This blog post is inspired by a question on Information Security Stack Exchange about two weeks ago. The question seems to have attracted quite a bit of attention (some of it in an attempt to defend the flawed scheme) so I would like to write a more thorough analysis of the scheme.
Let us start by discussing the current standard for authentication. Passwords. No one is arguing that passwords are perfect. Far from it. Passwords, at least passwords in use by most people are incredibly weak. Short, predictable, easy to guess. This problem is made worse by the fact that most applications do not store passwords in a secure fashion. Instead of storing passwords in a secure fashion, many applications store passwords either in plaintext, unsalted or hashed with weak hashing algorithms.
However, passwords aren’t going anywhere because they do have several advantages that no other authentication scheme provides.
- Passwords are convenient. They do not require users to carry around additional equipment for authentication.
- Password authentication is easy to setup. There are countless libraries in every single programming language out there designed to assist you with the task.
- Most importantly, passwords can be secure if used in the right way. In this case, the “right way” involves users using long, unique and randomly generated passwords for each application and that the application stores passwords hashed with a strong algorithm like bcrypt, scrypt or pbkdf2.
So, let us compare Steve Gibson’s SQRL scheme against the golden standard of password authentication. Long, unique and randomly generated passwords hashed with bcrypt, scrypt or pbkdf2 in addition to a one time password generated using the HOTP or TOTP algorithms.
(I am going to be borrowing heavily from the answers to the original Information Security Stack Exchange answer since many excellent points have already been made.)
Authentication and identification is combined
No annoying account creation: Suppose you wish to simply comment on a blog posting. Rather than going through the annoying process of “creating an account” to uniquely identify yourself to a new website (which such websites know causes them to lose valuable feedback traffic), you can login using your SQRL identity. If the site hasn’t encountered your SQRL ID before, it might prompt you for a “handle name” to use for your postings. But either way, you immediately have an absolutely secure and unique identity on that system where no one can possibly impersonate you, and any time you ever return, you will be immediately and uniquely known. No account, no usernames or passwords. Nothing to remember or to forget. Your SQRL identity eliminates all of that.
What Gibson describes as an advantage to his scheme I consider a huge weakness. Consider a traditional username/password authentication process. What happens when my password gets compromised? I simply request for a password reset through another (hopefully still secure) medium such as my email address. This is impossible with Gibson’s scheme. If my SQRL master key gets compromised, there is absolutely no way for the application to verify my identity through another medium. Sure, the application could associate my SQRL key with a particular email address or similar, but that would defeat one of the supposed advantages of the SQRL scheme in the first place.
Single point of failure
The proposed SQRL scheme derives all application specific keys from a single master key. This essentially provides a single juicy target for attackers to go after. Remember how Mat Honan got his online life ruined due to interconnected accounts? Imagine that but with all your online identities. All your identities are belong to us.
So how is this master key to your online life stored? On a smartphone. Not exactly the safest of places what with all the malware out there targetting iOS or Android devices. You have bigger problems if you are using Windows Phone or Blackberry. 😉
People also have the tendency to misplace their smartphones. When combined with the previous point of no other means to identify yourself to the application, this would be a very good way of locking yourself out of your “house”
Not exactly very reassuring.
Social Engineering attacks
@tylerl has a very good point about this in his answer. I don’t see a way for me to write it in a clearer way to I will quote him verbatim.
So, for example, a phishing site can display an authentic login QR code which logs in the attacker instead of the user. Gibson is confident that users will see the name of the bank or store or site on the phone app during authentication and will therefore exercise sufficient vigilance to thwart attacks. History suggests this unlikely, and the more reasonable expectation is that seeing the correct name on the app will falsely reassure the user into thinking that the site is legitimate because it was able to trigger the familiar login request on the phone. The caution already beaten in to the heads of users regarding password security does not necessarily translate to new authentication techniques like this one, which is what makes this app likely inherently less resistant to social engineering.
The three major flaws I have pointed out is definitely enough to kill SQRL’s viability as a replacement for password authentication. The scheme not only fails to offer any benefits over conventional methods such as storing passwords in a password manager, it has several major flaws that Gibson fails to address in a satisfactory manner.
This blog post has been cross-posted on http://www.infosecstudent.com/2013/10/debunking-sqrl/
CountZero asked this interesting question: Why is CTRL+ALT+DEL required at login on Windows systems?
His perspective was that it adds an extra step before login, so is bad from a usability perspective, so there must be a reason.
This got a lot of attention, but looking at the top answers:
Adnan‘s answer briefly describes the Secure Attention Key – the Windows kernel will only notify the Winlogon process about this key combination, which prevents it being hijacked by an application, malware or some other process. In this way, when you press Ctrl+Alt+Del, you can be sure that you’re typing your password in the real login form and not some other fake process trying to steal your password. For example, an application which looks exactly like the windows login. An equivalent of this in Linux is Ctrl+Alt+Pause
Polynomial‘s comment on the answer further expands on the history of this notification:
As a side note: when you say it’s “wired”, what that actually means is that Ctrl+Alt+Del is a mapped to a hardware defined interrupt (set in the APIC, a physical chip on your motherboard). The interrupt was, historically, triggered by the BIOS’ keyboard handler routine, but these days it’s less clear cut. The interrupt is mapped to an ISR which is executed at ring0, which triggers the OS’s internal handler for the event. When no ISR for the interrupt is set, it (usually) causes an ACPI power-cycle event, also known as a hard reboot.
ThomasPornin describes an attack which would work if the Secure Attention Key didn’t exist:
You could make an application which goes full-screen, grabs the keyboard, and displays something which looks like the normal login screen, down to the last pixel. You then log on the machine, launch the application, and go away until some unsuspecting victim finds the machine, tries to log on, and gives his username and password to your application. Your application then just has to simulate a blue screen of death, or maybe to actually log the user on, to complete the illusion.
The Windows (NT) kernel is designed to reserve the notification of this key combination to a single process: Winlogon. So, as long as the Windows installation itself is working as it should – no third party application can respond to this key combination (if it could, it could present a fake logon window and keylog your password 😉
So there you have it – as long as your OS hasn’t been hacked, CTRL+ALT+DEL protects you.
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.
Two weeks ago, a phishing vulnerability in the text messaging function of Apple’s iPhone was discovered by pod2g. The statement released by Apple said that iMessage, Apple’s proprietary instant messaging service was secure and suggested using it instead.
Apple takes security very seriously. When using iMessage instead of SMS, addresses are verified which protects against these kinds of spoofing attacks. One of the limitations of SMS is that it allows messages to be sent with spoofed addresses to any phone, so we urge customers to be extremely careful if they’re directed to an unknown website or address over SMS.
This prompted a rather large interest in the security community over how secure iMessage really is, given that the technology behind it is not public information. There have been several blog post and articles about that topic, including one right here on security.stackexchange – The inner workings of iMessage security?
The answer given by dr jimbob provided a few clues, sourced from several links.
It appears that the connection between the phone and Apple’s servers are encrypted with SSL/TLS (unclear which version) using a certificate self signed by Apple with a 2048 bit RSA key.
My thoughts – Is iMessage truly more secure?
Compared to traditional SMS, yes. I do consider iMessage more secure. For one thing, it uses SSL/TLS to encrypt the connection between the phone and Apple’s servers. Compared to the A5/1 cipher used to encrypt SMS communications, this is much more secure.
However, iMessage still should not be used to send sensitive information. All data so far indicates that the messages are stored in plaintext in Apple’s servers. This presents several vulnerabilities. Apple or anyone able to compromise Apple’s servers would be able to read your messages – for as long as their cached.
Treat iMessage as you would emails or SMS communications. It is safe enough for daily usage, but highly sensitive information should not be sent through it.
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.
A few weeks ago, Kyle Rozendo asked a question on the IT Security StackExchange about Cracking a PCI terminal using a trojan based on the card. It caught my attention, so I started digging a little deeper into this matter.
There are some difficulties involved in hacking an ATM:
- Often proprietary software
- Often custom OS or modified embedded Windows
This means a high level of understanding is necessary, as well as access to ATMs to test on. All of the attacks I’ve dug up had some level of inside information before they were constructed.
2009: Diebold gets targeted by Skimer-A Trojan
One of the first serious hacks I came by was a Trojan found in ATMs in eastern Europe around 2009. As reported by Sophos, the attack was aimed at Diebold Opteva ATMs.
The Trojan was named Skimer-A. It’s main goals were:
- Steal information (card numbers and PINs)
- Allow remote access
- Drop more malware
The hack required physical access to the machine. The perpetrators used social engineering, to persuade stores to allow them physical access to the machine after hours, so they could install the virus. After an analysis of the malware, Diebold concluded the attackers also had to have inside information about the systems. A lot of the functions used to extract information were part of the ATMs operation software, but were never documented. They also knew administrative passwords and unlocked the custom Windows CE version Diebold used as well as misconfiguring its firewall. (This was concluded from the security update by Diebold.)
2010: ATM Jackpotting by Barnaby Jack
In 2010, McAfee security expert, Barnaby Jack presented his “ATM Jackpotting” at Blackhat. He was able, after careful analysis with physical access to a few teller machines, to write a tool that could remotely exploit an ATM and patch it so you can call a custom menu with an access code or remotely start emptying the ATM’s money cassettes (hence Jackpotting).
The attack is aimed at standalone and hole-in-the-wall ATMs. The ATMs often run:
- ARM/XSCALE processor
- Windows CE
- TCP/IP, Dial Up or CDMA wireless
- Support for SSL
- 3DES encrypted pin pad
In his research he used 3 different ATMs (he ordered these and got them delivered at home). He started his research by looking at the internal workings and, although there were some security measures in place, once a he had physical access many possibilities started to appear. He started by looking for a way to modify the boot sequence, because the ATM boots into its proprietary software. This means he has to patch the system so he can get access to a shell. He accomplished this by using a JTAG debugger.
Using the JTAG module, he was able to send a break when starting the difference services. After this he could launch a proper shell.
This work was all necessary to reverse engineer the software and develop the actual attacks:
- Walk up attack by “upgrading” the firmware with a flashcard (this required physical access, and a key to open the machine and access the motherboard – such keys are standard, and easy to find on the Internet).
- Remote configuration attack, firmware can be upgraded remotely
The latter is the most interesting attack, but there are some security defenses in place that make a bruteforce attack impossible. However Barnaby Jack was able to find a vulnerability in the authentication mechanism which allowed him to log in to the machine. He wrote a tool to do these attacks, named “Dillinger”. Now the problem he faced was how to find the ATMs on the internet.
Whilst ATMs support TCP/IP, about 95% of all ATMs still connect to the internet using Dial Up. This means War Dialing using a VOIP tool like WarVox, makes it possible to go and find ATMs on the net. Most of the ATMs use a proprietary protocol, so once you identify this protocol you know an ATM is listening on the other side and you can go and try to exploit it. Once you have access to the ATM you can spawn a shell and install a rootkit. You will still need to identify where the ATM is physically located so you can go and collect the money. This is done by reading the configuration file (often the address is present on the receipts).
The rootkit to keep access to the teller is called “Scrooge”. It hides itself on the machine. One difficulty is that the kit needs to be modified for almost every version of ATM software that’s running because of different peripherals and non-standard ways to communicate. After installing the kit you can walk up to the ATM and enter a keys equence on the keypad, this brings up a custom menu that allows you to jackpot the ATM (completely empty it) or give you a specific amount of cash. This can also be done remotely.
Barnaby suggests following countermeasures:
- Better physical locks
- Executable signing at the kernel level
- Implement Trusted Environment
- Put them on a seperate, firewalled network
- Disable the Remote Management System if you aren’t using it
- More and better code auditing
You can find the complete presentation on Vimeo.
2012: MWR InfoSecurity reveals chip and PIN vulnerability
Chip and PIN is a system where one can insert his banking or credit card into a small machine and make an electronic payment. In the U.K. there is a government backed initiative to make these as widespread as possible. MWR InfoSecurity, a Basingstoke (U.K.) based security company, revealed a way to attack these terminals with a custom PIN card. The attacks demonstrated at Blackhat 2012:
- Producing a fake receipt, making a cashier think the payment was successful
- Infect PIN entry devices to collect card data and harvest these with another rogue card
- Network and interface attack
Apparently the exploits involved were present in normal computers more than a decade ago, making you wonder why this problem was ignored or went undetected. Especially when Cambridge University researchers warned banks of the lack of security in these type of machines as early as 2010. Issues included unencrypted and unauthenticated communication between terminal and remote administration server, which makes a man in the middle attack dead easy. At the moment of writing there hasn’t appeared any white paper (I’m aware of or had access to). The devices affected were produced by VeriFone.
If we look at the attacks over time, it becomes clear that they can be deployed faster and faster. The hacks still require a high level of knowledge and understanding of these systems, but because there are some really basic security issues like bad code reviewing, unencrypted/unauthenticated communication and bad physical security, the attacks are seemingly easy to deploy. It’s up to the producers of these machines to start securing them. Companies still rely too much on security through obscurity and do not expect an attack because a hacker would need insider information. Previous articles suggest that it’s not extremely hard to get that information.
- Geoff White,Channel 4,Credit card readers can be hacked for details, 29 July 2012
- Anonymous, Infosecurity, Russians hack Diebold ATM software, 19 March 2009
- Anonymous, Sophos, Troj/Skimer-A, 17 March 2009
- Pat Carroll, Finextra, Protecting Pin Pad Payment, 18 July 2012
- Vanja Svajcer, Naked Security, Credit card skimming malware targeting ATMs, 17 March 2009
- Graham Cluley, Naked Security, Is there malware lurking in your ATM?, 17 March 2009
- Graham Cluley , Naked Security, More details on the Diebold ATM Trojan horse case, 18 March 2009
- Warwick Ashford, Computer Weekly, BlackHat 2012: UK firm MWR InfoSecurity reveals chip and PIN vulnerability, 26 July 2012
My workplace recently, for some definitions of recent, switched the company we use for certificate signing to InCommon. There were quite a few technical/administrative advantages, and since we’re educational, price was a big factor. Everyone has been really happy with the results. Well, except for this one thing. InCommon is not a top level trusted CA, they chain through AddTrust. This isn’t actually all that big a deal, really, as AddTrust is a common CA to have in your trusted bundle, and all we had to do was configure the InCommon chain certificate on our web servers. Other than the occasional chain breakage on some mobile browsers everything seemed peachy. Except, that is, when we ran a vulnerability scan.
Shortly after we switched we started noticing some odd alerts coming out of our vulnerability scans. At first one or two were reporting that the SSL certificate could not be validated. We manually verified the certificates, declared them as false positives, and moved on. Over time more and more systems started reporting this error. Eventually the problem had propagated out far enough that I started digging into it. For reference, the PluginID we’re looking at here is 51192.
I learned two very important, and relevant, pieces of information that day:
- Nessus was not properly validating the chain.
- Chain Certificate files are a little stranger than expected.
Instead of using a system default CA bundle, Nessus ships with its own. You can find the bundle, called known_CA.inc, in the plugin directory. So on Linux systems you should be looking at /opt/nessus/lib/nessus/plugins/known_CA.inc. If you are using a Windows scanner, well, you’re on your own. This is a fairly standard looking CA bundle, and I found that AddTrust was, in fact, included. I did not, however, find any reference to InCommon. Since they are somehow related to Internet2 I looked for them, also no luck.
This isn’t really that big a deal, though. Nessus will also look for, but will not update, a secondary bundle called custom_CA.inc. In most cases, this file would be used to include a local CA, for instance in a closed corporate network where one generates self-signed certificates as a matter of course. However, since you can use it to include arbitrary CA certs we can use it to fix our problem.
It’s easy enough for me to get the intermediate cert, what with it being public and all. This is where things started to get a little weird, though. In order to stay consistent with the known_CA.inc I included the certificate as a decoded X.509+PEM. Placing only the intermediate cert in this file resulted in, again, the certificate chain failing to validate. Next, what follows is a Nessus debugging tip that was roughly an hour’s worth of swearing in the discovering:
If you don’t think the web interface is showing you sufficient information, look at the plugin output in the raw XML.
You can get this by either exporting the report, or by finding it in the user’s reports folder on the scanner. What I discovered was that all of the various and sundry certificates were being read and validated. The chain, however, was being checked in the wrong order, in this case: webserver->AddTrust->InCommon.
After a little more trial and error I learned that, not only, did I need to have both the InCommon intermediate, but also the AddTrust certificates in my custom_CA.inc file, but that the order of the certs in the file also mattered. As it happens, AddTrust had to be entered first, followed by InCommon. This does make some amount of sense, when I adjusted my thought process to an actual chain where AddTrust was the “top-level”.
For completeness, I copied the newly complete custom_CA.inc file to my test webserver and included it as a chain cert using the SSLCertificateChainFile option. This is Apache httpd on Linux, you nginx or IIS folks are on your own. After removing the custom_CA.inc on the Nessus scanner and re-running the scan resulted in the certificate properly validating.
This left me in a good place in two ways:
- I now had a properly formatted custom_CA.inc file that I could put into puppet for all the scanners.
- I now also had a properly formatted chain cert file for inclusion on the web servers.
This fixes the problem from both sides, the server presenting all the correct information, as well as the scanner for cleaning up a false positive. For reference, included below is the chain cert file that was generated. As mentioned previously, it is the same format as a CA bundle. For each certificate you’ll find the ASCII text decoded certificate information, followed by the Base64 encoded PEM version of the same certificate. In my testing, Nessus would accept only the PEM versions, however I wanted to include both outputs since it appears to be the standard.
Certificate: Data: Version: 3 (0x2) Serial Number: 7f:71:c1:d3:a2:26:b0:d2:b1:13:f3:e6:81:67:64:3e Signature Algorithm: sha1WithRSAEncryption Issuer: C=SE, O=AddTrust AB, OU=AddTrust External TTP Network, CN=AddTrust External CA Root Validity Not Before: Dec 7 00:00:00 2010 GMT Not After : May 30 10:48:38 2020 GMT Subject: C=US, O=Internet2, OU=InCommon, CN=InCommon Server CA Subject Public Key Info: Public Key Algorithm: rsaEncryption Public-Key: (2048 bit) Modulus: 00:97:7c:c7:c8:fe:b3:e9:20:6a:a3:a4:4f:8e:8e: 34:56:06:b3:7a:6c:aa:10:9b:48:61:2b:36:90:69: e3:34:0a:47:a7:bb:7b:de:aa:6a:fb:eb:82:95:8f: ca:1d:7f:af:75:a6:a8:4c:da:20:67:61:1a:0d:86: c1:ca:c1:87:af:ac:4e:e4:de:62:1b:2f:9d:b1:98: af:c6:01:fb:17:70:db:ac:14:59:ec:6f:3f:33:7f: a6:98:0b:e4:e2:38:af:f5:7f:85:6d:0e:74:04:9d: f6:27:86:c7:9b:8f:e7:71:2a:08:f4:03:02:40:63: 24:7d:40:57:8f:54:e0:54:7e:b6:13:48:61:f1:de: ce:0e:bd:b6:fa:4d:98:b2:d9:0d:8d:79:a6:e0:aa: cd:0c:91:9a:a5:df:ab:73:bb:ca:14:78:5c:47:29: a1:ca:c5:ba:9f:c7:da:60:f7:ff:e7:7f:f2:d9:da: a1:2d:0f:49:16:a7:d3:00:92:cf:8a:47:d9:4d:f8: d5:95:66:d3:74:f9:80:63:00:4f:4c:84:16:1f:b3: f5:24:1f:a1:4e:de:e8:95:d6:b2:0b:09:8b:2c:6b: c7:5c:2f:8c:63:c9:99:cb:52:b1:62:7b:73:01:62: 7f:63:6c:d8:68:a0:ee:6a:a8:8d:1f:29:f3:d0:18: ac:ad Exponent: 65537 (0x10001) X509v3 extensions: X509v3 Authority Key Identifier: keyid:AD:BD:98:7A:34:B4:26:F7:FA:C4:26:54:EF:03:BD:E0:24:CB:54:1A
X509v3 Subject Key Identifier: 48:4F:5A:FA:2F:4A:9A:5E:E0:50:F3:6B:7B:55:A5:DE:F5:BE:34:5D X509v3 Key Usage: critical Certificate Sign, CRL Sign X509v3 Basic Constraints: critical CA:TRUE, pathlen:0 X509v3 Certificate Policies: Policy: X509v3 Any Policy
X509v3 CRL Distribution Points:
Full Name: URI:http://crl.usertrust.com/AddTrustExternalCARoot.crl
Authority Information Access: CA Issuers - URI:http://crt.usertrust.com/AddTrustExternalCARoot.p7c CA Issuers - URI:http://crt.usertrust.com/AddTrustUTNSGCCA.crt OCSP - URI:http://ocsp.usertrust.com
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How passwords should be hashed before storage or usage is a very common question, always triggering passionate debate. There is a simple and comprehensive answer (use bcrypt, but PBKDF2 is not bad either) which is not the end of the question since theoretically better solutions have been proposed and will be worth considering once they have withstood the test of time (i.e. “5 to 10 years in the field, and not broken yet”).
The less commonly asked question is:
why should a password be hashed?
This is what this post is about.
Encryption and Hashing
A first thing to note is that there are many people who talk about encrypted passwords but really mean hashed passwords. An encrypted password is like anything else which has been encrypted: it has been rendered unreadable through a process which used an extra piece of secret data (the key) and which can be reversed with knowledge of the same key (or of a distinct, mathematically related key, in the case of asymmetric encryption). For password hashing, on the other hand, there is no key. The hashing process is like a meat grinder: there is no key, everybody can operate it, but there is no way to get your cow back in full moo-ing state. Whereas encryption would be akin to locking the cow in a stable. Cryptographic hash functions are functions which anybody can compute, efficiently, over arbitrary inputs. They are deterministic (same input yields same output, for everybody).
Once hashed, the password is still quite useful, because even though the hashing process is not reversible, the output still contains the “essence” of the hashed password and two distinct passwords will yield, with very high probability (i.e. always, in practice), two distinct hashed values (that’s because we are talking about cryptographic hash function, not the other kind). And the hash function is deterministic, so you can always rehash a putative password and see if the result is equal to a given hash value. Thus, a hashed password is sufficient to verify whether a given password is correct or not.
This still does not tell us why we would hash a password, only that hashing a password does not forfeit the intended usage of authenticating users.
To Hash or Not To Hash ?
Let’s see the following scenario: you have a Web site, with users who can “sign in” by showing their name and password. Once signed in, users gain “extra powers” such as reading and writing data. The server must then store “something” which can be used to verify user passwords. The most basic “something” consists in the password themselves. Presumably, the passwords would be stored in a SQL database, probably along with whatever data is used by the application.
The bad thing about such “cleartext” storage of passwords is that it induces a vulnerability in the case of an attack model where the attacker could get a read-only access to the server data. If that data includes the user passwords, then the villain could use these passwords to sign in as any user and get the corresponding powers, including any write access that valid users may have. This is an edge case (attacker can read the database but not write to it). However, this is a realistic edge case. Unwanted read access to parts of a Web server database is a common consequence of an SQL injection vulnerability. This really happens.
Also, the passwords themselves can be a prized spoil of war: users are human beings, they tend to reuse passwords across several systems. Or, on the more trivial aspect of things, many users choose as password the name of their girlfriend/boyfriend/dog. So knowing the password for a user on a given site has a tactical value which extends beyond that specific site, and even having an accidental look at the passwords can be embarrassing and awkward for the most honest system administrator.
Storing only hashed passwords solves these problems as best as one can hope for. It is unavoidable that a complete dump of the server data yields enough information to “try” passwords (that’s an “offline dictionary attack”) because the dump allows the attacker to “simulate” the complete server on his own machines, and try passwords at his leisure. We just want that the attacker may not have any faster strategy. A hash function is the right tool for that. In full details, the hashing process should include a per-password random salt (stored along the hashed value) and be appropriately slow (through thousands or millions of nested iterations), but that’s not the subject of this post. Just use bcrypt.
Summary: we hash passwords to prevent an attacker with read-only access from escalating to higher power levels. Password hashing will not make your Web site impervious to attacks; it will still be hacked. Password hashing is damage containment.
A drawback of password hashing is that since you do not store the passwords themselves (but only a piece of data which is sufficient to verify a password without being able to recover it), you cannot send back their passwords to users who have forgotten them. Instead, you must select a new random password for them, or let them choose a new password. Is that an issue ? One could say that since the user forgot his old password, then that password was not easy to remember, so changing it is not a bad thing after all. Users are accustomed to such a procedure. It may surprise them if you are able to send them back their password. Some of them might even frown upon your lack of security savviness if you so demonstrates that you do not hash the stored passwords.
Password policy questions are a perennial fixture of IT Security stack exchange, and take many forms.
Take, for example, the recent XKCD comic on the subject:
Shortly after it was posted, user Billy ONeal asked directly whether the logic was sound: Is a short complex password or a long dictionary passphrase better? You will find answers that support either conclusion, as well as answers that put the trade-offs involved into context.
Of course, part of knowing how easy a password is to crack is knowing how a password cracker works. Are there state of the art techniques or theory specifically for attacking pass phrases? Are there lists of the most common words or ngrams used in passwords and pass phrases?
So we’ve got no consistent idea about what constitutes a “good” password, although we can probably guess at what weak passwords will fall first. But then who is responsible for deciding a user’s password strength? Pretend for a moment that we agree what a strong password is. Should we stop users from choosing “weak” passwords, or is it their own fault for not understanding information theory and the entropy content of their chosen string of characters?
The definitive answer is “it depends”. It depends on how valuable the assets being protected by password access are. It depends on whether the value is appreciated by you as service provider/systems administrator, or by the user as customer/asset owner (or by a combination of those roles, or by someone else). It depends on how much inconvenience you’re willing to put your users to, and on how much inconvenience your users are willing to accept.
To summarise the discussion this far: there are different ideas of what makes a good password, of who is responsible for deciding whether a password is good or bad, and of how to enforce good passwords once you do decide you want to. But all of this discussion has already put the cart before the horse. Are your passwords going to be brute-force, or will the attacker use a key logger? Maybe they’ll attack the password where it’s stored?.
Indeed, while we’re asking the big questions, why passwords at all? Might biometric identification be better? Why not just forget all of this complication over strong passwords and start taking fingerprints instead? Some reasons include the possibility of false positives from the biometrics system (who hasn’t tried holding up a photograph to a facial recognition system?), and the icky disgustingness of some other attacks.
Suffice it to say that the problem of password security is a complex one, but one that the denizens of security.stackexchange.com enjoy tackling.
Such resource-based mechanisms have been tried and implemented before, albeit for a different problem domain (preventing XSS attacks). Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (W3C, Wikipedia) attempts to do just that by vetting incoming third party requests. However, like HTML-based lists, it does not work well when the trusted end users are “everyone”, i.e. a public web service.
Zuly Gonzalez discusses a potential solution her startup has been working on – running scripts on a disposable vm. Zuly makes some good points – even with a whitelisted domain, you cannot necessarily trust each and every script that is added to the domain; moreover, after you have made your trust decision, a simple whitelist is not enough without re-vetting the script.
Zuly’s company – if you’re interested, check out her answer – runs scripts on a disposable virtual machine rather than on your computer. Disclaimer: we haven’t tested it, but the premise sounds good.
Clearly, however, such a solution is not available to everyone. Karrax suggested that the best option might be to install plugins such as McAfee SiteAdvisor to help inform users as to what domains they should be trusting. He notes that the NoScript team are beginning to integrate such functionality into the user interface of NoScript itself. This is a feature I did not know I had, so I tried it. According to the trial page, at the time of writing the service is experimental, but all of the linked to sites provide a lot of information about the domain name and whether to trust it.
This is an area with no single solution yet, and these various solutions are in continuous development. Let’s see what the future holds.
Bogus SSL certificates are not a new problem and incidents can be found going back over a decade. With a fake certificate for Google.com in the wild, they’re in the news again today. My last two posts have touched on the SSL topic and Moxie Marlinspike’s Convergence.io software is being mentioned in these news articles. At the same time, Dan Kaminski has been pushing for DNSSEC as a replacement for the SSL CA system. Last night, Moxie and Dan had it out 140 characters at a time on Twitter over whether DNSSEC for key distribution was wise.
I’m going to do two things with the discussion: I’m going to cover the discussion I said should be had about replacing the CA system, and I’m going to try and show a risk-based assessment to justify that.
The Risks of the Current System
Risk: Any valid CA chain can create a valid certificate. Currently, there are a number of root certificate authorities. My laptop lists 175 root certificates, and these include names like Comodo, DigiNotar, GoDaddy and Verisign. Any of those 175 root certificates can sign a trusted chain for any certificate and my system will accept it, even if it has previously seen a different unexpired certificate before and even if that certificate has been issued by a different CA. A greater exposure for this risk comes from intermediate certificates. These exist where the CA has signed a certificate for another party that has flags authorizing it to sign other keys and maintain a trusted path. While Google’s real root CA is Equifax, another CA signed a valid certificate that would be accepted by users.
Risk mitigation: DNSSEC. DNSSEC limits the exposure we see above. In the DNSSEC system, *.google.com can only be valid if the signature chain is the DNS root, then the “com.” domain. If Google’s SSL key is distributed through DNSSEC, then we know that the key can only be inappropriate if the DNS root or top-level domain was compromised or is mis-behaving. Just as we trust the properties of an SSL key to secure data, we trust it to maintain a chain, and from that we can say that there is no other risk of a spoofed certificate path if the only certificate innately trusted is the one belonging to the DNS root. Courtesy of offline domain signing, this also means that host a root server does not provide the opportunity to provide malicious responses even by modifying the zone files (they would become invalid).
Risks After Moving to DNSSEC
Risk: We distrust that chain. We presume from China’s actions that China has a direct interest in being able to track all information flowing over the Internet for its users. While the Chinese government has no control over the “com.” domain, they do control the “cn.” domain. Visiting google.cn. does not mean that one aims to let the Chinese government view their data. Many countries have enough resources to perform attacks of collusion where they can alter both the name resolution under their control and the data path.
Risk mitigation: Multiple views of a single site. Convergence.io is a tool that allows one to view the encryption information as seen from different sites all over the world. Without Convergence.io, an attacker needs to compromise the DNS chain and a point between you and your intended site. With Convergence.io, the bar is raised again so that the attacker must compromise both the DNS chain and the point between your target website and the rest of the world.
Weighing the Risks
The two threats we have identified require gaining a valid certificate and compromising the information path to the server. To be a successful attack, both must occur together. In the current system, the bar for getting a validly signed yet inappropriately issued certificate is too low. The bar for performing a Man-in-the-Middle attack on the client side is also relatively low, especially over public wireless networks. DNSSEC raises the certificate bar, and Convergence raises the network bar (your attack will be detected unless you compromise the server side).
That seems ideal for the risks we identified, so what are we weighing? Well, we have to weigh the complexity of Convergence. A new layer is being added, and at the moment it requires an active participation by the user. This isn’t weighing a risk so much as weighing how much we think we can benefit. We also must remember that Convergence doesn’t raise the bar for one who can perform a MITM attack that is between the target server and the whole world.
Weighing DNSSEC, Moxie drives the following risk home for it in key distribution: “DNSSEC provides reduced trust agility. We have to trust VeriSign forever.” I argue that we must already trust the DNS system to point us to the right place, however. If we distrust that system, be it for name resolution or for key distribution, the action is still the same — the actors must be replaced, or the resolution done outside of it. The counter Moxie’s statement in implementing DNSSEC for SSL key distribution is we’ve made the problem an entirely social one. We now know that if we see a fake certificate in the wild, it is because somebody in the authorized chain has lost control of their systems or acted maliciously. We’ve reduced the exposure to only include those in the path — a failure with the “us.” domain doesn’t affect the “com.” domain.
So we’re left with the social risk that we have a bad actor who is now clearly identified. Convergence.io can help to detect that issue even if it only enjoys limited deployment. We are presently ham-strung by the fact that any of a broad number of CAs and ever-broader number of delegates can be responsible for issuing “certified lies,” and that still needs to be reduced.
Making a Decision
Convergence.io is a bolt-on. It does not require anybody else to change except the user. It does add complexity that all users may not be comfortable with, and that may limit its utility. I see no additional exposure risk (in the realm of SSL discussion, not in the realm of somebody changing the source code illicitly) from using it. To that end, Moxie has released a great tool and I see no reason to not be a proponent of the concept.
Moxie still argues that DNSSEC has a potential downside. The two-part question is thus: is reducing the number of valid certification paths for a site to one an improvement? When we remove the risk of an unwanted certification of the site, is the new risk that we can’t drop a certifier a credible increase in risk? Because we must already trust the would-be DSNSEC certifier to direct us to the correct site, the technical differences in my mind are moot.
To put into a practical example: China as a country can already issue a “valid” certificate for Google. They can control any resolution of google.cn. Whether the control the sole key channel for google.cn. or any valid key channel for google.cn., you can’t reach the “true” server and certificate / key combination without trusting China. The solution for that, whether it be the IP address or the keypair is to hold them accountable or find another channel. DNSSEC does not present an additional risk in that regard. It also removes a lot of ugliness related to parsing X.509 certificates and codes (which includes such storied history as the “*” certificate that worked on anything before browser vendors hard-coded it out). Looking at the risks presented and arguments from both sides, I think it’s time to start putting secure channel keys in the DNS stream.
Last week, we looked at the hardening tag. Today we are going back on a specific question : Does an established SSL connection mean a line is really secure?
Why did we pick up this question? Because almost everyone has heard of SSL, but many are not sure how it works and what it is used for.
Well, the first thing we need to talk about is history of the protocol.
Secure Sockets Layer
The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a cryptographic protocol – now renamed to Transport Layer Security (or TLS). This protocol is designed to create eavesdropping-proof and tampering-proof communication over the Internet and other untrusted networks.
Originally developed by Netscape, the protocol came out in 1995 with its 2.0 version (1.0 was never publicly released). But SSL 2.0 came with some serious security flaws, which included a Man in the Middle vulnerability, which could allow an attacker to sit in the middle of an encrypted communication, unknown to either end, and decrypt the traffic. A new version was released in 1996 as SSL 3.0. The next step of the standard is SSL 3.1 also named TLS 1.0. Only a few improvements were made for this version, but enough to make TLS 1.0 and SSL 3.0 incompatible. The current version of TLS is the 1.2 release from 2008.
So what is it used for? Well many people use it on a regular basis. In fact, TLS is used on many websites to provide the HTTPS connections. But it can also encapsulate other protocols, like FTP, SMTP, NNTP or XMPP. You can even use it to secure an entire VPN as with OpenVPN.
So is it secure?
The question can’t be answered as is. It depends…
First thing to rule out is that you are not using SSL < 3.0 versions. Since they all showed flaws they should not be used now.
Secondly we must ensure the implementation is correct. This question discusses the SSL TLS Renegotiation Vulnerability which is present in some browser versions.
Next we must make sure the connection is using encryption. What? Yes: TLS supports a mode of NULL encryption.
From curiosity I’ve looked in the
about:config page of Firefox 5.x. Be relieved, all ssl2 settings and null encryption mode are disabled.
And finally you need to check that the connection has been established with regard to the protocol. You may be curious on what you could have done not to respect the protocol, let me explain:
The connection is established in multiple steps called a handshake.
- The client connects, and if it requires a secure connection it sends a list of supported ciphers.
- The server picks a cipher from the list (Usually the first in the client list which is compatible with the server list, not necesarrily the strongest), then it notifies the client.
- The server also sends back its identification, packed into a digital certificate. This certification contains the asymmetric public key of the server and it is signed by a Certificate authority.
- The client MAY contact this Certificate Authority to confirm the validity of the server’s public key. This is very important, but the cost of online verification makes it impractical. So usually, the browser embeds Certificate Authority public key to perform an online check of the server’s certificate.
- To generate the session keys, the client encrypts a random number using the server’s public key. Asymmetric cryptography makes deciphering the number without the private key infeasible.
- Now the client and the server have a shared secret they can use to derive the keys for the actual connection.
One of the key point in this scenario is the verification of the Certificate. Did you ever connect to a site and see your browser pop up a message about the certificate? Did you read the message? Usually those kind of security warning are here to tell you that the server certificate has expired, or that it is not signed by a trusted authority.
Theses warnings are critical! You may be subject to a man in the middle attack. By clicking : go to this site anyway, you are giving your browser the express command to trust the certificate you were presented. But, unless you had verified it from the Certificate Authority yourself and decided it should be trusted, you could have accepted a forged certificate by a compromised authority. Your connection is then no longer secure.
Does this means that respecting the protocol ensures your security? Well yes.
Provided you made all the verifications, and as AviD said in the today’s featured question:
While there are some mostly theoretical attacks on the cryptography of SSL[TLS], from my PoV its still plenty strong enough for almost all purposes, and will be for a long time.
But I should ponder that yes the connection is secure. And even if we will not turn into paranoiacs of security, one should always ask oneself what the server will be doing with the data provided. It is a good thing to send data on a secured connection, but this has no meaning if the other endpoint forwards them on unsecured lines.