Some days ago, a hacker group, THC, released a denial of service tool for TLS web servers. As stated in its description, the problem is not really new: a complete TLS handshake implies costly cryptographic computations.
There are two different aspects in the presented attack:
- The computation cost of a handshake is more important for the server than for the client. The advisory explains that a server will require 15 times the processing power of a client. This means a single average workstation could challenge a multi-core high-end server.
- TLS renegotiation allows you to trigger hundreds of handshakes in the same TCP connection. Even a client behind a DSL connection can therefore bomb a server with a lot of renegotiation requests.
While the content of this article is still technically sound, ensure you understand it was written by the end of 2011 and therefore doesn’t take into account many important aspects, like the fall of RC4 as an appropriate cipher.
There is no definitive solution to this attack but there exists some workarounds. Since the DoS tool from THC relies heavily on renegotiation, the most obvious one is to disable this mechanism on the server side but we will explore other possibilities.
Disabling TLS renegotiation#
Tackling the second problem seems easy: just disable TLS renegotiation. It is hardly needed: a server can trigger a renegotiation to ask a client to present a certificate but a client usually does not have any reason to trigger one. Because of a past vulnerability in TLS renegotiation, recent versions of Apache and nginx just forbid it, even when the non-vulnerable version is available.
openssl s_client can be used to test if TLS renegotiation is really
R on an empty line trigger renegotiation. Here is
an example where renegotiation is disabled (despite being advertised
$ openssl s_client -connect www.luffy.cx:443 -tls1 [...] New, TLSv1/SSLv3, Cipher is DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA Server public key is 2048 bit Secure Renegotiation IS supported Compression: zlib compression Expansion: zlib compression [...] R RENEGOTIATING 140675659794088:error:1409E0E5:SSL routines:SSL3_WRITE_BYTES:ssl handshake failure:s3_pkt.c:591:
Disabling renegotation is not trivial with OpenSSL. As an example, I have pushed a patch to disable renegotiation in stud, the scalable TLS unwrapping daemon.
Rate limiting TLS handshakes#
Disabling TLS renegotiation on the client side is not always possible. For example, your web server may be too old to propose such an option. Since these renegotiations should not happen often, a workaround is to limit them.
When the flaw was first advertised, F5 Networks provided a way to configure such a limitation with an iRule on their load-balancers. We can do something similar with Netfilter. We can spot most TCP packets triggering such a renegotiation by looking for encrypted TLS handshake record. They may happen in a regular handshake but in this case, they usually are not at the beginning of the TCP payload. There is no field saying if a TLS record is encrypted or not (TLS is stateful for this purpose). Therefore, we have to use some heuristics. If the handshake type is unknown, we assume that this is an encrypted record. Moreover, renegotiation requests are usually encapsulated in a TCP packet flagged with “push.”
# Access to TCP payload (if not fragmented) payload="0 >> 22 & 0x3C @ 12 >> 26 & 0x3C @" iptables -A LIMIT_RENEGOCIATION \ -p tcp --dport 443 \ --tcp-flags SYN,FIN,RST,PSH PSH \ -m u32 \ --u32 "$payload 0 >> 8 = 0x160300:0x160303 && $payload 2 & 0xFF = 3:10,17:19,21:255" \ -m hashlimit \ --hashlimit-above 5/minute --hashlimit-burst 3 \ --hashlimit-mode srcip --hashlimit-name ssl-reneg \ -j DROP
The use of
u32 match is a bit difficult to read. The
manual page gives some insightful examples.
allows us to seek for the TCP payload. It only works if there is no
fragmentation. Then, we check if we have a handshake (
0x16) and if
we recognise TLS version (
0x0303). At least, we check if the handshake type is not a known
There is a risk of false positives but since we use
should be safe. This is not a bullet proof solution: TCP fragmentation
would allow an attacker to evade detection. Another equivalent
solution would be to use
CONNMARK to record the fact the initial
handshake has been done and forbid any subsequent handshakes.1
If you happen to disable TLS renegociation, you can still use some Netfilter rule to limit the number of TLS handshakes by limiting the number of TCP connections from one IP:
iptables -A LIMIT_TLS \ -p tcp --dport 443 \ --syn -m state --state NEW \ -m hashlimit \ --hashlimit-above 120/minute --hashlimit-burst 20 \ --hashlimit-mode srcip --hashlimit-name ssl-conn \ -j DROP
Your servers will still be vulnerable to a large botnet but if there is only a handful of source IP, this rule will work just fine.2
I have made all these solutions available in a single file.
Increasing server-side power processing#
TLS can easily be scaled up and out. Since TLS performance increases linearly with the number of cores, scaling up can be done by throwing in more CPU or more cores per CPU. Adding expensive TLS accelerators would also do the trick. Scaling out is also relatively easy but you should care about TLS session resume.
Putting more work on the client#
In their presentation of the denial of service tool, THC explains:
Establishing a secure SSL connection requires 15× more processing power on the server than on the client.
I don’t know where this figure comes from. To check it, I built a small tool to measure CPU time of a client and a server doing 1000 handshakes with various parameters (cipher suites and key sizes). The results are summarized on the following plot:
Adam Langley announced Google HTTPS sites now
support forward secrecy and
ECDHE-RSA-RC4-SHA is now the
preferred cipher suite thanks to fast, constant-time implementations
of elliptic curves P-224, P-256 and P-521 in OpenSSL. The tests above
did not use these implementations.
For example, with 2048bit RSA certificates and a cipher suite like
AES256-SHA, the server needs 6 times more CPU power than the
client. However, if we use
DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA instead, the server
needs 34% less CPU power. The most efficient cipher suite from the
server point of view seems to be something like
where the server needs half the power of the client.
However, you can’t really use only these shiny cipher suites:
- Some browsers do not support them: they are limited to RSA cipher suites.3
- Using them will increase your regular load a lot. Your servers may collapse with just legitimate traffic.
- They are expensive for some mobile clients: they need more memory, more processing power and will drain battery faster.
Let’s dig a bit more on why the server needs more computational power
in the case of RSA. Here is a TLS handshake when using a cipher suite
When sending the Client Key Exchange message, the client will encrypt TLS version and 46 random bytes with the public key of the certificate sent by the server in its Certificate message. The server will have to decrypt this message with its private key. These are the two most expensive operations in the handshake. Encryption and decryption are done with RSA (because of the selected cipher suite). To understand why decryption is more expensive than encryption, let me explain how RSA works.
First, the server needs a public and a private key. Here are the main steps to generate them:
- Pick two random distinct prime numbers
and , each roughly the same size.
. It is the modulus.
- Choose an integer
such that and (i.e. and are coprime). It is the public exponent.
. It is the private key exponent.
The public key is
So, why is decryption more expensive? In fact, the key pair is not
really generated like I said above. Usually,
0x11) or 65537 (
Instead of computing
- Most TLS implementations expect
to be a 32-bit integer.
is too small (less than one-quarter as many bits as the modulus ), it can be computed efficiently from the public key.
Therefore, we cannot use a small private exponent. The best we can do
is to choose the public exponent to be
To summarize, no real solution here. You need to allow RSA cipher suites and there is no way to improve the computational ratio between the server and the client with such a cipher suite.
Things get worse#
Shortly after the release the denial of service tool, Eric Rescorla4 published a good analysis on the impact of such a tool. He asks himself about the efficiency to use renegotiation for such an attack:
What you should be asking at this point is whether a computational DoS attack based on renegotiation is any better for the attacker than a computational DoS attack based on multiple connections. The way we measure this is by the ratio of the work the attacker has to do to the work that the server has to do. I’ve never seen any actual measurements here (and the THC guys don’t present any), but some back of the envelope calculations suggest that the difference is small.
If I want to mount the old, multiple connection attack, I need to incur the following costs:
- Do the TCP handshake (3 packets)
- Send the SSL/TLS ClientHello (1 packet). This can be a canned message.
- Send the SSL/TLS ClientKeyExchange, ChangeCipherSpec, Finished messages (1 packet). These can also be canned.
Note that I don’t need to parse any SSL/TLS messages from the server, and I don’t need to do any cryptography. I’m just going to send the server junk anyway, so I can (for instance) send the same bogus ClientKeyExchange and Finished every time. The server can’t find out that they are bogus until it’s done the expensive part. So, roughly speaking, this attack consists of sending a bunch of canned packets in order to force the server to do one RSA decryption.
I have written a
quick proof of concept of such a tool. To avoid any
abuse, it will only work if the server supports
cipher suite. No sane server in the wild will support such a
cipher. You need to configure your web server to support it before
using this tool.
While Eric explains that there is no need to parse any TLS messages, I have found that if the key exchange message is sent before the server send the answer, the connection will be aborted. Therefore, I quickly parse the server’s answer to check if I can continue. Eric also says a bogus key exchange message can be sent since the server will have to decrypt it before discovering it is bogus. I have choosen to build a valid key exchange message during the first handshake (using the certificate presented by the server) and replay it on subsequent handshakes because I think the server may dismiss the message before the computation is complete (for example, if the size does not match the size of the certificate).
Michał Trojnara has written
sslsqueeze, a similar tool. It uses
and should display better performance than mine. It does not compute
a valid key exchange message but ensure the length is correct.
With such a tool and 2048bit RSA certificate, a server is using 100 times more processing power than the client. Unfortunately, this means that most solutions, except rate limiting, exposed on this page may just be ineffective.
Handling TLS state in Netfilter is quite hard. The first solution is using the fact that renegotiation requests are encapsulated in a TCP segment flagged with “push.” This is not always the case and it is trivial to workaround. With the second solution, we assume that the first encrypted handshake record is packed in the same TCP segment than the client key exchange. If it comes in its own TCP segment, it would be seen as a renegociation while it is not. The state machine needs to be improved to detect the first encrypted handshake at the beginning of a TLS record or in the middle of it. ↩︎
However, since this rule relies on source IP to identify the attacker, the risk of false positive is real. You can slow down legitimate proxies, networks NATed behind a single IP, mobile users sharing an IP address or people behind a CGN. ↩︎
Cipher suites supported by all browsers are
DHE-DSS-AES256-SHArequires TLS 1.2
(not supported by any browser).↩︎
Eric is one of the author of several RFC related to TLS. He knows his stuff. ↩︎