Tagged: research and development

Has RIM gasped its last?

I was just in the Netherlands – and I got to enjoy SinterKlaas! – and the police there are still very interested in Blackberry investigations. In fact, I think this is true for the UK and Europe. But here in the States we seemed to have moved on  – and I’m so sick of the pundits who are making their living pontificating on BlackBerry 10.

Its time to settle this with a poll. So, what do you think?

Plists, XML and XPATH – A Series Pt. 3

Having now done a cursory overview of XML, I’d like to turn my attention to property lists or plists as they are commonly known.  Plists according to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Property_list) are files that are used to store serialized object – read data. Very often they are used to store application and user settings. They are a rich source of forensic data that is, at least in my opinion – little understood and under-exploited.

I will be concentrating on binary plists as this is the most common format encountered in iOS and will be using as a launch point the excellent paper ” Property Lists in Digital Forensics “by CCL Forensics’ Alex Caithness (you can find a link to the paper at the end of this post). My aim in the next few posts is to illuminate Caithness’ work and break it open in the hopes that it will be understandable to a wider audience.

I have to confess the motivation behind this was slightly selfish. I myself had some trouble following the work and once I had “cracked the code” so to speak, thought it might be useful for others to benefit from a more in-depth discussion of Alex’s work.

So without further fanfare – here is part three , that which concerns binary plists.

Binary Plists


Caithness points out in “Property Lists in Digital Forensics” that the binary plist is constructed of four distinct parts (Caithness, p 4). Further more he describes them in the order that he presents as the way to read the file for interpretation. I summarize his findings below.

The file starts out with a recognizable header. This header comprises the first eight bytes of the file and is the ASCII String “bplist00” (\x62\x70\x6C\x69\x73\x74\x30\x30) – which is the file format and the version.

The trailer of the file consists of the final 32 bytes. It contains data that is needed to read the file properly. The trailer will be discussed in detail later as we traverse a binary plist and read it.

The offset table – which will also be discussed later – is a table that contains the offsets – or locations within the file, which point to objects in the object table – meaning the data of the file.

The final part of the file as was mentioned above is the object table. This is the “meat” of the file, which contains the binary encoded data of each object or element in the plist. Like the trailer and offset table we will deal with the unique features of objects in a following section.

We will be using the bookmarks.plist file that is located here .

Finding the trailer on an existing plist is relatively straightforward. Since we know that the trailer is 32 bytes in length (Caithness p.4)- we can sweep the bytes from the end of the file until we reach a count of 32.

 Location of Binary Plist Trailer

Location of Binary Plist Trailer

Now that I have located the trailer I like to copy and paste the selection into a new hex file so I can refer to its offsets in a separate window and do not have to keep moving back and forth in the file as is seen in the next image.

Binary Plist Trailer in separate file

Binary Plist Trailer in separate file

We are now set to parse the trailer to locate its key elements and find the location of the offset table of the plist which will enable us to parse the the objects contained in the rest of the file.

The below table is a key to parsing out the file – this has been adapted from Alex Caithness’ table found on page 4 of “Property Lists in Digital Forensics”.

 Interpreted Data   Offset in Table   Length of Data   Data Type
Size of integers for offset table(bytes)            6             1 8 bit unsigned integer
Size of collection object reference integers(bytes)            7             1 8 bit unsigned integer
Number of Objects in file            8             8 64-bit unsigned integer (big endian)
Beginning object index            16             8 64-bit unsigned integer (big endian)
Offset location of object offset table            24             8 64-bit unsigned     integer (big endian)

Binary plist trailer data

Now we will begin figuring out the parts of the trailer to read the rest of the file. I recommend recording the values on a sheet or in a file for easy reference.

  • Read the offset to the offset table. Out table above tells us the location of the object offset table occurs at the 24th offset in our trailer and runs for a length of eight bytes. Using our trailer that we copied out of the binary plist file (again this is supplied – link -) we can see that from offset 24 and running eight bytes we get the value of \x02\x89. This is decimal 649.
Offset to Offset Table

Offset to Offset Table

  • Calculate the length of the offset table.  The length of the table is obtained by taking the “Size of integers” value located at offset six of the trailer and the number of the objects in the file located at offset eight in the file and running for eight bytes and multiplying the decimal values of these bytes to arrive at the length of the table.
Length of the Offset Table

Length of the Offset Table

  • Find the offset table and block it off. Going to offset 649 – or \x0289 – sweep from that offset for 58 bytes. Then copy those values into a separate hex file for reading.
Location of Offset Table

Location of Offset Table

Offset table

Offset table

Our next step entails reading the offset table to find the location of our objects or data. We know that the offset table is a zero based index of the objects in the file, ie. The first object is the 0th entry on the offset table, and the size of the offsets (encoded big endian) from the value at offset six of the trailer(\x02). Now we can look at the offset table and find the location of the first object in the object table. This will occur immediately after the file header(“bplist00”).

We see from the below that this is indeed the case as the offset table indicates the first object occurs at \x00\x08.

Size of integers, location of first object and first object data type

Size of integers, location of first object and first object data type

The offset table will be read again and again as we go through the objects of the file. Now we must turn our attention to interpreting the objects that are found at each offset that is specified in the offset table.

We have just found our first object at offset 8 in the bplist. The first byte of the object is known as a type-descriptor byte (Caithness p 5) and will hold the clue on how to read and interpret the object.

Reading and interpreting this first object will start us off on the next installment of our Plist, XML and XPATH Series. Until then, I hope that this series is proving informative in your forensic endeavors. I look forward to seeing you next week.


Apple Inc. (2012) Mac OS X Reference Library, Manual Page for PLIST(5), [Online], Available:https://developer.apple.com/library/mac/#documentation/Darwin/Reference/ManPages/man5/plist.5.html [October 23 2012]

Caithness, Alex (2010). Property Lists in Digital Forensics, Available:  http://www.cclgroupltd.com/images/property%20lists%20in%20digital%20forensics%20new.pdf, CCL Solutions Group Ltd: Stratford upon-Avon, UK

Eckstein, Robert & Casabianca, Michel(2001). XML Pocket Reference (2nd edition). Sebastopol, CA:O’Reilly and Associates Inc.

Erack Network(2012). Xpath – predicates[Online}, Available:  http://www.tizag.com/xmlTutorial/xpathpredicate.php, [November 1, 2012]

Wikimedia Foundation(2012) Wikipedia: XML[Online], Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XML, [October 30, 2012]

World Wide Web Consortium(2012) Extensible Markup Language Tutorial (XML)[Online], Available: http://www.w3schools.com/xml/ [October 24, 2012]

World Wide Web Consortium (2012) Extensible Markup Language (XML) [Online], Available: http://www.w3.org/XML/ [ October 24,  2012]

World Wide Web Consortium(2012) XPATH Tutorial, [Online], Available: http://www.w3schools.com/xpath/default.asp/ [October 28, 2012]