Through the Looking Glass

Introduction to Patching Binaries with the HT Editor

Posted on October 19, 2013

At last night’s DC303 meeting, mantis threw down some challenges for us to work through. The fifth challenge presented us with a challenge string that we had to run through a client authentication binary. However, the binary we had was wrong; a diff was included that showed the change we needed to make. The algorithm for authentication was pretty easy, and most people ended up writing it in C or Python. However, it was a case where patching the binary was far faster (in this case, changing one byte). It was apparent that most of the people who showed up weren’t familiar with a very useful tool for doing those, so this is a short write up on how to solve those types of problems and an introduction to the tool (the HT Editor). In this introduction, I’ll assume you know enough x86 assembly to keep up, and either Python or C. The binaries were built by mantis on an Ubuntu 13.04 i386 system, so you’ll want to have that on hand to follow along. It’ll help if you have a basic familiarity with ELF headers when we get to the end.


Let’s use the venerable objdump(1) tool to examine the contents of the client_auth1 binary. Here, I’ve extracted main first, as this will be our starting point.

0804844c <main>:
 804844c:       55                      push   %ebp
 804844d:       89 e5                   mov    %esp,%ebp
 804844f:       83 e4 f0                and    $0xfffffff0,%esp
 8048452:       83 ec 20                sub    $0x20,%esp
 8048455:       c7 44 24 14 00 00 00    movl   $0x0,0x14(%esp)
 804845c:       00
 804845d:       c7 44 24 18 00 00 ff    movl   $0xffff0000,0x18(%esp)
 8048464:       ff
 8048465:       eb 12                   jmp    8048479 <main+0x2d>
 8048467:       83 44 24 14 01          addl   $0x1,0x14(%esp)
 804846c:       8b 44 24 1c             mov    0x1c(%esp),%eax
 8048470:       0f af 44 24 14          imul   0x14(%esp),%eax
 8048475:       01 44 24 18             add    %eax,0x18(%esp)
 8048479:       e8 a2 fe ff ff          call   8048320 <getchar@plt>
 804847e:       89 44 24 1c             mov    %eax,0x1c(%esp)
 8048482:       83 7c 24 1c 0a          cmpl   $0xa,0x1c(%esp)
 8048487:       75 de                   jne    8048467 <main+0x1b>
 8048489:       8b 44 24 18             mov    0x18(%esp),%eax
 804848d:       89 44 24 04             mov    %eax,0x4(%esp)
 8048491:       c7 04 24 40 85 04 08    movl   $0x8048540,(%esp)
 8048498:       e8 73 fe ff ff          call   8048310 <printf@plt>
 804849d:       b8 00 00 00 00          mov    $0x0,%eax
 80484a2:       c9                      leave
 80484a3:       c3                      ret
 80484a4:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax
 80484a6:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax
 80484a8:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax
 80484aa:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax
 80484ac:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax
 80484ae:       66 90                   xchg   %ax,%ax

As you can see, it doesn’t call any other non-standard-lib functions—it doesn’t get any easier than this.

The main function is pretty simple: it reads in characters until it encounters a new line; for each of those characters, it multiplies that character number by the value of the character, and adds that to a running tally (which starts off with value 0xffff0000). In C, it’s as easy as:

 * client-auth1.c

#include <stdio.h>

        int             i = 0;
        unsigned        sum = 0xffff0000;
        char            c;

        while (0xa != (c = getchar())) {
                sum += c * i;
        printf("%010u\n", sum);

Let’s check to make sure this is right:

user@notahoneypot:~/20131018$ ./client-auth1
user@notahoneypot:~/20131018$ gcc -o ca1 ca1.c
user@notahoneypot:~/20131018$ ./ca1

Indeed, they match.

The Patch

We were given the following diff:

$ cat client-auth1.diff
<         sum += c * i;
>         sum -= c * i;

Applying this is pretty easy with the source code. However, it’s far faster to patch the one byte needed to change this over than to write the algorithm in C and patch that.

Here is the addition instruction that needs to be changed:

 8048475:       01 44 24 18             add    %eax,0x18(%esp)

(If you’re not sure how to look up the appropriate opcode, take a look at the X86 Opcode and Instruction Reference. In this case, we want the coder32 reference. We can see that the 01 opcode refers to ADD r/m16/32 r16/32. You need to find the appropriate subtract instruction with the same operands; in this case, the opcode is 29.)

We want to patch the instruction to be

 8048475:       29 44 24 18             sub    %eax,0x18(%esp)

(Notice only one byte has changed.)

Let’s break out the HT editor.

HT editor

The HT editor is in most package repos:

In many systems, the installed binary is renamed hte to avoid conflicting with another piece of software. HT also uses the function keys; so you’ll want to make sure that the function keys are clear. This includes F10, which in the default gnome-terminal used in Ubuntu; be sure to disable that so you can exit HT.

mantis and I discussed my method, and he came up with an alternate. I’ll first show you how I did it, and then show how mantis would have done it. The second method is pretty flexible and is useful for doing more complex patching.

Pulling up client-auth1 in the HT editor, you should see something like this:

client_auth1 loaded in HT

Let’s search for our instruction (F7):

searching client_auth1 for the add instruction

Lo and behold! Our instruction is found:

found the add instruction

We can pop into edit mode with F4, and change the 01 to a 29. Then, hit F2 to save and exit. Time for the moment of truth! Here’s an example session from the challenge:

<voytek: ~> $ telnet 61023
Connected to
Escape character is '^]'.
Give me a name so I can watch your progress: mantis
Enter level to skip to [0=default]: 5
Enter password for level 5: XXXXXXXXXX
Level 05: (client-auth1) Our agent found a website with an old version of the client authentication 
on port 65325, challenge: sptjpgzczykbgwogqmbrhsg

Leaving that running, let’s plug our challenge string into our modified client-auth1:

user@notahoneypot:~/20131018$ ./client-auth1

We get an answer, but is it right?

Level 05: (client-auth1) Our agent found a website with an old version of the client authentication 
on port 65325, challenge: sptjpgzczykbgwogqmbrhsg
Correct. Password to next level 6: XXXXXXXXXX

It worked! Once you get the hang of the HT editor, it’s pretty fast to use.


It turns out that, within certain constraints, binaries are actually rather malleable. These constraints are:

  1. For simple work, the length of the binary cannot change. In particular, the space taken up by the modifications must take up the same space as the original instructions. For example, if we wanted to stub out our add, we can’t just change the four bytes to a single 90 (NOP); we would have to replace it with four NOPs, or perhaps two xchg %ax,$ax (i.e. 66 90 66 90).

  2. For complex work, we’ll have to edit the ELF file and section headers to adjust sizes and offsets. This is a bit of wizardry, and we won’t look at it.

In this case, we just changed the opcode without modifying the operands (and stayed in the same operand format); this doesn’t violate the contraints and doesn’t require any special header wizardry.

Another option that wouldn’t involve changing section headers (but is still more complex) is:

  1. find a location in the code that has padding
  2. add our instructions there
  3. change the original instruction to a jump (with NOP padding as necessary)
  4. add a jump at the end of our instructions to the next address after the jump.

In our program, there are a few candidates: the end of the main function contains 12 bytes of padding (in the form of xchg %ax,%ax), and __libc_csu_init contains 13 bytes of nop instructions. In this case, a jump would require 5 bytes, and our target instruction is only four bytes, so it wouldn’t work here.

An Alternate Approach

Instead of editing the bytes directly, another approach is to switch to elf/image mode (F6).

switching to elf/image

Then, we can use F5 to go to the main function:

goto the main function

Move down to the add that occurs right before the call to getchar, and switch to edit mode (F4). Use ^A to enter assembler mode:

assembler mode

Change the add to a sub, save, and exit. Let’s try our patched binary with the input we had before (sptjpgzczykbgwogqmbrhsg), and make sure we get the same output (4294871738):

user@notahoneypot:~/20131018$ ./client-auth1

It is indeed the same output. You can see this approach makes complex editing easier, but takes a but more time a simple edit.

The End

So that’s a crash course in HT. In the near future, I’ll be making a screencast where you can watch me do this on the console itself.