I’ve been looking to try my hand at IC decapsulation for years, and finally got
the time to do it. The process took plenty of trial and error, so this post will
document most of my failures and successes, and detail the methodologies used for
each attempt. These are most of the ICs I worked on throughout the process:
A typical chip is built as a silicon die, connected to its leads/contacts through
bonding wires, and encapsulated in resin for protection.
Of course, there are other ICs that use different designs and encapsulation
materials: mostly metal and plastics. But the epoxy-based design is extremely
common, so we’ll be focusing on it.
The decapsulation/decapping of Integrated Circuits, also known as “delidding”, is
It’s used in the industry to debug hardware issues, reverse engineer chips, verify
the authenticity of parts, and other tasks that require access to the underlying
That’s why there’s plenty of commercial services that will decapsulate your ICs
using expensive and dedicated equipment.
I’ve linked a couple of them in the bibliography.
But, without having any idea how much they cost or how long they take, I can’t
imagine them being an option for the average hacker.
Hackers and smaller companies generally decap Integrated Circuits to identify
counterfeits, gain a very rudimentary understanding of the parts comprising them,
or just to share the pretty pictures of the silicon die.
For those cases, a DIY process is generally good enough.
I’ve been wanting to try my hand at decapping ICs for years, for no other purpose
than to satiate my curiosity. I’ve finally had the time to get to it, so this
post will describe the methods I tried and the hurdles I encountered.
The biggest factor to decide which method is best for your project is whether
or not you need the chip to still work after it’s been decapsulated. That means
not destroying or disconnecting the die, bonding wires, external contact points,
etc. so you can still use the chip after the process is complete.
Manual acid deposition:
Repeatedly apply drops of acid on the IC’s target area, and rinse the acid
residue and weakened encapsulation
uses expensive equipment to create plasma, make it react with the encapsulation,
and drain it away
In this post we’re gonna focus on the manual acid deposition method, to achieve
non-destructive decapsulation at a reasonable cost.
First of all, let me preface this safety talk with an important disclaimer:
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. My thing is firmware and electronics, not chemistry.
PLEASE, do not assume the safety measures discussed here are valid or enough to
protect yourself. Do your own research, follow any and all measures you deem
appropriate, and remain paranoid all along the process.
We’re dealing with very dangerous chemicals. If you decide to replicate the
experiments it’s at your own peril.
Here are more authoritative sources of safety information for a project like this.
Review as much of this info as you can, and take it with the seriousness it requires:
After doing enough research to feel comfortable with the risks involved, I settled
for following these measures:
Run all experiments outside, with all nearby windows closed, and never accessing
the area without using PPE. I might invest in a fume hood in the future, either
commercial or DIY
Wear chemical splash goggles. They should protect your eyes from droplets
coming from any direction. If they become uncomfortable or fog up, do not remove
them or pull them off your face in the working area
Wear a respirator mask with filters that are appropriate for chemical fumes.
Preferably a full face mask, to avoid acid splashes
Wear gloves that are appropriate for the acids you’re dealing with. Nitrile gloves
should NOT be used to work with nitric acid; especially fuming (98%+) nitric acid.
Long, thick neoprene-based gloves are best for Nitric, but make delicate tasks
difficult. I settled for wearing a thick neoprene glove on my non-dominant hand,
and a vinyl glove on my dominant hand for the more delicate work. When touching
any surface that’s hot or has been in touch with acid, I use the neoprene glove
Expose as little of your skin as possible: Wear shoes, trousers (not shorts),
long sleeves… Preferably use a lab coat, so you can remove the acid-splashed
clothing without dragging it over your face
Never mix chemicals without fully understanding the outcome to expect. Keep
different chemicals as far apart from each other as possible. Keep the smallest
possible amount of dangerous chemicals in the working area
Be prepared for the worst:
Keep enough sodium bicarbonate at hand to neutralize acid spills and leftover acid.
Keep in mind that neutralizing acid with bicarb will give off heat, and the bubbling
could be dangerously vigorous for significant amounts. Expect the possibility of
a spill during the neutralization process
Keep enough water at hand to dilute chemicals in case of spills, splashes, etc.
Understand what are the recommended procedures in case of any given chemical
contacting your skin, eyes, etc. Eyes are generally the most sensitive to chemical
splashes, as they can be permanently damaged in seconds; they’re also the most
difficult to clean up, so be particularly careful with them and have a plan of
action in case the worst happens
My own experiments
These describe failures and successes, and what I learned along the way.
Keep in mind that most resources I’ve found recommend using fuming nitric acid
I was not able to source fuming nitric acid, so I used concentrated nitric
(69%) instead. That could account for some of the problems I’m about to describe,
but worked fine once I found the most fitting methodology.
Tools and materials
Chemicals I used during my experiments:
Concentrated (69%) Nitric Acid
100% Sodium bicarbonate - Bought on Amazon
98% methanol - From a hardware store
Acetone - From a hardware store
Water - Either tap water or regular distilled water from a grocery store
I also ran a couple of tests using Sulfuric Acid, both standalone and mixed with
the Nitric, but the results were not very promising. Probably because of the
encapsulation material used in my ICs. These are the acids I used:
Tried using ceramic recipients and they worked well enough, but it was hard
to maintain a stable temperature outside using my hot plate
Graphite ingot molds ended up being better at conducting heat (hence
maintaining a reasonably stable temperature outside) and providing easy access
to the IC inside
A syringe, or preferably an assortment of them
Other very useful equipment:
An Erlenmeyer flask to keep a small amount of acid in a stable container
10ml pipette to transfer acid from its primary container to the flask
1ml pipette to drop acid on the ICs
A small one for acetone
A large one for water, to rinse tools
Thermocouple to monitor the temperature of the hot plate and IC container
Tongs to move the hot ceramic/graphite container
Ultrasonic cleaner. Explained later
This picture shows most of the equipment used for the most successful method:
Attempt 1: Sand down the epoxy packaging
This is how the project started. I just got a new microscope, met with a couple
of good friends, and we started looking at some random samples. Blood, dust, etc.
Then we decided to take a look at some random IC. We were not looking to
see anything useful or complete; just an overall image of the silicon die in
an IC, so I sanded down a microcontroller and we took a look. The result, as
expected, was absolute garbage:
Well, that went exactly as terribly as expected… Time to go down the rabbit hole.
Drill a pocket on the top of the epoxy package so the acid does not spill over
to the leads.
Place IC on a ceramic or graphite recipient, on top of the hot plate. Attach
a thermocouple to the recipient to monitor its temperature
When the temperature is appropriate (around 100 degrees C), drop one or 2 drops
of acid in the epoxy pocket we just drilled. Wait until there is no more acid,
and continue to apply acid when that happens
Every once in a while, grab the IC with plastic tweezers, dip it in acetone
and move it around to remove the reacted epoxy
A simple acetone bath and some stirring are not enough to remove any significant
amount of reacted epoxy packaging. After a while of carefully following this process,
I ended up losing my patience. That eventually resulted in applying too much acid,
spilling it over the IC’s leads, and melting them off. Then all bets were off,
so I just kept applying acid until the IC was embarrassingly destroyed:
Reacted epoxy had a similar consistency to wet charcoal, so I could easily
remove it with the tip of my tweezers. In a second test, that worked fine for a
bit; until I encountered the die and ripped all the bonding wires right off it.
For a third attempt, I exercised patience and spent hours and hours applying
acid to decap a simpler IC. It worked well enough:
That being said, spending an entire afternoon in PPE and constant tedious work
for only a chance to get an undamaged IC is unacceptable to me.
I tried magnetically stirring
the acetone bath in an attempt to accelerate the process while remaining reasonably
gentle, but it made no significant difference.
I need a better method to remove the reacted epoxy.
After the previous failure, it seemed obvious I needed a method to remove more
of the reacted epoxy without using a hard tool to manually extract it. I decided
to push a stream of acetone aimed directly at the target area.
To avoid splashing acetone all over myself, I first submerged the IC
in the acetone bath, and pushed the stream underneath the surface:
The process was significantly more effective, removing epoxy more precisely and
at a much quicker rate. It still took a long time, but the syringe was a bit
too effective in a sense…
The high-pressure stream pulled too much reacted epoxy off the IC, creating a
wider, deeper hole much more rapidly. Soon enough, I was able to reach the top
of the bond wires, hence locating the die. But the bond wires are akin to steel
rods in reinforced concrete: they improve the robustness of the epoxy area atop
of the silicon die.
By attempting to use the syringe method to extract the last area of epoxy over the die,
it’s easy to first expose the internal parts of the leads surrounding it. Once
that happens, and we apply more nitric acid, it will dissolve the leads faster than
it weakens the epoxy atop of the die. The result is an unusable IC due to the
disconnection of bond wires to its leads:
You’ll notice this happening before you actually dissolve the leads, because the
acid reaction will be apparently different and more fuming, and the acid will
quickly turn green-ish.
The workaround for this problem is rather simple: We need to minimize the size of
the reacted area. We can easily achieve that by drilling a smaller and deeper
pocket with the Dremel, directly over the silicon die.
Locate the position and depth of the silicon die
We could achieve this non-destructively with an X-Ray machine, but having a second
identical IC to destroy with a Dremel and/or acid will work well enough
Mark the position of the silicon die on the top of the target IC and dig as
deep as you can with the Dremel without damaging the bond wires or the die
Follow the same acid+acetone syringe procedure explained before
Drilling as deep as possible without damaging the IC is tricky. It’s easy to
overshoot and end up with a damaged die:
But once you get that part right, the results are quite decent:
Still, as you can see, most of the wire bonds are detached from the die. That’s
almost definitely caused by the excessive acetone pressure exerted through the
syringe when removing the last layer of epoxy off the die.
As you can see in the previous picture, there’s a lot of residues left over the
silicon die. Trying to get as much as possible of the die is what resulted in
excessive acetone pressure ripping the bonds off the die.
For complex ICs, where using increased magnification is necessary to discern more
details, that residue will obstruct the view of the silicon die way too much.
I’ve seen people get rid of such residue with their fingernails when using
destructive decapsulation methods. Fingernails are supposedly hard enough to
remove residue and soft enough not to damage the die. But that would obviously
destruct the die bonds.
We need to figure out a better, gentler way to remove the last layer of epoxy and
clean up residue off the silicon die without damaging the bonds.
I’ve seen sources suggesting a pure methanol bath in an ultrasonic cleaning
device to clean up the silicon die after the acid etching procedure. Let’s give
it a try…
I bought a cheap ultrasound cleaning device off Amazon and tried using it to
clean up the die in a methanol bath. It was able to remove a small part of the
residue, and microscopic imaging seemed pretty successful immediately after
bathing it for multiple minutes in separate attempts:
However, once the residue dries up again, most of the ingrained residue is still there:
This could be due to the cheap equipment I used, or the specific IC packaging
and acids I used, but trying to replace methanol with acetone for the syringe
procedure was also useless, so methanol is not gonna work for me.
First, once again, use the Dremel to drill a rather precise pocket over the silicon die
Use the Nitric deposition + Acetone syringe extraction method to dig through
epoxy until the top of the bond wires are exposed
Once the bond wires are found and we’re about to reach the die, it’s time to
stop using the acetone syringe method to extract reacted epoxy. Instead, submerge
the IC in the ultrasonic acetone bath
Repeat the acid deposition + acetone ultrasonic bath until the entire silicon
die is exposed. If the ultrasonic bath is unable to get any particular chunk of
epoxy, use a thin syringe to apply light pressure over that area.
After all the previous attempts, this methodology was finally enough
to non-destructively expose the entire silicon die. It worked on the first attempt,
and the surface of the die was pristine right away. No messy residue obscuring the
view under a microscope.
Let’s try with a more complex IC: a PIC16f84A.
Drill a pocket for the acid:
Apply acid on the hot plate:
Extract reacted epoxy with the syringes and ultrasonic acetone bath, as explained
And, et voilà!
That’s the best result yet!
Here are some more details from the same IC:
Taking great pictures under the microscope is not easy
without expensive, specialized cameras. Getting the focus and lighting right
throughout the sample is tricky, which makes it hard to get decent results from
image stitching software. More info on imaging later.
Still, for the sake of gaining some more detail in the overall picture, here’s a
composite image created from higher magnification pictures:
I’ve seen different sources recommend a room temp nitric acid bath after the
etching process. IIRC, the goal is to improve the uniformity of the etched area.
I tested it, and it didn’t make much of a difference. Perhaps it’s not that useful
for manual deposition? I’m not sure, but given the lack of discernible differences,
there’s no point for me to document it any further.
I’ve seen a mix of sulfuric and nitric acid recommended in some literature.
I did try it a couple of times, and it made no significant difference. It might help
with different encapsulation or bond wire materials, but it was pretty much pointless
in my tests.
I’d rather not deal with mixing dangerous acids, or the extra fuming it entails,
so I gave up trying and would not recommend it unless pure Nitric is not doing
Still, here’s one of the tests I ran. The methodology is identical to the previous
attempt, only I mixed about 5ml of 98% Sulfuric Acid and 6.6ml of 69% Nitric Acid.
That results in an approximate 50/50 mix of the active chemicals, accounting for
the difference in purity.
One of the tests I ran was on ADXL345 accelerometers, since I wanted to take a
good look at a MicroElectroMechanical System (MEMS) IC. The IC itself is so small,
I did not remove it from its development PCB so I could move it around more easily.
MEMS devices use micro-scale moving pieces, so they need to build differently.
Let’s take a look…
Here we can see that the circuit’s internals are covered by a metal lid, so the
epoxy does not glue the moving pieces together.
I first tried to remove the lid by pushing thin metallic tweezers from its side.
In the process, I destroyed the upper layer of the MEMS:
I decapped another ADXL345, loaded a brand new blade on my X-Acto knife, and
carefully cut through the lid’s edges using a
USB “microscope” to
see what I was doing. I cut through the wire bonds in the process, because I just
cared about seeing the MEMS; not being non-destructive. Here’s the undamaged top
layer of the accelerometer:
Looks great! I did not remove the residue for these pictures to avoid
damaging the very delicate MEMS parts.
Taking Pictures Under the Microscope
The ideal way to take pictures under the microscope would be to use a camera
designed to fit into the microscope. I tried using a cheapish one included with
the microscope I bought, but the results were pretty terrible; probably because
lighting completely opaque samples like these is hard and imperfect in a
microscope like mine.
Better cameras would definitely yield MUCH better results, but they are not cheap.
A good smartphone’s camera is better at handling poor/irregular lighting conditions,
but aligning it to the eyepiece is terribly annoying and imprecise.
My solution was to design and 3D print an adapter to hold my old iPhone 6 directly
aligned to the microscope’s lens. It’s not perfect, but it’s immensely better
than everything else I tried.
Using this method, taking one decent picture of the IC is easy enough. But if
we want a complete picture of the IC under higher magnification, we need to take
multiple pictures and stitch them together. For that, I used
Image Composite Editor,
created by the Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group. Getting it to
create good results was not without headaches and tediousness, but once it works,
it does create pretty amazing results. I’d definitely recommend it.
We hosted a Halloween party for some friends last week, and I wanted to integrate
my costume (whatever it was) with the house decorations. I only had a handful of
evenings available to get everything up and running, so I had to build something
just complex enough to entice guests to play with it. Preferably using parts I already
had in the lab.
Here’s the final product:
This post describes the final solution, pitfalls I ran into, and the reasoning
behind some decissions.
The BLE server
The circuit hidden in the costume prop is called, in bluetooth GATT terms,
the server. It uses an accelerometer to detect abrupt movements.
The sensor is calibrated so the prop can be moved freely, and only hitting it,
tapping it on the ground, or moving it aggressively will trigger a notification
to the other device.
Since this part is gonna be smacked around, it’s important to solder the
connections together. This is my final circuit soldered on a perfboard:
In order to avoid soldering the development boards themselves (in case we wanna
use them for another project in the future), it’s a good idea to trim female pin
headers like these and connect them to
the dev modules. Then, solder those headers to the perfboard.
The BLE client
On the other end, there’s the GATT client. It boots, scans for servers, connects
to ours, and starts polling its attributes. Whenever it receives a notification
from the server, it simulates lightning using the LED strip, and plays thunder
sound files over the speakers. If the ambiance jumper (GPIO19) is set, it behaves
as if a notification was received every 45-65 seconds.
For a detailed explanation on how to wire the MP3 shield, check out the Arduino
sketches. You may also find useful
this post in oneguyblog.com.
I used his audio files and some of his code for this project.
1x TIP31A NPN power transistor. Used to drive the LED strip using
1x MP3-TF-16P MP3 player module. It’s a co-processor contolled over serial
to read audio files from an SD card and play them over headphones or speakers
Analog LED strip
Some LED strips are controlled using digital signals, usually to make LED
clusters individually addressable. We want one of the simpler strips, controlled
directly trough the voltage you apply to it, so we can run it using PWM
I used an RGB, common-cathode strip (4 pins: +12V, R, G, B). But RGB are shorted,
so we’re controlling it like a white LED strip (2 pins: +12V, GND).
Pin array headers
2x 1Kohm resistors
female-to-female wires (if not soldering everything)
[optional] female single line headers - to avoid soldering dev modules directly
Off the shelf:
12V power supply
USB power supply - Or a 12V to 5V regulator (I recommend Traco Power)
This is how it looks soldered together; the LED strip would be connected at either
one of the 2 headers labeled LED.
As I said, I wrote this firmware in a handful of nights. It’s heavily based on the
very rudimentary BLE GATT example included with the ESP32 libraries, and includes
some pieces of code gathered online. It’s not pretty, it’s imperfect, and you may
have to manually reboot the BLE client at some point.
For the sake of completeness, and in case that GH repo ever becomes incompatible
with the exact hardware described in this post, here’s a snapshot of the code
in its current status:
BLE Client firmware
BLE Server firmware
Picking a wireless solution
There’s plenty of wireless solutions available in the market that could be used
to solve this problem, from raw 433MHz radios to WiFi, LoRa, bluetooth, ZigBee…
In order to decide which one is best, first you need to lay down your requirements.
These were mine; I think they apply to most costumes:
Good for close and medium range: Approx. 15m radius, with walls and EM noise
disturbing the signal
No need for an Internet connection
Relatively low-power consumption on the transmitter
Modern, consumer-grade protocol
Privacy and security are irrelevant, since this device is not critical, not
dangerous, and is only gonna be used once (Watch out!)
Bluetooth 5 can certainly handle those requirements.
Bluetooth 5 can be used in different ways to optimize certain requirements: energy
consumption, data throughput, bidirectional communication, etc.
Using the Generic Attribute Profile (GATT), we can cover most requirements that might
come up in a costume. We can send a notification whenever an event happens in the
prop, and we can use attributes to report other status information (e.g. switches
in the prop could set the other device’s behaviour).
If you’re using this post to build your own project, and your requirements differ
from mine, make sure Bluetooth 5 is the right fit for you. And even if Bluetooth 5
is an appropriate choice, GATT might not be. Figure out what you need to optimize,
and find out what’s the best fit.
Picking the right microcontroller and development board for a serious project is
often a huge and rather complicated task. Fortunately, this project is designed
for a single use, so my only concerns were part lead time and development time.
I was able to use only parts I already had, except for the MP3-TF-16P module.
If you’re interested in the thought process behind my hardware choices, here’s
some of it:
I’m very very familiar with the ESP32 from work, I have like a dozen of them at
hand, and I knew they work well with Arduino. It’s one of the most popular
microcontrollers in the IoT market, specially for Proofs of Concept and DIY
projects. And it also supports WiFi, which could be useful in future versions.
Perfect fit for this project.
I picked the ADXL345 accelerometer because I had a few development modules at hand.
Picked the MP3-TF-16P because it was rather popular in the Arduino communities,
and was available for next-day delivery.
The LED strip had to be analog and not individually addressable so we could better
simmulate lightning using PWM. A white LED strip would work fine, but I only had
RGB ones at hand.
The power transistor had to be beefy enough to drive all 3 channels (RGB) for
the entire LED strip, and -less importantly- fast enough to handle PWM. I already
had some TIP31As in the lab, and it can easily drive this strip’s power without
breaking a sweat. A MOSFET would be better for PWM control, but the ones I had at
hand were not beefy enough to handle the current required for my LED strip.
Everything else (power brick, perf board, resistors, pin headers…) is generic
stuff I had in the lab.
Building on this
If you’d like to build your own project based on this one, here’s a few suggestions
on where to start:
Create a good costume for it (zeus, electric chair, boxer…)
Fix connectivity issues. Under some circumstances, the client needs to be
restarted to re-connect to the server
The custom board for the client should include a 12V to 5V regulator. Feeding
power from 2 different outlets is completely unnecessary
Use GATT characteristics to set the frequency of ambiance lightning/thunder
dynamically from the costume prop
Set up more clients in your costume/props/drink/home so more things react when
an event occurs
Create 2 costumes that interact with one another
Find a good way to run the 12V LED strip off a portable battery, and integrate
another LED strip into the costume
Use more capabilities of Bluetooth GATT to create more diverse and complex
If this post was useful to you, and you decide to use it, don’t forget to send me
a video of your results! :)
Also, if you’re gonna build more functionality into your system, you should
really try to understand Bluetooth GATT a little better. See the resources below.
In part 4 we extracted the entire firmware from the router and decompressed it.
As I explained then, you can often get most of the firmware directly from
the manufacturer’s website: Firmware upgrade binaries often contain partial or
entire filesystems, or even entire firmwares.
In this post we’re gonna dig through the firmware to find potentially
interesting code, common vulnerabilities, etc.
I’m gonna explain some basic theory on the Linux architecture, disassembling
binaries, and other related concepts. Feel free to skip some of the parts
marked as [Theory]; the real hunt starts at ‘Looking for the Default WiFi
Password Generation Algorithm’. At the end of the day, we’re just: obtaining
source code in case we can use it, using grep and common sense to find
potentially interesting binaries, and disassembling them to find out how they
One step at a time.
Gathering and Analysing Open Source Components
GPL Licenses - What They Are and What to Expect [Theory]
Linux, U-Boot and other tools used in this
router are licensed under the
General Public License.
This license mandates that the source code for any binaries built with GPL’d
projects must be made available to anyone who wants it.
Having access to all that source code can be a massive advantage during the
reversing process. The kernel and the bootloader are particularly interesting,
and not just to find security issues.
When hunting for GPL’d sources you can usually expect one of these scenarios:
The code is freely available on the manufacturer’s website, nicely ordered
and completely open to be tinkered with. For instance:
apple products or the
The source code is available by request
They send you an email with the sources you requested
They ask you for “a reasonable amount” of money to ship you a CD with
In the case of this router, the source code was available on their website, even
though it was a huge pain in the ass to find; it took me a long time of manual
and automated searching but I ended up finding it in the mobile version of the
But what if they’re hiding something!? How could we possibly tell whether
the sources they gave us are the same they used to compile the production
Challenges of Binary Verification [Theory]
Theoretically, we could try to compile the source code ourselves and compare
the resulting binary with the one we extracted from the device. In practice,
that is extremely more complicated than it sounds.
The exact contents of the binary are strongly tied to the toolchain and overall
environment they were compiled in. We could try to replicate the environment
of the original developers, finding the exact same versions of everything they
used, so we can obtain the same results. Unfortunately, most compilers are not
built with output replicability in mind; even if we managed to find the exact
same version of everything, details like timestamps, processor-specific
optimizations or file paths would stop us from getting a byte-for-byte
If you’d like to read more about it, I can recommend
The authors go through the challenges they had to overcome in order to verify
that the official binary releases of the application ‘TrueCrypt’ were not
Introduction to the Architecture of Linux [Theory]
In multiple parts of the series, we’ve discussed the different components found
in the firmware: bootloader, kernel, filesystem and some protected memory to
store configuration data. In order to know where to look for what, it’s
important to understand the overall architecture of the system. Let’s quickly
review this device’s:
The bootloader is the first piece of code to be executed on boot. Its job is to
prepare the kernel for execution, jump into it and stop running. From that point
on, the kernel controls the hardware and uses it to run user space logic.
A few more details on each of the components:
Hardware: The CPU, Flash, RAM and other components are all physically
Linux Kernel: It knows how to control the hardware. The developers take
the Open Source Linux kernel, write drivers for their specific device
and compile everything into an executable Kernel. It manages memory, reads and
writes hardware registers, etc. In more complex systems, “kernel modules”
provide the possibility of keeping device drivers as separate entities in the
file system, and dynamically load them when required; most embedded systems
don’t need that level of versatility, so developers save precious resources by
compiling everything into the kernel
libc (“The C Library”): It serves as a general purpose wrapper for the
System Call API, including extremely common functions like printf, malloc
or system. Developers are free to call the system call API directly, but in
most cases, it’s MUCH more convenient to use libc. Instead of the extremely
common glibc (GNU C library) we usually find in more powerful systems, this
device uses a version optimised for embedded devices:
User Applications: Executable binaries in /bin/ and shared objects
in /lib/ (libraries that contain functions used by multiple binaries) comprise
most of the high-level logic. Shared objects are used to save space by storing
commonly used functions in a single location
Bootloader Source Code
As I’ve mentioned multiple times over this series, this router’s bootloader is
U-Boot. U-Boot is GPL licensed, but Huawei failed to include the source code in
their website’s release.
Having the source code for the bootloader can be very useful for some projects,
where it can help you figure out how to run a custom firmware on the device
or modify something; some bootloaders are much more feature-rich than others.
In this case, I’m not interested in anything U-Boot has to offer, so I didn’t
bother following up on the source code.
Kernel Source Code
Let’s just check out the source code and look for anything that might help.
Remember the factory reset button? The button is part of the hardware layer,
which means the GPIO pin that detects the button press must be controlled by
the drivers. These are the logs we saw coming out of the UART port in a
With some simple grep commands we can see how the different components
of the system (kernel, binaries and shared objects) can work together and
produce the serial output we saw:
Having the kernel can help us find poorly implemented security-related
algorithms and other weaknesses that are sometimes considered ‘accepted risks’
by manufacturers. Most importantly, we can use the drivers to compile and run
our own OS on the device.
User Space Source Code
As we can see in the GPL release, some components of the user space are also
open source, such as busybox and iptables. Given the right (wrong) versions,
public vulnerability databases could be enough to find exploits for any of these.
That being said, if you’re looking for 0-days, backdoors or sensitive data, your
best bet is not the open source projects. Device-specific and closed-source code
developed by the manufacturer or their contractors has not been so heavily
tested, and may very well be riddled with bugs. Most of this code is stored as
binaries in the user space; we’ve got the entire filesystem, so we’re good.
Without the source code for user space binaries, we need to find a way to
read the machine code inside them. That’s where disassembly comes in.
Binary Disassembly [Theory]
The code inside every executable binary is just a compilation of instructions
encoded as Machine Code so they can be processed by the CPU. Our processor’s
datasheet will explain the direct equivalence between assembly instructions and
their machine code representations. A disassembler has been given that
equivalence so it can go through the binary, find data and machine code and
translate it into assembly.
Assembly is not pretty, but at least it’s human-readable.
Due to the very low-level nature of the kernel, and how heavily it interacts
with the hardware, it is incredibly difficult to make any sense of its binary.
User space binaries, on the other hand, are abstracted away from the hardware
and follow unix standards for calling conventions, binary format, etc. They’re
an ideal target for disassembly.
There are lots of disassemblers for popular architectures like MIPS; some better
than others both in terms of functionality and usability.
I’d say these 3 are the most popular and powerful disassemblers in the market
IDA Pro: By far the most popular
disassembler/debugger in the market. It is extremely powerful, multi-platform,
and there are loads of users, tutorials, plugins, etc. around it. Unfortunately,
it’s also VERY expensive; a single person license of the Pro version
(required to disassemble MIPS binaries) costs over $1000
Radare2: Completely Open Source, uses
an impressively advanced command line
interface, and there’s a great community of hackers around it. On the other
hand, the complex command line interface -necessary for the sheer amount of
features- makes for a rather steep learning curve
Binary Ninja: Not open source, but reasonably priced
at $100 for a personal license, it’s middle ground between IDA and radare.
It’s still a very new tool; it was just released this year, but it’s
improving and gaining popularity day by day. It already works very well for some
architectures, but unfortunately it’s still missing MIPS support (coming soon)
and some other features I needed for these binaries. I look forward to giving it
another try when it’s more mature
In order to display the assembly code in a more readable way, all these
disasemblers use a “Graph View”. It provides an intuitive way to follow the
different possible execution flows in the binary:
Such a clear representation of branches, and their conditionals, loops, etc.
is extremely useful. Without it, we’d have to manually jump from one branch to
another in the
raw assembly code.
Not so fun.
If you read the code in that function you can see the disassembler makes a great
job displaying references to functions and hardcoded strings. That might be
enough to help us find something juicy, but in most cases you’ll need to
understand the assembly code to a certain extent.
Gathering Intel on the CPU and Its Assembly Code [Theory]
Because ELF headers are designed to be platform-agnostic, we can easily find out
some info about our binaries. As you can see, we know the architecture
(32-bit MIPS), endianness
(LSB), and whether it uses shared libraries.
We can verify that information thanks to the Ralink’s
which specifies the processor core it uses: MIPS24KEc
Once we know the basics we can just drop the binary into the disassembler. It
will help validate some of our findings, and provide us with the assembly code.
In order to understand that code we’re gonna need to know the architecture’s
instruction sets and register names:
MIPS Alternate Register Names:
In MIPS, there’s no real difference between registers; the CPU doesn’t about
what they’re called. Alternate register names exist to make the code more
readable for the developer/reverser: $a0 to $a3 for function arguments,
$t0 to $t9 for temporary registers, etc.
Beyond instructions and registers, some architectures may have some quirks. One
example of this would be the presence of
delay slots in MIPS: Instructions
that appear immediately after branch instructions (e.g. beqz, jalr) but are
actually executed before the jump. That sort of non-linearity would be
unthinkable in other architectures.
Following up on the reset key example we were using for the Kernel, we’ve got
the code that generated some of the UART log messages, but not all of them.
Since we couldn’t find the ‘button has been pressed’ string in the kernel’s
source code, we can deduce it must have come from user space. Let’s find out
which binary printed it:
3 files contain the next string found in the logs: 2 executables in /bin/ and
1 shared object in /lib/. Let’s take a look at /bin/equipcmd with IDA:
If we look closely, we can almost read the C code that was compiled into these
instructions. We can see a “clear configuration file”, which would match the
ERASE commands we saw in the SPI traffic capture to the flash IC. Then,
depending on the result, one of two strings is printed: restore default
success or restore default fail . On success, it then
prints something else, flushes some buffers and reboots; this also matches the
behaviour we observed when we pressed the reset button.
That function is a perfect example of delay slots: the addiu instructions
that set both strings as arguments -$a0- for the 2 puts are in the delay
slots of the branch if equals zero and jump and link register instructions.
They will actually be executed before branching/jumping.
As you can see, IDA has the name of all the functions in the binary. That won’t
necessarily be the case in other binaries, and now’s a good time to discuss why.
Function Names in a Binary - Intro to Symbol Tables [Theory]
The ELF format specifies the usage of
chunks of data inside a binary that provide useful debugging information. Part
of that information are human-readable names for every function in the binary.
This is extremely convenient for a developer debugging their binary, but in
most cases it should be removed before releasing the production binary. The
developers were nice enough to leave most of them in there :)
In order to remove them, the developers can use tools like
strip, which know what must be kept and
what can be spared. These tools serve a double purpose: They save memory by
removing data that won’t be necessary at runtime, and they make the reversing
process much more complicated for potential attackers. Function names give
context to the code we’re looking at, which is massively helpful.
In some cases -mostly when disassembling shared objects- you may see some
function names or none at all. The ones you WILL see are the Dynamic
Symbols in the .dymsym table: We discussed earlier the massive amount of
memory that can be saved by using shared objects to keep the pieces of code you
need to re-use all over the system (e.g. printf()). In order to locate pieces
of data inside the shared object, the caller uses their human-readable name.
That means the names for functions and variables that need to be publicly
accessible must be left in the binary. The rest of them can be removed,
which is why ELF uses 2 symbol tables: .dynsym for publicly accessible
symbols and .symtab for the internal ones.
If you recall, these are the default WiFi credentials in my router:
So what do we know?
Each device is pre-configured with a different set of WiFi credentials
The credentials could be hardcoded at the factory or generated on the device.
Either way, we know from previous posts that both SSID and password are stored
in the reserved area of Flash memory, and they’re right next to each other
If they were hardcoded at the factory, the router only needs to read them
from a known memory location
If they are generated in the device and then stored to flash, there must
be an algorithm in the router that -given the same inputs- always generates
the same outputs. If the inputs are public (e.g. the MAC address) and we
can find, reverse and replicate the algorithm, we could calculate default
WiFi passwords for any other router that uses the same algorithm
Let’s see what we can do with that…
Finding Hardcoded Strings
Let’s assume there IS such algorithm in the router. Between username and
password, there’s only one string that remains constant across devices:
TALKTALK-. This string is prepended to the last 6 characters of the MAC
address. If the generation algorithm is in the router, surely this string must
be hardcoded in there. Let’s look it up:
2 of those 3 binaries (nmbd and smbd) are part of
program used to use the USB flash drive as a network storage device.
They’re probably used to identify the router over the network. Let’s take a
look at the other one: /bin/cms.
Reversing the Functions that Uses Them
That looks exactly the way we’d expect the SSID generation algorithm to look.
The code is located inside a rather large function called ATP_WLAN_Init, and
somewhere in there it performs the following actions:
Find out the MAC address of the device we’re running on:
Unfortunately, right after this branch the function simply does an
ATP_DBSave and moves on to start running commands and whatnot. e.g.:
Further inspection of this function and other references to ATP_DBSave did
not reveal anything interesting.
After some time using this process to find potentially relevant pieces of code,
reverse them, and analyse them, I didn’t find anything that looked like the
password generation algorithm. That would confirm the suspicions I’ve had since
we found the default credentials in the protected flash area: The manufacturer
used proper security techniques and flashed the credentials at the factory,
which is why there is no algorithm. Since the designers manufacture their own
hardware, the decision makes perfect sense for this device. They can do
whatever they want with their manufacturing lines, so they decided to do it
I might take another look at it in the future, or try to find it in some other
router (I’d like to document the process of reversing it), but you should know
this method DOES work for a lot of products. There’s a long history of freely
available default WiFi password generators.
Since we already know how to find relevant code in the filesystem binaries,
let’s see what else we can do with that knowledge.
Looking for Command Injection Vulnerabilities
One of the most common, easy to find and dangerous vulnerabilities is command
injection. The idea is simple; we find an input string that is gonna be used
as an argument for a shell command. We try to append our own commands and get
them to execute, bypassing any filters that the developers may have implemented.
In embedded devices, such vulnerabilities often result in full root control of
These vulnerabilities are particularly common in embedded devices due to their
memory constraints. Say you’re developing the web interface used by the users
to configure the device; you want to add the possibility to ping a
user-defined server from the router, because it’s very valuable information to
debug network problems. You need to give the user the option to define the ping
target, and you need to serve them the results:
Once you receive the data of which server to target, you have two options: You
find a library with the ICMP protocol implemented and call it directly from the
web backend, or you could use a single, standard function call and use the
router’s already existing ping shell command. The later is easier to
implement, saves memory, etc. and it’s the obvious choice. Taking user input
(target server address) and using it as part of a shell command is where the
danger comes in. Let’s see how this router’s web application, /bin/web,
A call to libc’s system()
(not to be confused with a
is the easiest way to execute a shell command from an application. Sometimes
developers wrap system() in custom functions in order to systematically filter
all inputs, but there’s always something the wrapper can’t do or some developer
who doesn’t get the memo.
Looking for references to system in a binary is an excellent way to find
vectors for command injections. Just investigate the ones that look like may
be using unfiltered user input. These are all the references to system() in
the /bin/web binary:
Even the names of the functions can give you clues on whether or not a reference
to system() will receive user input. We can also see some references to
PIN and PUK codes, SIMs, etc. Seems like this application is also used in some
I spent some time trying to find ways around the filtering provided by
atp_gethostbyname (anything that isn’t a domain name causes an error), but I
couldn’t find anything in this field or any others. Further analysis may prove
me wrong. The idea would be to inject something to the effects of this:
Which would result in this final string being executed as a shell command:
ping google.com -c 1; reboot; ping 192.168.1.1 > /dev/null. If the router
reboots, we found a way in.
As I said, I couldn’t find anything. Ideally we’d like to verify that for all
input fields, whether they’re in the web interface or some other network
interface. Another example of a network interface
to remote command injections is the “LAN-Side DSL CPE Configuration” protocol,
or TR-064. Even though this protocol was designed to be used over the
internal network only, it’s been used to configure routers over the internet in
the past. Command injection vulnerabilities in some implementations of this
protocol have been used to remotely extract data like WiFi credentials from
routers with just a few packets.
This router has a binary conveniently named /bin/tr064; if we take a look,
we find this right in the main() function:
That’s the private RSA key we found in
being used for SSL authentication. Now we might be able to supplant a router
in the system and look for vulnerabilities in their servers, or we might use it
to find other attack vectors. Most importantly, it closes the mistery of the
private key we found while scouting the firmware.
Looking for More Complex Vulnerabilities [Theory]
Even if we couldn’t find any command injection vulnerabilities, there are always
other vectors to gain control of the router. The most common ones are good old
buffer overflows. Any input string into the router, whether it is for a shell
command or any other purpose, is handled, modified and passed around the code.
An error by the developer calculating expected buffer lengths, not validating
them, etc. in those string operations can result in an exploitable buffer
overflow, which an attacker can use to gain control of the system.
The idea behind a buffer overflow is rather simple: We manage to pass a string
into the system that contains executable code. We override some address in the
program so the execution flow jumps into the code we just injected. Now we can
do anything that binary could do -in embedded systems like this one, where
everything runs as root, it means immediate root pwnage.
Developing an exploit for this sort of vulnerability is not as simple as
appending commands to find your way around a filter. There are multiple possible
scenarios, and different techniques to handle them. Exploits using more involved
ROP can become
necessary in some cases. That being said, most household embedded systems
nowadays are decades behind personal computers in terms of anti-exploitation
techniques. Methods like Address Space Layout Randomization
which are designed to make exploit development much more complicated, are
usually disabled or not implemented at all.
If you’d like to find a potential vulnerability so you can learn exploit
development on your own, you can use the same techniques we’ve been using so
far. Find potentially interesting inputs, locate the code that manages them
using function names, hardcoded strings, etc. and try to trigger a malfunction
sending an unexpected input. If we find an improperly handled string, we might
have an exploitable bug.
Once we’ve located the piece of disassembled code we’re going to attack, we’re
mostly interested in string manipulation functions like strcpy, strcat,
sprintf, etc. Their more secure counterparts strncpy, strncat, etc. are
also potentially vulnerable to some techniques, but usually much more
complicated to work with.
Even though I’m not sure that function -extracted from /bin/tr064- is passed
any user inputs, it’s still a good example of the sort of code you should be
looking for. Once you find potentially insecure string operations that may
handle user input, you need to figure out whether there’s an exploitable bug.
Try to cause a crash by sending unexpectedly long inputs and work from there.
Why did it crash? How many characters can I send without causing a crash? Which
payload can I fit in there? Where does it land in memory? etc. etc. I may write
about this process in more detail at some point, but there’s plenty of
literature available online if you’re interested.
Don’t spend all your efforts on the most obvious inputs only -which are also
more likely to be properly filtered/handled-; using tools like the
burp web proxy (or even the browser itself),
we can modify fields like cookies to check for buffer overflows.
Web vulnerabilities like
CSRF are also
extremely common in embedded devices with web interfaces. Exploiting them to
write to files or bypass authentication can lead to absolute control of the
router, specially when combined with command injections.
An authentication bypass for a router with the web interface available from
the Internet could very well expose the network to being remotely man in the
middle’d. They’re definitely an important attack vector, even though I’m not
gonna go into how to find them.
Decompiling Binaries [Theory]
When you decompile a binary, instead of simply translating Machine Code to
Assembly Code, the decompiler uses algorithms to identify functions, loops,
branches, etc. and replicate them in a higher level language like C or Python.
That sounds like a brilliant idea for anybody who has been banging their head
against some assembly code for a few hours, but an additional layer of
abstraction means more potential errors, which can result in massive wastes of
In my (admittedly short) personal experience, the output just doesn’t look
reliable enough. It might be fine when using expensive decompilers (IDA itself
supports a couple of architectures), but I haven’t found one I can trust with
MIPS binaries. That being said, if you’d like to give one a try, the
online decompiler supports multiple architectures- including MIPS.
Even as a ‘high level’ language, the code is not exactly pretty to look at.
Whether we want to learn something about an algorithm we’re reversing, to debug
an exploit we’re developing or to find any other sort of vulnerability, being
able to execute (and, if possible, debug) the binary on an environment we fully
control would be a massive advantage. In some/most cases -like this router-,
being able to debug on the original hardware is not possible. In the next post,
we’ll work on CPU emulation to debug the binaries in our own computers.
Thanks for reading! I’m sorry this post took so long to come out. Between work,
hardwear.io and seeing family/friends, this post was
written about 1 paragraph at a time from 4 different countries. Things should
slow down for a while, so hopefully I’ll be able to publish Part 6 soon. I’ve
also got some other reversing projects coming down the pipeline,
starting with hacking the Amazon Echo and a router with JTAG. I’ll try to get
to those soon, work permitting… Happy Hacking :)
Tips and Tricks
Mistaken xrefs and how to remove them
Sometimes an address is loaded into a register for 16bit/32bit adjustments.
The contents of that address have no effect on the rest of the code; it’s just
a routinary adjustment. If the address that is assigned to the register happens
to be pointing to some valid data, IDA will rename the address in the assembly
and display the contents in a comment.
It is up to you to figure out whether an x-ref makes sense or not. If it
doesn’t, select the variable and press o in IDA to ignore the contents and
give you only the address. This makes the code much less confusing.
Setting function prototypes so IDA comments the args around calls for us
Set the cursor on a function and press y. Set the prototype for the function:
e.g. int memcpy(void *restrict dst, const void *restrict src, int n);.
Note:IDA only understands built-in types, so we can’t use types like size_t.
Once again we can use the extern declarations found in the GPL source code.
When available, find the declaration for a specific function, and use the same
types and names for the arguments in IDA.
Taking Advantage of the GPL Source Code
If we wanna figure out what are the 1st and 2nd parameters of a function like
ATP_DBSetPara, we can sometimes rely on the GPL source code. Lots of functions
are not implemented in the kernel or any other open source component, but
they’re still used from one of them. That means we can’t see the code we’re
interested in, but we can see the extern declarations for it. Sometimes the
source will include documentation comments or descriptive variable names; very
useful info that the disassembly doesn’t provide:
Unfortunately, the function documentation comment is not very useful in this
case -seems like there were encoding issues with the file at some point, and
everything written in Chinese was lost. At least now we know that the first
argument is a list of keys, and the second is something they call ParamCMO.
ParamCMO is a constant in our disassembly, so it’s probably just a
reference to the key we’re trying to set.
Disassembly Methods - Linear Sweep vs Recursive Descent
The structure of a binary can vary greatly depending on compiler, developers,
etc. How functions call each other is not always straightforward for a
disassembler to figure out. That means you may run into lots of ‘orphaned’
functions, which exist in the binary but do not have a known caller.
Which disassembler you use will dictate whether you see those functions or not,
some of which can be extremely important to us (e.g. the ping function in the
web binary we reversed earlier). This is due to how they scan binaries for
Linear Sweep: Read the binary one byte at a time, anything that looks
like a function is presented to the user. This requires significant logic to
keep false positives to a minimum
Recursive Descent: We know the binary’s entry point. We find all functions
called from main(), then we find the functions called from those, and keep
recursively displaying functions until we’ve got “all” of them. This method
is very robust, but any functions not referenced in a standard/direct way will
be left out
Make sure your disassembler supports linear sweep if you feel like you’re
missing any data. Make sure the code you’re looking at makes sense if you’re
using linear sweep.
In Parts 1 to 3 we’ve been gathering data within its context. We could sniff
the specific pieces of data we were interested in, or observe the resources
used by each process. On the other hand, they had some serious limitations;
we didn’t have access to ALL the data, and we had to deal with very minimal
tools… And what if we had not been able to find a serial port on the PCB?
What if we had but it didn’t use default credentials?
In this post we’re gonna get the data straight from the source, sacrificing
context in favour of absolute access. We’re gonna dump the data from the Flash
IC and decompress it so it’s usable. This method doesn’t require expensive
equipment and is independent of everything we’ve done until now. An external
Flash IC with a public datasheet is a reverser’s great ally.
Dumping the Memory Contents
As discussed in Part 3, we’ve got access to the datasheet for the Flash IC, so
there’s no need to reverse its pinout:
We also have its instruction set, so we can communicate with the IC using almost
any device capable of ‘speaking’ SPI.
We also know that powering up the router will cause the Ralink to start
communicating with the Flash IC, which would interfere with our own attempts to
read the data. We need to stop the communication between the Ralink and the
Flash IC, but the best way to do that depends on the design of the circuit we’re
Do We Need to Desolder The Flash IC? [Theory]
The perfect way to avoid interference would be to simply desolder the Flash IC
so it’s completely isolated from the rest of the circuit. It gives us absolute
control and removes all possible sources of interference. Unfortunately, it also
requires additional equipment, experience and time, so let’s see if we can avoid
The second option would be to find a way of keeping the Ralink inactive while
everything else around it stays in standby. Microcontrollers often have a Reset
pin that will force them to shut down when pulled to 0; they’re commonly used
to force IC reboots without interrupting power to the board. In this case we
don’t have access to the Ralink’s full datasheet (it’s probably distributed only
to customers and under NDA); the IC’s form factor and the complexity of the
circuit around it make for a very hard pinout to reverse, so let’s keep
What about powering one IC up but not the other? We can try applying voltage
directly to the power pins of the Flash IC instead of powering up the whole
circuit. Injecting power into the PCB in a way it wasn’t designed for could
blow something up; we could reverse engineer the power circuit, but that’s
tedious work. This router is cheap and widely available, so I took the ‘fuck it’
approach. The voltage required, according to the
is 3V; I’m just gonna apply power directly to the Flash IC and see what happens.
It may power up the Ralink too, but it’s worth a try.
We start supplying power while observing the board and waiting for data from
the Ralink’s UART port. We can see some LEDs light up at the back of the PCB,
but there’s no data coming out of the UART port; the Ralink must not be running.
Even though the Ralink is off, its connection to the Flash IC may still interfere
with our traffic because of multiple design factors in both power circuit and the
silicon. It’s important to keep that possibility in mind in case we see anything
dodgy later on; if that was to happen we’d have to desolder the Flash IC (or just
its data pins) to physically disconnect it from everything else.
The LEDs and other static components can’t communicate with the Flash IC, so they
won’t be an issue as long as we can supply enough current for all of them.
I’m just gonna use a bench power supply, with plenty of current available for
everything. If you don’t have one you can try using the Master’s power lines,
or some USB power adapter if you need some more current. They’ll probably do
Time to connect our SPI Master.
Connecting to the Flash IC
Now that we’ve confirmed there’s no need to desolder the Ralink we can connect
any device that speaks SPI and start reading memory contents block by block.
Any microcontroller will do, but a purpose-specific SPI-USB bridge will often
be much faster. In this case I’m gonna be using a board based on the FT232H,
which supports SPI among some other low level protocols.
We’ve got the pinout for both the Flash and my
so let’s get everything connected.
Now that the hardware is ready it’s time to start pumping data out.
Dumping the Data
We need some software in our computer that can understand the USB-SPI bridge’s
traffic and replicate the memory contents as a binary file. Writing our own
wouldn’t be difficult, but there are programs out there that already support
lots of common Masters and Flash ICs. Let’s try the widely known and open source
flashrom is old and buggy, but it already supports both the FT232H as
Master and the FL064PIF as Slave. It gave me lots of trouble in both OSX and
an Ubuntu VM, but ended up working just fine on a Raspberry Pi (Raspbian):
Success! We’ve got our memory dump, so we can ditch the hardware and start
preparing the data for analysis.
Splitting the Binary
The file command has been able to identify some data about the binary, but
that’s just because it starts with a header in a supported format. In a
0-knowledge scenario we’d use binwalk
to take a first look at the binary file and find the data we’d like to extract.
Binwalk is a very useful tool for binary analysis created by the
awesome hackers at /dev/ttyS0; you’ll certainly get
to know them if you’re into hardware hacking.
In this case we’re not in a 0-knowledge scenario; we’ve been gathering data since
day 1, and we obtained a complete memory map of the Flash IC in Part 2. The
addresses mentioned in the debug message are confirmed by binwalk, and it makes
for much cleaner splitting of the binary, so let’s use it:
With the binary and the relevant addresses, it’s time to split the binary into
its 4 basic segments. dd takes its parameters in terms of block size (bs,
bytes), offset (skip, blocks) and size (count, blocks); all of them in
decimal. We can use a calculator or let the shell do the hex do decimal
conversions with $(()):
$ dd if=spidump.bin of=bootloader.bin bs=1 count=$((0x020000))
131072+0 records in
131072+0 records out
131072 bytes transferred in 0.215768 secs (607467 bytes/sec)
$ dd if=spidump.bin of=mainkernel.bin bs=1 count=$((0x13D000-0x020000)) skip=$((0x020000))
1167360+0 records in
1167360+0 records out
1167360 bytes transferred in 1.900925 secs (614101 bytes/sec)
$ dd if=spidump.bin of=mainrootfs.bin bs=1 count=$((0x660000-0x13D000)) skip=$((0x13D000))
5386240+0 records in
5386240+0 records out
5386240 bytes transferred in 9.163635 secs (587784 bytes/sec)
$ dd if=spidump.bin of=protect.bin bs=1 count=$((0x800000-0x660000)) skip=$((0x660000))
1703936+0 records in
1703936+0 records out
1703936 bytes transferred in 2.743594 secs (621060 bytes/sec)
We have created 4 different binary files:
U-boot. The bootloader.
It’s not compressed because the Ralink wouldn’t know how to decompress it.
Linux Kernel. The basic firmware in charge of controlling the bare metal.
Compressed using lzma
Filesystem. Contains all sorts of important binaries and configuration files.
Compressed as squashfs using the lzma algorithm
Miscellaneous data as explained in Part 3.
Extracting the Data
Now that we’ve split the binary into its 4 basic segments, let’s take a closer
look at each of them.
Binwalk found the uImage header and decoded it for us. U-Boot uses these headers
to identify relevant memory areas. It’s the same info that the file command
displayed when we fed it the whole memory dump because it’s the first header in
We don’t care much for the bootloader’s contents in this case, so let’s ignore
Compression is something we have to deal with before we can make any use of the
data. binwalk has confirmed what we discovered in Part 2, the kernel
is compressed using lzma, a very popular compression algorithm in embedded
systems. A quick check with strings mainkernel.bin | less confirms there’s no
human readable data in the binary, as expected.
There are multiple tools that can decompress lzma, such as 7z or
xz. None of those liked mainkernel.bin:
$ xz --decompress mainkernel.bin
xz: mainkernel.bin: File format not recognized
The uImage header is probably messing with tools, so we’re gonna have to strip
it out. We know the lzma data starts at byte 0x40, so let’s copy everything
but the first 64 bytes.
And when we try to decompress…
$ xz --decompress mainkernel_noheader.lzma
xz: mainkernel_noheader.lzma: Compressed data is corrupt
xz has been able to recognize the file as lzma, but now it doesn’t like the
data itself. We’re trying to decompress the whole mainkernel Flash area, but
the stored data is extremely unlikely to be occupying 100% of the memory segment.
Let’s remove any unused memory from the tail of the binary and try again:
xz seems to have decompressed the data successfully. We can easily verify that
using the strings command, which finds ASCII strings in binary files. Since
we’re at it, we may as well look for something useful…
The Wi-Fi Easy and Secure Key Derivation string looks promising, but as it
turns out it’s just a hardcoded string defined by the
Wi-Fi Protected Setup spec.
Nothing to do with the password generation algorithm we’re interested in.
We’ve proven the data has been properly decompressed, so let’s keep moving.
The mainrootfs memory segment does not have a uImage header because it’s
relevant to the kernel but not to U-Boot.
SquashFS is a very common filesystem in embedded systems. There are multiple
versions and variations, and manufacturers sometimes use custom signatures to
make the data harder to locate inside the binary. We may have to fiddle with
multiple versions of unsquashfs and/or modify the signatures, so let me show
you what the signature looks like in this case:
Since the filesystem is very common and finding the right configuration is
tedious work, somebody may have already written a script to automate the task.
I came across this
Firmware Modification Kit,
which compiles multiple versions of unsquashfs and includes a neat script
called unsquashfs_all.sh to run all of them. It’s worth a try.
Wasn’t that easy? We got lucky with the SquashFS version and supported signature,
and unsquashfs_all.sh managed to decompress the filesystem. Now we’ve got
every binary in the filesystem, every symlink and configuration file, and
everything is nice and tidy:
In the complete
we can see we’ve got every file in the system, (other than runtime files like
those in /var/, of course).
Using the intel we have been gathering on the firmware since day 1 we can start
looking for potentially interesting binaries:
If we were looking for network/application vulnerabilities in the router, having
every binary and config file in the system would be massively useful.
As we discussed in Part 3, this memory area is not compressed and contains all
pieces of data that need to survive across reboots but be different across
devices. strings seems like an appropriate tool for a quick overview of the
Everything in there
seems to be just the curcfg.xml contents, some logs and those few isolated
strings in the picture. We already sniffed and analysed all of that data in Part
3, so there’s nothing else to discuss here.
At this point all hardware reversing for the Ralink is complete and we’ve
collected everything there was to collect in ROM. Just think of what you may be
interested in and there has to be a way to find it. Imagine we wanted to control
the router through the UART debug port we found in Part 1, but when we try to
access the ATP CLI we can’t figure out the credentials. After dumping the
external Flash we’d be able to find the XML file in the protect area, and
discover the credentials just like we did in Part 2
(The Rambo Approach to Intel Gathering, admin:admin).
If you couldn’t dump the memory IC for any reason, the firmware upgrade files
provided by the manufacturers will sometimes be complete memory segments;
the device simply overwrites the relevant flash areas using code previously
loaded to RAM. Downloading the file from the manufacturer would be the equivalent
of dumping those segments from flash, so we just need to decompress them.
They won’t have all the data, but it may be enough for your purposes.
Now that we’ve got the firmware we just need to think of anything we may be
interested in and start looking for it through the data. In the next post we’ll
dig a bit into different binaries and try to find more potentially useful data.
The best thing about hardware hacking is having full access to very bare metal,
and all the electrical signals that make the system work. With ingenuity and
access to the right equipment we should be able to obtain any data we want. From
simply sniffing traffic with a cheap logic analyser to using thousands of
dollars worth of equipment to obtain private keys by measuring the power
consumed by the device with enough precision (power analysis side channel
attack); if the physics make sense, it’s likely to work given the right
In this post I’d like to discuss traffic sniffing and how we can use it to gather
Traffic sniffing at a practical level is used all the time for all sorts of
purposes, from regular debugging during the delopment process to reversing the
interface of gaming controllers, etc. It’s definitely worth a post of its own,
even though this device can be reversed without it.
Full disclosure: I’m in contact with Huawei’s security team. I tried to contact
TalkTalk, but their security staff is nowhere to be seen.
Data Flows In the PCB
Data is useless within its static memory cells, it needs to be read, written
and passed around in order to be useful. A quick look at the board is enough to
deduce where the data is flowing through, based on IC placement and PCB traces:
We’re not looking for hardware backdoors or anything buried too deep, so we’re
only gonna look into the SPI data flowing between the Ralink and its external
Pretty much every IC in the market has a datasheet documenting all its technical
characteristics, from pinouts to power usage and communication protocols. There
are tons of public datasheets on google, so find the ones relevant to the traffic
you want to sniff:
Now we’ve got pinouts, electrical characteristics, protocol details… Let’s
take a first look and extract the most relevant pieces of data.
Understanding the Flash IC
We know which data flow we’re interested: The SPI traffic between the Ralink IC
and Flash. Let’s get started; the first thing we need is to figure out how to
connect the logic analyser. In this case we’ve got the datasheet for the Flash
IC, so there’s no need to reverse engineer any pinouts:
Standard SPI communication uses 4 pins:
MISO (Master In Slave Out): Data line Ralink<-Flash
MOSI (Master Out Slave In): Data line Ralink->Flash
SCK (Clock Signal): Coordinates when to read the data lines
CS# (Chip Select): Enables the Flash IC when set to 0 so multiple of them
can share MISO/MOSI/SCK lines.
We know the pinout, so let’s just connect a logic analyser to those 4 pins and
capture some random transmission:
In order to set up our logic analyser we need to find out some SPI configuation
Transmission endianness [Standard: MSB First]
Number of bits per transfer [Standard: 8]. Will be obvious in the capture
CPOL: Default state of the clock line while inactive [0 or 1]. Will be obvious
in the capture
CPHA: Clock edge that triggers the data read in the data lines [0=leading,
1=trailing]. We’ll have to deduce this
The datasheet explains that the flash IC understands only 2 combinations of
CPOL and CPHA: (CPOL=0, CPHA=0) or (CPOL=1, CPHA=1)
Let’s take a first look at some sniffed data:
In order to understand exactly what’s happenning you’ll need the FL064PIF’s
instruction set, available in its datasheet:
Now we can finally analyse the captured data:
In the datasheet we can see that the FL064PIF has high-performance features for
read and write operations: Dual and Quad options that multiplex the data over
more lines to increase the transmission speed. From taking a few samples, it
doesn’t seem like the router uses these features much -if at all-, but it’s
important to keep the possibility in mind in case we see something odd in a
Transmission modes that require additional pins can be a problem if your logic
analyser is not powerful enough.
The Importance of Your Sampling Rate [Theory]
A logic analyser is a conceptually simple device: It reads signal lines as
digital inputs every x microseconds for y seconds, and when it’s done it
sends the data to your computer to be analysed.
For the protocol analyser to generate accurate data it’s vital that we record
digital inputs faster than the device writes them. Otherwise the data will be
mangled by missing bits or deformed waveforms.
Unfortunately, your logic analyser’s maximum sampling rate depends on how
powerful/expensive it is and how many lines you need to sniff at a time.
High-speed interfaces with multiple data lines can be a problem if you don’t have
access to expensive equipment.
I recorded this data from the Ralink-Flash SPI bus using a low-end Saleae
analyser at its maximum sampling rate for this number of lines,
As you can see, even though the clock signal has the 8 low to high transitions
required for each byte, the waveform is deformed.
Since the clock signal is used to coordinate when to read the data lines, this
kind of waveform deformation may cause data corruption even if we don’t drop any
bits (depending partly on the design of your logic analyser). There’s always
some wiggle room for read inaccuracies, and we don’t need 100% correct data at
this point, but it’s important to keep all error vectors in mind.
Let’s sniff the same bus using a higher performance logic analyser at
As you can see, this clock signal is perfectly regular when our Sampling Rate is
If you see anything dodgy in your traffic capture, consider how much data you’re
willing to lose and whether you’re being limited by your equipment. If that’s
the case, either skip this Reversing vector or consider investing in a better
Seeing the Data Flow
We’re already familiar with the system thanks to the overview of the firmware
we did in Part 2, so we can think of some specific SPI transmissions that we may
be interested in sniffing. Simply connecting an oscilloscope to the MISO and MOSI
pins will help us figure out how to trigger those transmissions and yield some
other useful data.
Here’s a video (no audio) showing both the serial interface and the MISO/MOSI
signals while we manipulate the router:
This is a great way of easily identifying processes or actions that trigger
flash read/write actions, and will help us find out when to start recording with
the logic analyser and for how long.
Analysing SPI Traffic - ATP’s Save Command
In Post 2 I mentioned ATP CLI has a save command that stores something to
flash; unfortunately, the help menu (save ?) won’t tell you what it’s doing
and the only output when you run it is a few dots that act as a progress bar.
Why don’t we find out by ourselves? Let’s make a plan:
Wait until boot sequence is complete and the router is idle so there’s no
unexpected SPI traffic
Start the ATP Cli as explained in Part 1
Connect the oscilloscope to MISO/MOSI and run save to get a rough estimate
of how much time we need to capture data for
Set a trigger in the enable line sniffed by the logic analyser so it starts
recording as soon as the flash IC is selected
Analyse the captured data
Steps 3 and 4 can be combined so you see the data flow in real time in the scope
while you see the charge bar for the logic analyser; that way you can make
sure you don’t miss any data. In order to comfortably connect both scope and
logic sniffer to the same pins, these test clips come in very handy:
Once we’ve got the traffic we can take a first look at it:
Let’s consider what sort of data could be extracted from this traffic dump that
might be useful to us. We’re working with a memory storage IC, so we can see the
data that is being read/written and the addresses where it belongs. I think we
can represent that data in a useful way by 2 means:
Traffic map depicting which Flash areas are being written, read or erased in
Create binary files that replicate the memory blocks that were read/written,
preferably removing all the protocol rubbish that we sniffed along with them.
Saleae’s SPI analyser will export the
data as a CSV file.
improve their protocol analyser
to add the functionality we want, but that would be too much work for this
project. One of the great things about low level protocols like SPI is that
they’re usually very straightforward; I decided to write some python spaghetti
code to analyse the CSV file and extract the data we’re looking for:
The workflow to analyse a capture is the following:
Export sniffed traffic as CSV
Run the script:
Iterate through the CSV file
Identify different commands by their index
Recognise the command expressed by the first byte
Process its arguments (addresses, etc.)
Identify the read/write payload
Convert ASCII representation of each payload byte to binary
Write binary blocks to different files for MISO (read) and MOSI (write)
Read the traffic map (regular text) and the binaries
(hexdump -C output.bin | less)
Replicated Memory Blocks, Split by address:
The traffic map is much more useful when combined with the Flash memory map we
found in Part 2:
From the traffic map we can see the bulk of the save command’s traffic is
Read about 64kB of data from the protect area
Overwrite the data we just read
In the MISO binary we can see most of the read data was just tons of 1s:
Most of the data in the MOSI binary is plaintext XML, and it looks exactly like
the /var/curcfg.xml file we discovered in Part 2. As we discussed then, this
“current configuration” file contains tons of useful data, including the current
It’s standard to keep reserved areas in flash; they’re mostly for
miscellaneous data that needs to survive across reboots and be configurable
by user, firmware or factory. It makes sense for a command called save to
write data to such area, it explains why the data is perfectly readable as
opposed to being compressed like the filesystem, and why we found the XML file
in the /var/ folder of the filesystem (it’s a folder for runtime files; data in
the protect area has to be loaded to memory separately from the filesystem).
The Pot of Gold at the End of the Firmware [Theory]
During this whole process it’s useful to have some sort of target to keep you
digging in the same general direction.
Our target is an old one: the algorithm that generates the router’s default WiFi
password. If we get our hands on such algorithm and it happens to derive the
password from public information, any HG533 in the world with default WiFi
credentials would probably be vulnerable.
That exact security issue has been found countless times in the past, usually
deriving the password from public data like the Access Point’s MAC address or
That being said, not all routers are vulnerable, and I personally don’t expect
this one to be. The main reason behind targeting this specific vector is
that it’s caused by a recurrent problem in embedded engineering: The need for
a piece of data that is known by the firmware, unique to each device and known
by an external entity. From default WiFi passwords to device credentials for IoT
devices, this problem manifests in different ways all over the Industry.
Future posts will probably reference the different possibilities I’m about to
explain, so let me get all that theory out of the way now.
The Sticker Problem
In this day and era, connecting to your router via ethernet so there’s no need
for default WiFi credentials is not an option, using a display to show a
randomly generated password would be too expensive, etc. etc. etc.
The most widely adopted solution for routers is to create a WiFi network using
default credentials, print those credentials on a sticker at the factory and
stick it to the back of the device.
The WiFi password is the ‘unique piece of data’, and the computer printing the
stickers in the factory is the ‘external entity’. Both the firmware and the
computer need to know the default WiFi credentials, so the engineer needs to
decide how to coordinate them. Usually there are 2 options available:
The same algorithm is implemented in both the device and the computer, and its
input parameters are known to both of them
A computer generates the credentials for each device and they’re stored
into each device separately
Developer incompetence aside, the first approach is usually taken as a last
resort; if you can’t get your hardware manufacturer to flash unique data to each
device or can’t afford the increase in manufacturing cost.
The second approach is much better by design: We’re not trusting the hardware
with data sensitive enough to compromise every other device in the field. That
being said, the company may still decide to use an algorithm with predictable
outputs instead of completely random data; that would make the system as secure
as the weakest link between the algorithm -mathematically speaking-, the
confidentiality of their source code and the security of the computers/network
Sniffing Factory Reset
So now that we’ve discussed our target, let’s gather some data about it. The
first thing we wanna figure out is which actions will kickstart the flow of
relevant data on the PCB. In this case there’s 1 particular action: Pressing
the Factory Reset button for 10s. This should replace the existing WiFi
credentials with the default ones, so the default creds will have to be
generated/read. If the key or the generation algorithm need to be retrieved from
Flash, we’ll see them in a traffic capture.
That’s exactly what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna observe the UART interface,
the oscilloscope and the logic analyser during/after pressing the reset button.
The same process we followed for ATP’s save gives us these results:
The traffic map tells us the device first reads and overwrites 2 large chunks
of data from the protect area and then reads a smaller chunk of data from the
filesystem (possibly part of the next process to execute):
Once again, we combine transmission map and binary files to gain some insight
into the system. In this case, the ‘factory reset’ code seems to:
Read ATP_LOG from Flash; it contains info such as remote router accesses or
factory resets. It ends with a large chunk of 1s (0xff)
Overwrite that memory segment with 1s
write a ‘new’ ATP_LOG followed by the “current configuration” curcfg.xml
Read compressed (unintelligible to us) memory chunk from the filesystem
The chunk from the filesystem is read AFTER writing the new password to Flash,
which doesn’t make sense for a password generation algorithm. That being said,
the algorithm may be already loaded into memory, so its absence in the SPI
traffic is not conclusive on whether or not it exists.
As part of the MOSI data we can see the new WiFi password be saved to Flash
inside the XML string:
What about the default password being read? If we look in the MISO binary, it’s
nowhere to be seen. Either the Ralink is reading it using a different mode
(secure/dual/quad/?) or the credentials/algorithm are already loaded in RAM (no
need to read them from Flash again, since they can’t change). The later seems
more likely, so I’m not gonna bother updating my scripts to support different
read modes. We write down what we’ve found and we’ll get back to the default
credentials in the next part.
Since we’re at it, let’s take a look at the SPI traffic generated when setting
new WiFi credentials via HTTP:
We can actually see the default credentials being read from the protect area
of Flash this time (not sure why the Ralink would load it to set a new
password; it’s probably incidental):
As you can see, they’re in plain text and separated from almost anything else
in Flash. This may very well mean there’s no password generation algorithm in
this device, but it is NOT conclusive. The developers could have decided to
generate the credentials only once (first boot?) and store them to flash in order
to limit the number of times the algorithm is accessed/executed, which helps hide
the binary that contains it. Otherwise we could just observe the running
processes in the router while we press the Factory Reset button and see which
ones spawn or start consuming more resources.
Now that we’ve got the code we need to create binary recreations of the traffic
and transmission maps, getting from a capture to binary files takes seconds. I
captured other transmissions such as the first few seconds of boot
but there wasn’t much worth discussing.
The ability to easily obtain such useful data will probably come in handy moving
In the next post we get the data straight from the source, communicating with
the Flash IC directly to dump its memory. We’ll deal with compression algorithms
for the extracted data, and we’ll keep piecing everything together.