Threat Research Blog

FLARE Script Series: Reverse Engineering WebAssembly Modules Using the idawasm IDA Pro Plugin


This post continues the FireEye Labs Advanced Reverse Engineering (FLARE) script series. Here, we introduce idawasm, an IDA Pro plugin that provides a loader and processor modules for WebAssembly modules. idawasm works on all operating systems supported by IDA Pro, and can be obtained from the idawasm GitHub project.


You may have competed in this year’s Flare-On challenge and reached the fifth level only to discover a new file format: a WebAssembly (“wasm”) module. In order to proceed, you had to reverse engineer the key check logic contained in this binary file for the WebAssembly stack-based virtual machine. But first, you probably learned a bit about wasm:

"Wasm is designed as a portable target for compilation of high-level languages like C/C++/Rust, enabling deployment on the web for client and server applications.
The Wasm stack machine is designed to be encoded in a size- and load-time-efficient binary format. WebAssembly aims to execute at native speed by taking advantage of common hardware capabilities available on a wide range of platforms."

via: WebAssembly

While WebAssembly is a fairly new standard, some tools for analysis already exist:

  • The WebAssembly Binary Toolkit provides the command line tool wasm2wat that translates a .wasm file into the human-readable .wat format, as well as a basic decompiler called wasm2c.
  • The web-based WebAssembly Studio IDE exposes features for extracting .wasm files into interesting formats, including translations to x86-64 produced by the Firefox SpiderMonkey JIT engine.
  • Radare2 can disassemble instructions, though it doesn’t reconstruct control flow graphs just yet.

Unfortunately, few of these tools are interactive or familiar to us. If we could analyze .wasm files in IDA Pro, like we do with .exe and .so files, then we might be better prepared for malware distributed as WebAssembly.

The idawasm IDA Pro plugin is a loader and processor module that enables analysts to review WebAssembly modules using a familiar interface. Let’s take a peek at some of its major features.

Whirlwind Tour of idawasm

Once you’ve installed idawasm, you can load .wasm files into IDA Pro. The "Load a new file" dialog will indicate when the loader module recognizes a WebAssembly module. Currently, the plugin supports the MVP (version 1) release of WebAssembly, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: IDA Pro loading a WebAssembly module

The processor module then gets to work and reconstructs the control flow, which enables IDA’s graph mode. This makes it easy to identify high-level control constructs, such as if statements and while loops. On the FLARE team, we’ve found that when a C program is compiled for WebAssembly, the resulting control flow graphs mirror those of an x86 compilation target. Although the specific instructions differ, our techniques and intuitions we’ve learned for x86 apply to wasm too. Note how easy it is to identify the pair of if statements in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Control flow graph of WebAssembly instructions

In addition to control flow, the processor module parses and renders function names and types using metadata embedded with .wasm files. It also extracts cross-references to global variables, enabling an analyst to “List cross-references” and find code that manipulates interesting values. Of course, all of the elements that idawasm parses can be interactively renamed and commented. Therefore, you can record knowledge about WebAssembly malware samples in .idb files and share them with other analysts.

For example, Figure 3 shows how an analyst has renamed local variables and added comments that explain how the function frame is manipulated during a function prologue.

Figure 3: Annotated WebAssembly in IDA Pro

When the idawasm processor detects that a WebAssembly module was compiled by LLVM, it enables enhanced analysis. LLVM uses primitives provided by the WebAssembly specification to implement a function frame stack in global memory used for mutable function-local variables. In the function prologue, the first few instructions allocate the frame on this global stack, while the epilogue cleans it up prior to return. idawasm automatically finds references to the global frame stack pointer and reconstructs the frame layout of each function. Using this information, the processor updates IDA’s stack frame structures and marks immediate constants as offsets into these structures. This means that many more instruction operands are actually symbols that can be commented and renamed, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Automated reconstruction of function frame

By convention, WebAssembly compilers emit instructions that reference variables in Single Static Assignment (SSA) form. This is a benefit to browser engines, because code that is already in SSA form is easier to import into analysis systems such as optimizers and JIT engines. Using SSA form is why even the simplest functions have dozens or hundreds of local variables.

But as a human, SSA form is tedious to analyze since we must trace operations across many separate local variables. To help us out, idawasm includes a WebAssembly emulator that can track instructions at a symbolic level. This enables us to collapse a sequence of simple-but-related instructions into a single complex expression.

To use it, we select a region of instructions within a single basic block and run the script. The script emulates the instructions, simplifies their effects, and renders the effect to global variables, locals, memory, and the stack. Figure 5 shows how a function’s prologue is simplified to a single global variable update:

Figure 5: show effects of function frame allocation

When there are many arithmetic operations, often simplifies into a single meaningful expression. For example, Figure 6 shows how 32 instructions boil down into a single XOR across two input bytes:

Figure 6: simplifying many instructions to a complex instruction


idawasm is an IDA Pro plugin that enables support for WebAssembly modules via a loader and processor. This lets analysts use a familiar interface to reverse engineer .wasm files and share their work with others. The script can also be helpful for understanding the effects of long streams of WebAssembly instructions. Now dealing with this new file format and architecture won’t be as scary, so head on over to the idawasm GitHub project to start using it!