How Hard Could ARM Reversing Be?

Table of Contents

When I encountered the challenge, I first examined the ELF header and decided to proceed by inspecting the ELF file headers. I observed that the binary was written for the ARM architecture, and since I didn’t have an ARM machine at my disposal, I set up the necessary environment using the QEMU ARM emulator. Additionally, I installed older shared libraries like libssl1.0.0 on my Linux machine for the potential dynamic analysis phase. On the other hand, I utilized my Windows machine for static analysis. For this purpose, I configured the IDA GDB server for remote debugging.

But the weirdiest thing that I came across, IDA’s decompilation feature couldn’t handle the reverse substract instruction of ARM. So I’ve decided to change the color of this basic ARM crack-me challenge and explain the what actions should be perform like this situation.

Inspection to ARM Binary

Binary is a 32-bit ARM executable that use some of the shared libraries. So if I decide to execute this binary, I must use ARM emulator or execute at the native ARM environment. In my case, I decided to use qemu-arm emulator on Linux system.

I already mentioned that my possible analysis strategy. So let’s begin analyzing the binary like a real reverse-engineer! When I dragged the binary to IDA for analysis, IDA mentioned that this binary use THUMB and ARM instructions. And after the finishing initial auto-analysis, I jump to start procedure of binary.

As you can see, libc will handle the execution of init and main functions. Firstly I analyzed init function for possible some executions before the main, but I didn’t face anything and I decided to look inside main function.

Main function is a basic, non-obfuscated procedure that basically performs these steps:

  • Calculate the length of the given argument of binary by accessing to argv structure and calling the strlen function.

  • If the length of the argument is not 9, exit the program.

  • Calculate every characters of the argument with some basic mathematical operations and decide whether to move forward or exit the program.

  • If everything fine, calculate the MD5 hash of the given argument and XOR every characters with 0xFB, 0x3C, 0x52, 0xC3, 0x11, 0xA9, 0xAF, 0x96, 0x4E, 0xC4, 0xBD, 0x5A, 0x74, 0x73, 0xE0, 0x4A byte array.

Now that I have explained the algorithm basics, I can move on to finding the key. The application expects the key length to be 9 for execution and perform arithmetic operations on this key value by accessing the key index 0 to 8. I don’t suggest relying solely on the IDA pseudo-C view because of potential misinterpretation of arithmetic operations. In my case, this happened. IDA decompiler can’t properly interpret some of the values because it doesn’t handle the RSB instruction properly, so I should focus on looking at the ARM assembly output and taking some notes.

Let’s assign pseudo name to each characters of the key.

key[0] = a
key[1] = b
key[2] = c
key[3] = d
key[4] = e
key[5] = f
key[6] = g
key[7] = h
key[8] = i

After that set the equations for these variables.

b * a = 0x1353
b - c = 0xee
d * c = 0x365b
d - e = 0x9
f * e = 0x1650
f - g = 0xd2
h * g = 0x2b93
h - i = 0xfa

Hidden In Plain Sight

The only thing left is finding the variable i and that showed up before the MD5 calculation procedure.

According to the ARM output shown above, R11 register behaves as the frame-pointer, and the given key argument is located at R11 + var_84 offset. The length of the key is located the R11 + var_78 offset. So I already know what size should be the key, it’s 9.

So var_78 holds the value of 9. According to the calculation, sum of the R2 and R3 registers (R3 holds value of 9, R2 holds key[8] named as i) must be equal to 0x82. We can perform reverse operation of add instruction, which is substraction, the i variable becomes 0x79.


Reverse Subtract without carry.

RSB{S}{cond} {Rd}, Rn, Operand2


  • S

    is an optional suffix. If S is specified, the condition flags are updated on the result of the operation.

  • *cond*

    is an optional condition code.

  • *Rd*

    is the destination register.

  • *Rn*

    is the register holding the first operand.

  • *Operand2*

    is a flexible second operand.

At this section, IDA doesn’t show the decompilation properly because it cannot handle RSB instruction as it’s supposed to be:


I don’t know what is the reason of why IDA cannot handle RSB instruction, but I think this is a bug that was allegedly resolved in 2012 and still exists and I still wonder what lies behind this.

This is the reason of why I’m going through reading ARM assembly output on crack-me challenge instead of only looking the generated pseudo-C output, and I’d strongly recommend it :)

I’ve already found i variable (key[8]), so I can proceed to locate other variables and complete the proper key calculation in reverse order. Now that I have the value of i, I can substitute it in the equation and get all the values, right? I wish it were that simple. However, if I rely solely on straightforward logic at this point, I won’t reach the result because I need to analyze some of the instructions in the ARM set.

Let’s take a look at the output above to find the value of h. That procedure basically perform reverse substract with RSB instruction and extract the 8-bit value from the result with UXTB instruction. But we must keep our mind that only one byte loaded the registers from the characters of key value, so signed operations involved this phase. R2 - 0x79 should be 0xFA, but if we assume R2 is 0x173 we’d be thinking wrong way because, it is not one byte and it cannot be the input because it is not a value in the ASCII table. So we should give the value that lower than 0x79 and then, result turns to negative 0xFFFF thing. We can basically calculate the input the basic math like:

0x79 - ((0xFF - 0xFA) + 1). Result of this operations is will become 0x73, so h value (key[7]) too.

After that we can find the value of g with calculate the 0x2b93 / h, and this results 0x61. Other calculations same as we already performed. After the making the all calculations proper key revealed: 3asyp3asy

We can move the last part of this challenge, calculate the MD5 hash of 3asyp3asy and perform XOR operation with every single characters in the byte array and construct CyberChef recipe for solution:


Reverse engineering on ARM binaries might be challenging rather than other generic architectures. I’d recommend step-by-step analysis on every architecture and every binaries as well because IDA, Ghidra, Binary Ninja and other disassemblers just only tools, just like I analyzed. So true reverse engineering process highly consist on going to further details inside those binaries. The main idea behind this article is: Never trust any output that doesn’t belong to you!

Thanks for reading…

comments powered by Disqus