The Best Tech Newsletter Anywhere

Join 250,000 subscribers and get a daily digest of news, geek trivia, and our feature articles.

How to Peek Inside Binary Files From the Linux Command Line

A stylized Linux terminal with lines of green text on a laptop.
fatmawati achmad zaenuri/Shutterstock

Have a mystery file? The Linux file command will quickly tell you what type of file it is. If it’s a binary file, though, you can find out even more about it. file has a whole raft of stablemates that will help you analyze it. We’ll show you how to use some of these tools.

Identifying File Types

Files usually have characteristics that allow software packages to identify which type of file it is, as well as what the data within it represents. It wouldn’t make sense to try to open a PNG file in an MP3 music player, so it’s both useful and pragmatic that a file carries with it some form of ID.

This might be a few signature bytes at the very beginning of the file. This allows a file to be explicit about its format and content. Sometimes, the file type is inferred from a distinctive aspect of the internal organization of the data itself, known as the file architecture.

Some operating systems, like Windows, are completely guided by a file’s extension. You can call it gullible or trusting, but Windows assumes any file with the DOCX extension really is a DOCX word processing file. Linux isn’t like that, as you’ll soon see. It wants proof and looks inside the file to find it.

The tools described here were already installed on the Manjaro 20, Fedora 21, and Ubuntu 20.04 distributions we used to research this article. Let’s start our investigation by using the file command.

Using the file Command

We’ve got a collection of different file types in our current directory. They’re a mixture of document, source code, executable, and text files.

The ls command will show us what’s in the directory, and the -hl (human-readable sizes, long listing) option will show us the size of each file:

ls -hl

ls -hl in a terminal window.

Let’s try file on a few of these and see what we get:

file build_instructions.odt
file build_instructions.pdf
file COBOL_Report_Apr60.djvu

file build_instructions.odt in a terminal window.

The three file formats are correctly identified. Where possible, file gives us a bit more information. The PDF file is reported to be in the version 1.5 format.

Even if we rename the ODT file to have an extension with the arbitrary value of XYZ, the file is still correctly identified, both within the Files file browser and on the command line using file.

OpenDocument file correctly identified within the Files file browser, even though its extension is XYZ.

Within the Files file browser, it’s given the correct icon. On the command line, file ignores the extension and looks inside the file to determine its type:

file build_instructions.xyz

file build_instructions.xyz in a terminal window.

Using file on media, such as image and music files, usually yields information regarding their format, encoding, resolution, and so on:

file screenshot.png
file screenshot.jpg
file Pachelbel_Canon_In_D.mp3

file screenshot.png in a terminal window.

Interestingly, even with plain-text files, file doesn’t judge the file by its extension. For example, if you have a file with the “.c” extension, containing standard plain text but not source code, file doesn’t mistake it for a genuine C source code file:

file function+headers.h
file makefile
file hello.c

file function+headers.h in a terminal window.

file correctly identifies the header file (“.h”) as part of a C source code collection of files, and it knows the makefile is a script.

Using file with Binary Files

Binary files are more of a “black box” than others. Image files can be viewed, sound files can be played, and document files can be opened by the appropriate software package. Binary files, though, are more of a challenge.

For example, the files “hello” and “wd” are binary executables. They are programs. The file called “wd.o” is an object file. When source code is compiled by a compiler, one or more object files are created. These contain the machine code the computer will eventually execute when the finished program runs, together with information for the linker. The linker checks each object file for function calls to libraries. It links them to any libraries the program uses. The result of this process is an executable file.

The file “watch.exe” is a binary executable that has been cross-compiled to run on Windows:

file wd
file wd.o
file hello
file watch.exe

file wd in a terminal window.

Taking the last one first, file tells us the “watch.exe” file is a PE32+ executable, console program, for the x86 family of processors on Microsoft Windows. PE stands for portable executable format, which has 32- and 64-bit versions. The PE32 is the 32-bit version, and the PE32+ is the 64-bit version.

The other three files are all identified as Executable and Linkable Format (ELF) files. This is a standard for executable files and shared object files, such as libraries. We’ll take a look at the ELF header format shortly.

What might catch your eye is that the two executables (“wd” and “hello”) are identified as Linux Standard Base (LSB) shared objects, and the object file “wd.o” is identified as an LSB relocatable. The word executable is obvious in its absence.

Object files are relocatable, meaning the code inside them can be loaded into memory at any location. The executables are listed as shared objects because they’ve been created by the linker from the object files in such a way that they inherit this capability.

This allows the Address Space Layout Randomization  (ASMR) system to load the executables into memory at addresses of its choosing. Standard executables have a loading address coded into their headers, which dictate where they’re loaded into memory.

ASMR is a security technique. Loading executables into memory at predictable addresses makes them susceptible to attack. This is because their entry points, and the locations of their functions, will always be known to attackers. Position Independent Executables (PIE) positioned at a random address overcome this susceptibility.

If we compile our program with the gcc compiler and provide the -no-pie option, we’ll generate a conventional executable.

The -o (output file) option lets us provide a name for our executable:

gcc -o hello -no-pie hello.c

We’ll use file on the new executable and see what has changed:

file hello

The size of the executable is the same as before (17 KB):

ls -hl hello

gcc -o hello -no-pie hello.c in a terminal window.

The binary is now identified as a standard executable. We’re doing this for demonstration purposes only. If you compile applications this way, you’ll lose all advantages of the ASMR.

Why Is an Executable So Big?

Our example hello program is 17 KB, so it could hardly be called big, but then, everything’s relative. The source code is 120 bytes:

cat hello.c

What’s bulking out the binary if all it does is print one string to the terminal window? We know there’s an ELF header, but that’s only 64-bytes long for a 64-bit binary. Plainly, it must be something else:

ls -hl hello

cat hello.c in a terminal window.

Let’s scan the binary with the strings command as a simple first step to discover what’s inside it. We’ll pipe it into less:

strings hello | less

strings hello | less in a terminal window.

There are many strings inside the binary, besides the “Hello, Geek world!” from our source code. Most of them are labels for regions within the binary, and the names and linking information of shared objects. These include the libraries, and functions within those libraries, on which the binary depends.

The ldd command shows us the shared object dependencies of a binary:

ldd hello

ldd hello in a terminal window.

There are three entries in the output, and two of them include a directory path (the first does not):

  • linux-vdso.so: Virtual Dynamic Shared Object (VDSO) is a kernel mechanism that allows a set of kernel-space routines to be accessed by a user-space binary. This avoids the overhead of a context switch from user kernel mode. VDSO shared objects adhere to the Executable and Linkable Format (ELF) format, allowing them to be dynamically linked to the binary at runtime. The VDSO is dynamically allocated and takes advantage of ASMR. The VDSO capability is provided by the standard GNU C Library if the kernel supports the ASMR scheme.
  • libc.so.6: The GNU C Library shared object.
  • /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2: This is the dynamic linker the binary wants to use. The dynamic linker interrogates the binary to discover what dependencies it has. It launches those shared objects into memory. It prepares the binary to run and be able to find and access the dependencies in memory. Then, it launches the program.

The ELF Header

We can examine and decode the ELF header using the readelf utility and the -h (file header) option:

readelf -h hello

readelf -h hello in a terminal window.

The header is interpreted for us.

Output from readelf -h hello in a terminal window.

The first byte of all ELF binaries is set to hexadecimal value 0x7F. The next three bytes are set to 0x45, 0x4C, and 0x46. The first byte is a flag that identifies the file as an ELF binary. To make this crystal clear, the next three bytes spell out “ELF” in ASCII:

  • Class: Indicates whether the binary is a 32- or 64-bit executable (1=32, 2=64).
  • Data: Indicates the endianness in use. Endian encoding defines the way in which multibyte numbers are stored. In big-endian encoding, a number is stored with its most significant bits first. In little-endian encoding, the number is stored with its least significant bits first.
  • Version: The version of ELF (currently, it’s 1).
  • OS/ABI: Represents the type of application binary interface in use. This defines the interface between two binary modules, such as a program and a shared library.
  • ABI Version: The version of the ABI.
  • Type: The type of ELF binary. The common values are ET_REL for a relocatable resource (such as an object file), ET_EXEC for an executable compiled with the -no-pie flag, and ET_DYN for an ASMR-aware executable.
  • Machine: The instruction set architecture. This indicates the target platform for which the binary was created.
  • Version: Always set to 1, for this version of ELF.
  • Entry Point Address: The memory address within the binary at which execution commences.

The other entries are sizes and numbers of regions and sections within the binary so their locations can be calculated.

A quick peek at the first eight bytes of the binary with hexdump will show the signature byte and “ELF” string in the first four bytes of the file. The -C (canonical) option gives us the ASCII representation of the bytes alongside their hexadecimal values, and the -n (number) option lets us specify how many bytes we want to see:

hexdump -C -n 8 hello

hexdump -C -n 8 hello in a terminal window.

objdump and the Granular View

If you want to see the nitty-gritty detail, you can use the objdumpcommand with the -d (disassemble) option:

objdump -d hello | less

objdump -d hello | less in a terminal window.

This disassembles the executable machine code and displays it in hexadecimal bytes alongside the assembly language equivalent. The address location of the first bye in each line is shown on the far left.

This is only useful if you can read assembly language, or you’re curious what goes on behind the curtain. There’s a lot of output, so we piped it into less.

Putput from objdump -d hello | less in a terminal window.

Compiling and Linking

There are many ways to compile a binary. For example, the developer chooses whether to include debugging information. The way the binary is linked also plays a role in its contents and size. If the binary references share objects as external dependencies, it will be smaller than one to which the dependencies statically link.

Most developers already know the commands we’ve covered here. For others, though, they offer some easy ways to rummage around and see what lies inside the binary black box.

Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support How-To Geek.
How-To Geek is where you turn when you want experts to explain technology. Since we launched in 2006, our articles have been read more than 1 billion times. Want to know more?


The Best Tech Newsletter Anywhere

Join 250,000 subscribers and get a daily digest of news, comics, trivia, reviews, and more.