Pwncloud – Bad crypto in the Owncloud encryption module

OwncloudThe Owncloud web application has an encryption module. I first became aware of it when a press release was published advertising this encryption module containing this:

“Imagine you are an IT organization using industry standard AES 256 encryption keys. Let’s say that a vulnerability is found in the algorithm, and you now need to improve your overall security by switching over to RSA-2048, a completely different algorithm and key set. Now, with ownCloud’s modular encryption approach, you can swap out the existing AES 256 encryption with the new RSA algorithm, giving you added security while still enabling seamless access to enterprise-class file sharing and collaboration for all of your end-users.”

To anyone knowing anything about crypto this sounds quite weird. AES and RSA are very different algorithms – AES is a symmetric algorithm and RSA is a public key algorithm – and it makes no sense to replace one by the other. Also RSA is much older than AES. This press release has since been removed from the Owncloud webpage, but its content can still be found in this Reuters news article. This and some conversations with Owncloud developers caused me to have a look at this encryption module.

First it is important to understand what this encryption module is actually supposed to do and understand the threat scenario. The encryption provides no security against a malicious server operator, because the encryption happens on the server. The only scenario where this encryption helps is if one has a trusted server that is using an untrusted storage space.

When one uploads a file with the encryption module enabled it ends up under the same filename in the user’s directory on the file storage. Now here’s a first, quite obvious problem: The filename itself is not protected, so an attacker that is assumed to be able to see the storage space can already learn something about the supposedly encrypted data.

The content of the file starts with this:
BEGIN:oc_encryption_module:OC_DEFAULT_MODULE:cipher:AES-256-CFB:HEND----

It is then padded with further dashes until position 0x2000 and then the encrypted contend follows Base64-encoded in blocks of 8192 bytes. The header tells us what encryption algorithm and mode is used: AES-256 in CFB-mode. CFB stands for Cipher Feedback.

Authenticated and unauthenticated encryption modes

In order to proceed we need some basic understanding of encryption modes. AES is a block cipher with a block size of 128 bit. That means we cannot just encrypt arbitrary input with it, the algorithm itself only encrypts blocks of 128 bit (or 16 byte) at a time. The naive way to encrypt more data is to split it into 16 byte blocks and encrypt every block. This is called Electronic Codebook mode or ECB and it should never be used, because it is completely insecure.

Common modes for encryption are Cipherblock Chaining (CBC) and Counter mode (CTR). These modes are unauthenticated and have a property that’s called malleability. This means an attacker that is able to manipulate encrypted data is able to manipulate it in a way that may cause a certain defined behavior in the output. Often this simply means an attacker can flip bits in the ciphertext and the same bits will be flipped in the decrypted data.

To counter this these modes are usually combined with some authentication mechanism, a common one is called HMAC. However experience has shown that this combining of encryption and authentication can go wrong. Many vulnerabilities in both TLS and SSH were due to bad combinations of these two mechanism. Therefore modern protocols usually use dedicated authenticated encryption modes (AEADs), popular ones include Galois/Counter-Mode (GCM), Poly1305 and OCB.

Cipher Feedback (CFB) mode is a self-correcting mode. When an error happens, which can be simple data transmission error or a hard disk failure, two blocks later the decryption will be correct again. This also allows decrypting parts of an encrypted data stream. But the crucial thing for our attack is that CFB is not authenticated and malleable. And Owncloud didn’t use any authentication mechanism at all.

Therefore the data is encrypted and an attacker cannot see the content of a file (however he learns some metadata: the size and the filename), but an Owncloud user cannot be sure that the downloaded data is really the data that was uploaded in the first place. The malleability of CFB mode works like this: An attacker can flip arbitrary bits in the ciphertext, the same bit will be flipped in the decrypted data. However if he flips a bit in any block then the following block will contain unpredictable garbage.

Backdooring an EXE file

How does that matter in practice? Let’s assume we have a group of people that share a software package over Owncloud. One user uploads a Windows EXE installer and the others download it from there and install it. Let’s further assume that the attacker doesn’t know the content of the EXE file (this is a generous assumption, in many cases he will know, as he knows the filename).

EXE files start with a so-called MZ-header, which is the old DOS EXE header that gets usually ignored. At a certain offset (0x3C), which is at the end of the fourth 16 byte block, there is an address of the PE header, which on Windows systems is the real EXE header. After the MZ header even on modern executables there is still a small DOS program. This starts with the fifth 16 byte block. This DOS program usually only shows the message “Th is program canno t be run in DOS mode”. And this DOS stub program is almost always the exactly the same.

EXE file

Therefore our attacker can do the following: First flip any non-relevant bit in the third 16 byte block. This will cause the fourth block to contain garbage. The fourth block contains the offset of the PE header. As this is now garbled Windows will no longer consider this executable to be a Windows application and will therefore execute the DOS stub.

The attacker can then XOR 16 bytes of his own code with the first 16 bytes of the standard DOS stub code. He then XORs the result with the fifth block of the EXE file where he expects the DOS stub to be. Voila: The resulting decrypted EXE file will contain 16 bytes of code controlled by the attacker.

I created a proof of concept of this attack. This isn’t enough to launch a real attack, because an attacker only has 16 bytes of DOS assembler code, which is very little. For a real attack an attacker would have to identify further pieces of the executable that are predictable and jump through the code segments.

The first fix

I reported this to Owncloud via Hacker One in January. The first fix they proposed was a change where they used Counter-Mode (CTR) in combination with HMAC. They still encrypt the file in blocks of 8192 bytes size. While this is certainly less problematic than the original construction it still had an obvious problem: All the 8192 bytes sized file blocks where encrypted the same way. Therefore an attacker can swap or remove chunks of a file. The encryption is still malleable.

The second fix then included a counter of the file and also avoided attacks where an attacker can go back to an earlier version of a file. This solution is shipped in Owncloud 9.0, which has recently been released.

Is this new construction secure? I honestly don’t know. It is secure enough that I didn’t find another obvious flaw in it, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot.

You may wonder at this point why they didn’t switch to an authenticated encryption mode like GCM. The reason for that is that PHP doesn’t support any authenticated encryption modes. There is a proposal and most likely support for authenticated encryption will land in PHP 7.1. However given that using outdated PHP versions is a very widespread practice it will probably take another decade till anyone can use that in mainstream web applications.

Don’t invent your own crypto protocols

The practical relevance of this vulnerability is probably limited, because the scenario that it protects from is relatively obscure. But I think there is a lesson to learn here. When people without a strong cryptographic background create ad-hoc designs of cryptographic protocols it will almost always go wrong.

It is widely known that designing your own crypto algorithms is a bad idea and that you should use standardized and well tested algorithms like AES. But using secure algorithms doesn’t automatically create a secure protocol. One has to know the interactions and limitations of crypto primitives and this is far from trivial. There is a worrying trend – especially since the Snowden revelations – that new crypto products that never saw any professional review get developed and advertised in masses. A lot of these products are probably extremely insecure and shouldn’t be trusted at all.

If you do crypto you should either do it right (which may mean paying someone to review your design or to create it in the first place) or you better don’t do it at all. People trust your crypto, and if that trust isn’t justified you shouldn’t ship a product that creates the impression it contains secure cryptography.

There’s another thing that bothers me about this. Although this seems to be a pretty standard use case of crypto – you have a symmetric key and you want to encrypt some data – there is no straightforward and widely available standard solution for it. Using authenticated encryption solves a number of issues, but not all of them (this talk by Adam Langley covers some interesting issues and caveats with authenticated encryption).

The proof of concept can be found on Github. I presented this vulnerability in a talk at the Easterhegg conference, a video recording is available.


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