Static analysis of CySCA 2014 portknock using Hopper Disassembler

CySCA is a Capture The Flag with challenges ranging from crypto to reverse engineering, and from forensic to web pentest. You can get all the challenges in a VM, or just this binary.

We're going to analyze the second reverse engineering challenge, and try to capture the flag. As an added difficulty, we're going to restrict ourselves to static analysis. This means no logs, no debugger, only disassembly.

First recon

Let's see what we can get without diving into disassembly.

$ file 488f866ad090d0843657f322e516168a-re02
488f866ad090d0843657f322e516168a-re02: ELF 32-bit LSB executable, Intel 80386, version 1 (SYSV), dynamically linked (uses shared libs), for GNU/Linux 2.6.24, BuildID[sha1]=89593421780a0407b46f8d9c7671368699003cc9, stripped

It's a simple linux x86 binary. Nothing fancy here, but the symbols are stripped.

Let's look at the library functions used.

$ readelf -r 488f866ad090d0843657f322e516168a-re02

Relocation section '.rel.dyn' at offset 0x5c8 contains 1 entries:
 Offset     Info    Type            Sym.Value  Sym. Name
0804aff0  00001406 R_386_GLOB_DAT    00000000   __gmon_start__

Relocation section '.rel.plt' at offset 0x5d0 contains 34 entries:
 Offset     Info    Type            Sym.Value  Sym. Name
0804b000  00000107 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   setsockopt
0804b004  00000207 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   read
0804b008  00000307 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   printf
0804b00c  00000407 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   fgets
0804b010  00000507 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   fclose
0804b014  00000607 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   inet_ntoa
0804b018  00000707 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   signal
0804b01c  00000807 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   chdir
0804b020  00000907 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   alarm
0804b024  00000a07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   __stack_chk_fail
0804b028  00000b07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   getuid
0804b02c  00000c07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   htons
0804b030  00000d07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   perror
0804b034  00000e07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   accept
0804b038  00000f07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   waitpid
0804b03c  00001007 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   fread
0804b040  00001107 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   chroot
0804b044  00001207 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   setgid
0804b048  00001307 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   puts
0804b04c  00001407 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   __gmon_start__
0804b050  00001507 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   exit
0804b054  00001607 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   __libc_start_main
0804b058  00001707 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   write
0804b05c  00001807 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   bind
0804b060  00001907 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   getgid
0804b064  00001a07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   fopen
0804b068  00001b07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   __errno_location
0804b06c  00001c07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   fork
0804b070  00001d07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   listen
0804b074  00001e07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   setuid
0804b078  00001f07 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   vsnprintf
0804b07c  00002007 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   socket
0804b080  00002107 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   close
0804b084  00002207 R_386_JUMP_SLOT   00000000   send

Interesting. We can bet on a network daemon that's self-contained. It's also certainly dropping its privileges, since it uses setuid, setgid and chroot.

We can confirm our assumptions by looking at the strings in the executable.

$ strings 488f866ad090d0843657f322e516168a-re02 | tail -f
Failed writing to socket
Failed reading from socket
Failed writing flag to socket
FATAL ERROR bad knock number
FATAL ERROR opening socket
FATAL ERROR on binding
FATAL ERROR on accept
ERROR: Unable to open urandom

Again, mostly network stuff. If we take a look at the rest of the output, we notice /flags.txt. The flag we're after should be on the filesystem.


Now for the juicy parts. I'm using Hopper Disassembler for easy cross-references, renaming, etc, but you can follow along in gdb, IDA, radare or your custom mess of python scripts if you prefer.

After loading the executable in hopper, it's correctly identified as 32 bits ELF. The entry point looks like this:

entry point disassembly

It's a i386 executable, so the arguments are passed using the cdecl convention. This means that arguments are pushed on the stack in reverse order. The first argument of [__libc_start_main][8] is the address of main, thus 0x8049180. In hopper, highlight it and press N to rename it to something more meaningful. Then jump to its disassembly by pressing enter.

Our main calls two functions, sub_80489f4 and sub_8048f9a.

Taking a quick look at the library functions and the strings used in the first function, we can guess it's just dropping privileges. We don't need to understand its inner-working in the details.

After renaming the privilege-dropping function, main looks like this:
main disassembly

Let's jump to the next function, sub_8048f9a. Since the control flow is more complex than main, hopper's graph-view comes in handy:
server disassembly in graph form

This looks like an infinite loop, since the last block unconditionally jmp up. The error handling is pretty bare bone and is handled by several block calling exit.

The first block is setting up a socket, and the next blocks call bind, listen and accept. The daemon is thus listening for connections.

The port binded by the server is set with the following disassembly:

mov     eax, dword [0x8049ac4]        ; load port number from DATA segment into eax
movzx   eax, ax                          ; truncate the higher bits (a port number is 16 bits)
mov     dword [esp], eax              ; put eax on top of the stack, as first argument of the next call
call    htons@PLT                        ; convert the port to network byte order (big endian)
mov     word [ebp-0x68+var_62], ax    ; store it on the stack, at the offset represented by var_62
mov     dword [ebp-0x68+var_44], 0x1
mov     dword [esp+0x10], 0x4
lea     eax, dword [ebp-0x68+var_44]
mov     dword [esp+0xc], eax
mov     dword [esp+0x8], 0x2
mov     dword [esp+0x4], 0x1
mov     eax, dword [ebp-0x68+var_48]
mov     dword [esp], eax
call    setsockopt@PLT
mov     dword [esp+0x8], 0x10
lea     eax, dword [ebp-0x68+var_60] ; address of the var_60 buffer (a struct sockaddr)
mov     dword [esp+0x4], eax
mov     eax, dword [ebp-0x68+var_48]
mov     dword [esp], eax
call    bind@PLT                        ; call bind with the sockaddr

bind takes a struct sockaddr * that contains, among other things, the network port.

struct sockaddr_in {  
        short   sin_family;  
        u_short sin_port;  

We can see that the sockaddr is built on the stack by copying values at different offsets. The sockaddr begins at var_60, and the port is stored at var_62, since a short is two bytes long.

The port value used by the disassembly is stored at 0x8049ac4. In hopper, go to that address, and right-click the value to switch its representation to decimal. The port used is 3422.

We can confirm this assumption by netcating to the VM, and check if the port is open:

$ nc -v 3422
Ncat: Version 6.45 ( )
Ncat: Connected to
"^DNcat: 0 bytes sent, 4 bytes received in 0.61 seconds.

Accepted connections get their own forked process, handled by the next undiscovered function, sub_80491f4. The parent process just stay in the accept-then-fork loop.

This function does the real work of the portknock, so we're going to analyze it in more details, using hopper's decompiler.

Unfortunately we need to help it a bit here. In the disassembly call 0x80491c5, the address isn't recognized as a procedure. If we get to the disassembly we can guess why:

080491c0         call       exit@PLT
080491c5         push       ebp                         ;  <= The address called from the previous function
080491c6         mov        ebp, esp
080491c8         sub        esp, 0x18
080491cb         mov        eax, dword [ebp-0x18+arg_offset_x0]
080491ce         mov        dword [0x804b090], eax
080491d3         mov        dword [esp+0x4], 0x804919c
080491db         mov        dword [esp], 0xe
080491e2         call       signal@PLT
080491e7         mov        eax, dword [ebp-0x18+arg_offset_x4]
080491ea         mov        dword [esp], eax
080491ed         call       alarm@PLT
080491f2         leave
080491f3         ret

The previous instruction is a call to exit. Since exit never returns, the compiler didn't generate a function epilogue (no ret instruction). Since Hopper doesn't know that the function has ended, it extends the procedure to the next epilogue, at 0x080491f3.

To get the decompilation to work accurately, mark 0x080491c5 as a procedure. Doing so, the previous function doesn't see any epilogue anymore, so mark sub_804919c as a procedure again.

We can finally use the pseudo-code feature of Hopper on the portknock function and all its sub-functions:

function sub_80491f4 {
    var_36 = arg_offset_x0;
    eax = puts@PLT("portknockd: New Client. Waiting for knocks");
    var_32 = 0x0;
    while (var_32 <= 0x4) {
            sub_80491c5(var_36, 0xa);
            var_28 = sub_8049616(var_36, 0x98d2);
            var_40 = write@PLT(var_36, &var_28, 0x4);
            if (var_40 != 0x4) {
                    perror@PLT("Failed writing to socket");
            var_24 = 0x0;
            var_40 = read@PLT(var_36, &var_24, 0x4);
            if (var_40 != 0x4) {
                    perror@PLT("Failed reading from socket");
            var_44 = sub_80495e4(var_28, var_32);
            if (var_44 == var_24) {
                    if (var_32 == 0x4) {
                    eax = sub_8049440(var_32);
                    var_36 = eax;
                    var_32 = var_32 + 0x1;
            else {
                    eax = exit@PLT(0x1);
    return eax;

The only argument passed from the previous function is the connection's file descriptor, and is saved into var_36. After printing an informative message, the loop starts. The programmer certainly wrote a simple for(int var_32 = 0; var_32 <= 4; var32++), but since some statements are re-ordered by the compiler, it's a bit harder to see.

Hint: sub_80491c5(var_36, 0xa) sets a time-out on the process handling the connection. You can safely ignore it for the purpose of the analysis.

sub_8049616 generates a 4 bytes value (var_28) that is sent to the open connection using write. The response is read (into var_24). The next function called, sub_80495e4, uses the loop counter (var_32) and the value generated previously (var_28) to create a value that should match the value read from the network. If the values don't match, the process calls exit.

This is a simple challenge-response. We don't need to analyze the function creating the value, since that value is send to us. We only need to understand how that value and the loop counter are mixed together, replicate it and make the portknock succeed.

Here's the code for the mixing function, sub_80495e4:

function sub_80495e4 {
    if ((arg_offset_x4 & 0x1) == 0x0) {
        var_12 = (arg_offset_x4 + 0x2) * arg_offset_x0;
    else {
        var_12 = 0x2 + arg_offset_x0 + arg_offset_x4;
    eax = var_12;
    return eax;

Pretty simple. It takes the second argument (arg_offset_x4, the counter) and checks if its lower bit is set. Depending on the result, the mixing operation on the random value is different.

Let's rewrite it to python:

def mangler(rand, counter):  
    if counter & 0x1 == 0x0:  
        return (counter + 2) * rand  
        return 2 + counter + rand

If the response we send match the awaited response, the connection is closed and sub_8049440 is called.

function sub_8049440 {
    var_92 = *0x14;
    signal@PLT(0xd, 0x1);
    if (arg_offset_x0 > 0x3) {
            perror@PLT("FATAL ERROR bad knock number");
    arg_offset_x0 = arg_offset_x0 + 0x1;
    var_52 = socket@PLT(0x2, 0x1, 0x0);
    if (var_52 < 0x0) {
            perror@PLT("FATAL ERROR opening socket");
    var_60 = 0x0;
    *(&var_60 + 0x4) = 0x0;
    *(&var_60 + 0x8) = 0x0;
    *(&var_60 + 0xc) = 0x0;
    var_60 = 0x2;
    var_64 = 0x0;
    var_62 = LOWORD(htons@PLT(LOWORD(*(arg_offset_x0 * 0x4 + 0x8049ac4)) & 0xffff));
    var_48 = 0x1;
    setsockopt@PLT(var_52, 0x1, 0x2, &var_48, 0x4);
    if (bind@PLT(var_52, &var_60, 0x10) < 0x0) {
            perror@PLT("FATAL ERROR on binding");
    listen@PLT(var_52, 0x5);
    var_44 = 0x10;
    var_56 = accept@PLT(var_52, &var_76, &var_44);
    if (var_56 < 0x0) {
            perror@PLT("FATAL ERROR on accept");
    eax = var_56;
    edx = var_92 ^ *0x14;
    if (CPU_FLAGS & E) {
            eax = __stack_chk_fail@PLT();
    return eax;

This function looks complicated, but keep in mind we don't need to understand every detail. Seeing the functions called, we guess it's creating a socket and listening on a new port. All we have to do is guess which one. Resist the temptation of bruteforcing, we can do better! htons is used to convert a port number (or anything else) from host- to network byte order. This means that the data we need is its argument.

*(arg_offset_x0 * 0x4 + 0x8049ac4)) & 0xffff) is taking the port number from an offset of the address 0x8049ac4. The & 0xffff is ignoring the higher bits of the data, since a port number is ranging from 1 to 65535. arg_offset_x0 is the loop counter passed from the previous function, (\+ 1, see line arg_offset_x0 = arg_offset_x0 + 0x1;.

Since an int is 4 bytes long, the htons call looks like port = htons(port_list[counter + 1]), with port_list living at 0x8049ac4.

By default, hopper shows 0x8049ac4 as one-byte data, in hex representation.
ports in hex

We can display the data in a more port looking way. Select the first address containing only one byte, and press D three time to set the data size to 4 bytes. Repeat for the four next ports in list.

We can now toggle the representation to decimal instead of hex, and the port list is ours!
ports in decimal

Wrapping up

Here's the code that performs this sequence:

import socket, struct, time

def mangle(rand, counter):
    if counter & 0x1 == 0x0:
        return (counter + 2) * rand
        return 2 + counter + rand

ports = [3422, 4532, 5923, 2342, 5532]  # the list of knocked port, extracted from the binary

for i, port in enumerate(ports):
    print("+ Knocking on", port)

    # create a TCP socket and connect to the portknock server
    s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
    s.connect((KNOCK_SERVER_IP, port))

    # receive and unpack the challenge
    buf =  s.recv(4096)
    received, =  struct.unpack('<i', buf)
    print("+ Received challenge value:", received)

    send_me = mangle(received, i)

    print("+ Sending response", send_me)
    s.send(struct.pack('<i', send_me))

    # the VM is really slow to open a new socket, we need to wait a bit

# we're in the last stage of the knock
# receive and print the flag
buf =  s.recv(4096)
print("+ Got flag:")

The '<i' format means we’re packing or unpacking a little endian signed integer.

It's working!

$ python3 
+ Knocking on 3422
+ Received challenge value # 0 : 92
+ Sending response 184
+ Knocking on 4532
+ Received challenge value # 1 : 88
+ Sending response 91
+ Knocking on 5923
+ Received challenge value # 2 : 65
+ Sending response 260
+ Knocking on 2342
+ Received challenge value # 3 : 1
+ Sending response 6
+ Knocking on 5532
+ Received challenge value # 4 : 109
+ Sending response 654
+ Got flag: