codeblog code is freedom — patching my itch

May 16, 2012


At the recent Ubuntu Developer Summit, I managed to convince a few people (after assurances that there would be no permanent damage) to plug a USB stick into their machines so we could watch Xorg crash and wedge their console. What was this evil thing, you ask? It was an AVR microprocessor connected to USB, acting as a USB HID Keyboard, with the product name set to “%n”.

Recently a Chrome OS developer discovered that renaming his Bluetooth Keyboard to “%n” would crash Xorg. The flaw was in the logging stack, triggering glibc to abort the process due to format string protections. At first glance, it looks like this isn’t a big deal since one would have to have already done a Bluetooth pairing with the keyboard, but it would be a problem for any input device, not just Bluetooth. I wanted to see this in action for a “normal” (USB) keyboard.

I borrowed a “Maximus” USB AVR from a friend, and then ultimately bought a Minimus. It will let you put anything you want on the USB bus.

I added a rule for it to udev:

SUBSYSTEM=="usb", ACTION=="add", ATTR{idVendor}=="03eb", ATTR{idProduct}=="*", GROUP="plugdev"

installed the AVR tools:

sudo apt-get install dfu-programmer gcc-avr avr-libc

and pulled down the excellent LUFA USB tree:

git clone git://

After applying a patch to the LUFA USB keyboard demo, I had my handy USB-AVR-as-Keyboard stick ready to crash Xorg:

-       .VendorID               = 0x03EB,
-       .ProductID              = 0x2042,
+       .VendorID               = 0x045e,
+       .ProductID              = 0x000b,
-       .UnicodeString          = L"LUFA Keyboard Demo"
+       .UnicodeString          = L"Keyboard (%n%n%n%n)"

In fact, it was so successfully that after I got the code right and programmed it, Xorg immediately crashed on my development machine. :)

make dfu

After a reboot, I switched it back to programming mode by pressing and holding the “H” button, press/releasing the “R” button, and releasing “H”.

The fix to Xorg is winding its way through upstream, and should land in your distros soon. In the meantime, you can disable your external USB ports, as Marc Deslauriers demonstrated for me:

echo "0" > /sys/bus/usb/devices/usb1/authorized
echo "0" > /sys/bus/usb/devices/usb1/authorized_default

Be careful of shared internal/external ports, and having two buses on one port, etc.

© 2012, Kees Cook. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Creative Commons License


  1. I wonder if this AVR board could be used to fuzz the _kernel’s_ USB-detection code… (I.e., how does the kernel react to flagrant violations of the USB device-identification protocol?)

    Comment by Alon — May 23, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

  2. Yup, totally. Need to retool a bit to do that, but it should be very possible. That’s what these devices were originally designed for (poking at the PS3 USB stack).

    Comment by kees — May 31, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  3. Nice work and a great post! I’ve posted regarding some Scapy I wrote to work with the Facedancer boards from Travis/Sergey, and at the end I’ve shown the one-line change to do this with the Facedancer. If you’re interested/using that platform, take a look at

    Comment by rmspeers — July 2, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

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