Pushing Bits with Python

By Chris, 06/17/2016, in Code & tutorials

When was the last time you needed to directly manipulate a bunch of binary data? Most engineers run across it only in the context of bit flags and masks in C++ or Java.

It's a little rarer to muck about with direct binary file data. It's nonetheless quite a bit of fun, and a good party trick1. And, how are you going to solve the next Cicada 3301 puzzle without being able to XOR together a bunch of Tor Onion addresses with mysterious audio signals2?

If you want to learn, then good news -- Python has you covered! The awesome bitstring module makes it simple to take raw data in whatever form you have it (bits, hex, octal, a file stream) and inspect or manipulate it. Be sure to pip install bitstring to follow along. Away we go!

Create a BitArray from scratch

To start, let's use bitstring to create a raw 12-bit binary object, and initialize it to 256. Then we'll take a look at the object in a bunch of different raw formats.

from bitstring import *

twofiftysix = BitArray(uint=256, length=12)

Note that we specified the length of the BitArray so that we have enough bits to convert to Hex and Octal. If we just took 256 as 100000000, then we can't display a corresponding Hex string because each Hex character represents 4 bits, and 256 in binary is only 9 bits long. By specifying a length of 12, our BitArray is padded with 3 leading 0s, and we can convert cleanly into Hex and Octal.

Show me the money!

print "Int: %s, Binary: %s, Hex: %s, Oct: %s" %
    (twofiftysix.uint, twofiftysix.bin, twofiftysix.hex, twofiftysix.oct)

> 'Int: 256, Binary: 000100000000, Hex: 100, Oct: 0400'


We can manipulate the bits directly as well. Here we'll create a couple of BitArrays, and XOR them together. Bitstring overrides the ^ operator to perform an XOR.

bits1 = BitArray(hex='2ba49fe')
bits2 = BitArray(hex='f55e513')

print bits1.bin
print bits2.bin
print "                    XOR'ed ="
print (bits1 ^ bits2).bin
print "\nAnd in hex:"
print (bits1 ^ bits2).bin + " = '" + (bits1 ^ bits2).hex + "'"


                    XOR'ed =

In hex:
1101111011111010110011101101 = 'defaced'

Did you know 'defaced' is the longest english word you can spell with just ABCDEF! Another awesome fact for your cocktail party banter.

File type detection

Here's something a little more practical. Let's say we have 4 images, with no file extensions, called mystery1, mystery2, mystery3, and mystery4. Some quick Googling will tell us the leading bits of some common image types. We can load up the images, inspect the first bits, and figure out the file type.

types = {
    'bmp': '424d',  # Converted to ASCII, this is 'BM'
    'gif': '474946',  # Converted to ASCII, this is 'GIF'
    'jpeg': 'ffd8ff',
    'png': "89504e470d0a1a0a"

images = [

def detect(name, bits):
    for img_type, pattern in types.items():
            if bits.hex.index(pattern) == 0:
                print "%s is %s (first bits were %s)" % (name, img_type, bits.hex[:8])
    print "Could not identify %s. First bits: %s" % (name, bits.hex[:4])

for i in images:
    with open(i, 'r') as f:
        img = Bits(f)
        detect(i, img)

Problem solved!

mystery1 is jpeg (first bits were ffd8ffe1)
mystery2 is gif (first bits were 47494638)
mystery3 is png (first bits were 89504e47)
mystery4 is bmp (first bits were 424d0072)

Converting to & from ASCII

One last trick; using the built-in binascii library, we can convert ascii to bits and back.

# The built-in binascii library can convert binary to bits
hex = binascii.hexlify('foobar')
bits = BitArray(hex=hex)
print bits.bin

We get:


...which we can then convert back to an ASCII string:

print binascii.unhexlify(bits.hex)
> foobar


1: If this does not impress, you are obviously going to the wrong sorts of parties.

2: For what it's worth, this is literally the reason the learned how to do this in the first place. Is that embarassing, or cool? I guess it depends what kind of party you're at.

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