Pull Passwords Out of Silicon

[q3k] got tipped off to a very cool problem in the ongoing Pwn2Win capture-the-flag, and he blew it out of the water by decoding the metal interconnect layers that encode a password in a VLSI IC. And not one to rent someone else’s netlist extraction code, he did it by writing his own.

The problem in the Pwn2Win CTF came in the form of the design files for a hypothetical rocket launch code. The custom IC takes an ASCII string as input, and flips a pin high if it matches. Probably the simplest way to do this in logic is to implement a shift register that’s long enough for the code string’s bits, and then hard-wire some combinatorial logic that only reads true when all of the individual bits are correct.

(No, you don’t want to implement a password-checker this way — it means that you could simply brute-force the password far too easily — but such implementations have been seen in the wild.)

Anyway, back to our story. After reversing the netlist, [q3k] located 320 flip-flops in a chain, suggesting a 40-byte ASCII code string. Working backward in the circuit from the “unlocked” pin to the flip-flops, he found a network of NOR and NAND gates, which were converted into a logic notation and then tossed into Z3 to solve. Some cycles later, he had pulled the password straight out of the silicon!

This looks like a really fun challenge if you’re into logic design or hardware reverse engineering. You don’t have to write your own tools to do this, of course, but [q3k] would say that it was worth it.

Thanks [Victor] for the great tip!
Featured image by David Carron, via Wikipedia.

Filed under: hardware