Biko's House of Horrors

Shabak Challenge 2021: NFC

Update 2021-01-31: Archive moved to the Internet Archive.

This is part of my series of writeups on the Shabak 2021 CTF challenges. See the complete collection here.


The challenge description reads:

Our target adopted a new way to keep sensitive information! They use secure NFC tags to keep secure and confidential information inside them.

We managed to place a strong NFC reader near our target's secret NFC tag. Now we want to communicate with the that tag and extract the secret information from it.

In order to connect to our reader and send commands to the tag, you just need to open a TCP socket to: 80

Each message you send on this socket will be transferred to the NFC tag, and the response from the tag will be sent back to you on that same socket.

In addition, our sources equipped us with some information that may help you to communicate with the tag and extract the secret information from it:

  1. A secret document from our target (attached).

  2. An authentic message sent to the NFC tag. Due to a low signal, we managed to extract only 5 bytes from the message. The message is presented below (X stands for an unknown nibble).


  3. The secret information you need to extract is located somewhere in the memory space of the tag, and its size is 16 characters.

Good luck! We trust you!

Right off the bat, we can see that this is an unusual reversing challenge - there is no binary to reverse! Instead, we are going to be reversing the NFC protocol.

First impressions

We are provided with a document that describes various changes performed to a NTAG213 chip. Here's the gist:

  1. Some commands have been stripped, and a special NAK code (6h) has been added to signal when an unsuppored command is issued.

  2. A new command, GET_CFG, has been added: GET_CFG command chart

    With the various fields defined as follows:

    Name Code Description Length
    Cmd 66h Get configuration bytes 1 byte
    CRC CRC according to Ref. 1 2 bytes
    CFG0 Value of CFG 0 4 bytes
    CFG1 Value of CFG 1 4 bytes
    NAK See Table 23 See Section 9.3 4-bit
  3. The CRC algorithm is "clarified" (we'll get back to that).

We'll obviously have to dive into the full datasheet to understand all the details of the protocol, but we can already get an idea of how it works:

  1. The host sends a command to the device, with a CRC at the end.
  2. The device replies either with a NAK, or with some data and a CRC.

So, what's this about a CRC?

Bicycle, bicycle...

Ref. 1 in the datasheet refers to the ISO/IEC 14443 standard. According to the document we received with the challenge, the standard describes two slightly different CRC variants: CRC_A and CRC_B. So, we're going to need an implementation of the CRC algorithm. More importantly, we need to know which CRC variant to use.

Note: it appears that the CRC paragraph in the document is taken from :)

For the first problem, some Googling leads to the following helpful Stack Overflow answer, which points to an implementation of the two CRC variants inside libnfc.

As for the second problem, we could go the easy way and just test both variants and see what works against the remote machine. However, мы не ищем лёгких путей1, so we're going to try and figure out what the spec. says.

Some Googling for ISO/IEC 14443 reveals that the standard actually consists of 4 parts. The 3rd part, with the totally-not-obscure subtitle "Initialization and anticollision", indicates that there are actually two types of NFC cards: Type A and Type B2. More importantly, each type of card defines its own CRC scheme: CRC_A and CRC_B, respectively. Finally, the datasheet for our chip states:

NTAG213 ... [is] designed to fully comply to ... ISO/IEC14443 Type A ... specifications.

Great, so we need CRC_A. That's one mystery solved. To quickly verify our assumption we can issue the GET_CFG command and see whether we get a NAK back.

The authentic experience

The challenge description gives a partial message issued to the NFC device: 1BXXXXBEAF4930. Looking at the datasheet, we learn that this is the PWD_AUTH command, which accepts a 4-byte password, and if the password is correct - grants the host access to a protected memory area.

The datasheet also states that the protected area is defined in the AUTH0 configuration byte, which according to chapters 8.5 and 8.5.7 is located inside CFG0. How nice, then, that the new GET_CFG command gives us the value of CFG0 :).

It's a safe bet, then, that the flag is located inside the protected area. We also note that the READ command returns 16 bytes of data, which is coincidentally the size of the flag.

Great, so now we just need the password. We already know its last 2 bytes (BE AF) and the CRC for the complete authentication command (49 30), so it's only a matter of bruteforcing the first 2 bytes.

NFC challenge flag retrieval (redacted)


  1. We're not looking for easy ways. ↩︎

  2. The types are apparently described in ISO/IEC 14443-2, but that's unimportant for our purposes. ↩︎