Reversing an anti-code

A contact in the alarm industry recently asked if I could take a look at a quick reverse engineering job. I’m trying to gain some credibility with these guys, so I naturally accepted the challenge.

Many alarms have the concept of an “anti-code”. Your alarm will go off and you will find it saying something like this on the display:


QUOTE 12345

The idea is then that you call the alarm receiving centre, quote 12345, they will input this into a PC application, get a reset code back, tell the customer, and then they can use this to reset the alarm. This means that you need to communicate with the alarm receiving centre to reset the alarm.

Alarm manufacturers provide their own applications to generate these codes. This particular manufacturer provides a 16-bit MS-DOS command line executable, which will refuse to run on modern PCs. This is a pain – it’s not easy to run (you need to use a DOS emulator like DOS-BOX) and it doesn’t allow for automation (it would be convenient to call a DLL from a web-based system, for example).

So I was asked if I could work out the algorithm for generating the unlock codes. x86 reverse engineering is not my forté, especially older stuff, but I thought i would have a quick go at it.

Turns out it was easier than expected! I find documenting reverse engineering incredibly difficult in a blog format, so I’ll just cover some of the key points.

Step 1: Observe the program

First things first, let’s get the program up and running. DOS-BOX is perfect for this kind of thing.

The program takes a 5 digit input and produces a 5 digit output. There is also a version number which can be input which varies from 0-255.

I spent a while playing around with the inputs. Sometimes things like this are so basic you can infer the operation (say, if it is XORing with a fixed key, flipping the order of some bits or similar). It didn’t look trivial, but it was plain to see that there were only two inputs – the input code and version. There was no concept of time or a sequence counter.

At this stage, I’m thinking it might be easiest to just create a lookup for every single pin and version. It would only be 2,560,000 entries (10,000 * 256). That’s a bit boring though, and I don’t have any idea how to simulate user input with DOS-BOX.

Step 2: Disassemble the program

To disassemble a program is to take the machine code and transform it into assembly language, which is marginally more readable.

There are some very powerful disassemblers out there these days – the most famous being IDA. The free version is a bit dated and limited, but it allowed me to quickly locate a few things.

An area of code that listens out for Q (quit) and V (version), along with limiting input characters from 0-9. Hex values in the normal ASCII range along with getch() calls are a giveaway.

Keyboard input
Another area of code appears to have two nested loops that go from 0-4. That would really strongly indicate that it is looping through the digits of the code.

Other areas of code add and subtract 0x30 from keyboard values – this is nearly always converting ASCII text numbers to integers (0x30 is 0, 0x31 is 1 etc. so 0x34 – 0x30 = 4)


A block of data, 256 items long from 0-9. Links in with the maximum value of the “version” above. Might just be an offset for indexing this data?

IDA’s real power is displaying the structure of the code – this can be a lot more telling than what the code does, especially for initial investigations.

Code structure
It’s still assembly language though, and I’m lazy…

Step 3: Decompile the program

Decompiling is converting machine code into a higher level language like C. It can’t recover things like variable names and data structures, but it does tend to give helpful results.

I used the free decompiler dcc to look at this program. I think because they are both quite old, and because dcc has signatures for the specific compiler used, it actually worked really well.

One procedure stood out – proc2, specifically this area of code:
DCC outputIt’s a bit meaningless at the moment, but it looks like it is two nested while loops, moving through some kind of data structure, summing the results and storing them. This is almost certainly the algorithm to generate the reset code.

Now, again, I could work through this all and find out what all the auto named variables are (i.e. change loc4 to “i” and loc5 to “ptrVector”. Or I could step through the code in a debugger and not have to bother…

Step 4: Run the code in a debugger

A debugger allows you to interrupt execution of code and step through the instructions being carried out. It’s generally of more use when you have the source code, but it is still a helpful tool. DOS-BOX can be run in debug mode and a text file generated containing the sequence of assembly instructions along with the current registers and what is being written and read from them. It’s heavy going, but combined with IDA and the output from DCC, it’s actually quite easy to work out what is going on!

Step 5: Write code to emulate the behaviour

Shortly after, I had an idea how the algorithm worked. Rather than work it through by hand, I knocked up a quick Python program to emulate the behaviour.The first cut didn’t quite work, but a few debug statements and a couple of tweaks later, and I was mirroring the operation of the original program.

Overall, it was only a few hours work, and I’m not really up on x86 at all.

I’m not releasing the algorithm or the software, as it could be perceived as a threat. In the next post, I am going to discuss some of my security concerns around the idea of an anti-code and this specific implementation.

Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.