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QoTW #37: How does SSL work ?

2012-10-05 by . 2 comments

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In this week’s question, we will talk about SSL. This question was asked by @Polynomial, who noticed that our site did not have yet a generic question on how SSL works. There were already some questions on the concept of SSL, but nothing really detailed.

Three answers were given, one by @Luc, and two by myself (because I got really verbose and there is a size limit on answers). The three answers concentrated on distinct aspects of SSL; together, they can explain why SSL works: SSL appears to be decently secure and we can see how this is achieved.

My first answer is a painfully long description of the detailed protocol as it appears on the wire. I wrote it as an introduction to the intricacies of the protocol; what information it contains must be known if you want to understand the details of the cryptographic attacks which have been tried on SSL. This is not much more than RFC-reading, but I still made an effort to merge four RFC (for the four protocol versions: SSLv3, TLS 1.0, 1.1 and 1.2) into one text which should be readable linearly. If you plan on implementing your own SSL client or server (a very instructive exercise, which I recommend for its pedagogical virtues), then I hope that this answer will be a useful reading guide for the actual standards.

What the protocol description shows is that at one point, during the initial steps of the SSL connection (the “handshake”), the server sends its “certificate” to the client (actually, a certificate chain), and then, a few steps later, the client appears to have gained some knowledge of the server’s public key, with which asymmetric cryptography is then performed. The SSL/TLS protocol handles these certificates as opaque blobs. What usually happens is that the client decodes the blobs as X.509 certificates and validates them with regards to a set of known trust anchors. The validation yields the server’s public key, with some guarantee that it really is the key owned by the intended server.

This certificate validation is the first foundation of SSL, as it is used for the Web (i.e. HTTPS). @Luc’s answer contains clear explanations on why certificates are used, and on what the guarantees rely on. Most enlightening is this excerpt:

You have to trust the CA not to make certificates as they please. When organizations like Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla trust a CA though, the CA must have audits; another organization checks on them periodically to make sure everything is still running according to the rules.

So the whole system relies on big companies checking on each other. Some of the trusted CA are governmental (from various governments) but the most often used are private business (e.g. Thawte, Verisign…). An important point to make is that it suffices to subvert or corrupt one CA to get a fake certificate which will be trusted worldwide; so this really is as robust as the weakest of the hundred or so trusted CA which browser vendors include by default. Nevertheless, it works quite well (attacks on CA are rare).

Note that since the certificate parts are quite isolated in the protocol itself (the certificates are just opaque blobs), SSL/TLS can be used without certificate validation in setups where the client “just knows” the server’s public key. This happens a lot in closed environments, such as embedded systems which talk to a mother server. Also, there are a few certificate-less cipher suites, such as the ones which use SRP.

This brings us to the second foundation of SSL: its intricate usage of cryptographic algorithms. Asymmetric encryption (RSA) or key exchange (Diffie-Hellman, or an elliptic curve variant), symmetric encryption with stream or block ciphers, hashing, message authentication codes (HMAC)… the whole paraphernalia is there. Assembling all these primitives into a coherent and secure protocol is not easy at all, and the history of SSL is a rather lengthy sequence of attacks and fixes. My second answer gives details on some of them. What must be remembered is that SSL is state of the art: every attack which has ever been conceived has been tried on SSL, because it is a high-value target. SSL got a lot of exposure, and its survival is testimony to its strength. Sure, it was occasionally harmed, but it was always salvaged. It is rather telling that the recent crop of attacks from Duong and Rizzo (ASP.NET padding oracles, BEAST, CRIME) are actually old attacks which Duong and Rizzo applied; their merit is not in inventing them (they didn’t) but in showing how practical they can be in a Web context (and masterfully did they show it).

From all of this we can list the reasons which make SSL work:

  • The binding between the alleged public key and the intended server is addressed. Granted, it is done with X.509 certificates, which have been designed by the Adversary to drive implementors crazy; but at least the problem is dealt with upfront.
  • The encryption system includes checked integrity, with a decent primitive (HMAC). The encryption uses CBC mode for block ciphers and the MAC is included in the MAC-then-encrypt way: both characteristics are suboptimal, and security with these choices requires special care in the specification (the need of random unpredictible IV, basis of the BEAST attack, fixed in TLS 1.1) and in the implementation (information leak through the padding, used in padding oracle attacks, fixed when Microsoft finally consented to notice the warning which was raised by Vaudenay in 2002).
  • All internal key expansion and checksum tasks are done with a specific function (called “the PRF”) which builds on standard primitives (HMAC with cryptographic hash functions).
  • The client and the server send random values, which are included in all PRF invocations, and protect against replay attacks.
  • The handshake ends with a couple of checksums, which are covered by the encryption+MAC layer, and the checksums are computed over all of the handshake messages (and this is important in defeating a lot of nasty things that an active attacker could otherwise do).
  • Algorithm agility. The cryptographic algorithms (cipher suites) and other features (protocol version, compression) are negotiated between the client and server, which allows for a smooth and gradual transition. This is how current browsers and servers can use AES encryption, which was defined in 2001, several years after SSLv3. It also facilitates recovery from attacks on some features, which can be deactivated on the client and/or the server (e.g. compression, which is used in CRIME).

All these characteristics contribute to the strength of SSL.

Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at security.stackexchange.com.

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