Apple apps turned upside down writing right to left - you're only 6 characters from a crash!

Filed Under: Apple, Denial of Service, Featured, Vulnerability

sb-crash-170Apple's iOS and OS X are currently under what can only be described as a "jolly irritating attack."

Certain text strings, when processed by the operating system's CoreText rendering engine, cause the application that's trying to display them to crash.

No-one has yet come up with a way to exploit these crashes for code execution, at least as far as I am aware, so they're vulnerabilities of the fragility sort, rather than the you're pwned type, but they're still, well, jolly irritating.

The shortest string I've been able to come up with that provokes this bug is just eleven bytes long, and consists of six UTF-8 characters, one of which is a plain old space (hexadecimal code 0x20).

→ UTF-8 is a system for representing text that uses from one to four bytes per character. The bit pattern of each byte in a character tells you how big that character is, so moving backwards and forwards in a string is easy (you don't need to keep re-calculating from the start of the string), and 7-bit ASCII characters are represented as themselves in one byte (so simple documents in plain ASCII don't need converting, and don't waste space).

The crash strings I've seen and heard of all include Arabic characters, and Arabic is, of course, written from right to left.

But whether it's the direction of the text, how the characters are combined and composited, or some other subtlety, I can't yet tell you.

The problem with this problem is that it can quickly become disruptive, since an offending string can be placed by an outsider into all sorts of otherwise unexceptionable places where you might stumble across it by mistake: web page titles, email subject lines, even Wi-Fi access point names.

If the Apple application that tries to display the string uses the vulnerable rendering library code...

...down she goes.

And if the application tries to recover gracefully when it next loads, for example by reloading the web page it was busy with before...

...down she goes again.

In my testing, I ended up with Safari's history loaded with a URL aimed at my Bad Page, provoking an HTTP reply no more threatening-looking than this:

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8
Content-Length: 11

...the dreaded 11 bytes...

As long as my web server was running and a network connection available, relaunching Safari caused it to crash again at once.

What to do?

I tried what I thought was the obvious solution, namely removing the file:


That file certainly referenced my dodgy URL, but removing it didn't help, so I tried:


No use, but I fared better when I removed:

~/Library/Saved Application State/

That made Safari forget that it had ever heard of my crashy website, and let me browse again.

Apple notoriously likes to keep completely quiet about software problems until a fix is available, as it did with the equally amusing and embarrassing but less disruptive FILE COLON SLASH SLASH SLASH bug earlier this year.

In this case, therefore, let's hope that Apple pumps out a fix pretty jolly quickly.

By the way, you can help make Apple aware of the impact of the problem by reporting this crash if it happens to you.

You'll see something like this:

Choosing Report... will show you what happened, much like you see below, and ask if you want to Send to Apple:

Should you send the crash report in?

Apple assures you it's anonymous, and although it reveals a little bit about you - your timezone, what sort of Mac you have, and more - I suspect you can send it off without too much concern.

(I'm guessing, but Apple probably learns less about you when you submit a crash report than a search engine does when you try to look for a solution to it.)

Apologies that I don't have a general workaround or mitigation for you.

If I come across one, I'll post it here or in the comments.

In the meantime, applications that get derailed by a CRASH: GOTO CRASH loop, like my Safari did, can probably be pointed in the right direction by digging around in the ~/Library directory, as I showed above.

Oh, and as far as browsing is concerned, while Chromium is affected, Firefox isn't.

Firefox is currently enjoying a really strong lead in our "which browser do you trust" poll - perhaps you've just found another reason to try it out.

Bonne chance.

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9 Responses to Apple apps turned upside down writing right to left - you're only 6 characters from a crash!

  1. ScottK · 727 days ago

    Can you post what these characters are? You know...for science...?

    • ScottK · 727 days ago

      Sorry, I forgot my <sarcasm> </sarcasm> tags. Lighten up, folks.

    • Paul Ducklin · 727 days ago

      Well, I gave you one of the characters in full (space, UTF-8 code 0x20).

      I'll give you some more clues: the other five characters are all two-byte UTF-8 codes, of which there are only 2048 different possibilities. And those five form a "full house", i.e. there are three of one character and two of another.

      There you are. That narrows it down a lot...just a few million possible permutations to try.

      You could take it from there as a bit of a research project...y'know, for science :-)

    • Frankinator · 724 days ago

      Or, because you're a programmer and want to check for these strings and strip them out of your external input before allowing something through?

  2. John · 727 days ago

    FYI: The anchor tag after "FILE COLON SLASH SLASH" in this article wasn't properly closed and is causing the text after that link to be underlined when hovered over.

    • Paul Ducklin · 727 days ago

      The closing tag, which should, of course, be "" was, in fact, another "<a>". Different browsers seem to handle this weirdness weirdly differently...

      ...fixed now, thanks.

  3. yeti · 727 days ago

    Just letting you know, everything after "FILE COLON SLASH SLASH SLASH" up until "which browser do you trust" thinks it's a link.

  4. Daryl · 725 days ago

    Apple's response so far?

    They took down the Apple community support forum on Friday, presumably to remove any crashing code.

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About the author

Paul Ducklin is a passionate security proselytiser. (That's like an evangelist, but more so!) He lives and breathes computer security, and would be happy for you to do so, too. Paul won the inaugural AusCERT Director's Award for Individual Excellence in Computer Security in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @duckblog