Scott Knight
17 min read



The recent Objective by the Sea v3.0 conference had a lot of great talks. Two that stood out to me were Abusing and Securing XPC in macOS Apps by Wojciech Reguła and Job(s) Bless Us! Privileged Operations on macOS by Julia Vashchenko. Both talks discussed different aspects of XPC services and the types of security bugs that can occur in them. There were some great best practice recommendations that both speakers shared for securing your own XPC services. One of those recommendations was to use the audit token rather than PID when checking the connecting process. Since the audit token APIs aren’t public I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at what audit tokens actually are and where they come from.

PID vs. audit token

I think it’s worth brielfy covering the XPC best practice around PID vs. audit token before diving into the history and internals of the audit token itself. A XPC service listener has the chance to accept or deny an incoming connections. The most common way to validate the incoming connection is to make use of the Security framework provided by Apple. This framework provides a way to access the code signing information of the remote process and you can then check to make sure the calling process is validly signed by your own company. A common way to get access to the code signing information is to do something like the following:

SecCodeRef code = NULL;
NSDictionary *attributes = @{
    kSecGuestAttributePid: @(connection.processIdentifier)
SecCodeCopyGuestWithAttributes(0, attributes, kSecCSDefaultFlags, &code);

The issue with this is since it only uses PID to locate the process, and PIDs wrap around and can be reused, it’s possible to race the code signing verification and trick it into checking a different binary. Ian Beer and Samuel Groß both have some good descriptions of this issue:

The fix for the code above is to do the following:

SecCodeRef code = NULL;
NSDictionary *attributes = @{
    kSecGuestAttributeAudit: @(connection.auditToken)
SecCodeCopyGuestWithAttributes(0, attributes, kSecCSDefaultFlags, &code);

There’s one catch with this updated code. The auditToken property is not a public property of NSXPCConnection. Wojciech Reguła has a great sample XPC application that shows an easy way to access this private property. As we’ll see shortly, making use of the auditToken allows the Security framework to use the internal fields to ensure the connecting process is the one the XPC service thinks it is.

The history of audit tokens

The audit token mentioned above is actually part of the OpenBSM subsytem in macOS. OpenBSM is an open source implementation of Sun’s Basic Security Module (BSM) security audit API and file format. Back in 2003 Apple decided to submit macOS to the National Information Assurance Partnership (NIAP) for Common Criteria certification. As part of preparing for this certification Apple contracted McAfee to port the Solaris BSM implementation to macOS.

The BSM code can be seen in the XNU kernel as far back as xnu-517 which was released in October of 2003 as part of macOS 10.3.0. It wasn’t until more than a year later in November of 2004 when macOS 10.3.6 was released that end users could actually optionaly install the ported BSM code to enable auditing on their macOS systems. Shortly after the macOS 10.3.6 release Apple did officially receive Common Criteria certification. This certification validated macOS for high security uses such as by the U.S. Government.

Apple eventualy relicensed their BSM port under the BSD license to allow integration into FreeBSD and other systems. This code base is what eventually became the OpenBSM project.

Kernel implementation

Now that we know some of the history behind the audit token lets actually take a look at what it is and how the kernel implements and stores it. We start be taking a look at the definition of audit_token_t itself.

 * The audit token is an opaque token which identifies
 * Mach tasks and senders of Mach messages as subjects
 * to the BSM audit system.  Only the appropriate BSM
 * library routines should be used to interpret the
 * contents of the audit token as the representation
 * of the subject identity within the token may change
 * over time.
typedef struct{
    unsigned int                  val[8];
} audit_token_t;

We can already start to see why the auditToken property of NSXPCConnection is marked as private. The comment explicitly mentions that audit_token_t structure is meant to be opaque and only the appropriatee BSM library routines should be used to interpret its contents.

task structure

Continuing on in the kernel code if we search for other structures that make use of audit_token_t we find the following:

struct task {
    /* Synchronization/destruction information */
    decl_lck_mtx_data(, lock);               /* Task's lock */
    os_refcnt_t     ref_count;      /* Number of references to me */
    boolean_t       active;         /* Task has not been terminated */
    boolean_t       halting;        /* Task is being halted */    

    /* Task security and audit tokens */
    security_token_t sec_token;
    audit_token_t   audit_token;


A task is one of the fundamental structures of the Mach portion of the XNU kernel. It represents a collection of resources, virtual address space, and a port name space. It contains a queue of thread structures which are what are actually responsible for running code. Searching further through the code we can find the int set_security_token_task_internal(proc_t p, void *t) function which actually sets the fields of the audit token. Here’s an excerpt from that function:

my_cred = kauth_cred_proc_ref(p);
my_pcred = posix_cred_get(my_cred);


 * The current layout of the Mach audit token explicitly
 * adds these fields.  But nobody should rely on such
 * a literal representation.  Instead, the BSM library
 * provides a function to convert an audit token into
 * a BSM subject.  Use of that mechanism will isolate
 * the user of the trailer from future representation
 * changes.
audit_token.val[0] = my_cred->cr_audit.as_aia_p->ai_auid;
audit_token.val[1] = my_pcred->cr_uid;
audit_token.val[2] = my_pcred->cr_gid;
audit_token.val[3] = my_pcred->cr_ruid;
audit_token.val[4] = my_pcred->cr_rgid;
audit_token.val[5] = p->p_pid;
audit_token.val[6] = my_cred->cr_audit.as_aia_p->ai_asid;
audit_token.val[7] = p->p_idversion;

Again, we see mention in the comments that only the appropriate BSM library functions should be used to interpret an audit_token_t structure. If we look in the OpenBSM code, we can see that the function audit_token_to_au32 is the function that should be used to extract the contents out of an audit_token_t structure.

Now that we know a tasks’s audit_token field is set from set_security_token_task_internal lets continue further to see where this code is actually called from. There are three functions that call set_security_token_task_internal:

  • exec_handle_sugid
  • audit_session_join_internal
  • set_security_token

We’ll ignore the first two and instead focus on set_security_token for now. Searching for set_security_token we see the following call sites:

  • load_init_program_at_path
  • fork1
  • setuid
  • seteuid
  • setreuid
  • setgid
  • setegid
  • setregid
  • setgroups_internal
  • persona_proc_adopt
  • audit_session_setaia

The first function load_init_program_at_path is responsible for starting launchd. The call to set_security_token here ensures that even the launchd process has an audit_token set on its task structure. The fork1 function is eventually called from either the fork or vfork system calls. Since fork and vfork are responsible for creating new processes in the system it ensures all new processes also have an audit_token set on their task structure. All of the setXXX functions are responsible for changing a field that is also stored as part of the audit_token_t structure. It makes sense that if any of those fields change then the audit_token_t values should also be updated. The persona_proc_adopt is part of the persona subsystem. The persona subsystem provides a mechanism for a process or thread to assume a uid, gid and group memberships all at once. So again this is similar to the setXXX functions. Since the audit_token_t structure stores some of the audit session related identifiers we also have a call to set_security_token from audit_session_setaia which is responsible for updating credentials of a process based on new audit info.

All of these calls just go to ensure that a task always has it’s audit_token field populated and updated appropriately throughout it’s lifetime. It is actually possible to retrieve a task’s audit_token using the Mach task_info API. Here’s a short example:

audit_token_t token;
mach_msg_type_number_t size = TASK_AUDIT_TOKEN_COUNT;

kr = task_info(mach_task_self(), TASK_AUDIT_TOKEN, (task_info_t)&token, &size);
if (kr != KERN_SUCCESS) {
    printf("Error getting task audit_token\n");

There is actually another Mach API call to set a task’s audit_token called host_security_set_task_token. The first parameter of the function is the host security port which is not accessible from user space at all. So in practice only the kernal can change a task’s audit_token.

mach message trailers

If we continue searching through the XNU source for usage of audit_token_t we come across the following structure:

typedef struct{
    mach_msg_trailer_type_t       msgh_trailer_type;
    mach_msg_trailer_size_t       msgh_trailer_size;
    mach_port_seqno_t             msgh_seqno;
    security_token_t              msgh_sender;
    audit_token_t                 msgh_audit;
} mach_msg_audit_trailer_t;

Mach messages can optionally have message trailers appended to them. Trailers are not settable from user space and can only be set by the kernel. The contents of the trailer are assumed to be trusted since only the kernel can set them. If we further search the code for msgh_audit we can find the following call sites:

  • ipc_kmsg_get
  • ipc_kmsg_get_from_kernel
  • mach_msg_send
  • mach_msg_overwrite

These are the core mach messaging functions of the kernel and each one has a section of code similar to the following:

 * reserve for the trailer the largest space (MAX_TRAILER_SIZE)
 * However, the internal size field of the trailer (msgh_trailer_size)
 * is initialized to the minimum (sizeof(mach_msg_trailer_t)), to optimize
 * the cases where no implicit data is requested.
trailer = (mach_msg_max_trailer_t *) ((vm_offset_t)kmsg->ikm_header + send_size);
trailer->msgh_sender = current_thread()->task->sec_token;
trailer->msgh_audit = current_thread()->task->audit_token;
trailer->msgh_trailer_type = MACH_MSG_TRAILER_FORMAT_0;
trailer->msgh_trailer_size = MACH_MSG_TRAILER_MINIMUM_SIZE;

As part of the mach message routines the kernel will allocate a trailer structure of the maximum size possible. When the message is copied back to user space of the receiving process only the portion of the trailer requested will be delivered.

This is a really interesting feature because it means as part of every Mach message sent it’s possible to have the sender’s audit_token value sent along with it. Here’s a short example of how this can be done.

struct message
    mach_msg_header_t header;
    char data[256];
    mach_msg_audit_trailer_t trailer;

mach_port_t server_port;
struct message msg;
kern_return_t kr;

kr = mach_port_allocate(mach_task_self(), MACH_PORT_RIGHT_RECEIVE, &server_port);
if (kr != KERN_SUCCESS) {
    printf("Error allocating port\n");

const mach_msg_option_t options = MACH_RCV_MSG |

kr = mach_msg(&msg.header,

if (kr != KERN_SUCCESS) {
    printf("Error receiving mach message 0x%x\n", kr);

printf("pid  %d\n", msg.trailer.msgh_audit.val[5]);

csops_audittoken system call

Continuing our search through the XNU source code there’s one more place worth mentioning making use of the audit_token_t structure. Suprisingly it’s a portion of the code that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the OpenBSM subsystem. It’s part of the code signing system calls. There’s two system calls implemented in XNU to support code signing:

  • int csops(pid_t pid, unsigned int ops, void * useraddr, size_t usersize);
  • int csops_audittoken(pid_t pid, unsigned int ops, void * useraddr, size_t usersize, audit_token_t * token);

These system calls get used by the Security framework to support checking code signing attributes of processes. Both of them will call into the csops_internal function. If we look into that code we can see how the audit_token_t gets used:

pt = proc_find(pid);
if (pt == PROC_NULL) {
    return ESRCH;

upid = pt->p_pid;
uidversion = pt->p_idversion;
if (uaudittoken != USER_ADDR_NULL) {
    error = copyin(uaudittoken, &token, sizeof(audit_token_t));
    if (error != 0) {
        goto out;
    /* verify the audit token pid/idversion matches with proc */
    if ((token.val[5] != upid) || (token.val[7] != uidversion)) {
        error = ESRCH;
        goto out;

When the csops_audittoken version of the system call is used the code will perform an additional check to make sure the process looked up by PID actually matches the values on the audit_token_t. The key is to make use of the p_idversion field in addition to the p_pid. This prevents the PID reuse vulnerability that was mentioned at the start of this write up.

XPC and audit tokens

Now that we know how the kernel implements and stores the audit_token_t we can take a closer look at XPC and how it makes use of the functionality. Unfortunately libxpc.dylib is not open source so we’ll have to do some reverse engineering to understand what’s going on. If you’re using the XPC C API instead of the higher level Objective-C API the way to get a connection’s audit_token_t is to use void xpc_connection_get_audit_token(xpc_connection_t, audit_token_t *);. If we disassemble xpc_connection_get_audit_token we see the following:

__int64 __fastcall xpc_connection_get_audit_token(_QWORD *connection, _QWORD *token)
    __int64 v2; // rax

    os_unfair_lock_lock_with_options((char *)connection + 84, 0x10000LL);
    token[3] = connection[15];
    token[2] = connection[14];
    v2 = connection[12];
    token[1] = connection[13];
    *token = v2;
    return os_unfair_lock_unlock((char *)connection + 84);

Since we don’t have any source for libxpc.dylib we’ll do some guess work here but the function is pretty straight forward. It simply accesses internal fields of the xpc_connection_t structure passed in and copies it to the audit_token_t pointer. I would guess that the xpc_connection_t structure actually has an audit_token_t field within it. Based on this knowledge we can continue our search looking for where this xpc_connection_t field gets set. With a short amount of digging we can find the _xpc_connection_set_creds function. Disassembled it looks like the mirror opposite of xpc_connection_get_audit_token:

__int64 __fastcall _xpc_connection_set_creds(_QWORD *a1, __int64 a2)
    __int64 *v2; // r14
    __int64 v3; // rax

    v2 = (__int64 *)_xpc_mach_msg_get_audit_token(a2);
    os_unfair_lock_lock_with_options((char *)a1 + 84, 0x10000LL);
    a1[15] = v2[3];
    a1[14] = v2[2];
    v3 = *v2;
    a1[13] = v2[1];
    a1[12] = v3;
    return os_unfair_lock_unlock((char *)a1 + 84);

unsigned __int64 __fastcall _xpc_mach_msg_get_audit_token(__int64 a1)
    return a1 + ((*(unsigned int *)(a1 + 4) + 3LL) & 0xFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFCLL) + 20;

From here we can search for all the callers of _xpc_connection_set_creds and find the following functions:

  • _xpc_connection_mach_event
  • _xpc_connection_unpack_message

The _xpc_connection_mach_event function is called from two other functions: _xpc_connection_create and _xpc_connection_set_event_handler2. In both cases the functions that use _xpc_connection_mach_event pass it into a libdispatch event handler for handling Mach messages. _xpc_connection_unpack_message itself is called from _xpc_connection_mach_event as well as two other XPC message sending functions.

Based on what we know about the kernel implementation and the disassembly and function names above it’s safe to say that XPC is retrieving the audit_token_t from the mach message trailer for each message that it receives. It will then call _xpc_connection_set_creds passing in the xpc_connection_t structure as well as the mach message to ensure that the audit_token_t field of the xpc_connection_t is up to date.

We can verify this through an XPC test application by calling xpc_connection_get_audit_token in our server process when the client first connects, then have the client call setuid (which will force the kernel to update the task’s audit_token) and then send a message to the server. The server can then call xpc_connection_get_audit_token again and see that the audit_token_t values have been updated.


After diving into all the details of what an audit_token_t is, and how it gets used, I think it’s important to take a step back. We started this journey by discussing an XPC service best practice of using the audit_token_t rather than the PID to verify the code signing of an incoming connection. With the knowledge of all the internals we can now more clearly say why this is more secure. The audit_token_t contains not just the p_pid of the incoming process but also the p_idversion. The p_idversion is what allows the csops_audittoken system call to make sure that the process we’re checking code signing on actually matches what we expect. It prevents the race condition of the p_pid looping back around and the server blindly trusting that it’s the same process.