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Aigo Chinese encrypted HDD − Part 1: taking it apart


Analyzing and breaking external encrypted HDD has been a “hobby” of mine for quite some time. With my colleagues Joffrey Czarny and Julien Lenoir we looked at several models in the past:

  • Zalman VE-400
  • Zalman ZM-SHE500
  • Zalman ZM-VE500

Here I am going to detail how I had fun with one drive a colleague gave me: the Chinese Aigo “Patriot” SK8671, which follows the classical design for external encrypted HDDs: a LCD for information diplay and a keyboard to enter the PIN.

DISCLAIMER: This research was done on my personal time and is not related to my employer.

Patriot HDD front view with keyboard Patriot HDD package

The user must input a password to access data, which is supposedly encrypted.

Note that the options are very limited:

  • the PIN can be changed by pressing F1 before unlocking
  • the PIN must be between 6 and 9 digits
  • there is a wrong PIN counter, which (I think) destroys data when it reaches 15 tries.

In practice, F2, F3 and F4 are useless.

Hardware design

Of course one of the first things we do is tear down everything to identify the various components.

Removing the case is actually boring, with lots of very small screws and plastic to break.

In the end, we get this (note that I soldered the 5 pins header):


Main PCB

The main PCB is pretty simple:

main PCB

Important parts, from top to bottom:

  • connector to the LCD PCB (CN1)
  • beeper (SP1)
  • Pm25LD010 (datasheet) SPI flash (U2)
  • Jmicron JMS539 (datasheet) USB-SATA controller (U1)
  • USB 3 connector (J1)

The SPI flash stores the JMS539 firmware and some settings.


The LCD PCB is not really interesting:

LCD view


It has:

  • an unknown LCD character display (with Chinese fonts probably), with serial control
  • a ribbon connector to the keyboard PCB

Keyboard PCB

Things get more interesting when we start to look at the keyboard PCB:

Keyboard PCB, back

Here, on the back we can see the ribbon connector and a Cypress CY8C21434 PSoC 1 microcontroller (I’ll mostly refer to it as “µC” or “PSoC”): CY8C21434

The CY8C21434 is using the M8C instruction set, which is documented in the Assembly Language User Guide.

The product page states it supports CapSense, Cypress’ technology for capacitive keyboards, the technology in use here.

You can see the header I soldered, which is the standard ISSP programming header.

Following wires

It is always useful to get an idea of what’s connected to what. Here the PCB has rather big connectors and using a multimeter in continuity testing mode is enough to identify the connections:

hand drawn schematic

Some help to read this poorly drawn figure:

  • the PSoC is represented as in the datasheet
  • the next connector on the right is the ISSP header, which thankfully matches what we can find online
  • the right most connector is the clip for the ribbon, still on the keyboard PCB
  • the black square contains a drawing of the CN1 connector from the main PCB, where the cable goes to the LCD PCB. P11, P13 and P4 are linked to the PSoC pins 11, 13 and 4 through the LCD PCB.

Attack steps

Now that we know what are the different parts, the basic steps would be the same as for the drives analyzed in previous research :

  • make sure basic encryption functionnality is there
  • find how the encryption keys are generated / stored
  • find out where the PIN is verified

However, in practice I was not really focused on breaking the security but more on having fun. So, I did the following steps instead:

  • dump the SPI flash content
  • try to dump PSoC flash memory (see part 2)
  • start writing the blog post
  • realize that the communications between the Cypress PSoC and the JMS539 actually contains keyboard presses
  • verify that nothing is stored in the SPI when the password is changed
  • be too lazy to reverse the 8051 firmware of the JMS539
  • TBD: finish analyzing the overall security of the drive (in part 3 ?)

Dumping the SPI flash

Dumping the flash is rather easy:

  • connect probes to the CLK, MOSI, MISO and (optionally) EN pins of the flash
  • sniff the communications using a logic analyzer (I used a Saleae Logic Pro 16)
  • decode the SPI protocol and export the results in CSV
  • use decode_spi.rb to parse the results and get a dump

Note that this works very well with the JMS539 as it loads its whole firmware from flash at boot time.

$ decode_spi.rb boot_spi1.csv dump
0.039776 : WRITE DISABLE
0.039777 : JEDEC READ ID
0.039784 : ID 0x7f 0x9d 0x21
0.039788 : READ @ 0x0
$ ls --size --block-size=1 dump
49152 dump
$ sha1sum dump
3d9db0dde7b4aadd2b7705a46b5d04e1a1f3b125  dump

Unfortunately it does not seem obviously useful as:

  • the content did not change after changing the PIN
  • the flash is actually never accessed after boot

So it probably only holds the firmware for the JMicron controller, which embeds a 8051 microcontroller.

Sniffing communications

One way to find which chip is responsible for what is to check communications for interesting timing/content.

As we know, the USB-SATA controller is connected to the screen and the Cypress µC through the CN1 connector and the two ribbons. So, we hook probes to the 3 relevant pins:

  • P4, generic I/O in the datasheet
  • P11, I²C SCL in the datasheet
  • P13, I²C SDA in the datasheet


We then launch Saleae logic analyzer, set the trigger and enter “123456✓” on the keyboard. Which gives us the following view:

Saleae logic analyzer screenshot

You can see 3 differents types of communications:

  • on the P4 channel, some short bursts
  • on P11 and P13, almost continuous exchanges

Zooming on the first P4 burst (blue rectangle in previous picture), we get this :

P4 zoom

You can see here that P4 is almost 70ms of pure regular signal, which could be a clock. However, after spending some time making sense of this, I realized that it was actually a signal for the “beep” that goes off every time a key is touched… So it is not very useful in itself, however, it is a good marker to know when a keypress was registered by the PSoC.

However, we have on extra “beep” in the first picture, which is slightly different: the sound for “wrong pin” !

Going back to our keypresses, when zooming at the end of the beep (see the blue rectangle again), we get: end of beep zoom

Where we have a regular pattern, with a (probable) clock on P11 and data on P13. Note how the pattern changes after the end of the beep. It could be interesting to see what’s going on here.

2-wires protocols are usually SPI or I²C, and the Cypress datasheet says the pins correspond to I²C, which is apparently the case: i2c decoding of '1' keypress

The USB-SATA chipset constantly polls the PSoC to read the key state, which is ‘0’ by default. It then changes to ‘1’ when key ‘1’ was pressed.

The final communication, right after pressing “✓”, is different if a valid PIN is entered. However, for now I have not checked what the actual transmission is and it does not seem that an encryption key is transmitted.

Anyway, see part 2 to read how I did dump the PSoC internal flash.

Encrypted /boot in Debian Buster

Goals & Prerequisites

The goal is to have a fully encrypted Linux root partition, including /boot. Then, hopefully, enabling secure boot.

Use UEFI, have a EFI system partition, as Grub will be stored on it.


Use the normal Debian installer, but it will fail when trying to install grub.

To fix the problem:

  • switch to a console VT
  • edit /target/etc/default/grub with nano
  • retry Grub installation

Now grub should support crypto disks and install correctly


  • Grub keymap at boot is US by default, pay attention when typing the passphrase…
  • cryptsetup default interation count for the master key is waaaay too high for Grub’s libgcrypt default compilation, it can takes up to 10s to verify the passphrase. Use cryptsetup’s --iter-time to setup a low amount of iterations and use a stonger passphrase :)


  • Try to have a French keymap at boot, should be doable with grub-mkstandalone
  • Try to check if grub can work with performance compilation options

PC engines APU2, Debian Stretch and watchdog

I bought a very cool APU2 from PC engines.

Installing Debian Stretch

Very easy:

Watchdog tricks

Once the APU crashed for some reason while I was away, which is very annoying as it is my main router. Thankfully, the APU2 has a hardware watchdog. Unfortunately, it’s a bit buggy so we need to blacklist the i2c-piix4 module and load spi5100_tco ASAP.

So, do the following:

# apt install watchdog
# vim /etc/watchdog.conf # uncomment watchdog-device
# echo blacklist i2c_piix4 > /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist_piix.conf
# echo spi5100_tco >> /etc/initramfs-tools/modules
# update-initramfs -k all -u 

Adding spi5100_tco seems to be necessary to have the module reliably find the MMIO.


Thoughts on IDA and disassemblers


This post is the result of some thinking about reverse engineering tools. I have been reverse engineering for more than 15 years but it has been only very recently that I have begun feeling disappointed by the current tools. Of course, I am not the first, and as Halvar said: “I am regularly infuriated about the state of reverse engineering tools, and have only myself to blame.” source

That being said, as most of the reverse work I do is static reversing on “exotic” platforms or operating systems, your perception may quite differ, particularly if your focus is automated analysis, which is not my case. As I almost exclusively reverse interactively, I think it’s very important for the tools to be easily integrated in the analyst’s workflow: some tools are really awesome but only usable for automated analysis.

And of course, this is my own ranting :)

Reverse engineering techniques

10 years ago most tools were pure disassemblers with nonexistant to poor advanced static analysis capabilities. But recently, techniques for binary code analysis have improved greatly and are getting practical. I will cover them quickly, describing how I understand them and how they can be useful.

Static analysis techniques

I will not discuss here the merits of symbolic execution, abstract interpretation or any other technique, as my point is about the practical tools available to the reverser. Which underlying technique is or could be used is out of scope.

Type propagation and reconstruction

Type propagation is quite simple to understand: knowing some types, either from external APIs, FLIRT or from the analyst, use data flow analysis to propagate types to arguments and relevant data. The challenge here is to do it both ways:

  • forward, for example with argument types inside in a function, or return values
  • backward, when calling an function with known argument types.

IDA has been doing it, in a limited way, for a long time (more than 10 years).

Type reconstruction is more advanced: using both type propagation and access patterns, reconstruct complex types such as structures or vtables.

The only two practical tools that I know of are:

both using HexRays’s decompiler SDK to analyse the decompiled output and create the advanced structures.

Note that this is a research topic with several academic papers covering the subject, but I don’t know of any tool with IDA integration.

Also, interesting approaches have been proposed for dynamic analysis, for example Trace Surfing by A. Gianni.

Taint analysis

Taint analysis is also very useful for the reverser as it can help pinpoint interesting parts of a binary or function, depending on the source of taint.

Ponce is very interesting as it uses Triton to provide taint analysis directly in IDA, with an easy to use GUI. I think it is a good way to provide advanced analytics, too bad it is limited to dynamic analysis.

Data slicing

Data slicing could be described as a kind of backward taint analysis, where the goal is to find which instructions and data inputs are used for a given resulting register or memory space.

miasm’s blog gives a very good example and a practical tool ;)


Of course the holy grail of reversers is a good decompiler, which is currently Hex-Rays.

Some academic papers such as this one claim interesting results, but are not available.


Automated and scripting tools

Lots of very interesting tools have appeared in the last years, covering part of the techniques I mentioned before. For example:

While they all provide powerful features, they certainly do not cover the use case I covered in my introduction. Most of them could be (and have been) used as external helpers to add output to IDA but they do not provide a platform to build interactive tools upon.


In addition to the previous tools, the two main challengers to IDA are:

While I did not try them extensively (Relyze does not work on Linux, Binary Ninja was slow when I tried the beta version), they look promising.

In particular, Binary Ninja’s IL and API seem to cover much of the points I will cover in the next section. Be a Binary Rockstar by Sophia d’Antoine, Peter LaFosse and Rusty Wagner is a good showcase.


IDA is, like it or not, the only real tool you can use for serious reverse engineering work, particularly on exotic platforms.

Why is IDA still reigning ?

Based on the features I outlined before, IDA is not really good on most of them. So why is it still the default RE tool ?

For several reasons:

  • its GUI works, really, sometimes it’s painful but it works :)
  • it supports so many architectures that it’s very rare to have something not supported.
  • its plugin system allows to extend it and compensate for missing features (if one bears the pain of using the SDK).
  • its included library of information: type infos and flirt signatures.
  • its very reactive and knowledgable support.

The decompiler is of course a killer feature for efficient reverse engineering, particularly of C code.

Missing features

While this part may seem like throwing stones at IDA, I really think it’s a great tool. Read it has an extended wishlist :)

Collaborative work

Clearly, one missing, essential, feature of IDA is the ability to do collaborative work. One just needs to look at the various attempts to create plugins attempting to fix the problem: collabREate, SolIDArity, polichombr, YaCO, etc.

One basic aspect of a collaboration feature would be to be able to simultaneously work on the same IDB, synchronising information like a git repository.

But, while a life changing enhancement, that wouldn’t be enough. Hopefully, one could also share structures through a server. For example, someone working on a client and server could share the structures for the protocol while working on a different binary.

Also, several attempts have been made over the years to create plugins to integrate analyst’s knowledge in IDA, by recognizing functions already reversed in the past. polichombr, crowdRE, IDA toolbag, etc.

The common point with (almost) all those tools is that they die slowly as their authors move on to other things. Which is definetly not helped by IDA’s internals which are not suited for such low level integration.

Multiple files handling

Another painful aspect of IDA is the inability to work on several files at the same time. One trivial example is a binary that uses a shared library. One has to switch all the time between two IDB, copy pasting info (typing for example) to “synchronise” information.

This gets particularly painful when working on a more than 2 binaries at the same time.


This is where IDA lags behind most other recent tools: instructions semantics and intermediate representation.

Currently the only way to search for instructions is syntaxic, which is definitely not enough if we need to search for a changing pattern. A trivial example is argument lookup for functions parameters, which is basically impossible.

Having an IR would also help tremendously writing scripts independently of the underlying architecture. Some would argue that the Hex-Rays decompiler provides such IR, but it is expensive and, most importantly, it is quite often wrong.


Some other points:

  • the SDK is a pain, inconsistenly named, poorly documented, with only partial Python support. But it is powerful.
  • C++ support is nonexistent.
  • Porting information (typing, names) from one IDB to another can be painful.

Future ?

warning: personal feelings here

I think one of the main reasons IDA has not evolved much in 15 years is because there was simply no competition. The market was a niche but it feels like more and more people are doing RE, expanding the market somehow.

Considering that HexRays made several millions of euros of result in the past years for 5-6 full time employees, I am surprised that they did not start a new project to replace the definitely outdated base that is the IDA core.

“Just” porting the app to 64 bits seems a major pain. So with all their experience, their market share and money, I think Hex-Rays could start IDA-ng from scratch, and be very successful ! :)

Hopefully, the appearance of real competition like Binary Ninja or Relyze may stir the field a bit and force Hex-Rays to fix the fundamental problems :)

Let's Encrypt cron with acme-tiny

So, Let’s Encrypt is awesome, even if the official client is a terrifying beast. I chose to use acme-tiny and this post is a quick HOWTO.

  • First, create a directory for challenges in your web root: mkdir -p /var/www/.well-known/acme-challenge/
  • Then, create a letsencrypt user : adduser --home /var/www/.well-known/acme-challenge/ --shell /bin/sh --no-create-home --disabled-password --disabled-login letsencrypt
  • Change ownership : chown letsencrypt acme-challenge
  • Create /etc/letsencrypt and setup ACL : mkdir /etc/letsencrypt ; setfacl -m u:letsencrypt:rx /etc/letsencrypt
  • Put your CSR and user key in /etc/letsencrypt/ as site.csr and user.key, set ACL : setfacl -m u:letsencrypt:r /etc/letsencrypt/*
  • Put acme-tiny somewhere, make it world readable
  • Create /etc/cron.d/letsencrypt :

1 1 21 * *	letsencrypt umask 033; python /usr/local/acme-tiny/ --account-key /etc/letsencrypt/user.key --csr /etc/letsencrypt/site.csr --acme-dir /var/www/.well-known/acme-challenge/ > /tmp/site.crt && cat /tmp/site.crt > /etc/ssl/certs/site.crt
10 1 21 * * root service apache2 reload
  • test with su -c 'umask 033; python /usr/local/acme-tiny/ --account-key /etc/letsencrypt/user.key --csr /etc/letsencrypt/site.csr --acme-dir /var/www/.well-known/acme-challenge/ > /tmp/site.crt && cat /tmp/site.crt > /etc/ssl/certs/site.crt' letsencrypt

Just a caveat, Let’s Encrypt does not easily support challenges over HTTPS, so configure a redirect from http to https :

<VirtualHost *:80>
        Redirect permanent /