Working with usbmon captures

Two years ago I posted some notes on how I do USB sniffing. I have not really changed much since then, although admittedly I have not spent much time reversing glucometers in that time. But I’m finally biting the bullet and building myself a better setup.

The reasons why I’m looking for a new setup are multiple: first of all, I now have a laptop that is fast enough to run a Windows 10 VM (with Microsoft’s 90 days evaluation version). Second, the proprietary software I used for USB sniffing has not been updated since 2016 — and they still have not published any information about their CBCF format, despite their reason being stated as:

Unfortunately, there is no such documentation and I’m almost sure will
never be. The reason is straightforward – every documented thing
should stay the same indefinitely. That is very restrictive.

At this point, keeping my old Dell Vostro 3750 as a sacrificial machine just for reverse engineering is not worth it anymore. Particularly when you consider that it started being obsoleted by both software (Windows 10 appears to have lost the ability to map network shares easily, and thus provide local-network backups), and hardware (the Western Digital SSD that I installed on it can’t be updated — their update package only works for UEFI boot systems, and while technically that machine is UEFI, it only supports the CSM boot).

When looking at a new option for my setup, I also want to be able to publish more of my scripts and tooling, if nothing else because I would feel more accomplished by knowing that even the side effects of working on these projects can be reused. So this time around I want to focus on all open source tooling, and build as much of the tools to be suitable for me to release as part of my employer’s open source program, which basically means not include any device-specific information within the tooling.

I started looking at Wireshark and its support for protocol dissectors. Unfortunately it looks like USB payloads are a bit more complicated, and dissector support is not great. So once again I’ll be writing a bunch of Python scripts to convert the captured data into some “chatter” files that are suitable for human consumption, at least. So I started to take a closer look at the usbmon documentation (the last time I looked at this was over ten years ago), and see if I can process that data directly.

To be fair, Wireshark does make it much nicer to get the captures out, since the text format usbmon is not particularly easy to parse back into something you can code with — and it is “lossy” when compared with the binary structures. With that, the first thing to focus on is to support the capture format Wireshark generates, which is pcapng, with one particular (out of many) USB capture packet structures. I decided to start my work from that.

What I have right now, is an (incomplete) library that can parse a pcapng capture into objects that are easier to play with in Python. Right now it loads the whole content into memory, which might or might not be a bad limitation, but for now it will do. I guess it would also be nice if I can find a way to integrate this with Colaboratory, which is a tool I only have vague acquaintance with, but would probably be great for this kind of reverse engineering, as it looks a lot like the kind of stuff I’ve been doing by hand. That will probably be left for the future.

The primary target right now is for me to be able to reconstruct the text format of usbmon given the pcapng capture. This would at least tell me that my objects are not losing details in the construction. Unfortunately this is proving harder than expected, because the documentation of usbmon is not particularly clear, starting from the definition of the structure, that mixes sized (u32) and unsized (unsigned int) types. I hope I’ll be able to figure this out and hopefully even send changes to improve the documentation.

As you might have noticed from my Twitter rants, I maintain that the documentation needs an overhaul. From mention of “easy” things, to the fact that the current suggested format (the binary structures) is defined in terms of the text format fields — except the text format is deprecated, and the kernel actually appears to produce the text format based on the binary structures. There are also quite a few things that are not obviously documented in the kernel docs, so you need to read the source code to figure out what they mean. I’ll try rewriting sections of the documentation.

Keep reading the blog to find updates if you have interests in this.

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