How to

Custom Chromium Build to Reverse Engineer Pop-Under Trick

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I don’t like pop-under ads and as a Chrome
user I’m happy that Google agrees with me. They consider them to be bugs in their popup
blocker. I made a few videos a few months back where
we have reverse engineered one particular obfuscated JavaScript library, used and sold
to advertisers, in order to figure out the trick they use. And then reported it to Google to get the
bugs fixed. Back then it has also motivated Masato Kinugawa
to research a few more techniques and overall we killed quite a few bugs that allowed pop-unders. And I think we were quite successful. For a long time the popunder library did not
have a working popunder technique for Chrome and had to resort to a tab-under. which was awesome, for a while we are the
reason why a lot of advertisers that use this script couldn’t create terrible pop-under
ads on Chrome. But now I was made aware by SilentHammer on
the subreddit, that the popunderjs library has been updated and ships now with a working
pop-under for the current Chrome version 65 up to the current development version 68.

And indeed, the demo works. There is a pop-under. So let’s figure out how it is done and then
report it as well. The first few steps that I’m doing now are
the same I did in the previous videos. I essentially want a local mirror of the scripts
so I can modify them and play around with it. So I use the Chrome developer tools to get
all the script files loaded by this site and save them. And because of the licensing, and this being
the demo, and I don’t know how the license check works (It might check the hostname)
I do not only download all the files, but I also change the /etc/hosts file so that
the domain points to localhost.

Then I use php to launch a local webserver
and serve the files with the same folder structure as the server. Now I have all the files locally and can change
them however I want. For example I can clean them up and beautify
the scripts. The files are loaded locally now. And a quick test, yep the popuner still works. Ok… So let’s have a first look. The javascript code is clearly still super
obfuscated. So nothing we really want to work through
statically. And trying to look at the script dynamically,
with the chrome developer tools is also still super annoying, because the script constantly
traps the debugger with the debugger keyword. We can disable the debugger and still run
it, but then we can’t set any breakpoints if we do want to pause.

Goign up in the callstack we can see where
this debugger call is coming from and it’s coming from this function a(). And here we can see that a() is always repeatedly
called with setTimeout. So we can try to overwrite setTimeout with
our own function, which also logs some information about the call. This hopefully disables the debugger traps. When we now reload the page it looks really
good, we don’t break, but we also don’t see anything in the console. But that’s because the code constnatly clears
the console. Luckily the developer tools are cool and just
tell us the line where this clear is called. So we can go there, set a breakpoint by clicking
the line number and BOOM, the debugger breaks here. Now we can analyse the code. Capital I is the window object. The Kn variable is the string console, and
hn is the string clear. So this simply calls window.console.clear(). Perfect! We can also find this line in our script and
can just comment it out.

Now when we reload the page we see exactly
the outputs. And as you can see, some stuff tried to call
setTimeout, however also the popunder is not working anymore. So i guess just overwriting it didn’t help
us. Let’s revert it back. Another thing we used was the performance
tab. This one can be used to record every javascript
function call. So we can hit record, trigger the popunder,
aaand hit stop again. Now it takes a moment to gather everything. And here we have it. This is the timeline, and all of these colorful
bars are function calls. So here is clearly our start, this is the
mousedown event. Later in here we also see a onBeforeOpen,
which is actually a call into the demo.js… So this is a library sold for advertisers,
and so the library creator offers here functionality that you can run code just before and after
the popunder was opened. This means our pop-under createn should happen
after this one here. Interestingly the whole function graph stops
here now. Not everything happens down in the hierarchy
from the mousedown event. There is a weird Function call later, which
at some point results in open.

The orange functions are generally regular
javascript stuff, like events, and all the javascript functions, and the pink ones are
custom ones. So these are all the obfuscated functions
as you can see from the name. And actually there are two of these blocks
starting from a weird arbitrary function call which result in open. And open is the function to create a new popup
or tab. So it does it twice. I have actually no clue what triggers this
initial function. If it would have been directly called from
the mousedown event it would be part of that block. So that’s weird. But looking at this I don’t see anything
special. There are no calls to create new HTML elements,
nothing external is loaded, it’s just these open calls. So that’s super wierd. We can also look at from where open is called,
by looking here at the call stack and following that link. So this apparently calls open. And these should be the parameters of open. Let’s search for this snipped in the script.js
file we have and then add some console.log outputs to print the parameters passed to

We save the new script, reload the page, trigger
a popunder and look at the console. So we see two opens. Both have the first parameter about:blank
and the second one _blank. A look into the API reference for open we
can see that that is the URL and this is the name. But the first open has additional optional
windowFeatures. It defines width, height, and stuff like that. The second open didn’t have that. Okay, nothing too special here either. WHile playing around I also noticed that the
anti-debugger trapping is not that aggressive, so we can actually add our own debugger statement
here at the open call, reload the page, disable the breakpoints and then prepare to be super
fast. Because we can very quickly reactivate the
breakpoints, quickly switch to the browser window, HOPE that the anti-debugging traps
don’t trigger first, click somewhere to create a popunder and hope that our breakpoint
at the open is hit. And that worked. Here we are. Now we can see the state of the variables
which we already know.

We can also see the callstack and have a look
at where this call is coming from. Notice how it says here postMessage async,
that will explain a lot later but when I looked at it the first time, I was just a bit confused. And looking at this function here, we see
a variable i, which is a MessageEvent object with a data attribute containing our
parameters… mhmhm… At this point I got a bit frustrated. If you have watched the previous videos you
know what kind of crazy techniques were used to pull off a pop-under. I didn’t fully trust the developer tools
to be honest, because maybe there are tricks to hide stuff from it.

I was expecting something really really crazy
and I decided to get out the big guns. I wanted to directly look at the native functions
being called from javascript, so nobody can hide anything. I went to the Chromium sources and followed
the “Checking out and building Chromium for Mac” instructions. If you want to follow along and build Chromium
as well, make sure you have enough disk space. Not only did it take me over night to build
it, in the end I also needed almost 80GB disk space for it. So be warned. But that’s not too bad, because with minimal
changes you don’t have to rebuild the whole thing again, it only has to rebuild the part
you modified. So that’s cool. I also have to give my kudos to the build
team, or whoever is responsible for this, these instructions just worked.

I had no issues at all, it just worked which
I did not expect. Anyway… so… I want to log important javascript function
calls. For example the open call. But also things like createElement or any
other API call. All these calls somehow have to be executed
by the underlying Browser so you can’t fake or hide anything. In the end these native functions have to
be called. It’s the first time for me looking at these
sources, so I have no clue what I am doing. But let’s maybe think about this for a second. Maybe you have heard of V8 – Chrome uses the
V8 JavaScript Engine. And there is a sub directory for the v8 engine
with the sources. So maybe this is a good point to start? Well, maybe, but probably not. V8 is just JavaScript, but we are not really
interested in logging when something creates an Array or so. We want the APIs that glue together the Browser
and the JavaScript, and that is mostly the DOM. The Document Object Model is what we can use
from JavaScript to interact with the Browser and the HTML. However Chrome also has a lot of other APIs,
like the Notification.requestPermissions and these are probably not included in the DOM,
but we deal with that when we need to.

Let’s start with something easy and look
for the document.createElement function. In previous popunder videos that was a crucial
part in the trick so it would be awesome to log that. And so the DOM is most likely part of the
actual browser engine and in case of Chrome that would be blink. I looked around in the huge codebase for a
bit and then I found it in /chromium/src/third_party/blink/renderer/core/dom. So I open that folder in sublime and then
let’s start searching for createElement.

Oh we find something in a .h header file,
let’s actually restrict it to only c++ source code files. So here we go. We find some functions in Which I think is awesome. Because the javascript function would be document.createElement. So here we definitely find a lot of important
APIs. Soo.. createElement… There we go “Entry point of "create an element".” That sounds perfect. So I guess this is the native C++ function
being called when you call document.createElement in Javascript. Let’s test that. Let’s add a simple recognizable printf()
here, just so we know if this is being executed. Then we rebuild chrome and as you can see
it goes pretty fast now. Only had to build the change we made. And then let’s execute our own Chromium
build. I also wrote a short test create script, that
will call createElement whenever we click the link here. But it doesn’t seem to work. Damn. no output. It also links here the specification of the
HTML living standard that defines these kind of things. And it says here “concept create element”,
so not really sure what that mens.

But when I searched a bit more in the
source code, I found the CreateElementForBinding function which links to the dom-document-createelement
specification. OK this one actually sounds like the correct
function. So let’s add a printf, here. Then we compile Chromium again, open the test
webpage and click the button. And awesome! Our printf works. Now we have all the power to log every function
we want. It might just be a bit tedious to add these
printfs everywhere. I played around with it a bit more. Added printfs to different kind of functions
like getElementsByTagName and stuff like that but. It didn’t reveal anything new. It just didn’t seem to do anything weird…
mhmh… At this point I decided to sit down and started
to implement what I already know. I know 100% that there are two open calls
and we know their parameters. We also know that it somehow is all triggered
from a onmousedown event, so let’s do that as well.

And then we try that. It opens a popup, but as expected it only
opens ONE. The second open call is blocked by the pop-up
blocker. The browser allows one user interaction, the
click, to open one window, because if the user clicked, then one window is fine. But not a second one. However let’s just for testing disable the
popup-blocker and allow this page to create any popups it wants. When we now try it again, the second open
call actually creates a new tab. And the tab gains focus. See, the popup at this point is in the backrgound. Let’s add a setTimeout to our script, to
close the new tab after 1 second again and try that.

We click the link, it opens the popup and
tab, the main window gains focus and then the tab is closed when the timeout hits. BOOM… we have a successful popunder. Holy crap. This was damn simple. As long as we can open two windows, one popup
and one tab, we can get focus back to the main window. But with activated pop-up blocker, which is
the default, this doesn’t work. So the creator of this pop-under script actually
found a technique to bypass the pop-up blocker and open multiple windows. And this is where the postMessage comes into
play from earlier. While looking around a bit more, looking at
call stacks and stuff, at some point I stumbled over it again and it clicked. WAIT. postMessage and here is the message
data? Maybe the reason why the two open calls were
shown in their own function block is because they were onMessage events, triggered from
an asynchronous postMessage. That totally makes sense, why didn’t I understand
that earlier? So I quickly implemented this. I create an onMessage handler, which looks
at the data and either creates a new popup for data 1 or a new tab, which is also closed
again with 2.

And then I simply trigger a postMessage with
1 and 2 in the popunder function. This should create both the popup and the
tab. Let’s try that in the browser, clicking
the link, it creates both. Amazing. We bypassed the pop-up blocker. This also means we can spam popups now. If we just keep sending postMessages in a
loop. Look here. So, now we are done here. I have reported this issue to Chromium and
hopefully it gets fixed soon..

As found on YouTube