Our previous article1 started with an overview of the ViewState object. It showed some basic reverse engineering techniques to start deconstructing the contents embedded within the object. This article broaches the technical aspects of implementing a parser to automatically pull the ViewState apart.

We’ll start with a JavaScript example. The code implements a procedural design rather than an object-oriented one. Regardless of your design preference, JavaScript enables either method.

The ViewState must be decoded from Base64 into an array of bytes. We’ll take advantage of browsers’ native atob and btoa functions2 rather than re-implement the Base64 routines in JavaScript. Second, we’ll use the proposed [ArrayBuffer](https://developer.mozilla.org/en/JavaScript_typed_arrays/ArrayBuffer)3 data type in favor of JavaScript’s String or Array objects to store the unencoded ViewState. Using ArrayBuffer isn’t necessary, but it provides a more correct data type for dealing with 8-bit values.

Here’s a function to turn the Base64 ViewState into an array of bytes in preparation of parsing:

function analyzeViewState(input) { var inputLength = input.length; var rawViewState = atob(input); var rawViewStateLength = rawViewState.length; var vsBytes = new Uint8Array(ArrayBuffer(rawViewStateLength));

for(i = 0; i < rawViewStateLength; ++i) { vsBytes[i] = rawViewState.charCodeAt(i); }

if(vsBytes[0] == 0xff & vsBytes[1] == 0x01) { // okay to continue, we recognize this version // starting parsing... var i = 2; while(i < vsBytes.length) { i = parse(vsBytes, i); } } else { document.writeln("unknown format"); } }

The parse function will basically be a large switch statement. It takes a ViewState buffer, the current position in the buffer to analyze (think of this as a cursor), and returns the next position. The skeleton looks like this:

function parse(bytes, pos) { switch(bytes[pos]) { case 0x64: // EMPTY ++pos; break; default: // unknown byte ++pos; break; }

return pos;}

If you recall from the previous article, strings were the first complex object we ran into. But parsing a string also required knowing how to parse numbers. This is the function we’ll use to parse numeric values. The functional approach coded us into a bit of a corner because the return value needs to be an array that contains the decoded number as an unsigned integer and the next position to parse (we need to know the position in order to move the cursor along the buffer):

function parseUInteger(bytes, pos) { var n = parseInt(bytes[pos]) & 0x7f;

if(parseInt(bytes[pos]) > 0x7f) { ++pos; var m = (parseInt(bytes[pos]) & 0x7f) << 7; n += m;

if(parseInt(bytes[pos]) > 0x7f) { ++pos; var m = (parseInt(bytes[pos]) & 0x7f) << 14; n += m; } }


return [n, pos]; }

With the numeric parser created we can update the switch statement in the parse function:

function parse(bytes, pos) { var r = [0, 0]; switch(bytes[pos]) { case 0x02: ++pos; r = parseUInteger(bytes, pos); pos = r[1]; document.writeln("number: " + r[0]); break; ...

Next up is parsing strings. We know the format is 0x05, followed by the length, followed by the “length” number of bytes. Now add this to the switch statement:

switch(bytes[pos]) { ... case 0x05: ++pos; r = parseUInteger(bytes, pos); var size = r[0]; pos = r[1]; var s = parseString(bytes, pos, size); pos += size; document.writeln("string (" + size + "): " + s.replace(/&/g,'&amp;').replace(/</g,'&lt;').replace(/>/g,'&gt;')); break; ...

The parseString function will handle the extraction of characters. Since we know the length of the string beforehand it’s unnecessary for parseStringto return the cursor’s next position:

function parseString(bytes, pos, size) { var s = new String("");

for(var i = pos; i < pos + size; ++i) { s += String.fromCharCode(parseInt(bytes[i], 10)); }

return s; }

We’ll cover two more types of objects before moving on to an alternate parser. A common data type is the Pair. As you’ve likely guessed, this is an object that contains two objects. It could also be called a tuple that has two members. The Pair is easy to create. It also introduces recursion.4 Update the switch statement with this:

switch(bytes[pos]) { ... case 0x0f: ++pos; document.writeln("pair"); pos = parse(bytes, pos); // member 1 pos = parse(bytes, pos); // member 2 break; ...

More containers quickly fall into place. Here’s another that, like strings, declares its size, but unlike strings may contain any kind of object:

switch(bytes[pos]) { ... case 0x16: ++pos; r = parseUInteger(bytes, pos); var size = r[0]; pos = r[1]; document.writeln("array of objects (" + size + ")"); for(var i = 0; i < size; ++i) { pos = parse(bytes, pos); } break; ...

From here you should have an idea of how to expand the switch statement to cover more and more objects. You can use this page5 as a reference. JavaScript’s capabilities exceed the simple functional approach of these previous examples; it can handle far more robust methods and error handling. Instead of embellishing that code, let’s turn our text editor towards a different language: C++.

Diving into C++ requires us to start thinking about object-oriented solutions to the parser, or at least concepts like STL containers and iterators. You could very easily turn the previous JavaScript example into C++ code, but you’d really just be using a C++ compiler against plain C code rather than taking advantage of the language.

In fact, we’re going to take a giant leap into the Boost.Spirit6 library. The Spirit library provides a way to create powerful parsers using clear syntax. (Relatively clear despite one’s first impressions.) In Spirit parlance, our parser will be a grammar composed of rules. A rule will have attributes related to the data type is produces. Optionally, a rule may have an action that executes arbitrary code.

Enough delay. Let’s animate the skeleton of our new grammar. The magic of template meta-programming makes the following struct valid and versatile. Its why’s and wherefore’s may be inscrutable at the moment; however, the gist of the parser should be clear and, if you’ll forgive some exaltation, quite elegant in terms of C++:

template <typename Iterator> struct Grammar : boost::spirit::qi::grammar<Iterator> { Grammar() : Grammar::base_type(start) { using boost::spirit::qi::byte_;

empty = byte_(0x64);

object = empty | pair;

pair = byte_(0x0f) >> object >> object;

version = byte_(0xff) >> byte_(0x01);

start = version // must start with recognized version >> +object; // contains one or more objects }

qi::rule<Iterator> empty, object, pair, start, version; };

We haven’t put all the pieces together for a complete program. We’ll put some more flesh on the grammar before unleashing a compiler on it. One of the cool things about Spirit is that you can compose grammars from other grammars. Here’s how we’ll interpret strings. There’s another rule with yet another grammar we need to write, but the details are skipped. All it does it parse a number (see the JavaScript above) and expose the value as the attribute of the UInteger32 rule.7 The following example introduces two new concepts, local variables and actions:

template <typename Iterator> struct String : boost::spirit::qi::grammar<Iterator, qi::locals<unsigned> > { String() : String::base_type(start) { using boost::spirit::qi::byte_; using boost::spirit::qi::omit; using namespace boost::spirit::qi::labels;

start = omit[ (byte_(0x05) | byte_(0x1e)) >> length[ _a = _1 ] ] >> repeat(_a)[byte_] ; }

UInteger32<Iterator> length; qi::rule<Iterator, qi::locals<unsigned> > start; };

The action associated with the length rule is in square brackets. (Not to be confused with the square brackets that are part of the repeat syntax.) Remember that length exposes a numeric attribute, specifically an unsigned integer. The attribute of a rule can be captured with the _1 placeholder. The local variable for this grammar is captured with _a. Local variables can be passed into, manipulated, and accessed by other rules in the grammar. In the previous example, the value of length is set to _a via simple assignment in the action. Next, the repeat parser takes the value of _a to build the “string” stored in the ViewState. The omit parser keeps the extraneous bytes out of the string.

Now we can put the String parser into the original grammar by adding two lines of code (highlighted in bold). That this step is so trivial speaks volumes about the extensibility of Spirit:

... object = empty | my_string | pair;

... start = version // must start with recognized version >> +object; // contains one or more objects }

String<Iterator> my_string; qi::rule<Iterator> empty, ...

The String grammar introduced the repeat parser. We’ll use that parser again in the grammar for interpreting ViewState containers. At this point the growth of the grammar accelerates quickly because we have good building blocks in place:

... using boost::spirit::qi::byte_; using boost::spirit::qi::repeat;

container = byte_(0x16) >> length [ _a = _1 ] >> repeat(_a)[object] ;

empty = byte_(0x64);

object = empty | my_string | pair; ... }

String<Iterator> my_string; UInteger32<Iterator> length; qi::rule<Iterator, qi::locals<unsigned> > container; qi::rule<Iterator> empty, ...

This has been a whirlwind introduction to Spirit. If you got lost along the way, don’t worry. Try going through the examples in Spirit’s documentation. Then, re-read this article to see if the concepts make more sense. I’ll also make the sample code available to help get you started.

There will be a few surprises as you experiment with building Spirit grammars. For one, you’ll notice that compilation takes an unexpectedly long time for just a dozen or so lines of code. This is due to Spirit’s template-heavy techniques. While the duration contrasts with “normal” compile times for small programs, I find it a welcome trade-off considering the flexibility Spirit provides.

Another surprise will be error messages. Misplace a semi-colon or confuse an attribute and you’ll be greeted with lines and lines of error messages. Usually, the last message provides a hint of the problem. Experience is the best teacher here. I could go on about hints for reading error messages, but that would be an article on its own.

Between compile times and error messages, debugging rules might seem a daunting task. However, the creators of Spirit have your interests in mind. They’ve created two very useful aids to debugging: naming rules and the debug parser. The following example shows how these are applied to the String grammar. Once again, the change is easy to implement:

... start = omit[ (byte_(0x05) | byte_(0x1e)) >> length[ _a = _1 ] ] >> repeat(_a)[byte_] ; }

start.name(String); // Human readable name for the rule debug(start); // Produce XML output of the parser’s activity

UInteger32<Iterator> length; qi::rule<Iterator, qi::locals<unsigned> > start; };

As a final resource, Boost.Spirit has its own web site8 with more examples, suggestions, and news on the development of this fantastic library. You’ll also find that the Spirit mailing list is an active, helpful venue. And you’ll rarely have a Spirit-related question go unanswered on StackOverflow.

It seems unfair to provide all of these code snippets without a complete code listing for reference or download. Plus, I suspect formatting restrictions may make it more difficult to read. Watch for updates to this article that provide both full code samples and more readable layout. Hopefully, there was enough information to get you started on creating your own parsers for ViewState or other objects.

In the next article in this series we’ll shift from parsing ViewState to attacking it and using it to carry our attacks past input validation filters into the belly of the web app. In the mean time, I’ll answer questions in the comments below. If you’d like to learn more about Spirit, let me know – I’d be happy to throw together more articles on the topic.

  1. https://deadliestwebattacks.com/2011/05/spirited-peek-into-viewstate-part-i.html 

  2. https://aryeh.name/spec/base64.html 

  3. Sadly, this isn’t yet exposed in Safari although WebKit (it’s “brain”) supports it. https://developer.mozilla.org/en/JavaScript_typed_arrays/ArrayBuffer 

  4. Finally an example of recursion that doesn’t mention the Fibonacci sequence! 

  5. https://deadliestwebattacks.com/p/viewstate-parsing.html 

  6. https://www.boost.org/doc/libs/release/libs/spirit/index.html 

  7. Spirit has pre-built parsers for many data types, including different types of integers. We need to use custom ones to deal with ViewState’s numeric serialization. 

  8. https://boost-spirit.com/. Also look at the presentation at https://objectmodelingdesigns.com/boostcon10/spirit_presentation.pdf