Hacking the TL-WPA4220, Part 3: Talking to the Server

In the third post of the Hacking the TL-WPA4220 series, we are not going to deal with vulnerabilities of any kind. Instead, we will focus on understanding how the browser communicates with our device’s HTTP server. Then we will be ready to exploit the command injection vulnerabilities we found in the previous post.

I must admit that this was a bit of a surprise to me since usually, the communication with this kind of device happens over plain old HTTP. Let’s be clear, in the TL-WPA4220 the communication technically also happens over HTTP. However, there is an encryption scheme (involving both symmetric-key and public-key algorithms) so that the data that is sent over HTTP can be neither understood nor manipulated by an attacker (that could intercept the traffic in the LAN). This is a nice solution to protect from man-in-the-middle attacks that does not require the use of HTTPS, which in this scenario is not suitable. Also, it is worth mentioning that this encryption protocol is present in the firmware version TL-WPA4220(EU)_V4_190326, but not in previous ones.

An Unexpected Surprise

Let’s start at the beginning. After finding the vulnerability, I expected that in order to exploit it one should send POST requests to the affected endpoints, passing the parameters in the body of these requests, and profit. To my surprise, however, when I opened up Burp and observed the traffic, this was not the case. For example, the login request looks like this:

Login request

Clearly, it seems that there is some encryption going on: we see some kind of signature, and the value of the data parameter looks like gibberish. So this won’t be so simple as one might have anticipated. But don’t worry, if our browser can send encrypted requests, so do we. This encryption protocol, although it will force us to do some extra work, will not stop us from launching our exploits.

As you might imagine, since the browser is in charge of encrypting the data, it means that this encryption is done using JavaScript. So this time we will leave Ghidra behind, and just get our hands dirty reading JavaScript code.

In the following, I’ll do my best to explain the encryption process as clearly as possible. To make it so, I’ll explain just some parts of the code that are relevant to get a clear picture of what’s going on, giving many details but also leaving some out to make the whole thing, well, readable. However, don’t think this was all clear from the beginning: I spent some hours using Burp, my browser’s Developer Tools, and its built-in debugger to solve this puzzle! In any case, if you don’t care too much about the details and just want to see the description of the communication protocol, you can skip the next sections and go directly to the section “Putting It All Togheter”.

The files we will need to analyze are the following:

  • The source code of the login or index page.
  • The file /js/su/data/proxy.js.
  • The file /js/libs/encrypt.js.
  • The file /js/libs/tpEncrypt.js.

A Cryptography Refresher

Before going into the implementation details, let’s pause a second to do a quick reminder of two of the most widely used encryption algorithms, which will turn out to be needed to communicate with the HTTP server: AES and RSA. Explaining the details of these algorithms is way beyond the scope of this post. However, I think that pointing out some properties of each one might be helpful for what comes ahead. Of course, for the sake of brevity, I will be leaving lots of details out, so if you want to know more you’ll have to look for specific references (I recommend the book Serious Cryptography for instance). In any case, if you already know your crypto or do not care about it too much, you can just skip over to the next section.

The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is a symmetric-key cryptographic algorithm. This means that the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt messages, so this key needs to be known by all communicating parties. To do that, these parties need to find a way to share the key securely. Otherwise, the subsequent encrypted communications might be decrypted by third-parties that might have also obtained the key, defeating the whole purpose of encryption. AES is also a block cipher, that is, messages are split into blocks of a fixed size and each one is encrypted using the same algorithm. As a block cipher, also, there are certain modes of operation that determine how the key for each block is derived from the original key. Such modes of operation include the Electronic Code-book (ECB), Cipher Block Chaining (CBC), or Counter (CTR) mode, among others. Some of these modes (such as CBC) require an Initialization Vector (IV) to ensure that encrypting the same plaintext twice will yield different ciphertexts. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the AES algorithm (unlike RSA) can’t be reduced to a simple mathematical formula, but instead consists of several steps repeated a number of rounds.

The Rivest-Shamir-Adleman algorithm (RSA) is a public-key cryptographic algorithm. In this kind of algorithms, unlike the symmetric-key, there exists a public key that can be known by anybody, and a private key that has to remain secret, only known by one of the communicating parties. Messages encrypted using the public key can only be decrypted using the private key. This means that even if the public key is shared over an insecure channel and it is intercepted by a third party, this third party won’t be able to decipher any messages encrypted using this public key. This is of course a great advantage over symmetric-key algorithms. One drawback, however, is that public-key algorithms are less efficient so that for large amounts of data they are not usually suitable.

RSA relies on a simple mathematical principle, namely that if $e$, $d$, and $n$ are sufficiently large integer numbers such that for all integers $m$ ($0\leq m<n$) the following holds: $$(m^e)^d \equiv m \qquad (mod\enspace n)$$ it is computationally impossible to find $d$ knowing $e$ and $n$. How does this allow us to encrypt messages, you might be asking yourselves? Well, as strange as it might seem, it can be seen that it is actually easy to choose such numbers $e$, $n$, and $d$. Then, in the above identity, $e$ (the exponent) and $n$ (the modulus) represent the public key, while $d$ (the secret exponent) is the private key. $m$, on the other hand, represents a message to be encrypted. This is represented as an integer, for instance converting each letter in a string to its ASCII code (for instance, “HELLO” would be represented as 0x48454c4c4f = 310400273487). The encrypted message is simply $\hat m = m^e$. Knowing $d$ (the private key), we can decrypt the message just by computing: $$(\hat m)^d \qquad (mod\enspace n).$$ Moreover, anybody that does not know $d$ won’t be able to recover $m$ even if they know $e$ and $n$. So, in order to receive encrypted messages, we only have to share with the other party the values of $n$ and $e$, with which they will be able to encrypt messages, and only we will be able to decrypt them. Beautiful, isn’t it?

The PCSubWin function

So now that we have refreshed our knowledge on the mysterious art of cryptography, let’s start trying to understand what happens when we actually login into the HTTP management interface. The login form looks like this:

The management interface

We can inspect the login button and we will see that when it is clicked, a function named PCSubWin is executed:

Inspecting the Login button

Looking at the source code of this page, we see that this function is defined in an inline script:

Definition of PCSubWin

Let’s describe this function. We see the following steps:

  • First, in the red box, we see a call to the method read of an object named authProxy, passing an empty object and a function as parameters.
  • Then, in the green box, the method $.su.encrypt is called, passing the provided password, a variable named passwordEncrypt, and 0 as parameters. The result, presumably the password after being encrypted with some algorithm, is stored in a variable named password.
  • Next, in the blue box, a function named beforeLogin is called, passing an empty username and the (unencrypted) password.
  • Finally, in the black box, the method write of an object named loginProxy is called, passing an object that contains the encrypted password, as well as several functions, as parameters.

Although we still have to understand what are the proxies authProxy and loginProxy, from the names we can derive that they are in charge of sending the requests to the server. Moreover, most probably the loginProxy handles the login request. We also have to determine what the function beforeLogin does, but the name seems to indicate that probably some initialization or set-up needed for the login will be done. Let’s see if we can find out something more about these elements!

Digging Deeper

If we take a look at the whole source code of the login page, we will see that the inline script where we found the function PCSubWin starts like this:

Inline script in the login page

From the code above, we have highlighted the following parts:

  • In the red boxes, three instances of the object $.su.Proxy are initialized. We already saw two of them in the PCSubWin function (authProxy and loginProxy) but there is a new one named keysProxy. We’ll describe this object and instances in more detail later, but for now, we will only say that each one handles the requests to the endpoint /login?form=<param> where <param> is auth, login or keys respectively (this can be seen in the field url passed to the declaration of each proxy). Moreover, these requests can either be in plaintext (as in the case of authProxy and keysProxy, where we see the field encrypt set to false), or encrypted (as in the case of the loginProxy).
  • In the green box, the object $.su.encryptor is instantiated. Note that this has nothing to do with the method $.su.encrypt that we saw in the PCSubWin function. This object, which we will also describe later in more detail, is basically a wrapper for RSA and AES encryption methods defined in CryptoJS, a collection of cryptographic algorithms implemented in JavaScript.
  • In the blue box, the function beforeLogin, which we saw above, is defined. This function accepts a username and password as parameters. From the code, we can be pretty sure that, basically, this function generates an AES key for the .$su.encryptor object using the method genAESKey, and sets a hash for this same object using the method setHash. We will describe these methods later on in more detail.
  • In the black box, the method read of the object keysProxy (mentioned above) is called with some parameters. The only relevant parameter, for now, is the second one, a function where the global variable passwordEncrypt (used in the PCSubWin function) is set to some value.

The Proxies

Ok, so let’s try to understand how the proxies work. For that, we need to look at the file js/su/data/proxy.js, where the object $.su.Proxy is defined. Looking at the definition carefully, we will see that this object has two main methods: read and write. Below we’ll describe the read method, but both methods do essentially the same and we will point out the differences as we go.

Let’s start by looking at the beginning definition of the read method:

Beginning of the definition of the read method

In the red box, we see that the first parameter, data, is extended with the field operation being equal to read (for the write function, this field is obviously write). The other parameters are optional, and we see that they are mainly callback functions for success and failed requests. Finally, in the blue box, we see that if the property encrypt is set to true, the data will be encrypted using the function $.su.encryptor.dataEncrypt (we’ll see later how this encryption works exactly).

After that, we see that the method returns performing an ajax request:

Return value of the read method

Although we do not show it here, these are POST requests by default unless otherwise specified. Note that, as can be seen in the red boxes, if the communication is encrypted, the response data is decrypted using $.su.encryptor.dataDecrypt and parsed as a JSON. Moreover, in the blue boxes, we see that if the request has been successful, the function callback (passed as the second parameter to read), will be called.

With that and what we have seen in the previous sections, we can now confidently say that:

  • The call to keysProxy.read sends an unencrypted POST request to the endpoint /login?form=keys, passing the parameter operation=read in the body of the request. When the response is received, the global variable passwordEncrypt will be set to the value of the field password returned in the response content (see the function passed as the second parameter to keysProxy.read above). This variable contains actually the RSA parameters $n$ and $e$.

  • Similarly, the call to authProxy.read sends an unencrypted POST request to the endpoint /login?form=auth, passing the parameter operation=read in the body of the request. In this case, when the response is received, the RSA public key and the sequence number of the object $.su.encryptor will be set with the data returned (see the function passed as the second parameter to authProxy.read above). Note that, actually, the previous proxy had already provided the RSA public key parameters.

  • Finally, the call to loginProxy.write sends an encrypted POST request to the endpoint /login?form=login passing the following parameters in the body of the request:

    • operation=login (note that here the parameter operation is not write, because it is overwritten by the parameter passed in the call)
    • password=<encrypted_password>

    Once the response is returned and there has been no error, the browser will be redirected to the location contained in the response body (see the function passed as the second parameter to loginProxy.write above).

Note that the POST parameters sent in the loginProxy will not be in cleartext, and we still need to understand exactly how they are encrypted. Similarly, we need to understand how the password passed in the login request is encrypted. Let’s get to it!

The Encryption Routines

The last part of the puzzle is understanding the encryption routines. These can be found in two different places:

  • The method $.su.encrypt. This is only used in the PCSubWin function to encrypt the password provided in the login form, which is then sent to the server using the loginProxy.
  • The object $.su.encryptor. As we have seen, this object handles the encryption (and decryption) of the data sent in the requests done via the proxies.

The $.su.encrypt method

The method $.su.encrypt is declared at the beginning of the file /js/libs/encrypt.js. With the comment at the start of the function, we see that it is an implementation of the RSA algorithm:

Beginning of the definition of the method $.su.encrypt

However, it is not after we have scrolled down a few hundred lines (at the end of this method) that we see the following:

End of the definition of the method $.su.encrypt

Here, in the red box, we can see that the first parameter passed to the encrypt method (val) is encrypted with RSA. Moreover, in the blue box, we see how the second parameter (param) contains the RSA public key parameters $n$ and $e$.

The $.su.encryptor object

This object is defined in the file js/libs/tpEncrypt.js. We will focus on the four following methods:

  • The method genAESKey. Inspecting the code, one can see that it calls the function genKey, and sets the property aesKeyString calling the method getKeyString:

    The method genAESKey

    On the one hand, looking at the method genKey we can see that it generates a key and an IV from the current time and adding a random number:

    Part of the method AES.genKey

    On the other hand, the method getKeyString simply returns the string k=<key>&i=<iv> for a given AES key <key> and IV <iv>:

    The method AES.getKeyString

  • The method setHash, which sets the property hash as the MD5 of the concatenation of the username and password:

    The method setHash

    Recall that in the call of this function, the username was an empty string, and the password was the one we provided in the form.

  • The method dataEncrypt. This method encrypts the input data with AES (in CBC mode) and constructs a “signature” using the getSignature method:

    The method dataEncrypt

    Looking at the getSignature method, we can see that it constructs a string s which is later encrypted with RSA (in chunks of 64 bytes):

    The method getSignature

    Note that the value of the string s differs if the isLogin parameter is set to true or false. In the former case, the unencrypted signature will contain the AES key string (that contains both the key and IV), the generated hash, and the value seq (which, from the call to getSignature above, we can see that it is the sequence number plus the length of the data). In the latter case, on the contrary, the AES key string won’t be present.

  • The method dataDecrypt. This is more simple since it simply decrypts the input data with the AES algorithm (in CBC mode):

    The method dataDecrypt

Putting It All Together

If you made it until this section without skipping any section, congratulations! I know this was a little bit tedious, but now we have all the pieces that allow us to send valid requests to the server. Let’s summarize the steps we need to perform:

  1. First, we need to generate some AES key and IV. We get to choose what they are. Once we send them to the server (in the login request), the server will use them to decrypt the data in our requests and encrypt the data it will send in the responses.

  2. Then, we need to obtain the sequence number and the RSA public key parameters, $n$ and $e$ (which will be used to encrypt the signature). To do that, we only need to make a POST request to the endpoint /login?form=auth, with the data operation=read. $n$ will be the first element of the key array returned in the body of the response, and $e$ will be the second one. The sequence number will be the seq element. This can be done using the following Python function:

    def get_rsa_pubkey_seq(target):
        r = requests.post("http://{}/login?form=auth".format(target), data={"operation": "read"})
        r = r.json()
        n = int(r["data"]["key"][0], 16)
        e = int(r["data"]["key"][1], 16)
        seq = int(r["data"]["seq"])
        return n, e, seq

    Recall that the endpoint /login?form=keys also provides the RSA public key parameters, but not the sequence number, so actually, there is no need to make a request to this endpoint.

  3. Once we have chosen the AES key and IV, and obtained the RSA public key parameters, we are ready to make the login request. This will be a POST request to the endpoint /login?form=login. The body of the request has to contain the following parameters:

    • sign=RSA_ENCRYPT("k=<aes_key>&i=<aes_IV>&h=MD5(<password>)&s=<seq_number+lenght_of_unencrypted_data>")
    • data=AES_ENCRYPT({"operation": login, "password": RSA_ENCRYPT(<password>}))

    Note that the server (and only the server) can decrypt the signature, from which it will obtain our AES symmetric key and IV, and then will be able to decrypt the data. Nobody besides us (who already know the AES key and IV) or the server (who is the only one that has the RSA private keys to decrypt the signature) will be able to decrypt the data that we sent!

    As a side note, however, it looks like the encryption of our password with RSA does not add any extra security (because this data is later re-encrypted with AES).

  4. For further requests, we don’t need to send the AES key or IV anymore (the server already has them and they are reused). Therefore, we will only have to make a request to the corresponding endpoint with the following contents:

    • sign=RSA_ENCRYPT("h=MD5(<password>)&s=<seq_number+lenght_of_unencrypted_data>")
    • data=AES_ENCRYPT(<data>)
  5. Once we receive the response from an encrypted request, we have to decrypt the data in the response body with AES (in CBC mode) using the symmetric key and IV we have chosen.

All encrypted requests (both for login and non-login) can be handled, for instance, with the following Python function:

def send_encrypted_request(target, path, plaintext_data, password, is_login=False):
    url = "http://{}{}".format(target, path)
    encrypted_data = aes_encrypt(plaintext_data)
    m = hashlib.md5(password.encode('utf-8'))
    password_hash = m.hexdigest()
    if is_login:
        sign = rsa_encrypt("k={}&i={}&h={}&s={}".format(key.decode('utf-8'), iv.decode('utf-8'), password_hash,
                                                        seq + len(encrypted_data)))
        sign = rsa_encrypt("h={}&s={}".format(password_hash, seq + len(encrypted_data)))
    data = {
        "sign": sign,
        "data": encrypted_data
    r = requests.post(url, data=data)
    encrypted_data = r.json().get("data")
    response = aes_decrypt(encrypted_data)
    return response

Pwning the TL-WPA4220

This might have been a little bit challenging, but we finally have our reward: at this point, we have everything we need to exploit our target. As we saw in the previous post, to execute a specific command on the device (for example start the telnetd daemon), we have to log in and then make a request to the endpoint /admin/powerline with the following parameters:

  • form=plc_device
  • operation=remove
  • key=1234;<command>

And we finally know how to send requests to the server!

You can find a PoC of the exploit here. Note that this PoC uses (improved versions of) the functions get_rsa_pubkey_seq and send_encrypted_request defined in the previous section.

After executing the exploit, we can connect via telnet to the device (without any credentials) and we have a session as the root user:

The exploit in action

So that’s it, we made it!


In this post, we have described how the communication between our browser and the HTTP server of the TL-WPA4220 works. To do that, we have needed to dig into the JavaScript code and work our way step by step to get a clear picture of how different encryption algorithms were being used. Doing that, we saw that the actual data in the requests and responses was encrypted using AES. Moreover, we understood how the key and IV were shared during the login request and were encrypted with the RSA public key of the server so that only the server could retrieve them.

This was an interesting approach to achieve private communication between two parties without the need for SSL certificates. Of course, this has some advantages (no need to manage these certificates, which in this case would not be feasible), but also has its disadvantages (anyone could impersonate the HTTP server since there is no verification of its identity). Also, we have to mention that the implementation could be improved to enhance the security (for instance, not reusing the IV for all requests).

In any case, this non-standard way of encrypting the data sent over HTTP has not stopped us from being able to make custom requests with some lines of Python code. This was the last missing part to be able to send our exploits to the server, take advantage of the vulnerabilities that we previously found, and achieve full control of the device.

In the next post of this series, we will look at an existing buffer overflow vulnerability that we have not yet investigated. Again, the knowledge we have obtained in this post will be necessary to send requests to the server and try to exploit it - in that case, however, we won’t be so lucky as to get remote code execution!