Thoughts on 2019 / 2020

As we sit on the cusp of a new year, it is appropriate that we consider the year just gone, and the path ahead. In 2016, I began a push to use deliberate practice to improve my own skills in things that I was interested in. Since then, much has been accomplished:

  • I’ve gotten somewhat better at exploitation, mostly through practice. I’m not at the point where I can reliably search for and weaponize remote exploits in unknown IoT firmware in a given time-frame, but this is a goal for 2020.
  • I’ve gotten better at regular people “hardware hacking”, primarily because the increase from zero to anything is “a lot”. I’m able to identify attack paths into a device, and bypass some countermeasures. I can identify and use common debugging interfaces, I’ve some experience in writing payloads for MIPS/ARM (and know enough to Google the rest).
  • I’ve gotten better at actual hardware hacking. I understand the theory of side channel and fault injection attacks, have experience doing this with commodity and custom hardware, and have my own toolchains for experimenting with this tooling.
  • I’ve gotten somewhat better at digital hardware design. I can use COTS components to implement basic hardware design – the other day, I thought about a laser microphone, tried to implement one with ESP8266 (it didn’t work), and made a fake ADC out of a PIC microcontroller. You can see the result here.

I am rather proud of my small menagerie of gadgets I’ve made over the past year – but more so of the fact that I now know enough to imagine a concept, evaluate it’s viability and get on with making it, without needing someone to copy off:

The biggest challenge at this point is where to find those dark orange bakelite prototyping boards that are “soft” to cut, not like the new ones from Jaycar that crumble when you cut them.

Not everything has been sunshine and roses – as with anything, there are inevitable setbacks:

  • Side channel analysis of SIM cards, with the goal of obtaining cryptographic secrets, was somewhat unsuccessful. I suspect this is down to countermeasures implemented in the SIM card itself, but it’s difficult to confirm this as I can’t call up my provider and ask for source.
    • On the bright side, attacking a production system led to several major steps forward in trace preprocessing and alignment – I can’t complain too much about this.
  • I still suck at heap exploitation. With most forms of exploitation, I can visualise the process in my head, but once a heap allocator gets involved, there’s still a process of “trial and error” to make sure I’ve got the offsets right, and I’m predicting the behaviour of the heap allocator correctly. I have no idea how to exploit heap structures on modern systems.
  • have no idea how to uncover and weaponize a browser exploit (remotely triggerable via watering hole). I have some experience using JS payloads to attack web apps, but I don’t know how to move from a browser to a desktop (or more specifically, to an Android device).
  • have no experience at fabricating high-frequency circuits. I want to be able to make my own PCIe interfaces and NAND Flash interposer boads, but I haven’t committed time and resources to this – my fault.
  • distinctly lack education in electronics theory. In the age of search engines, this isn’t necessarily a downside per se, but often I find myself following rabbit-holes of “why is a dipole antenna the way it is”. That said, I taught myself all I know of electronics, so this is fixable.

As I tread further and further into the less-explored hinterlands of hardware security, it is increasingly difficult to maintain focus. Between the incessant demands of day-to-day life, and the general lack of fellow Internet Explorers in Australia, it is a challenge to remain committed to reaching the goals above; it’s worth having a think about what I’m going to do for the next five or so years to make myself learn faster.

Nevertheless, in an effort to make next year’s shitposting a little easier, my new goals for 2020 are as follows:

  • I want to rebuild my skillset with software. This involves doing things like Hack the Box, CTF’s and simply creating exploits for existing software – my subscription fee for HTB needs to be worthwhile.
  • I want to practice building high-frequency circuits. By the end of 2020, I want to have built at least one FPGA board (similar to the playstation modchip boards), acting as a custom PCIe interface.
  • I want to learn emissions security. Attacks such as TEMPEST have always been of interest, and I want to know enough to independently implement TEMPEST (both passive and active) against a simple signal by the end of 2020, as well as a few other key attacks. This links to the goal above.
  • I want to practice “universal backdoors” against Android. I want to be able to desolder a BGA NAND Flash chip, insert a backdoor (e.g. editing fstab), and replace it on the device. This vastly improves my ability to gain an initial foothold on completely closed systems.

I should also mention the part that my work at UNSW plays: as some of you know, I teach web application security, which isn’t my area of focus – but this is truly an opportunity I’ve failed to capitalize on. 2020 presents a renewed opportunity to truly take ownership of the course and reset it – I look forward to teaching an actually good course with consistent content quality, and then using this as a launchpad to further pursue my core interests by working with academically-minded folks I otherwise would not have contact with.

To top everything off, I can’t help but feel an all-consuming sense of desperation: I’m not getting any younger, but I’m far off from achieving what others have achieved (take a look at Yifan Lu’s work with the PS Vita, windytan’s work on HDMI side channeling, the successes so far on extracting SIM secrets – the examples are endless). Humanity has always been a few bright flames amidst a sea of flickering sparks, and few things fill me with bitter contempt like the thought of settling into a white picket fence life.

As we look forward into the new year, let us archive our accomplishments, grit our teeth and steel our resolve for the challenges ahead.

About Norman

Sometimes, I write code. Occasionally, it even works.
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