Most self-aware

Volker Diels-Grabsch

Judges' comments:

To use:



sha512sum prog.c || shasum -a 512 prog.c

Selected Judges Remarks:

Before running this one, stay calm. Chill out, have a cup of tea. Is this bad?

To understand what is going on here, please check if you are dreaming, or are you dreaming that you are dreaming? Or is it, wake up from the simulation?

Author’s comments:

Almost a hash collision

This program prints its own SHA-512 hash. To verify, run:

sha512sum prog.c; ./prog


43bd0c4381a5078d2850fca9ae5e0647596bcc03cd67d8d973ad02ff35c316c728e7b347ca70abe6c74e745e63646cc7643cb0cffcd3d9a969cbf31a7ce5bf68  prog.c

It started as a complicated “hello world” program that prints some random hex digits instead of “hello world”. Then, the digits were adjusted until the resulting program matched its own SHA-512 hash, via brute force through all 2512 possibilities. Just kidding.

This wasn’t brute force, but involved quite some math, using a variant of Jane Doe’s algorithm for generating SHA-512 collisions efficiently. If you still don’t believe me, you are right.

No crypto was broken in the making of this program!

The trick is that under the hood, this program is a quine! That is, it is aware of its own source code in string representation. But instead of printing that string, its SHA-512 hash is computed and printed. So two major steps were needed to obfuscate this program:

Note that both steps were achieved mostly algorithmically. The code is otherwise as short and as clean as possible. The implementation is portable C99 code for 32-bit and 64-bit systems that compiles without any warnings on current GCC and Clang versions even with -Wextra and -Weverything. The program is composed of mostly pure functions, and the “#define"s are only used to shorten redundant parts of the code, they are not meant to obfuscate much. Having that out of the way, how are step 1 and step 2 achieved then?

Regarding step 1, note that the large string literal “`x{bh}ndbq…” in the last line doesn’t look like C code. Moreover, it is too short to contain even a compressed representation of all preceding and subsequent code. Instead, the preceding code including the ‘“’ character has already been run through the SHA-512 computation by an external script. The internal state of the SHA-512 computation at that point has been extracted and encoded into the string. This works because the preceding code is exactly 1280 bytes, which is a multiple of 1024 bits, the block size of SHA-512. The program itself then just continues the SHA-512 computation from that point, adding the last 1024-bit block, finalizing the hash and printing it. The last block is taken directly from the string literal at runtime, plus the subsequent code which consists of just ‘”’, ‘;’ and ‘\n’. Those 3 characters are short enough to be hidden in … well, let’s leave this as an exercise for the reader.

To summarize, the main trick here is to move the string constant to the end, so the preceding code can be precalculated and the subsequent code is short enough to be hidden anywhere.

Regarding step 2, almost all macros, functions and variables have meaningless single-letter names. Moreover, the SHA-512 computation is reduced to the special case of adding just one block and immediately finalizing it, where the total size is known in advance.

But this is not enough! For SHA-512 we need 8 initial hash values and 80 round constants, which are very characteristic. If any of them appeared in the source, a quick web search (e.g. for 0x428a2f98d728ae22) would tell the reader immediately what’s going on. Because of the precomputation, the 8 initial hash values are not needed, but the 80 round constants are.

It is almost impossible to hide those 640 bytes in the source. Luckily, the round constants where not chosen by fair dice rolls. They are the fractional parts of certain irrational numbers, namely, the cube roots of the first 80 primes. So the round constrants are calculated at runtime, which makes the program shorter and adds another layer of obfuscation.

While this sounds like just iterating primes and executing pow(), this turned out to be harder than expected. If we were computing SHA-256, it would have been as simple as that, because the round constants would have been 32-bit values. However, SHA-512 needs the cube roots at 64-bit precision, while double has only 53-bit mantissa precision.

Using higher-precision floating point is no option here, because the program is meant to be portable C99. And implementing arbitrary-precision arithmetic would have been overkill and would have increased the program size dramatically.

Instead, the program just multiplies. That is, it computes cubes instead of cube roots. It steps through cube root candidates via bisection, and calculates their cubes until those match the given prime. Thus, we don’t need floating point and can use 64-bit integers instead. But that still doesn’t solve the problem as it poses the following new challenges:

The reason for challenge 1 is that in portable C99, the result must fit into the same data type. To multiply two 64-bit integers we would need a 128-bit integer for the result. So we can at most multiply two 32-bit integers to get the 64-bit product at full precision. While GCC and Clang both support 128-bit arithmetics, that isn’t standard and wouldn’t have been portable C99.

The reason for challenge 2 is that cube root of the 80th prime is around 7, so we need to compute with 3 bits for the integral part and 64 bits for the fractional part.

The reason for challenge 3 is that the cube of a 67-bit number is 3*67=201 bits, but fortunately we only need to check if it is close enough to the actual prime. It won’t be exactly e.g. “409.0000…” anyway, but must be accurate enough to distinguish the correct cube root from its neighbours, e.g. the same number with the 64th fractional digit increased.

The solution here is to split the 67-bit input into 3 integers of 24-bit each. Those are cubed using the multiplication formulas numbers with 3 “digits” of base 224 each. During that calculation, at most two values are multiplied at once, and the accuracy of intermediate values is reduced using right-shifts as far as allowable for the computation. Finding woking right-shift values was mostly trial-and-error, producing correct results for the first 80 primes, but not much more. Moreover, for some terms it was possible to leave them out entirely, especially higher-order terms of the last digits. Luckily, in the end, all intermediate results did fit into 64-bit integer addition and multiplication, but that was not obvious at the beginning.

That’s it.

Well, I could continue with details about the encoding of the internal state values into the string, how to avoid escaping issues, how to find short notations for various loops, how to get rid of if(), where the final “\”;\n" is stored, how to eliminate intermediate values and arrays by reordering of operations, and so on. But those were all minor issues compared to the challenges described above. What’s documented here is all you need to know to write your own version of that program.

I’d like to finish with an open problem:

Is it possible for the cubing and bisection to be implemented with just two parts instead of three? That would simplify the formulas a lot. For example, one could split the 67-value into two 34-bit parts, but whenever one multiplies two of them, one needs to right-shift one of them by at least 4 bits, or both by 2. Or, one splits the 67 bits asymmetrically? I wasn’t able to make it work with 2 parts, but that doesn’t have to mean anything.

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