How to XOR Bitstrings in Elixir


Use :crypto.exor/2 from crypto module in Erlang standard library.

Chronicle of My Decent into Rabbit Hole

It started with a simple quiz from Cryptography course in Coursera. I was given a plain text (pt) and a cipher text (ct) encrypted with one-time pad, so I just had to do an XOR of ct and pt to figure out the one-time pad key.

I didn’t know how to do that in Elixir, so I decided to figure it out.

The plain text was encoded in hexadecimal and has to be converted to binary first. I searched and found that Base module had decode16/2 function.

{:ok, ct} = Base.decode16("7427a99a4e7a45683a")
** (MatchError) no match of right hand side value: :error

# Why is this function case sensitive?

{:ok, ct} = Base.decode16("7427a99a4e7a45683a", case: :lower)
{:ok, <<116, 39, 169, 154, 78, 122, 69, 104, 58>>}

pt = "menagerie"

I tried straight-up XOR.

use Bitwise
ct ^^^ pt
** (ArithmeticError) bad argument in arithmetic expression
    :erlang.bxor(ct, pt)

Well, that didn’t work. I now had to figure out how to XOR each of corresponding bytes in the pair of bitstrings. Enum is the obvious first choice for iteration, but bitstring is not an Enumerable so that was out of option. I decided to use generators instead.

for << a::8 <- ct, b::8 <- pt >>, do: a ^^^ b
** (CompileError) iex:60: undefined function <-/2
    (elixir) src/elixir_bitstring.erl:33: :elixir_bitstring.expand_bitstr/4
    (elixir) src/elixir_bitstring.erl:10: :elixir_bitstring.expand/3
    (elixir) src/elixir_for.erl:44: :elixir_for.expand/2
    (stdlib) lists.erl:1354: :lists.mapfoldl/3
    (elixir) src/elixir_for.erl:31: :elixir_for.expand/3

No multiple generators for bitstrings, I guess. Even if that worked, it wouldn’t have done what I wanted. Next idea was to turn bitstrings into lists and operate on them. Like this.

defmodule XorLists do
  def xor_lists(list1, list2) do
    _xor_lists(list1, list2, [])
    |> Enum.reverse() 
    |> :binary.list_to_bin
  defp _xor_lists([], _, acc), do: acc
  defp _xor_lists(_, [], acc), do: acc
  defp _xor_lists([h1|t1], [h2|t2], acc), do: _xor_lists(t1, t2, [acc|h1 ^^^ h2])

list_ct = for<<a::bytes-size(1) <- ct >>, do: a
[116, 39, 169, 154, 78, 122, 69, 104, 58]
list_pt = String.to_charlist(pt)
XorLists.xor_lists(list_ct, list_pt)
<<25, 66, 199, 251, 41, 31, 55, 1, 95>>

It works well and I got the one-time pad key. But at this point, someone in IRC told me to look into :crypto.exor.

:crypto.exor(ct, pt)
<<25, 66, 199, 251, 41, 31, 55, 1, 95>>

Well, it seems that I didn’t have to go through all of that. At least I got it right and learned much more about binaries in Elixir, though.