Practical Reverse Engineering Part 2 - Scouting the Firmware

In part 1 we found a debug UART port that gave us access to a Linux shell. At this point we’ve got the same access to the router that a developer would use to debug issues, control the system, etc.

This first overview of the system is easy to access, doesn’t require expensive tools and will often yield very interesting results. If you want to do some hardware hacking but don’t have the time to get your hands too dirty, this is often the point where you stop digging into the hardware and start working on the higher level interfaces: network vulnerabilities, ISP configuration protocols, etc.

These posts are hardware-oriented, so we’re just gonna use this access to gather some random pieces of data. Anything that can help us understand the system or may come in handy later on.

Please check out the legal disclaimer in case I come across anything sensitive.

Full disclosure: I’m in contact with Huawei’s security team; they’ve had time to review the data I’m going to reveal in this post and confirm there’s nothing too sensitive for publication. I tried to contact TalkTalk, but their security staff is nowhere to be seen.

Picking Up Where We Left Off

Picture of Documented UARTs

We get our serial terminal application up and running in the computer and power up the router.

Boot Sequence

We press enter and get the login prompt from ATP Cli; introduce the credentials admin:admin and we’re in the ATP command line. Execute the command shell and we get to the BusyBox CLI (more on BusyBox later).

-----Welcome to ATP Cli------
Login: admin
Password:    #Password is ‘admin'
BusyBox vv1.9.1 (2013-08-29 11:15:00 CST) built-in shell (ash)
Enter 'help' for a list of built-in commands.
# ls
var   usr   tmp   sbin  proc  mnt   lib   init  etc   dev   bin

At this point we’ve seen the 3 basic layers of firmware in the Ralink IC:

  1. U-boot: The device’s bootloader. It understands the device’s memory map, kickstarts the main firmware execution and takes care of some other low level tasks
  2. Linux: The router is running Linux to keep overall control of the hardware, coordinate parallel processes, etc. Both ATP CLI and BusyBox run on top of it
  3. Busybox: A small binary including reduced versions of multiple linux commands. It also supplies the shell we call those commands from.

Lower level interfaces are less intuitive, may not have access to all the data and increase the chances of bricking the device; it’s always a good idea to start from BusyBox and walk your way down.

For now, let’s focus on the boot sequence itself. The developers thought it would be useful to display certain pieces of data during boot, so let’s see if there’s anything we can use.

Boot Debug Messages

We find multiple random pieces of data scattered across the boot sequence. We’ll find useful info such as the compression algorithm used for some flash segments:

boot msg kernel lzma

Intel on how the external flash memory is structured will be very useful when we get to extracting it.

ram data. not very useful

SPI Flash Memory Map!

And more compression intel:

root is squashfs'd

We’ll have to deal with the compression algorithms when we try to access the raw data from the external Flash, so it’s good to know which ones are being used.

What Are ATP CLI and BusyBox Exactly? [Theory]

The Ralink IC in this router runs a Linux kernel to control memory and parallel processes, keep overall control of the system, etc. In this case, according to the Ralink’s product brief, they used the Linux 2.6.21 SDK. ATP CLI is a CLI running either on top of Linux or as part of the kernel. It provides a first layer of authentication into the system, but other than that it’s very limited:

Welcome to ATP command line tool.
If any question, please input "?" at the end of command.

help doesn’t mention the shell command, but it’s usually either shell or sh. This ATP CLI includes less than 10 commands, and doesn’t support any kind of complex process control or file navigation. That’s where BusyBox comes in.

BusyBox is a single binary containing reduced versions of common unix commands, both for development convenience and -most importantly- to save memory. From ls and cd to top, System V init scripts and pipes, it allows us to use the Ralink IC somewhat like your regular Linux box.

One of the utilities the BusyBox binary includes is the shell itself, which has access to the rest of the commands:

BusyBox vv1.9.1 (2013-08-29 11:15:00 CST) built-in shell (ash)
Enter 'help' for a list of built-in commands.
# ls
var   usr   tmp   sbin  proc  mnt   lib   init  etc   dev   bin
# ls /bin
zebra        swapdev      printserver  ln           ebtables     cat
wpsd         startbsp     pppc         klog         dns          busybox
wlancmd      sntp         ping         kill         dms          brctl
web          smbpasswd    ntfs-3g      iwpriv       dhcps        atserver
usbserver    smbd         nmbd         iwconfig     dhcpc        atmcmd
usbmount     sleep        netstat      iptables     ddnsc        atcmd
upnp         siproxd      mount        ipp          date         at
upg          sh           mldproxy     ipcheck      cwmp         ash
umount       scanner      mknod        ip           cp           adslcmd
tr111        rm           mkdir        igmpproxy    console      acl
tr064        ripd         mii_mgr      hw_nat       cms          ac
telnetd      reg          mic          ethcmd       cli
tc           radvdump     ls           equipcmd     chown
switch       ps           log          echo         chmod

You’ll notice different BusyBox quirks while exploring the filesystem, such as the symlinks to a busybox binary in /bin/. That’s good to know, since any commands that may contain sensitive data will not be part of the BusyBox binary.

Exploring the File System

Now that we’re in the system and know which commands are available, let’s see if there’s anything useful in there. We just want a first overview of the system, so I’m not gonna bother exposing every tiny piece of data.

The top command will help us identify which processes are consuming the most resources. This can be an extremely good indicator of whether some processes are important or not. It doesn’t say much while the router’s idle, though:


One of the processes running is usbmount, so the router must support connecting ‘something’ to the USB port. Let’s plug in a flash drive in there…

usb 1-1: new high speed USB device using rt3xxx-ehci and address 2
++++++sambacms.c 2374 renice=renice -n +10 -p 1423

The USB is recognised and mounted to /mnt/usb1_1/, and a samba server is started. These files show up in /etc/samba/:

# ls -l /etc/samba/
-rw-r--r--    1 0        0             103 smbpasswd
-rw-r--r--    1 0        0               0 smbusers
-rw-r--r--    1 0        0             480 smb.conf
-rw-------    1 0        0            8192 secrets.tdb
# cat /etc/samba/smbpasswd
nobody:0:XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX:564E923F5AF30J373F7C8_______4D2A:[U ]:LCT-1ED36884:

More data, in case it ever comes in handy:

/var/ and /etc/ always contain tons of useful data, and some of it makes itself obvious at first sight. Does that say /etc/serverkey.pem??

Blurred /etc/serverkey.pem


It’s not unusual to find private keys for TLS certificates in embedded systems. By accessing 1 single device via hardware you may obtain the keys that will help you attack any other device of the same model.

This key could be used to communicate with some server from Huawei or the ISP, although that’s less common. On the other hand, it’s also very common to find public certs used to communicate with remote servers.

In this case we find 2 certificates next to the private key; both are self-signed by the same ‘person’:

And some more data in /etc/ppp256/config and /etc/ppp258/config:


These credentials are also available via the HTTP interface, which is why I’m publishing them, but that’s not the case in many other routers (more on this later).

With so many different files everywhere it can be quite time consuming to go through all the info without the right tools. We’re gonna copy as much data as we can into the USB drive and go through it on our computer.

The Rambo Approach to Intel Gathering

Once we have as many files as possible in our computer we can check some things very quick. find . -name *.pem reveals there aren’t any other TLS certificates.

What about searching the word password in all files? grep -i -r password .

Grep Password

We can see lots of credentials; most of them are for STUN, TR-069 and local services. I’m publishing them because this router proudly displays them all via the HTTP interface, but those are usually hidden.

If you wanna know what happens when someone starts pulling from that thread, check out Alexander Graf’s talk “Beyond Your Cable Modem”, from CCC 2015. There are many other talks about attacking TR-069 from DefCon, BlackHat, etc. etc.

The credentials we can see are either in plain text or encoded in base64. Of course, encoding is worthless for data protection:

$ echo "QUJCNFVCTU4=" | base64 -D

WiFi pwd in curcfg.xml

That is the current WiFi password set in the router. It leads us to 2 VERY interesting files. Not just because of their content, but because they’re a vital part of how the router operates:

Exploring ATP’s CLI

The ATP CLI includes very few commands. The most interesting one -besides shell- is debug. This isn’t your regular debugger; debug display will simply give you some info about the commands igmpproxy, cwmp, sysuptime or atpversion. Most of them don’t have anything juicy, but what about cwmp? Wasn’t that related to remote configuration of routers?

debug display cwmp

Once again, these are the CWMP (TR-069) credentials used for remote router configuration. Not even encoded this time.

The rest of the ATP commands are pretty useless: clear screen, help menu, save to flash and exit. Nothing worth going into.

Exploring Uboot’s CLI

The bootloader’s command line interface offers raw access to some memory areas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us direct access to the Flash IC, but let’s check it out anyway.

Please choose operation:
   3: Boot system code via Flash (default).
   4: Entr boot command line interface.
You choosed 4
Stopped Uboot WatchDog Timer.
4: System Enter Boot Command Line Interface.
U-Boot 1.1.3 (Aug 29 2013 - 11:16:19)
RT3352 # help
?       - alias for 'help'
bootm   - boot application image from memory
cp      - memory copy
erase   - erase SPI FLASH memory
go      - start application at address 'addr'
help    - print online help
md      - memory display
mdio   - Ralink PHY register R/W command !!
mm      - memory modify (auto-incrementing)
mw      - memory write (fill)
nm      - memory modify (constant address)
printenv- print environment variables
reset   - Perform RESET of the CPU
rf      - read/write rf register
saveenv - save environment variables to persistent storage
setenv  - set environment variables
uip - uip command
version - print monitor version
RT3352 #

Don’t touch commands like erase, mm, mw or nm unless you know exactly what you’re doing; you’d probably just force a router reboot, but in some cases you may brick the device. In this case, md (memory display) and printenv are the commands that call my atention.

RT3352 # printenv
ramargs=setenv bootargs root=/dev/ram rw
addip=setenv bootargs $(bootargs) ip=$(ipaddr):$(serverip):$(gatewayip):$(netmask):$(hostname):$(netdev):off
addmisc=setenv bootargs $(bootargs) console=ttyS0,$(baudrate) ethaddr=$(ethaddr) panic=1
flash_self=run ramargs addip addmisc;bootm $(kernel_addr) $(ramdisk_addr)
load=tftp 8A100000 $(u-boot)
u_b=protect off 1:0-1;era 1:0-1;cp.b 8A100000 BC400000 $(filesize)
loadfs=tftp 8A100000 root.cramfs
u_fs=era bc540000 bc83ffff;cp.b 8A100000 BC540000 $(filesize)
test_tftp=tftp 8A100000 root.cramfs;run test_tftp
ethact=Eth0 (10/100-M)

Environment size: 765/4092 bytes

We can see settings like the UART baudrate, as well as some interesting memory locations. Those memory addresses are not for the Flash IC, though. The flash memory is only addressed by 3 bytes: [0x00000000, 0x00FFFFFF].

Let’s take a look at some of them anyway, just to see the kind of access this interface offers.What about kernel_addr=BFC40000?

md `badd` Picture

Nope, that badd message means bad address, and it has been hardcoded in md to let you know that you’re trying to access invalid memory locations. These are good addresses, but they’re not accessible to u-boot at this point.

It’s worth noting that by starting Uboot’s CLI we have stopped the router from loading the linux Kernel onto memory, so this interface gives access to a very limited subset of data.

SPI Flash string in md

We can find random pieces of data around memory using this method (such as that SPI Flash Image string), but it’s pretty hopeless for finding anything specific. You can use it to get familiarised with the memory architecture, but that’s about it. For example, there’s a very obvious change in memory contents at 0x000d0000:

md.w 0x000d0000

And just because it’s about as close as it gets to seeing the girl in the red dress, here is the md command in action. You’ll notice it’s very easy to spot that change in memory contents at 0x000d0000.

Next Steps

In the next post we combine firmware and bare metal, explain how data flows and is stored around the device, and start trying to manipulate the system to leak pieces of data we’re interested in.

Thanks for reading! :)