This writeup has since won the H1–702 challenge. Read HackerOne blog here:

When you open the challenge link, you’re presented with this:

Instructions can be found on the web challenge site:

Open the link in your browser and you’re greeted with a normal-looking HTML page:

Notes RPC CTF homepage

Notes RPC CTF homepage

It sounds like there is a secret endpoint somewhere that allows you to store notes. The title indicates that it has something to do with RPC.

Considering the previous year’s challenge, I thought they could be hiding it on a different port other than 80. I did a basic nmap port scan:

nmap -sT -p1-65535

No dice. Only ports 80 and 22 are open.

After trying some endpoints that popped into my mind, such as /xmlrpc.php, /notes, /rpc, etc., I gave in and decided to bruteforce it.

I used dirsearch with Jason Haddix’s content_discovery_all.txt as the wordlist:

python3 -u -t 50 -w content\_discovery\_all.txt -e 'php,'

A few minutes passed. The scan finished, and I had two results!

  1. /README.html
  2. /rpc.php

Let’s check out what these endpoints hold.

Digging deeper

The title of the README page says “Notes RPC Documentation”. The page says:

This service provides a way to store notes securely. It’ll give them the ability to retrieve them at a later point. The service will return random keys associated with the notes. There’s no way to retrieve a note once the key has been destroyed. The RPC interface is exposed through the _/rpc.php_ file. We can invoke a call through the _method_ parameter. Each note is stored in a secure file that consists of a unique key, the note, and the epoch of the note’s creation time.

Authenticating to the service can be done through the _Authorization_ header. When provided a valid JWT, the service will authenticate the user and query metadata, retrieve a note, create new notes, and delete all notes.

The service requires a valid JWT (JSON Web Token) to perform the authentication. We can perform the following operations in the service:

  • Query the metadata of all the notes
  • Retrieve a note
  • Create a new note
  • Delete all notes

Nothing fancy here. Now under the title “Versioning”, the following is mentioned:

The service is being optimized continuously. You can provide a version number in the _Accept_ header of the request. At this time, only _application/notes.api.v1+json_ is supported.

There does not seem to be any reason to explicitly state that only v1 is allowed. That seemed a bit odd. But for now I’ll try to understand how the API works.


Using cURL, I tried to create a note:

curl '' 
    -H 'Content-Type: application/json' 
    -H 'Authorization: eiOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJpZCI6Mn0.t4M7We66pxjMgRNGg1RvOmWT6rLtA8ZwJeNP-S8pVak' 
    -H 'Accept: application/notes.api.v1+json' 
    -d '{"note": "This is my note"}'

The endpoint gave the following response:


This works as expected, since the documentation states: “if not specified, a 16 bit random ID will be chosen”. What happens if we specify an arbitrary ID?

curl '' 
    -H 'Content-Type: application/json' 
    -H 'Authorization: eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJpZCI6Mn0.t4M7We66pxjMgRNGg1RvOmWT6rLtA8ZwJeNP-S8pVak' 
    -H 'Accept: application/notes.api.v1+json' 
    -d '{"id":"test", "note": "This is my note"}'

This was the response:


It appears we can choose our own IDs for the notes.


What happens if you try to access the same note using getNote() method?

curl '' 
    -H 'Content-Type: application/json' 
    -H 'Authorization: eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJpZCI6Mn0.t4M7We66pxjMgRNGg1RvOmWT6rLtA8ZwJeNP-S8pVak' 
    -H 'Accept: application/notes.api.v1+json'

This was the response:

{"note":"This is my note","epoch":"1530279830"}

Cool! But what is this epoch value? It probably is the timestamp at which the note was created. A quick check using date -r confirmed that it is a timestamp.


Let’s try to get the notes’ metadata now:

curl '' 
    -H 'Content-Type: application/json' 
    -H 'Authorization: eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJpZCI6Mn0.t4M7We66pxjMgRNGg1RvOmWT6rLtA8ZwJeNP-S8pVak' 
    -H 'Accept: application/notes.api.v1+json'

It returned the following response:


It looks like count is the number of notes and epochs is a list of epochs of the existing notes.

Let’s try to create a few more notes and see what happens. I replayed the createNote() request few times and then checked the metadata:


As I expected, the count has increased. The ordering of the note epochs seems to be pretty straight-forward. The most recent note’s epoch gets added to the end of the list.

Let’s try resetting the notes:

curl '' 
    -H 'Content-Type: application/json' 
    -H 'Authorization: eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJpZCI6Mn0.t4M7We66pxjMgRNGg1RvOmWT6rLtA8ZwJeNP-S8pVak' 
    -H 'Accept: application/notes.api.v1+json' 
    -d '{"note": "This is my note"}'

This returns the following response:

{"reset": true}

Nothing fancy there. To confirm, I checked the metadata, and sure enough, all the notes that I’d created are now gone.

We have covered all the methods in the service; now what? Let’s see if we can break it somehow!

I tried changing the Content-Type header, omitting the Authorization header completely, replaying the request keeping the header length same but one character changed, etc. But nothing worked — it responded with either {"authorization":"is invalid"} or {"authorization":"is missing"}. No luck.

Back to digging again

I opened up Burp and tested the methods for anomalies, but I couldn’t find anything unusual or odd. It felt like I’m missing some important piece of the puzzle. There isn’t much that I could’ve missed, given the application is pretty minimalistic. Driven by some online treasure hunt memories that I had in college, I randomly checked the source of the README.html and searched for '<!--' to see if there are any hidden comments. Ha! There is something there.

HTML comment mentioning Versioning

HTML comment mentioning Versioning

Hidden in plain sight… yet invisible! This suggests that my initial suspicion about the API version description was right — there is something unusual with API v2. They’re using an “optimized file format that sorts the notes based on their unique key before saving them”. I googled around a bit to see if there are any such file formats. In one of my searches, I came across Amazon RedShift:

Amazon Redshift stores your data on disk in sorted order according to the sort key.

I later realized that it was not the right path. I decided to play around with API v2. I followed the same process as before:

  • Creating a note gives a url that contains the ID as the id parameter.
  • Getting the contents of a note gives note (the note contents) and epoch (the timestamp).
  • Getting the metadata of the notes also seems to respond as before.
  • Resetting the notes, well, resets everything back to the initial state.

Everything seems identical to v1. But they have mentioned that v2 is using some fancy sorting — let’s experiment with that now. The documentation says the method “sorts the notes based on their unique key before saving them”. Well, every note has two parameters — the note’s ID (which we can arbitrarily assign) and the note’s contents. It’s only logical that the unique key here is the note ID. Let’s try creating more notes with random IDs to see if we can find something.

But that sounds like a lot of manual work, and I hate repeating the same things repeatedly— changing the IDs and whatnot. I am a big fan of automation, and this is something better accomplished with a script. So I quickly put together a Python script using the awesome requests library and the built-in JSON library.

It looked like this:

This is a wrapper over the API functions. Now we can easily interact with the RPC in a much easier manner:

  1. create(id) will create a note with the specified ID.
  2. epochs() will give you the list of epochs
  3. reset() will reset the notes and restore the initial state.

Now let’s start from where we stopped — creating notes with random IDs. Let’s try creating some notes with alphabets as the ID keys:

The response looked like this:

It continues like that, with the most recently created note added at the end of the list. I continued this exercise for some time with other random strings, numbers etc. I’m out of ideas now.

I thought about how the application might be implemented in the backend. Other people are also obviously working on the same CTF challenge in parallel, but I can create unique notes that pertain to only my session.

If the user authentication was based on some header, I could probably try to circumvent that by sending spoofed requests. I tried fiddling around with Host, X-Forwarded-Host headers, but to no avail. After some attempts, I concluded that it’s probably a IP-based authentication.

I felt like it’s time to backtrack and see if I missed something of importance (I usually do). I started rereading the documentation; this time more carefully. The part that talks about JWT struck my eye. I hadn’t explored that route much.

Enter JWT!

So what is JWT? Straight from (thanks to Auth0 for building this amazing website):

JSON Web Token (JWT) is an open standard (RFC 7519) that defines a compact and self-contained way for securely transmitting information between parties as a JSON object. This information can be verified and trusted because it is digitally signed. JWTs can be signed using a secret (with the HMAC algorithm) or a public/private key pair using RSA or ECDSA.

From Wikipedia:

JWTs generally have three parts: a header, a payload, and a signature. The header identifies which algorithm is used to generate the signature and looks something like this:

_header = '{"alg":"HS256","typ":"JWT"}'_

Let’s go back to the beginning and get our JWT Authorization header.


This was our JWT (split on newlines for readability). The first part is the header, the second part is the payload, and the third part is the signature.

The signature is calculated as follows:

key           = 'secretkey' 
unsignedToken = encodeBase64(header) + '.' + encodeBase64(payload) 
signature     = HMAC-SHA256(key, unsignedToken)

Now that we know the header and payload is base64-encoded, we can quite easily get the actual value:

$ echo 'eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9' | base64 -D {"typ":"JWT","alg":"HS256"}

That is the default type and algorithm.

$ echo 'eyJpZCI6Mn0=' | base64 -D 

As you can notice, there’s an ID there! I think it’s safe to assume that it is a user ID. All this time, we’ve been creating/viewing/resetting notes of user id 2.

(Note that I added the padding = to the base64 string above. Even though the padding is optional in JWT as per RFC 7515, while decoding it, you need to supply the padding to get back the correct string representation.)

We can save this manual work by using the nice debugger provided by as well:

JWT debugger

JWT debugger

We can try changing the ID to something else. It makes sense to try out id=1.

There’s one problem. The server validates the signature. We need to “sign” our payload {"id": 2} with the signature. We need the secret key that was used to create the signature, which we don’t know.

Cracking a JWT signed with weak keys is certainly possible in certain cases. I spent some time bruteforcing the JWT. That lead nowhere. So I started searching around for JWT-related vulnerabilities.

Interestingly enough, I found a none algorithm. It is intended to be used for situations where the integrity of the token has already been verified. This one and HS256 are the only two algorithms that are mandatory to implement.

If our server’s JWT implementation is treating tokens signed with the none algorithm as a valid token with a verified signature, we can create our own “signed” tokens with any arbitrary payload.

Creating such a token is fairly straight-forward:

  1. Change the header to {"alg": "none"} instead of HS256.
  2. Change the payload to {"id": 1}.
  3. Use an empty signature ''.

Let’s do this using an already available implementation of JWT (I used PyJWT):

In [1]: import jwt 
In [2]: encoded = jwt.encode({"id": 1}, '', algorithm='none') 
In [3]: encoded 
Out[3]: 'eyJhbGciOiJub25lIiwidHlwIjoiSldUIn0.eyJpZCI6MX0.'

Now that we have the JWT, we can create notes under user 1’s session; all we need to do is change the Authorization header to this newly crafted JWT.

I first tested it with lower-case alphabets as before, and that worked the same as before. It kept on adding the new note’s epoch to the end of the list. What if I try with upper-case alphabets?

There’s a break in the pattern where 1530295860 appears (after inserting F, specifically). It didn’t get inserted to the end. That was odd!

The breakthrough

After pondering about it for a while, it struck me! The notes are ordered lexicographically!

Let’s say the note has the ID of bar. Then if we add new notes with ID that is lexicographically < (read: less than) bar (e.g. abc), it will get inserted in a position before bar; and if it is lexicographically > bar (e.g. zap), it will get inserted after bar.

It seems that there’s a special sorting function that compares things. We need to know more about how this custom sorting is implemented. If we had access to the source code, we could read it and understand how it’s working, but we’re mere humans and don’t have access to the source code (looking at you, Frans Rosen). So we insert more random notes (not really random, we’re picking samples that could give us more insights into the sorting technique used).

I checked the order for various letter sequences (I wrote a small script for that), and got the following output:

['00', '000', '01', '001', '09', '0Z', '0a', '0z', 'A', 'A9', 'AA', 'AZ', 'Az', '<secret>', 'Z', 'ZZ', '0', 'a', 'a0', 'a1', 'a9', 'aZ', 'aa', 'ab', 'az', 'b', 'c', 'z', 'zz', '1', '9', '99']

<secret> is the position of our secret note’s ID. This did not make much sense to me at first. If I ignore the first letter of each thing, it all looks normal and consistent. If I don’t ignore the first letter, for some reason 1 and 9 are way over there on the right.

After further testing, I was able to make the following inferences:

  • ab < abc < ac
  • ab < abc
  • a9b < 0z
  • a < aa
  • aa < aaa
  • and so on …

So it’s not a glitch in the sorting algorithm; I believe the evil folks at H1 wanted to make it even harder, so they threw in this “twist”, probably.

If we were to replicate the comparison technique used in the service, we could come up with something like this:

Great. Now that we know how arbitrary key comparison works, we can work our way towards finding the key.

The bruteforcing

We know some facts from the documentation:

  • ID has to match the following regex [a-zA-Z0-9]+.
  • ID can be longer than 16 bytes.

A naive approach to this would be to try every key possible, except that it would take a lot of time and requests.

We know this much:

  • We need to create new notes with arbitrary IDs and infer whether our secret note is before or after that.
  • We can only use comparison operators.
  • The search space is already known — [a-zA-Z0-9]+.

This screams binary search! It’s pretty straight-forward from here on. We need to automate the bruteforcing part and integrate binary search into that.

My script ( looked like this:

Running the script:


How it works

search() is the most important function here. It’s easier to think of search() as only trying to find the last letter, and then we have it call itself. The first if statement exists because the first letter’s sorting is different from the sorting of the rest of the letters. For the first letter, '0' > 'z', but for the rest of them, ‘0’ is the smallest letter possible.

How it sorts is letter by letter, then the next, and so on. It first checks the first letter, then the next, etc. For example: 'abc' > 'abb' > 'aac'.

alpha is just the alphabet in sorted order. i_minand i_max are the bounds in the alphabet that we’re looking through.

To begin with, we have all the letters within my bounds. i_min is 0 and, i_max is the last letter. Using a binary search, I take the first letter that’s smack in the middle of my bounds. (i_min + i_max) // 2 is used for finding this middle part. Then I append the head (initially, an empty string) and the found character to form a note ID and create a note with that ID.

The last part of the search() function sets the boundaries for the next iteration. When createNote() returns false, it means that we’ve reached the end, so return it.

Once we find the secret ID, we call getNote() with that ID, base64-decode it, and then we have the flag:


Script in action

Here’s a video showing the execution of the bruteforcing script: