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Last updated: May 01, 2024

Emulation-based Analysis

iOS Simulator

Apple provides a simulator app within Xcode which provides a real iOS device looking user interface for iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch. It allows you to rapidly prototype and test debug builds of your applications during the development process, but actually it is not an emulator. Difference between a simulator and an emulator is previously discussed in "Emulation-based Dynamic Analysis" section.

While developing and debugging an application, the Xcode toolchain generates x86 code, which can be executed in the iOS simulator. However, for a release build, only ARM code is generated (incompatible with the iOS simulator). That's why applications downloaded from the Apple App Store cannot be used for any kind of application analysis on the iOS simulator.


Corellium is a commercial tool which offers virtual iOS devices running actual iOS firmware, being the only publicly available iOS emulator ever. Since it is a proprietary product, not much information is available about the implementation. Corellium has no community licenses available, therefore we won't go into much detail regarding its use.

Corellium allows you to launch multiple instances of a device (jailbroken or not) which are accessible as local devices (with a simple VPN configuration). It has the ability to take and restore snapshots of the device state, and also offers a convenient web-based shell to the device. Finally and most importantly, due to its "emulator" nature, you can execute applications downloaded from the Apple App Store, enabling any kind of application analysis as you know it from real iOS (jailbroken) devices.

Note that in order to install an IPA on Corellium devices it has to be unencrypted and signed with a valid Apple developer certificate. See more information here.


Unicorn is a lightweight, multi-architecture CPU emulator framework based on QEMU and goes beyond it by adding useful features especially made for CPU emulation. Unicorn provides the basic infrastructure needed to execute processor instructions. In this section we will use Unicorn's Python bindings to solve the UnCrackable App for iOS Level 1 challenge.

To use Unicorn's full power, we would need to implement all the necessary infrastructure which generally is readily available from the operating system, e.g. binary loader, linker and other dependencies or use another higher level frameworks such as Qiling which leverages Unicorn to emulate CPU instructions, but understands the OS context. However, this is superfluous for this very localized challenge where only executing a small part of the binary will suffice.

While performing manual analysis in "Reviewing Disassembled Native Code" section, we determined that the function at address 0x1000080d4 is responsible for dynamically generating the secret string. As we're about to see, all the necessary code is pretty much self-contained in the binary, making this a perfect scenario to use a CPU emulator like Unicorn.

If we analyze that function and the subsequent function calls, we will observe that there is no hard dependency on any external library and neither it's performing any system calls. The only access external to the functions occurs for instance at address 0x1000080f4, where a value is being stored to address 0x10000dbf0, which maps to the __data section.

Therefore, in order to correctly emulate this section of the code, apart from the __text section (which contains the instructions) we also need to load the __data section.

To solve the challenge using Unicorn we will perform the following steps:

  • Get the ARM64 version of the binary by running lipo -thin arm64 <app_binary> -output uncrackable.arm64 (ARMv7 can be used as well).
  • Extract the __text and __data section from the binary.
  • Create and map the memory to be used as stack memory.
  • Create memory and load the __text and __data section.
  • Execute the binary by providing the start and end address.
  • Finally, dump the return value from the function, which in this case is our secret string.

To extract the content of __text and __data section from the Mach-O binary we will use LIEF, which provides a convenient abstraction to manipulate multiple executable file formats. Before loading these sections to memory, we need to determine their base addresses, e.g. by using Ghidra, Radare2 or IDA Pro.

From the above table, we will use the base address 0x10000432c for __text and 0x10000d3e8 for __data section to load them at in the memory.

While allocating memory for Unicorn, the memory addresses should be 4k page aligned and also the allocated size should be a multiple of 1024.

The following script emulates the function at 0x1000080d4 and dumps the secret string:

import lief
from unicorn import *
from unicorn.arm64_const import *

# --- Extract __text and __data section content from the binary ---
binary = lief.parse("uncrackable.arm64")
text_section = binary.get_section("__text")
text_content = text_section.content

data_section = binary.get_section("__data")
data_content = data_section.content

# --- Setup Unicorn for ARM64 execution ---
arch = "arm64le"

# --- Create Stack memory ---
addr = 0x40000000
size = 1024*1024
emu.mem_map(addr, size)
emu.reg_write(UC_ARM64_REG_SP, addr + size - 1)

# --- Load text section --
base_addr = 0x100000000
tmp_len = 1024*1024
text_section_load_addr = 0x10000432c
emu.mem_map(base_addr, tmp_len)
emu.mem_write(text_section_load_addr, bytes(text_content))

# --- Load data section ---
data_section_load_addr = 0x10000d3e8
emu.mem_write(data_section_load_addr, bytes(data_content))

# --- Hack for stack_chk_guard ---
# without this will throw invalid memory read at 0x0
emu.mem_map(0x0, 1024)
emu.mem_write(0x0, b"00")

# --- Execute from 0x1000080d4 to 0x100008154 ---
emu.emu_start(0x1000080d4, 0x100008154)
ret_value = emu.reg_read(UC_ARM64_REG_X0)

# --- Dump return value ---
print(emu.mem_read(ret_value, 11))

You may notice that there is an additional memory allocation at address 0x0, this is a simple hack around stack_chk_guard check. Without this, there will be a invalid memory read error and binary cannot be executed. With this hack, the program will access the value at 0x0 and use it for the stack_chk_guard check.

To summarize, using Unicorn do require some additional setup before executing the binary, but once done, this tool can help to provide deep insights into the binary. It provides the flexibility to execute the full binary or a limited part of it. Unicorn also exposes APIs to attach hooks to the execution. Using these hooks you can observe the state of the program at any point during the execution or even manipulate the register or variable values and forcefully explore other execution branches in a program. Another advantage when running a binary in Unicorn is that you don't need to worry about various checks like root/jailbreak detection or debugger detection etc.