for you to fill in. Enter your computing ID and email address and hit the Submit button. The server will build your bomb and return it to your browser in a tar file called bomb.tar, where k is the unique number of your bomb.Save the bombk.tar file to a (protected) directory in which you plan to do your work. Then give the command: tar -xvf bombk.tar. This will create a directory called ./bombk with the following files:
    • README: Identifies the bomb and its owners.
    • bomb: The executable binary bomb.
    • bomb.c: Source file with the bomb’s main routine and a mad greeting from the Mad Mad Programmer.

    If for some reason you request multiple bombs, this is not a problem. Choose one bomb to work on and delete the rest.

Getting bombs from ssh

If you are trying to do the lab without a browser on the machine being used, try the following:

curl "$USER&usermail=$" > bomb.tar
mv bomb.tar $(head -1 bomb.tar | cut -d'/' -f1).tar

Note, this might fail if the remote machine you run it on is not a department machine because $USER might not be set correctly by other machines. Replace $USER with your computing ID if you are running this command e.g. in cloud9, koding, or codio.


Basic Strategy

  • The best way is to use your favorite debugger to step through the disassembled binary. Almost no students succeed without using a debugger like gdb or lldb. On the department Unix machines, gdb is the debugger that is available. By default GDB version 7.3 is available, and you can use GDB version 8 by running module load gdb-8.1 then running gdb.
  • Reading the C code in bomb.c is also extremely helpful.
  • Try running objdump -t bomb. This will show you the symbols in the executable, including the names of all methods. Look for one that looks dangerous, as well as some that look like interesting methods (perhaps something like “Phase 1”). REALLY IMPORTANT STEP.
  • To avoid accidentally detonating the bomb, you will need to learn how to single-step through the assembly code and how to set breakpoints. You will also need to learn how to inspect both the registers and the memory states.
  • It may be helpful to use various utilities for examining the bomb program outside a debugger, as described in “examining the executable” below.

Bomb Usage

  • The bomb ignores blank input lines.
  • If you run your bomb with a command line argument, for example,
     linux> ./bomb psol.txt

    then it will read the input lines from psol.txt until it reaches EOF (end of file), and then switch over to stdin. This will keep you from having re-type solutions.

Examining the Executable

  • objdump -t will print out the bomb’s symbol table. The symbol table includes the names of all functions and global variables in the bomb, the names of all the functions the bomb calls, and their addresses. You may learn something by looking at the function names!
  • objdump -d will disassemble all of the code in the bomb. You can also just look at individual functions. Reading the assembler code can tell you how the bomb works .If you prefer to get Intel syntax disassembly from objdump, you can use objdump -M intel -d.
  • strings is a utility that will display the printable strings in your bomb.

Using GDB

  • If you are on a department Unix machine, you might want to run module load gdb-8.1 first, so gdb is the most recent available version of GDB. (By default you will get GDB 7.3.)
  • Run bomb from a debugger like gdb instead of running it directly. The debugger will allow you to stop the bomb before it detonates. For example, if I ran
    linux> gdb bomb
    (gdb) b methodName
    (gdb) run
    (gdb) kill

    this will start gdb, set a breakpoint at methodName, and run the code. The code will halt before it runs methodName; calling kill will stop the bomb and exit the current debugging session without methodName running.ob  

  • Use “step” and “stepi” to examine this function. “step” runs your code one line of source code at a time. “stepi” runs your code one line of machine instruction at a time. This allows you to run “phase_1()” piece by piece.
  • Use this to step carefully through phase_1() to see if you can find the passphrase.
    linux> gdb bomb
    (gdb) b lineNumberForPhase1Call
    (gdb) run

    input test passphrase here

    (gdb) stepi
    (gdb) info locals
    (gdb) info registers


  • Generally, some parameters are local variables and some are stored in registers. You should see your test passphrase here. Note this a pointer to the hex value of your input.


    (gdb) x/20bx 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in hexadecimal bytes.
    (gdb) stepi

    If you want to see the assembly code you’re stepping through, use “disas methodName”.

    keep stepiing until you see strings_not_equal method (a suspicious name that might be checking your passphrase).  Think about how parameters are passed to this function, might the comparison parameter be stored?

    (gdb) info registers

    Which one holds your passphrase? Try “examining” that and others…

  • Some useful gdb commands:
    (gdb) info locals
    prints out the name and value of local variables in scope at your current place in the code.
    (gdb) info registers
    prints the values of all registers except floating-point and vector registers
    (gdb) x/20bx 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in hexadecimal bytes.
    (gdb) x/20bd 0x...
    examine the values of the 20 bytes of memory stored at the specified memory address (0x…). Displays it in decimal bytes.
    (gdb) x/gx 0x...
    examine the value of the 8-byte integer stored at the specified memory address.
    (gdb) x/s 0x...
    examines the value stored at the specified memory address. Displays the value as a string.
    (gdb) x/s $someRegister
    examines the value at register someRegister. Displays the value as a string (assuming the register contains a pointer).
    (gdb) print expr
    evaluates and prints the value of the given expression
    call (void) puts (0x...)
    calls the built-in output method puts with the given char * (as a memory address). See man puts for more.
    (gdb) disas methodName
    gives you the to get the machine instruction translation of the method methodName.
    (gdb) disas
    gives you the to get the machine instruction translation of the currently executing method.
    (gdb) x/6i 0x...
    try to disassemble 6 instructions in memory starting at the memory address 0x…
    (gdb) set disassembly-flavor intel
    switches GDB to Intel syntax disassembly (the syntax you used in 2150; not the syntax we will use for the rest of the course)
    (gdb) set disassembly-flavor att
    switches GDB back to AT&T syntax disassembly, the default and the syntax we will use for the rest of the course
    (gdb) b *0x...
    set a breakpoint at the specified memory address (0x…).
    (gdb) b function_name.
    set a breakpoint at the beginning of the specified function.
    (gdb) nexti
    step forward by one instruction, skipping any called function.
    (gdb) kill
    terminate the program immediately
    (gdb) help
    brings up gdb’s built-in help menu

    The textbook also has a nice summary of useful gdb commands on page 280 (or 255 of the 2nd edition). You can also find sources like that list and describe other useful gdb commands.

On interpreting the disassembly

  • Reviewing the x86-64 calling convention (Figure 3.28 in the textbook or this reference you may remember from 2150) may be helpful.
  • The C standard library function sscanf is called __isoc99_sscanf in the executable. Try man sscanf (or other C standard library documentation) for more information about this library function.
  • Pay attention to the names of functions being called.
  • Disassembling a standard library function instead of reading the documentation for the function is probably a waste of time.
  • Some of the things later phases might include:
    • calls to scanf (which is much like a backwards version of printf; try man scanf for more)
    • linked list data structure traversal
    • recursion
    • string literals
    • switch statements