Bypassing Authentication on Arcadyan Routers with CVE-2021–20090 and rooting some Buffalo

Evan Grant
Tenable TechBlog
Published in
13 min readAug 3, 2021


A while back I was browsing Amazon Japan for their best selling networking equipment/routers (as one does). I had never taken apart or hunted for vulnerabilities in a router and was interested in taking a crack at it. I came across the Buffalo WSR-2533DHP3 which was, at the time, the third best selling device on the list. Unfortunately, the sellers didn’t ship to Canada, so I instead bought the closely related Buffalo WSR-2533DHPL2 (though I eventually got my hands on the WSR-2533DHP3 as well).

In the following sections we will look at how I took the Buffalo devices apart, did a not-so-great solder job, and used a shell offered up on UART to help find a couple of bugs that could let users bypass authentication to the web interface and enable a root BusyBox shell on telnet.

At the end, we will also take a quick look at how I discovered that the authentication bypass vulnerability was not limited to the Buffalo routers, and how it affects at least a dozen other models from multiple vendors spanning a period of over ten years.

Root shells on UART

It is fairly common for devices like these Buffalo routers to offer up a shell via a serial connection known as Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter (UART) on the circuit board. Manufacturers often leave test points or unpopulated pads on the circuit board for accessing UART. These are often used for debugging or testing the device during manufacture. In this case, we were extremely lucky that, after some poor soldering and testing, the WSR-2533DHPL2 offered up a BusyBox shell as root over UART.

In case this is new to anyone, let’s quickly walk through this process (there are many articles out there on the web with a more detailed walkthrough on hardware hacking and UART shells).

The first step is for us to open up the router’s case and try to identify if there is a way to access UART.

UART interface on the WSR-2533DHP3

We can see a header labeled J4 which may be what we’re looking for. The next step is to test the contacts with a multimeter to identify power (VCC), ground (GND), and our potential transmit/receive (TX/RX) pins. Once we’ve identified those, we can solder on some pins and connect them to a tool like JTAGulator to identify which pins we will communicate on, and at what baud rate.

Don’t worry, this isn’t my usual setup, just a shameless plug

We could identify this in other ways, but the JTAGulator makes it much easier. After setting the voltage we’re using (3.3V found using the multimeter earlier) we can run a UART scan which will try sending a carriage-return (or some other specified bytes) and receiving on each pin, at different bauds, which helps us identify what combination thereof will let us communicate with the device.

Running a UART scan on JTAGulator

The UART scan shows that sending a carriage return over pin 0 as TX, with pin 2 as RX, and a baud of 57600, gives an output of BusyBox v1, which looks like we may have our shell.

UART scan finding the settings we need

Sure enough, after setting the JTAGulator to UART Passthrough mode (which allows us to communicate with the UART port) using the settings we found with the UART scan, we are dropped into a root shell on the device.

We can now use this shell to explore the device, and transfer any interesting binaries to another machine for analysis. In this case, we grabbed the httpd binary which was serving the device’s web interface.

Httpd and web interface authentication

Having access to the httpd binary makes hunting for vulnerabilities in the web interface much easier, as we can throw it into Ghidra and identify any interesting pieces of code. One of the first things I tend to look at when analyzing any web application or interface is how it handles authentication.

While examining the web interface I noticed that, even after logging in, no session cookies are set, and no tokens are stored in local/session storage, so how was it tracking who was authenticated? Opening httpd up in Ghidra, we find a function named evaluate_access() which leads us to the following snippet:

Snippet from FUN_0041fdd4(), called by evaluate_access()

FUN_0041f9d0() in the screenshot above checks to see if the IP of the host making the current request matches that of an IP from a previous valid login.

Now that we know what evaluate_access() does, lets see if we can get around it. Searching for where it is referenced in Ghidra we can see that it is only called from another function process_request() which handles any incoming HTTP requests.

process_request() deciding if it should allow the user access to a page

Something which immediately stands out is the logical OR in the larger if statement (lines 45–48 in the screenshot above) and the fact that it checks the value of uVar1 (set on line 43) before checking the output of evaluate_access(). This means that if the output of bypass_check(__dest) (where __dest is the url being requested) returns anything other than 0, we will effectively skip the need to be authenticated, and the request will go through to process_get() or process_post().

Let’s take a look at bypass_check().

Bypassing checks with bypass_check()

the bypass_list checked in bypass_check()

Taking a look at bypass_check() in the screenshot above, we can see that it is looping through bypass_list, and comparing the first n bytes of _dest to a string from bypass_list, where n is the length of the string grabbed from bypass_list. If no match is found, we return 0 and will be required to pass the checks in evaluate_access(). However, if the strings match, then we don’t care about the result of evaluate_access(), and the server will process our request as expected.

Glancing at the bypass list we see login.html, loginerror.html and some other paths/pages, which makes sense as even unauthenticated users will need to be able to access those urls.

You may have already noticed the bug here. bypass_check() is only checking as many bytes as are in the bypass_list strings. This means that if a user is trying to reach http://router/images/someimage.png, the comparison will match since /images/ is in the bypass list, and the url we are trying to reach begins with /images/. The bypass_check() function doesn’t care about strings which come after, such as “someimage.png”. So what if we try to reach /images/../<somepagehere>? For example, let’s try /images/..%2finfo.html. The /info.html url normally contains all of the nice LAN/WAN info when we first login to the device, but returns any unauthenticated users to the login screen. With our special url, we might be able to bypass the authentication requirement.

After a bit of match/replace to account for relative paths, we still see an underwhelming display. We have successfully bypassed authentication using the path traversal (🙂 ) but we’re still missing something (🙁 ).

404s for requests to made to js files

Looking at the Burp traffic, we can see a number of requests to /cgi/<various_nifty_cgi>.js are returning a 404, which normally return all of the info we’re looking for. We also see that there are a couple of parameters passed when making requests to those files.

One of those parameters (_t) is just a datetime stamp. The other is an httoken, which acts like a CSRF token, and figuring out where / how those are generated will be discussed in the next section. For now, let’s focus on why these particular requests are failing.

Looking at httpd in Ghidra shows that there is a fair amount of debugging output printed when errors occur. Stopping the default httpd process, and running it from our shell shows that we can easily see this output which may help us identify the issue with the current request.

requests failing due to improper Referrer header

Without diving into url_token_pass, we can see that it is saying that httoken is invalid from We will dive into httokens next, but the token we have here is correct, which means that the part causing the failure is the “from” url, which corresponds to the Referer header in the request. So, if we create a quick match/replace rule in Burp Suite to fix the Referer header to remove the /images/..%2f then we can see the info table, confirming our ability to bypass authentication.

our content loaded :)

A quick summary of where we are so far:

  • We can bypass authentication and access pages which should be restricted to authenticated users.
  • Those pages include access to httokens which let us make GET/POST requests for more sensitive info and grant the ability to make configuration changes.
  • We know we also need to set the Referer header appropriately in order for httokens to be accepted.

The adventure of getting proper httokens

While we know that the httokens are grabbed at some point on the pages we access, we don’t know where they’re coming from or how they’re generated. This will be important to understand if we want to carry this exploitation further, since they are required to do or access anything sensitive on the device. Tracking down how the web interface produces these tokens felt like something out of a Capture-the-Flag event.

The info.html page we accessed with the path traversal was populating its information table with data from .js files under the /cgi/ directory, and was passing two parameters. One, a date time stamp (_t), and the other, the httoken we’re trying to figure out.

We can see that the links used to grab the info from /cgi/ are generated using the URLToken() function, which sets the httoken (the parameter _tn in this case) using the function get_token(), but get_token() doesn’t seem to be defined anywhere in any of the scripts used on the page.

Looking right above where URLToken() is defined we see this strange string defined.

Looking into where it is used, we find the following snippet.

Which, when run adds the following script to the page:

We’ve found our missing getToken() function, but it looks to be doing something equally strange as the snippets that got us here. It is grabbing another encoded string from an image tag which appears to exist on every page (with differing encoded strings). What is going on here?

getToken() is getting data from this spacer img tag

The httokens are being grabbed from these spacer img src strings and are used to make requests to sensitive resources.

We can find a function where the httoken is being inserted into the img tag in Ghidra.

Without going into all of the details around the setting/getting of httoken and how it is checked for GET and POST requests, we will say that:

  • httokens, which are required to make GET and POST requests to various parts of the web interface, are generated server-side.
  • They are stored encoded in the img tags at the bottom of any given page when it loads
  • They are then decoded in client-side javascript.

We can use the tokens for any requests we need as long as the token and the Referer being used in the request match. We can make requests to sensitive pages using the token grabbed from login.html, but we still need the authentication bypass to access some actions (like making configuration changes).

Notably, on the WSR-2533DHPL2 just using this knowledge of the tokens means we can access the administrator password for the device, a vulnerability which appears to already be fixed on the WSR-2533DHP3 (despite both having firmware releases around the same time).

Now that we know we can effectively perform any action on the device without being authenticated, let’s see what we can do with that.

Injecting configuration options and enabling telnetd

One of the first places I check for any web interface / application which has utilities like a ping function is to see how those utilities are implemented, because even just a quick Google turns up a number of historic examples of router ping utilities being prone to command injection vulnerabilities.

While there wasn’t an easily achievable command injection in the ping command, looking at how it is implemented led to another vulnerability. When the ping command is run from the web interface, it takes an input of the host to ping.

After the request is made successfully, ARC_ping_ipaddress is stored in the global configuration file. Noting this, the first thing I tried was to inject a newline/carriage return character (%0A when url-encoded), followed by some text to see if we could inject configuration settings. Sure enough, when checking the configuration file, the text entered after %0A appears on a new line in the configuration file.

With this in mind, we can take a look at any interesting configuration settings we see, and hope that we’re able to overwrite them by injecting the ARC_ping_ipaddress parameter. There are a number of options seen in the configuration file, but one which caught my attention was ARC_SYS_TelnetdEnable=0. Enabling telnetd seemed like a good candidate for gaining a remote shell on the device.

It was unclear whether simply injecting the configuration file with ARC_SYS_TelnetdEnable=1 would work, as it would then be followed by a conflicting setting later in the file (as ARC_SYS_TelnetdEnable=0 appears lower in the configuration file than ARC_ping_ipdaddress). However, after sending the following request in Burp Suite, and sending a reboot request (which is necessary for certain configuration changes to take effect).

Once the reboot completes we can connect to the device on port 23 where telnetd is listening, and are greeted with a root BusyBox shell, just like we have via UART.

Altogether now

Here are the pieces we need to put together in a python script if we want to make exploiting this super easy:

  • Get proper httokens from the img tags on a page.
  • Use those httokens in combination with the path traversal to make a valid request to apply_abstract.cgi
  • In that valid request to apply_abstract.cgi, inject the ARC_SYS_TelnetdEnable=1 configuration option
  • Send another valid request to reboot the device
Running a quick PoC against the WSR-2533DHPL2

Surprise: More affected devices

Shortly before the 90 day disclosure date for the vulnerabilities discussed in this blog, I was trying to determine the number of potentially affected devices visible online via Shodan and BinaryEdge. In my searches, I noticed that a number of devices which presented similar web interfaces to those seen on the Buffalo devices. Too similar, in fact, as they appeared to use almost all the same strange methods for hiding the httokens in img tags, and javascript functions obfuscated in “enkripsi” strings.

The common denominator is that all of the devices were manufactured by Arcadyan. In hindsight, it should have been obvious to look for more affected devices outside of Buffalo’s product line given how much of the Buffalo firmware appeared to have been built by Arcadyan. However, after obtaining and testing a number of Arcadyan-manufactured devices it also became clear that not all of them were created equally, and the devices weren’t always affected in exactly the same way.

That said, all of the devices we were able to test or have tested via third-parties shared at least one vulnerability: The path traversal which allows an attacker to bypass authentication, now assigned as CVE-2021–20090. This appears to be shared by almost every Arcadyan-manufactured router/modem we could find, including devices which were originally sold as far back as 2008.

On April 21st, 2021, Tenable reported CVE-2021–20090 to four additional vendors (Hughesnet, O2, Verizon, Vodafone), and reported the issues to Arcadyan on April 22nd. As time went on it became clear that many more vendors were affected and contacting and tracking them all would become very difficult, and so on May 18th, Tenable reported the issues to the CERT Coordination Center for help with that process. A list of the affected devices can be found in either Tenable’s own advisory, and more information can be found on CERT’s page tracking the issue.

There is a much larger conversation to be had about how this vulnerability in Arcadyan’s firmware has existed for at least 10 years and has therefore found its way through the supply chain into at least 20 models across 17 different vendors, and that is touched on in a whitepaper Tenable has released.


The Buffalo WSR-2533DHPL2 was the first router I’d ever purchased for the purpose of discovering vulnerabilities, and it was a super fun experience. The strange obfuscations and simplicity of the bugs made it feel like my own personal CTF. While I got a little more than I bargained for upon learning how widespread one of the vulnerabilities (CVE-2021–20090) was, it was an important lesson in how one should approach research on consumer electronics: The vendor selling you the device is not necessarily the one who manufactured it, and if you find bugs in a consumer router’s firmware, they could potentially affect many more vendors and devices than just the one you are researching.

I’d also like to encourage security researchers who are able to get their hands on one of the 20+ affected devices to take a look for (and report) any post-authentication vulnerabilities like the configuration injection found in the Buffalo routers. I suspect there are a lot more issues to be found in this set of devices, but each device is slightly different and difficult to obtain for researchers not living in the country where they are sold/provided by a local ISP.

Thanks for reading, and happy hacking!