Hacking Embedded Devices: UART Consoles

The ‘Hardware Hacking’ scene has exploded recently, thanks largely to the widespread adoption of devices such as the Arduino and Raspberry PI by the hacking community. Applying hardware hacking techniques during product assessments can often give unrivaled levels of access to hidden or undocumented functionality particularly when reviewing embedded devices such as routers, switches and access points.

Prior to his employment with MWR, Hacker Fantastic, a Senior Security Consultant with MWR, reviewed the “SAGEM F@ST2504 Sky Broadband router”, at the time a popular consumer broadband device, and documented his findings in a blog post and presentation titled Hacking Embedded Devices: For Fun and Profit. Matthew has since followed up on his prior work by reviewing the “Virgin Media SuperHub” a Cable Modem/Router used by Virgin Media Cable in the UK and re-visited his assessment of the “SAGEM F@ST2504 Sky Broadband router”.

Using physical assessment techniques Matthew has been able to obtain full privileged “root” shell capabilities on both the “Virgin Media SuperHub” and again on the previously assessed “SAGEM F@ST2504 Sky Broadband router”.

Both the ‘Virgin’ and ‘Sky’ devices were found to have many more in-built capabilities available, or intended, by the ISP’s who issued them. Both were found to have advanced networking capabilities such as allowing for the manipulation of Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, packet analyzers, the ability to change or review configuration data not available within the embedded web services and review any credentials configured on the device. It was possible to recover the devices firmware and to begin installing custom Operating Systems onto the devices enabling users to take full advantage of the hardware provided.

This blog post aims to show that the methodologies, tools and concepts demonstrated can, and have, worked across multiple devices not just those provided by Sky Broadband and Virgin Media.

UART Hacking

The goal of the assessment was to obtain the firmware from the device so that it could be reverse engineered assisting in efforts to identify software vulnerabilities. Additionally, the enablement of a remote management service was desirable in order to provide elevated privileges to the end-user.

This process began by physically opening the device in order to determine the precise hardware in use. Through manual inspection of the device’s internals it was possible to obtain the relevant component datasheets from the Internet. By using the Integrated Circuit (IC) labels of the components, it was possible to build a picture of the circuit design and understand the purpose of each of the IC chips on the board. There were clear indications of WiFi NIC devices, Ethernet NIC controllers, the Microprocessor, Flash chips and more, which could all be easily identified using Google searches.

The Sky Broadband device was previously identified as a re-branded SAGEM F@ST2504 router. The investigation of the Virgin device led to the discovery that it is a re-branded Netgear CG3101D wireless router and cable modem; this could be derived from stickers on the printed circuit board (PCB). Armed with this information the task of locating the schematics of similar devices and data sheets became much easier. It also helped when trying to identify potential pin-outs from the chipsets on the PCB, as these are often available by reviewing the device documentation sets.

While reviewing the Virgin Media Super Hub PCB it was observed that four outputs were not connected to anything close to the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and appeared marked off on the PCB. The pins for the Virgin Super Hub can be seen in the image below-left, just beneath the CPU heat sink; they are outlined in white on the PCB. A similar set of outputs could also be identified on the Sky Broadband device and these pins can be seen to the bottom right of the image below right. There are many more pins and unsoldered pads on both boards, however the close proximity to the CPU, and because they are grouped in sets of 4 made them of interest.

vmsh-output-pins skybb-output-pins

These pin outputs were highlighted as a potential area of attack and worthy of further investigation. Manufacturers often build in additional capabilities to devices that are mass-produced for markets including Joint Test Action Group (JTAG) and Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter (UART) interfaces that allow recovery and/or debugging of the device when deploying firmware and/or for engineering purposes.

Investigations began by attaching a multimeter to the outputs and reading the voltage. Three of the outputs read 3.3V and the fourth 0.02V. The fourth pin was ground. A UART or serial interface typically consists of 4 pins, power, transmit, receive and ground it was therefore hypothesized that the pins maybe utilised for this purpose.

The device was then powered and probes connected to the pins using a DSO Nano v2 Oscilloscope, as this allows for visualisation of the voltage wave shape as it passes along an electronic circuit. Square waveforms were clearly visible on one of the pins indicating the likely presence of a data signal. The transmission of binary data appears as a square waveform on an oscilloscope display. A logic analyzer was then used to capture the signals as they were generated from the pins on the board. Software was then used to analyze the signal and determine its purpose such as potential bus type. The logic analyzer identified the output signal as a UART interface, which is essentially a serial port that had been left in by the manufacturer and not connected for use. An example of the output of the logic analysis can be seen in the image below.


The pin-out configuration for a UART is typically power (VCC), transmit (TX), receive (RX) and ground (V-). It was possible to see data being transmitted on the TX pin and with some experimentation with probes and the aforementioned tools, the RX pin was easily located. It transpired that only a TX, RX and GND pin need to be connected for functionality on both of these devices and that the power pin could be ignored. Repeating the same process with the Sky Broadband device exposed a similar configuration for a UART that could be used to interface with a serial console on the device.

For a temporary connection and to begin interacting with the device without soldering, it is possible to make use of a Bus Pirate. A Bus Pirate is the Swiss army knife for electronics hobbyists and hardware hackers that allows for interfacing with many different types of hardware bus lines. The Bus Pirate allows for quick and clean UART monitoring and/or interaction. Alternatively FT232-RL based board can be utilised to quickly add a serial console that can allow a computer to interface with the UART. The console can then be accessed over a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection.

The IKA-LOGIC tools were used to automatically identify the baud rates in use, although this can also be done with trial and error in a terminal program such as minicom or hyperterminal. A configuration setting of 115200bps (8N1) with no hardware or software flow control enabled was found to be the necessary setting for serial communication to both the Virgin and Sky devices. This process requires experimentation and persistence. Many different configurations were attempted and required the sampling of logic signals and analysis at different clock speeds.

Accessing the console on the Virgin Media SuperHub it was discovered that the console prompt was non-interactive. In order to interact with the device OS, further work was required, although some diagnostic information could be obtained from the non-interactive output. The device allows for configuration via non-volatile memory, facilitated by uploading a configuration binary file via the web interface. The screen shot below illustrates this.


The dynamic state is actually located on the flash memory chip. A memory configuration from a similar device with an older configuration was located by downloading “GatewaySettings.bin” files from similar devices, older Virgin devices and Internet forums. The console state is set within the configuration data enabling an interactive shell once the settings binary from one of these devices had been uploaded. This allowed for a full interactive shell and complete control over the Virgin Media SuperHub.

With interactive access obtained it was possible to explore the eCos (embedded configurable OS) device further. From this interactive console state it was possible to read and write to the flash chip and resident memory; meaning it was possible to obtain the compressed firmware images. From the eCos CLI it was possible to extract the contents of the flash chip meaning that the compressed firmware, backup firmware, boot loader could be downloaded as well as dynamic and permanent (non-user definable) storage areas. Additionally by exploring the read_memory command it was possible to extract the uncompressed OS as it was running from resident memory on the device. MD5 sums of the extracted files from the flash storage can be seen in the terminal output below.

$ md5 *.bin
MD5 (Bootloader.bin) = cd7508c75654cb0b89351997dbd569d6
MD5 (Dynamic.bin) = 18a8bfaf1f020100e2859dc876bc7965
MD5 (Image1.bin) = 4ea12f34807671a5e1e103362b1c8ea5
MD5 (Image2.bin) = c8c16d696654f4f11c83b2ad73dbdff7
MD5 (Perm.bin) = 1572d197ac4e0a7c33351f49d0fff837

The level of access obtained allowed for further study of the device and achieved the goal of being able to analyze the firmware for vulnerabilities. It was also possible to install a custom OS onto the device and enable additional functionality not normally accessible to an end user.

The same approach was applied to the Sky Broadband device, where it was discovered that the device was a Broadcom CPU Linux based device. Additionally, a SAGEM boot loader could be accessed, as well as an interactive captive BusyBox menu. The menu required authentication; the default combination of admin/sky was used. It was then possible to gain access to a full interactive root shell just by entering sh at the prompt. This allowed for the complete control of the device and further exploration of its capabilities. The screen shots below illustrate the interactive access achieved on both devices assessed.

Sky Broadband Router

Virgin Media SuperHub