Root cause analysis on unusual stack writing functions with IDA.

Adversary Academy Research
4 min readJan 9, 2022


A common problem when doing vulnerability research and exploit development is identifying interesting components within binary code. Static analysis is an effective way to identify interesting functions to target. This approach can be quite involved if the binary is lacking symbols, or if source code is not available. However, even in some instances source code or symbols not being available won't hinder your research entirely.

In this example, we’ve identified an application we want to target for pre-auth vulnerabilities. When we attempt to log in with a username but no password we receive the error “Password is missing”

Nope, it's not that easy

Within IDA Pro we can use the search capability to find references to the string “password is missing.” The first result in sub_426b20 is a good candidate.

This looks promising

Navigating to that function and doing a bit of brief analysis on the basic blocks helps us determine that it is an interesting part of an HTTP server that handles authentication.

Main basic block for this function

Once we’ve identified our target functions we can set a breakpoint on the first basic block and attach to the process using one of IDA’s built-in debuggers. After making a request to the login function we can see that our breakpoint has been hit and the webserver is paused. This is promising because it means our code path is correct.

Enabling function tracing after our breakpoint is hit.

After hitting a breakpoint we can enable a function trace, this will record all functions our binary is calling when we continue the debugger. After attempting and failing login we can see only a few functions are hit, and our sub_46B20 is in the list. Great!

Only a few functions have been traced, this will save us time

Running through the login function again, this time with a noticeable username of “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” we can see that the username is placed on the stack. Not good from a binary defense perspective.

Also unusual is that there are no typical culprits when auditing for vulnerabilities, i.e. there is no strcpy function being called. However the call to GetField@SCA_ConfigObj is present right before our username appears on the stack.

Further tracing of the execution environment leads us to find the offending instructions in libpal.dll

our offending stack writing gadget

The code in libpal.dll does the following:

  • copy {ecx} to eax register (one byte copy)
  • Increment the ecx register (iterating over our input bytes)
  • move eax into [edx] (this is our destination (the stack))
  • test al,al will continue until a null byte is tested.

What is interesting about that behavior is that it is essentially identical to strcpy without being initially detectable as a strcpy function. Hence initial scans for banned functions wouldn’t have detected the issue.

We’ll find strcpy anyway, deal with it

In summary we’ve done root cause analysis on why a particular called function writes to the stack and allows for a stack based buffer overflow when it’s not immediately apparent that a buffer overflow should happen.