Hidden messages in JavaScript property names (#blogPost)

Recently I came across this tweet by @FakeUnicode. It included a JavaScript snippet which looked pretty harmless but resulted in a hidden message being alerted. I took me a while to understand what’s going on so I thought that docum…

This content originally appeared on Stefan Judis Web Development and was authored by Stefan Judis

Recently I came across this tweet by @FakeUnicode. It included a JavaScript snippet which looked pretty harmless but resulted in a hidden message being alerted. I took me a while to understand what's going on so I thought that documenting the steps I took could be interesting to someone.

The snippet was the following:

for(A in {A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????:0}){

So, what are you expecting to happen here?

It uses a for in loop which iterates over enumerable properties of an object. There is only the property A in it so I thought it's an alert showing up presenting the letter A. Well... I was wrong. :D

Hidden message alerted coming from a property name

This surprised me and I started debugging using the Chrome console.

The discovery of hidden code points

Section titled The discovery of hidden code points

The first thing I did was simplifying the snippet to see what's going on.

for(A in {A:0}){console.log(A)};
// A

Hmm... okay nothing going on here. So I continued.

for(A in {A:0}){console.log(escape(A))};
// A%uDB40%uDD6C%uDB40%uDD77%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD79%uDB40%uDD73%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD62%uDB40%uDD65%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD77%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD72%uDB40%uDD79%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD6F%uDB40%uDD66%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD4A%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD76%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD73%uDB40%uDD63%uDB40%uDD72%uDB40%uDD69%uDB40%uDD70%uDB40%uDD74%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD63%uDB40%uDD6F%uDB40%uDD6E%uDB40%uDD74%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD69%uDB40%uDD6E%uDB40%uDD69%uDB40%uDD6E%uDB40%uDD67%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD71%uDB40%uDD75%uDB40%uDD6F%uDB40%uDD74%uDB40%uDD65%uDB40%uDD73%uDB40%uDD2E%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD4E%uDB40%uDD6F%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD71%uDB40%uDD75%uDB40%uDD6F%uDB40%uDD74%uDB40%uDD65%uDB40%uDD73%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD3D%uDB40%uDD20%uDB40%uDD73%uDB40%uDD61%uDB40%uDD66%uDB40%uDD65%uDB40%uDD21

Holy! Where's all this coming from?

So I took a step back and had a look at the length of the string.

for(A in {A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????:0}){console.log(A.length)};
// 129

Interesting. Next, I copied the A from the object and already discovered that the Chrome console was dealing with something hidden here because the cursor was "stuck" for several left/right key strokes.

But let's have a look at what's in there and the get the values of all the 129 code units:

const propertyName = 'A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????';
for(let i = 0; i < propertyName.length; i++) {
  // to get code unit values use charCodeAt
// A
// 65
// �
// 56128
// �
// 56684
// ...

What you see there is the letter A which has the code unit value 65 followed by several code units somewhere around 55 and 56 thousand which by console.log are displayed with the well-known question mark meaning that the system doesn't know how to handle this code unit.

Surrogate pairs in JavaScript

These values are parts of so called surrogate pairs which are used to represent code points that have a value bigger than 16 bit (or in other words have a code point value bigger than 65536). This is needed because Unicode itself defines 1,114,112 different code points and the string format used by JavaScript is UTF-16. This means that only the first 65536 code points defined in Unicode can be represented in a single code unit in JavaScript.

A bigger value can then be evaluated by applying a crazy formula to the pair which results then in a value being bigger than 65536.

Shameless plug: I give a talk on exactly this topic which might help you understand concepts of code points, emojis, and surrogate pairs.

So what we discovered were 129 code units of which 128 are surrogate pairs representing 64 code points. So what are these code points?

To retrieve code point values from a string there is the really handy for of loop which iterates over string code points (and not over code units like the first for loop) and also the ... operator which uses for of under the hood.

// (65) ["A", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?", "?"]

So, console.log doesn't even know how to display these resulting code points so let's check what we're dealing with in detail.

// to get code point values use codePointAt
console.log([...'A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????'].map(c => c.codePointAt(0)));
// [65, 917868, 917879, ...]

Side note: be aware that there are two different functions when dealing with code units and code points in JavaScript ?? charCodeAt and codePointAt. They behave slightly different so you might want to have a look.

Identifiers names in JavaScript objects

The code points 917868, 917879 and the following are part of the Variation Selectors Supplement in Unicode. Variation selectors in Unicode are used to specify standardized variation sequences for mathematical symbols, emoji symbols, 'Phags-pa letters, and CJK unified ideographs corresponding to CJK compatibility ideographs. These are usually not meant to be used alone.

Okay cool, but why does this matter?

When you head over to the ECMAScript spec you find out that property identifier names can include more than just "normal characters".

Identifier ::
  IdentifierName but not ReservedWord
IdentifierName ::
  IdentifierName IdentifierPart
IdentifierStart ::
  \ UnicodeEscapeSequence
IdentifierPart ::

So what you see above is that an identifier can consist of an IdentifierName and an IdentifierPart. The important part is the definition for IdentifierPart. As long as it's not the first character of an identifier the following identifier names are completely valid:

const examples = {
  // UnicodeCombiningMark example
  somethingi\u0302: 'I + COMBINING CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT',
  // UnicodeDigit example
  something١: 'ARABIC-INDIC DIGIT ONE',
  something\u0661: 'ARABIC-INDIC DIGIT ONE',
  // UnicodeConnectorPunctuation example
  something﹍: 'DASHED LOW LINE',
  something\ufe4d: 'DASHED LOW LINE',
  // ZWJ and ZWNJ example
  something\u200c: 'ZERO WIDTH NON JOINER',
  something\u200d: 'ZERO WIDTH JOINER'

So when you evaluate this expression you get the following result

  somethingî: "ARABIC-INDIC DIGIT ONE",
  something١: "ARABIC-INDIC DIGIT ONE"
  something﹍: "DASHED LOW LINE",
  something: "ZERO-WIDTH NON-JOINER",
  something: "ZERO-WIDTH JOINER"

This brings me to my learning of the day. ?

According to the ECMAScript spec:

Two IdentifierName that are canonically equivalent according to the Unicode standard are not equal unless they are represented by the exact same sequence of code units.

This means the two object identifier keys can look exactly the same but consist of different code units and this means that they'll be both included in the object. Like in this case which has the code unit value 00ee and the character i with a trailing COMBINING CIRCUMFLEX ACCENT. So they're not the same and it looks like you've got doubled properties included in your object. The same goes for the keys with a trailing Zero-Width joiner or Zero-Width non-joiner. They look the same but are not!

But back to topic: the Variation Selectors Supplement values we found belong to the UnicodeCombiningMark category which makes them a valid identifier name (even when they're not visible). They're invisible because most likely the system only shows the result of them when used in a valid combination.

The escape function and some string replacement

So what the escape function does is that it goes over all the code units and escapes every unit. This means it grabs the starting letter A and all the parts of the surrogate pairs and simply transforms them to strings again. The values that don't have been visible will be "stringified". This is the long sequence you saw in the beginning of the article.


The trick now is that @FakeUnicode picked specific Variation Selectors namely the ones that end with a number that maps back to an actual character. Let's look at an example.

// a valid surrogate pair sequence
// %6C ?? 6C (hex) === 108 (dec) ?? LATIN SMALL LETTER L
// 'l'

One thing that looks a bit cryptic is that the example uses an empty array [] as string replacement value which will be evaluated using toString() which means that it evaluates to ''.

An empty string does the job, too. The reasoning for going with [] is that this way you can bypass quotes filter or something similar.

This way it's possible to encode a whole message with invisible characters.

So when we look at this example again:

for(A in {A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????:0}){

What happens is:

  • A????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????:0- the A includes a lot of "hidden code units"
  • these characters become visible using escape
  • a mapping is performed using replace
  • the mapping result will be unescaped again to be displayed in the alert window

I think this is pretty cool stuff!

Additional resources

This little example covers a lot of Unicode topics. So if you want to read more I highly recommend you to read Mathias Bynens articles on Unicode and JavaScript:

Reply to Stefan

This content originally appeared on Stefan Judis Web Development and was authored by Stefan Judis

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