Looking for Entropy in All the Wrong Places

Imagine we’re writing a C program and we need some random numbers. Maybe it’s for a game, or for a Monte Carlo simulation, or for cryptography. The standard library has a rand() function for some of these purposes.

int r = rand();

There are some problems with this. Typically the implementation is a rather poor PRNG, and we can do much better. It’s a poor choice for Monte Carlo simulations, and outright dangerous for cryptography. Furthermore, it’s usually a dynamic function call, which has a high overhead compared to how little the function actually does. In glibc, it’s also synchronized, adding even more overhead.

But, more importantly, this function returns the same sequences of values each time the program runs. If we want different numbers each time the program runs, it needs to be seeded — but seeded with what? Regardless of what PRNG we ultimately use, we need inputs unique to this particular execution.

The right places

On any modern unix-like system, the classical approach is to open /dev/urandom and read some bytes. It’s not part of POSIX but it is a de facto standard. These random bits are seeded from the physical world by the operating system, making them highly unpredictable and uncorrelated. They’re are suitable for keying a CSPRNG and, from there, generating all the secure random bits you will ever need (perhaps with fast-key-erasure). Why not /dev/random? Because on Linux it’s pointlessly superstitious, which has basically ruined that path for everyone.

/* Returns zero on failure. */
getbits(void *buf, size_t len)
    int result = 0;
    FILE *f = fopen("/dev/urandom", "rb");
    if (f) {
        result = fread(buf, len, 1, f);
    return result;

    unsigned seed;
    if (getbits(&seed, sizeof(seed))) {
    } else {

    /* ... */

Note how there are two different places getbits() could fail, with multiple potential causes.

The need for creating a file descriptor a serious issue for libraries. Libraries that quietly create and close file descriptors can interfere with the main program, especially if its asynchronous. The main program might rely on file descriptors being consecutive, predictable, or monotonic (example). File descriptors are also a limited resource, so it may exhaust a file descriptor slot needed for the main program. For a network service, a remote attacker could perhaps open enough sockets to deny a file descriptor to getbits(), blocking the program from gathering entropy.

/dev/urandom is simple, but it’s not an ideal API.


Wouldn’t it be nicer if our program could just directly ask the operating system to fill a buffer with random bits? That’s what the OpenBSD folks thought, so they introduced a getentropy(2) system call. When called correctly it cannot fail!

int getentropy(void *buf, size_t buflen);

Other operating systems followed suit, including Linux, though on Linux getentropy(2) is a library function implemented using getrandom(2), the actual system call. It’s been in the Linux kernel since version 3.17 (October 2014), but the libc wrapper didn’t appear in glibc until version 2.25 (February 2017). So as of this writing, there are still many systems where it’s still not practical to use even if their kernel is new enough.

For now on Linux you may still want to check, and have a strategy in place, for an ENOSYS result. Some systems are still running kernels that are 5 years old, or older.

OpenBSD also has another trick up its trick-filled sleeves: the .openbsd.randomdata section. Just as the .bss section is filled with zeros, the .openbsd.randomdata section is filled with securely-generated random bits. You could put your PRNG state in this section and it will be seeded as part of loading the program. Cool!


Windows doesn’t have /dev/urandom. Instead it has:

Though in typical Win32 fashion, the API is ugly, overly-complicated, and has multiple possible failure points. It’s essentially impossible to use without referencing documentation. Ugh.

However, Windows 98 and later has RtlGenRandom(), which has a much more reasonable interface. Looks an awful lot like getentropy(2), eh?

BOOLEAN RtlGenRandom(
  PVOID RandomBuffer,
  ULONG RandomBufferLength

The problem is that it’s not quite an official API, and no promises are made about it. In practice, far too much software now depends on it that the API is unlikely to ever break. Despite the prototype above, this function is actually named SystemFunction036(), and you have to supply your own prototype. Here’s my little drop-in snippet that turns it nearly into getentropy(2):

#ifdef _WIN32
#  define WIN32_LEAN_AND_MEAN
#  include <windows.h>
#  pragma comment(lib, "advapi32.lib")
   BOOLEAN NTAPI SystemFunction036(PVOID, ULONG);
#  define getentropy(buf, len) (SystemFunction036(buf, len) ? 0 : -1)

It works in Wine, too, where, at least in my version, it reads from /dev/urandom.

The wrong places

That’s all well and good, but suppose we’re masochists. We want our program to be maximally portable so we’re sticking strictly to functionality found in the standard C library. That means no getentropy(2) and no RtlGenRandom(). We can still try to open /dev/urandom, but it might fail, or it might not actually be useful, so we’ll want a backup.

The usual approach found in a thousand tutorials is time(3):


It would be better to use an integer hash function to mix up the result from time(0) before using it as a seed. Otherwise two programs started close in time may have similar initial sequences.


The more pressing issue is that time(3) has a resolution of one second. If the program is run twice inside of a second, they’ll both have the same sequence of numbers. It would be better to use a higher resolution clock, but, standard C doesn’t provide a clock with greater than one second resolution. That normally requires calling into POSIX or Win32.

So, we need to find some other sources of entropy unique to each execution of the program.

Quick and dirty “string” hash function

Before we get into that, we need a way to mix these different sources together. Here’s a small, 32-bit “string” hash function. The loop is the same algorithm as Java’s hashCode(), and I appended my own integer hash as a finalizer for much better diffusion.

hash32s(const void *buf, size_t len, uint32_t h)
    const unsigned char *p = buf;
    for (size_t i = 0; i < len; i++)
        h = h * 31 + p[i];
    h ^= h >> 17;
    h *= UINT32_C(0xed5ad4bb);
    h ^= h >> 11;
    h *= UINT32_C(0xac4c1b51);
    h ^= h >> 15;
    h *= UINT32_C(0x31848bab);
    h ^= h >> 14;
    return h;

It accepts a starting hash value, which is essentially a “context” for the digest that allows different inputs to be appended together. The finalizer acts as an implicit “stop” symbol in between inputs.

I used fixed-width integers, but it could be written nearly as concisely using only unsigned long and some masking to truncate to 32-bits. I leave this as an exercise to the reader.

Some of the values to be mixed in will be pointers themselves. These could instead be cast to integers and passed through an integer hash function, but using string hash avoids various caveats. Besides, one of the inputs will be a string, so we’ll need this function anyway.

Randomized pointers (ASLR, random stack gap, etc.)

Attackers can use predictability to their advantage, so modern systems use unpredictability to improve security. Memory addresses for various objects and executable code are randomized since some attacks require an attacker to know their addresses. We can skim entropy from these pointers to seed our PRNG.

Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) is when executable code and its associated data is loaded to a random offset by the loader. Code designed for this is called Position Independent Code (PIC). This has long been used when loading dynamic libraries so that all of the libraries on a system don’t have to coordinate with each other to avoid overlapping.

To improve security, it has more recently been extended to programs themselves. On both modern unix-like systems and Windows, position-independent executables (PIE) are now the default.

To skim entropy from ASLR, we just need the address of one of our functions. All the functions in our program will have the same relative offset, so there’s no reason to use more than one. An obvious choice is main():

    uint32_t h = 0;  /* initial hash value */
    int (*mainptr)() = main;
    h = hash32s(&mainptr, sizeof(mainptr), h);

Notice I had to store the address of main() in a variable, and then treat the pointer itself as a buffer for the hash function? It’s not hashing the machine code behind main, just its address. The symbol main doesn’t store an address, so it can’t be given to the hash function to represent its address. This is analogous to an array versus a pointer.

On a typical x86-64 Linux system, and when this is a PIE, that’s about 3 bytes worth of entropy. On 32-bit systems, virtual memory is so tight that it’s worth a lot less. We might want more entropy than that, and we want to cover the case where the program isn’t compiled as a PIE.

On unix-like systems, programs are typically dynamically linked against the C library, libc. Each shared object gets its own ASLR offset, so we can skim more entropy from each shared object by picking a function or variable from each. Let’s do malloc(3) for libc ASLR:

    void *(*mallocptr)() = malloc;
    h = hash32s(&mallocptr, sizeof(mallocptr), h);

Allocators themselves often randomize the addresses they return so that data objects are stored at unpredictable addresses. In particular, glibc uses different strategies for small (brk(2)) versus big (mmap(2)) allocations. That’s two different sources of entropy:

    void *small = malloc(1);        /* 1 byte */
    h = hash32s(&small, sizeof(small), h);

    void *big = malloc(1UL << 20);  /* 1 MB */
    h = hash32s(&big, sizeof(big), h);

Finally the stack itself is often mapped at a random address, or at least started with a random gap, so that local variable addresses are also randomized.

    void *ptr = &ptr;
    h = hash32s(&ptr, sizeof(ptr), h);

Time sources

We haven’t used time(3) yet! Let’s still do that, using the full width of time_t this time around:

    time_t t = time(0);
    h = hash32s(&t, sizeof(t), h);

We do have another time source to consider: clock(3). It returns an approximation of the processor time used by the program. There’s a tiny bit of noise and inconsistency between repeated calls. We can use this to extract a little bit of entropy over many repeated calls.

Naively we might try to use it like this:

    /* Note: don't use this */
    for (int i = 0; i < 1000; i++) {
        clock_t c = clock();
        h = hash32s(&c, sizeof(c), h);

The problem is that the resolution for clock() is typically rough enough that modern computers can execute multiple instructions between ticks. On Windows, where CLOCKS_PER_SEC is low, that entire loop will typically complete before the result from clock() increments even once. With that arrangement we’re hardly getting anything from it! So here’s a better version:

    for (int i = 0; i < 1000; i++) {
        unsigned long counter = 0;
        clock_t start = clock();
        while (clock() == start)
        h = hash32s(&start, sizeof(start), h);
        h = hash32s(&counter, sizeof(counter), h);

The counter makes the resolution of the clock no longer important. If it’s low resolution, then we’ll get lots of noise from the counter. If it’s high resolution, then we get noise from the clock value itself. Running the hash function an extra time between overall clock(3) samples also helps with noise.

A legitimate use of tmpnam(3)

We’ve got one more source of entropy available: tmpnam(3). This function generates a unique, temporary file name. It’s dangerous to use as intended because it doesn’t actually create the file. There’s a race between generating the name for the file and actually creating it.

Fortunately we don’t actually care about the name as a filename. We’re using this to sample entropy not directly available to us. In attempt to get a unique name, the standard C library draws on its own sources of entropy.

    char buf[L_tmpnam] = {0};
    h = hash32s(buf, sizeof(buf), h);

The rather unfortunately downside is that lots of modern systems produce a linker warning when it sees tmpnam(3) being linked, even though in this case it’s completely harmless.

So what goes into a temporary filename? It depends on the implementation.

glibc and musl

Both get a high resolution timestamp and generate the filename directly from the timestamp (no hashing, etc.). Unfortunately glibc does a very poor job of also mixing getpid(2) into the timestamp before using it, and probably makes things worse by doing so.

On these platforms, this is is a way to sample a high resolution timestamp without calling anything non-standard.


In the latest release as of this writing it uses rand(3), which makes this useless. It’s also a bug since the C library isn’t allowed to affect the state of rand(3) outside of rand(3) and srand(3). I submitted a bug report and this has since been fixed.

In the next release it will use a generator seeded by the ELF AT_RANDOM value if available, or ASLR otherwise. This makes it moderately useful.


Generated from getpid(2) alone, with a counter to handle multiple calls. It’s basically a way to sample the process ID without actually calling getpid(2).

BSD libc / Bionic (Android)

Actually gathers real entropy from the operating system (via arc4random(2)), which means we’re getting a lot of mileage out of this one.


Its implementation is obviously forked from glibc. However, it first tries to read entropy from /dev/urandom, and only if that fails does it fallback to glibc’s original high resolution clock XOR getpid(2) method (still not hashing it).

Finishing touches

Finally, still use /dev/urandom if it’s available. This doesn’t require us to trust that the output is anything useful since it’s just being mixed into the other inputs.

    char rnd[4];
    FILE *f = fopen("/dev/urandom", "rb");
    if (f) {
        if (fread(rnd, sizeof(rnd), 1, f))
            h = hash32s(rnd, sizeof(rnd), h);

When we’re all done gathering entropy, set the seed from the result.

    srand(h);   /* or whatever you're seeding */

That’s bound to find some entropy on just about any host. Though definitely don’t rely on the results for cryptography.


I recently tackled this problem in Lua. It has a no-batteries-included design, demanding very little of its host platform: nothing more than an ANSI C implementation. Because of this, a Lua program has even fewer options for gathering entropy than C. But it’s still not impossible!

To further complicate things, Lua code is often run in a sandbox with some features removed. For example, Lua has os.time() and os.clock() wrapping the C equivalents, allowing for the same sorts of entropy sampling. When run in a sandbox, os might not be available. Similarly, io might not be available for accessing /dev/urandom.

Have you ever printed a table, though? Or a function? It evaluates to a string containing the object’s address.

$ lua -e 'print(math)'
table: 0x559577668a30
$ lua -e 'print(math)'
table: 0x55e4a3679a30

Since the raw pointer values are leaked to Lua, we can skim allocator entropy like before. Here’s the same hash function in Lua 5.3:

local function hash32s(buf, h)
    for i = 1, #buf do
        h = h * 31 + buf:byte(i)
    h = h & 0xffffffff
    h = h ~ (h >> 17)
    h = h * 0xed5ad4bb
    h = h & 0xffffffff
    h = h ~ (h >> 11)
    h = h * 0xac4c1b51
    h = h & 0xffffffff
    h = h ~ (h >> 15)
    h = h * 0x31848bab
    h = h & 0xffffffff
    h = h ~ (h >> 14)
    return h

Now hash a bunch of pointers in the global environment:

local h = hash32s({}, 0)  -- hash a new table
for varname, value in pairs(_G) do
    h = hash32s(varname, h)
    h = hash32s(tostring(value), h)
    if type(value) == 'table' then
        for k, v in pairs(value) do
            h = hash32s(tostring(k), h)
            h = hash32s(tostring(v), h)


Unfortunately this doesn’t actually work well on one platform I tested: Cygwin. Cygwin has few security features, notably lacking ASLR, and having a largely deterministic allocator.

When to use it

In practice it’s not really necessary to use these sorts of tricks of gathering entropy from odd places. It’s something that comes up more in coding challenges and exercises than in real programs. I’m probably already making platform-specific calls in programs substantial enough to need it anyway.

On a few occasions I have thought about these things when debugging. ASLR makes return pointers on the stack slightly randomized on each run, which can change the behavior of some kinds of bugs. Allocator and stack randomization does similar things to most of your pointers. GDB tries to disable some of these features during debugging, but it doesn’t get everything.

Have a comment on this article? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette] , or see existing discussions.

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Chris Wellons

wellons@nullprogram.com (PGP)
~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht (view)