The SUBTERFUGUE driver is called "sf", and an invocation might look like this

sf --trick=Trace:'call=["open", "close"]' cp filea fileb

This runs the command "cp filea fileb" under the influence of one Trace trick. The text that follows the colon in a trick option is Python code used to pass options to the trick. In this case, a single option "call" is set to a value which is a list consisting of two strings ("open" and "close"). The single quote characters here merely protect the construct from being interpreted by the shell.

It's up to each trick to determine which options it looks for and what values are acceptible. The code to set options can be more involved; the above, for example, could have been written this way

--trick=Trace:'_a=["open"]; _b=["close"]; call=_a + _b'

The "-h" flag can be used to get "sf" usage information. You can combine the "-h" flag with "--trick" options to get usage information about one or more tricks.

Multiple tricks can be specified in an sf command. In this case, the leftmost trick gets the first shot at any system call. The second leftmost trick then gets the next shot, if the leftmost trick didn't annul the call, and so on. Each successive trick sees the call as it is passed, so, for example, if the first trick rewrites a call "sleep(1)" to "sleep(10)", then as far as the second trick is concerned, it sees only that the process is invoking "sleep(10)". A similar chaining process applies to system call results and signals.

The sf command looks for tricks in the "tricks" subdirectory of its installation directory, but additional locations can be added by setting the environment variable TRICKPATH to a list of directories (? la PATH).

Unless the "--failnice" flag is given, sf will attempt to SIGKILL all of its children if it (or a trick) has to abort for any reason. This is to prevent the child processes from continuing on uncontrolled (which is what happens if "--filenice" is specified).

Writing New Tricks

In this section, we'll walk through a series of increasingly powerful and complicated tricks, in order to demonstrate and explain the trick interface. (If you're interested in a terse description of the interface, see


This first trick is probably the simplest useful trick. Here is the code, from

from Trick import Trick

import time

class Delay(Trick):
    def usage(self):
        return """
        Puts a delay before each system call.  The 'delay' parameter specifies
        the delay in seconds (as a float).  The default delay is one second.
    def __init__(self, options):
        self._delay = options.get('delay', 1)

    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):

Like all tricks, this trick inherits from the base class Trick, which provides default versions of any methods we don't define in our trick. The usage method simply returns an explanatory string that sf can display to the user. (To save space, we'll skip the usage method and import statements for the rest of the tricks.)

The trick constructor, "__init__", is run during sf startup and is passed an argument "options" which is a dictionary holding the trick's command-line options.

The method "callbefore" is called before each system call (subject to the call mask, which we describe later). In this trick, this method just sleeps for the specified amount of time, which has the effect of delaying each system call.

This trick is very simple, but already we're able to do something not possible with available tools.


This trick counts the system calls invoked by and signals received by each process, and reports these statistics after the command finishes. In this trick, we see two new methods: "signal", which is called for every delivered signal, and "cleanup", which is called once after all processes have terminated.

More of the information available is being used here. The argument 'pid' is the process id of the process in question, and 'call' and 'signal' are the names of the system call or signal, respectively, that is occurring.

class Count(Trick):
    def __init__(self, options):
        self.callcount = {}
        self.sigcount = {}

    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):
        if not self.callcount.has_key(pid):
            self.callcount[pid] = {}
        self.callcount[pid][call] = self.callcount[pid].get(call, 0) + 1

    def signal(self, pid, signal):
        if not self.sigcount.has_key(pid):
            self.sigcount[pid] = {}
        self.sigcount[pid][signal] = self.sigcount[pid].get(signal, 0) + 1

    def cleanup(self):
        for pid in self.callcount.keys():
            print 'process %s\n' % pid
            for call, count in self.callcount[pid].items():
                print '%6d\t%s' % (count, call)
            if self.sigcount.has_key(pid):
                print ''
                for sig, count in self.sigcount[pid].items():
                    print '%6d\t%s' % (count, sig)
            print '\n'

Here is the output from its use with the 'date' command.

bash-2.03$ sf --tri=Count date
Wed Feb  2 01:10:22 CST 2000
process 8634

     1  personality
     4  fstat
     4  open
     1  _exit
     4  close
     1  time
     1  getpid
     4  brk
     1  ioctl
     3  munmap
     1  write
     1  mprotect
     6  mmap
     4  read


This trick throttles I/O (that done by the read and write system calls) by sleeping before each read and write for a duration depending on the number of bytes to be written and the I/O rate limit.

class ThrottleIO(Trick):
    def __init__(self, options):
        if options.has_key('bps'):
            self.bps = options['bps']
            sys.exit("error: %s: option required" % self.__class__.__name__)

    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):
        time.sleep(float(args[2]) / self.bps)
    def callmask(self):
        return { 'read' : 1, 'write' : 1 }

There are several new things to note here. A new method, callmask, is defined. This method determines which system calls cause the methods callbefore and callafter to be invoked. callmask returns a dictionary, each key of which is the name of a system call to be traced; it can also just return None (the Python null value), which means that all system calls are traced (this is the default if no callmask method is defined). There is a corresponding method called signalmask, which determines which signals are traced.

The 'args' argument of callbefore holds the sequence of arguments to the system call. In this case, the third argument of read and write is examined to determine how many bytes are being read or written.

Finally, we see that sys.exit is being used to abort sf if something goes wrong.


This trick causes connect calls to fail. This can be used to keep a program from accessing the network.

class NetFail(Trick):
    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):
        subcall = args[0]
        if subcall == 3:                # SYS_CONNECT
            return (None, -errno.EHOSTUNREACH, None, None)
            return (subcall, None, None, None)

    def callafter(self, pid, call, result, state):
        assert state != 3

    def callmask(self):
        return { 'socketcall' : 1 }

In this trick we are exposed to a bit of ugliness in the Linux kernel. Although the network calls (socket, bind, connect, etc.) are normally thought of as distinct system calls, in current Linux kernels they are all multiplexed together into one call named "socketcall". The first argument determines which subcall is being performed--an argument of '3', for example, corresponds to a connect call.

When a connect call is performed we see that a four-tuple is returned whose second element is "-errno.EHOSTUNREACH". When a tuple is returned from callbefore and its second element is not None, the call is annulled and the second element returned as its result. In this case we are causing the call to fail with error result EHOSTUNREACH; the value is negated because that is the kernel's convention for returning error codes.

If a non-connect case of socketcall occurs, this callbefore method returns a four-tuple whose first argument is the subcall number. Any Python object may be passed back as a first argument in this case; such an object will be passed to the callafter method as its state argument. This provides a means for a callbefore invocation to pass data to the corresponding callafter call. In this case, we're just double-checking that the callafter method is never invoked for the connect case; it's never invoked because it is always annulled instead, as described above.


This trick causes output done with the write system call to be rot13-translated. (In a rot13 translation, each letter is replaced with its thirteenth successor, wrapping around if necessary.) This could be used to improve the security of a program, even if you don't have source code for it. Okay--that was just a little joke.

This trick makes use of the Memory class. Each instance of Memory is an abstraction that represents the memory space of a particular process. The callbefore method retrieves the particular memory object associated with the current process and uses it to do a "peek" to get the data that is about to be written. (Note how the address and size of the data is taken from the arguments to the write system call.) The data is then transformed and written back into the process' memory.

One of the conditions that makes this work is that the data we're writing back is the same size as what was originally there. If we were writing a larger string, we would have to do this in a different way, or risk smashing the stack or causing an error by writing to a page not present in the process' memory space. (We address this problem in the next section.)

Note that the original data needs to be restored after the system call. The calling program will not expect a write call to change the data written, and if this is done, the program may very well act erroneously or crash. How is the data restored? If the "poke" call is given a third argument (which is always "self", the current trick), the poked data is restored after the corresponding callafter method has completed. So, if the third argument is given, the poke is only temporary; otherwise, it is permanent.

trans = string.maketrans('abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ',

class Rot13(Trick):
    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):
        m = getMemory(pid)
        address = args[1]
        size = args[2]
        data = m.peek(address, size)
        m.poke(address, string.translate(data, trans), self)

    def callmask(self):
        return { 'write' : 1 }

Here is the output from a couple of uses of this trick:

bash-2.03$ sf --tri=Rot13 date
Jrq Sro  2 02:55:34 PFG 2000
bash-2.03$ sf --tri=Rot13 --tri=Rot13 date
Wed Feb  2 02:55:37 CST 2000

Note in particular how applying the trick twice causes the effect to cancel out (two rotations of 13 is equivalent to a rotation of 26, which is equivalent to no rotation). This is an example of how tricks can be composed for a combined effect.

For just rewriting stdout, this trick is markedly inferior to the simpler

date | tr a-zA-Z n-za-mN-ZA-M

It does show, though, how the user can exert control over program output even when the program was not written to support this (as in the case where output is sent directly to a named file).


You work at MegaSilly CCA, and the legal department there has decided that henceforth each line of all program output ought to have its own copyright statement. Since hacking SUBTERFUGUE sounds like more fun than arguing with legal, you set to work, producing the following trick. (For simplicity, this trick just adds a disclaimer at the end of each write, whether or not it ends a line.)

disclaimer = """Copyright (C) %s  MegaSilly CCA.  All rights reserved.
""" % gmtime(time())[0]

class LineDisclaimer(Trick):
    def callbefore(self, pid, call, args):
        "append disclaimer bytes to the end of each write"
        m = getMemory(pid)
        address = args[1]
        size = args[2]
        data = m.peek(address, size)
        area, asize = m.areas()[0]
        newsize = size + len(disclaimer)
        if newsize <= asize:
            m.poke(area, data + disclaimer, self)
            return (size, None, None, (args[0], area, newsize))

    def callafter(self, pid, call, result, state):
        "don't let program see that we wrote extra bytes"
        if state != None and result > state:
            return state

    def callmask(self):
        return { 'write' : 1 }

This produces output like this

bash-2.03$ sf --tri=LineDisclaimer date
Thu Feb  3 00:24:19 CST 2000
Copyright (C) 2000  MegaSilly CCA.  All rights reserved.

In this trick we are changing each write call to make it write out a longer string than the program originally intended. This makes things trickier, because, as we discussed above, we can't just tack the extra bytes on in place. Instead, we poke the new, longer string elsewhere in memory.

The "areas" method of Memory provides a list of writable memory areas that we might use as scratchpad space. In this simple implementation, we just use the first available area. The write call argument list is modified so that the address and length to be written are those of the new string. We also pass the original size of the write through the state argument; if the write is successful, this is passed back as the result of the call so that the program doesn't see that we've written extra bytes. The callafter method shows how we can make the call return a different value than the one returned by the kernel.

This simple implementation has a couple of problems. Under some conditions, only a partial write will be done. If the partial write is such that the original string is written plus part of the disclaimer, it would be nice if we could cause the rest of the disclaimer to be written out. We can't really do this reliably, though, unless we can replace one write with multiple write calls. (This capability will probably be added in a future version of SUBTERFUGUE.)

Another problem is that overwriting arbitrary memory is dangerous if the process shares that memory with another process (or it is mmap-ed to a file). This problem will also be addressed in the future.


Hopefully this tutorial has given you a sense of what SUBTERFUGUE is capable of. It's not a catholicon (a panacea)--some problems can only be solved partially or with excessive cleverness, and others not at all. It does, though, provide new means of solving problems; the goal is for it to become an additional useful tool in the hacker's bag of tricks.