My capture-the-flag team played in the Insomni’hack teaser this year. During the competition, I worked on a single challenge titled “sapeloshop.” It was labeled as “Medium-Hard,” and it was in the binary exploitation category. The source code for the server wasn’t provided, so reverse engineering was necessary. I don’t think that having to reverse the binary was supposed to be the hard part, as most of the behavior could have been inferred through some high-level analysis, yet I spent nearly five hours fruitlessly trying to reverse it, and the subsequent burnout was bad enough that I went home early. This wasn’t the first time a reversing task had gotten the best of me; there had been a few competitions last year where I felt a similar loss in motivation. Noticing this recurring pattern frustrated me, and that frustration drove me to think about ways to improve myself as a reverse engineer.
My initial idea was to work on expanding my skill set, but with some further reflection, I came to the realization that the weakness was my process. I was going at the task of reverse engineering without a plan: beginning by opening the binary in radare, propagating from the entrypoint, and renaming a few variables as I went along. I was trying to make sense of the program by passively reading the disassembly listing. This might work for someone who lives and breathes assembly, but that certainly doesn’t apply to me. What I needed was a way to engage with the binary at hand beyond trying to passively absorb it.
With that, my first step was to come up with a more formally-defined idea of what’s involved in “reverse engineering.” I still don’t think I have anything close to a complete description, but pondering on how reverse engineering tools are designed certainly helped to solidify my existing understanding. Namely, I was reminded of software suites advertised as “decompilers.” They serve as a stepping stone in an iterative process of turning machine code into something that would be easier for a human to understand. They give an obviously machine-generated C/C++ representation of the machine code, and the reverse engineer continues by filling in the blanks with semantics.
Now, I have a few issues with the idea of automated decompilation. For one, the tooling simply isn’t accessible. The only working decompiler I’ve used, IDA Pro, is ridiculously expensive. Also, when I say, “working,” I mean that it doesn’t segfault upon opening the binary. Even IDA Pro doesn’t work perfectly in every situation - especially those in which the binary has been intentionally obfuscated. Because of this, there are arguments against the use of decompilers: notably, this article.
But the goal wasn’t to have a program to do the work for us anyway, it was to come up with a more effective methodology for reverse engineering a binary. Unlike software, human reversers can adapt to the situation at hand - they don’t need rules defined in the same way that a computer would. As such, I’ve come up with a protocol in a similar vein to SQ3R for reverse engineering machine code to higher-level constructs. The protocol is still in its infancy, and I have hopes to expand upon it in the future, but I have found it to still be quite useful in its current state.
I’d consider subroutines to be the fundamental atoms of a binary, and that’s what this protocol focuses on. However, being able to understand the subroutines that compose a program doesn’t necessarily imply an understanding of the whole program. These are things that I hope to incorporate into the protocol in the future, but for now, they are given as a handful of necessary precursors.
For one, you should get a high-level understanding of what the program does. I would recommend initially treating it as a black box: What does this program do? Is it a web server? A crypto algorithm? I find that it’s useful to copy down any text that the program outputs, as you can use the string references later on when you look at the machine code. You should also test plenty of inputs. What does the program do for typical edge cases? What error handling does it do? This might all seem extremely mundane, but if you understand the program at this level, it gives you things to recognize in the disassembly listing. This is absolutely essential when it comes to something more complicated than the toy programs you might see in a capture-the-flag. I’ve been working a lot with the Team Fortress 2 binaries recently, and understanding how and where certain string references are used has given me a way to find just the functionality I’m interested in, as opposed to trying to understand the entire 33 MB shared object.
That brings me to another point: you might not even need to reverse all of the subroutines in the binary. In a binary exploitation challenge, it might make sense to audit the seemingly mundane input-handling functions, but if you can tell from the usage alone that all a subroutine does is print something, it probably isn’t worth your time to disassemble it. Remember, you can always come back to something later, but if you waste your time on it, those are valuable competition minutes that you’ll never get back.
Finally, this is more general, and it’s something that I think every reverse engineer knows, but it’s worth mentioning regardless. If you don’t know the ISA, the architecture’s calling conventions, or the quirks of the language design and the compiler, it might be in your best interest to create a “lexicon” of high-level constructs and how they’re represented in assembly. There’s absolutely no shame in doing this, and it’s been especially helpful for me when I’ve looked at any binaries that were compiled with MSVC. One tool that I’ve found useful for creating these lexicons is the Godbolt Compiler Explorer.
Hopefully that wasn’t too long of an introduction. Now we can get into the
protocol itself. It’s composed of five steps and make up a mnemonic: “SCARS.”
The first step is to “skim,” or “scan.” The premise is to first get an idea
which memory addresses the subroutine spans, or how long it is. I usually look
for the typical “function epilogue,” which might include a stack canary check,
or it might just be a
pop %rbp; ret. Then, get context. See where the
subroutine is called and how it’s called - figure out if there are any arguments
to the subroutine, and see if it returns anything. Finally, look over the
disassembly listing for the routine, paying attention to the use of stack
variables and global variables. Do any of those variables look like they might
The second step is to “chunk.” The first step should have given you a rough idea of the control flow, but now you need to break the subroutine into smaller sets of instructions that you can analyze. I usually separate based on whether or not a set of instructions are skipped by a conditional jump.
The third step is “arrange.” Simply put, this involves taking your findings about stack variables and such from the first step, and converting them to declarations in the high-level language. I also like to make stubs for any other subroutines that are called, since I’ll probably be reversing those later anyway. This third step also ties in with the fourth step, which is to “recognize.” This involves looking back on your lexicon of patterns, and converting them to the high-level constructs that they represent. These two steps are done simultaneously and are basically where you try to manually decompile the chunks of machine code you plotted out in the previous step.
The final step is to “simplify,” which entails simplifying the resultant code
into something perhaps more understandable. For example,
1 << 4 is equivalent
1 * 2^4, or just
4. This also might be where you replace magic numbers
with constants. Whenever I see 0 passed to
read(3), I replace that with
I spent a little under twenty minutes last night reversing the binary from the challenge I mentioned at the beginning of this post. That’s not a lot of time compared to how much I spent during the competition, and I got surprisingly far (almost all of main!) If this were the competition, however, I would have done it differently. Instead of starting at main, I would have probably started at one of the functions for handling input and went backwards by checking for XREF’s. I only did it this way to test out the protocol for something I had difficulty with in the past. Here are a few of the highlights. If you want to look on with me, all of the files for the challenge can be found here.
The most useful part about rewriting the program in C is the malleability of
text. When I was obtusely reading disassembly listings, keeping track of how
values were being juggled across registers was difficult for me. But by
representing these instructions in C, I can convert a few of them into an
expression, comment which register they’re in, and come back to use that
expression later. This is more useful when the juggling spans a large number of
instructions, but here’s a smaller example where I still used it. The
0x00001e15 488d8550b7ff. leaq -0x48b0(%rbp), %rax 0x00001e1c 488d90080400. leaq 0x408(%rax), %rdx 0x00001e23 488b8540b7ff. movq -0x48c0(%rbp), %rax 0x00001e2a 488d35bf0800. leaq str.User_Agent:__128, %rsi ; 0x26f0 ; "User-Agent: %128[^\r\n]\r\n" 0x00001e31 4889c7 movq %rax, %rdi 0x00001e34 b800000000 movl $0, %eax
I had previously made a variable for
-0x48b0(%rbp) during my “arrange” step,
local_48b0 until I figured out its usage and a better name
for it. Just from these six instructions, I can tell that it’s a buffer of some
sort, so I started off with:
((void *) local_48b0); // rax
Then, I handled the pointer arithmetic in the second instruction, and the third
instruction, since it replaced the value in
(void *) (((char *) (local_48b0)) + 0x408); // rdx *((uint64_t *) local_48b0); // rax
Ew. It’s starting to look like some system programmer’s personal Lisp dialect now. Don’t worry. It’s gross now, but as you understand more of the subroutine, you’ll be able to declare variables in such a way that you won’t need casts like these. That’s where the “simplify” step comes into play.
Also, I should mention that you don’t necessarily have to reverse the chunks you
came up with in a linear fashion. I saw a chunk with two calls to some
__errno_location, which I didn’t want to deal with at the time, so I just went
on to the next chunk. Again, you can come back to stuff later, but this does
mean you need to keep track of which chunks you’ve covered.
One thing I’ve done in the past with this protocol is to keep a little ASCII drawing of the stack layout. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here, since there aren’t any pushes or pops that would change the size of the stack frame, but maybe you’ll find it useful for 32-bit binaries.
Oh, and one last thing. Not everything is worth adding into your decompilation.
For example, if I saw a timer being set up with
alarm(3), I would probably
ignore it. In fact, I’d patch it out, but that’s a topic for another day.
Any questions about things I mentioned in this post, or suggestions on how to make it better? Both would be greatly appreciated. Contact info is on my homepage.