My take on the SSL MITM Attacks – part 3 – the FTPS attacks

[Note – for previous parts in this series, see Part 1 and Part 2.]

FTP, and FTP over SSL, are my specialist subject, having written one of the first FTP servers for Windows to support FTP over SSL (and the first standalone FTP server for Windows!)

Rescorla and others have concentrated on the SSL MITM attacks and their effects on HTTPS, declining to discuss other protocols about which they know relatively far less. OK, time to step up and assume the mantle of expert, so that someone with more imagination can shoot me down.

FTPS is not vulnerable to this attack.

No, that’s plainly rubbish. If you start thinking along those lines in the security world, you’ve lost it. You might as well throw in the security towel and go into a job where you can assume everybody loves you and will do nothing to harm you. Be a developer of web-based applications, say. 🙂

FTPS has a number of possible vulnerabilities

And they are all dependent on the features, design and implementation of your individual FTPS server and/or client. That’s why I say “possible”.

Attack 1 – renegotiation with client certificates

The obvious attack – renegotiation for client certificates – is likely to fail, because FTPS starts its TLS sessions in a different way from HTTPS.

In HTTPS, you open an unauthenticated SSL session, request a protected resource, and the server prompts for your client certificate.

In FTPS, when you connect to the control channel, you provide your credentials at the first SSL negotiation or not at all. There’s no need to renegotiate, and certainly there’s no language in the FTPS standard that allows the server to query for more credentials part way into the transaction. The best the server can do is refuse a request and say you need different or better credentials.

Attack 2 – unsolicited renegotiation without credentials

A renegotiation attack on the control channel that doesn’t rely on making the server ask for client credentials is similarly unlikely to succeed – when the TLS session is started with an AUTH TLS command, the server puts the connection into the ‘reinitialised’ state, waiting for a USER and PASS command to supply credentials. Request splitting across the renegotiation boundary might get the user name, but the password wouldn’t be put into anywhere the attacker could get to.

Attack 3 – renegotiating the data connection

At first sight, the data connection, too, is difficult or impossible to attack – an attacker would have to guess which transaction was an upload in order to be able to prepend his own content to the upload.

But that’s betting without the effect that NATs had on the FTP protocol.

Because the PORT and PASV commands involve sending an IP address across the control channel, and because NAT devices have to modify these commands and their responses, in many implementations of FTPS, after credentials have been negotiated on the control channel, the client issues a “CCC” command, to drop the control channel back into clear-text mode.

Yes, that’s right, after negotiating SSL with the server, the client may throw away the protection on the control channel, so the MitM attacker can easily see what files are going to be accessed over what ports and IP addresses, and if the server supports SSL renegotiation, the attacker can put his data in at the start of the upload before renegotiating to hand off to the legitimate client. Because the client thinks everything is fine, and the server just assumes a renegotiation is fine, there’s no reason for either one to doubt the quality of the file that’s been uploaded.

How could this be abused? Imagine that you are uploading an EXE file, and the hacker prepends it with his own code. That’s how I wrote code for a ‘dongle’ check in a program I worked on over twenty years ago, and the same trick could still work easily today. Instant Trojan.

There are many formats of file that would allow abuse by prepending data. CSV files, most exploitable buffer overflow graphic formats, etc.

Attack 3.5 – truncation attacks

While I’m on FTP over SSL implementations and the data connection, there’s also the issue that most clients don’t properly terminate the SSL connection in FTPS data transfers.

As a result, the server can’t afford to report as an error when a MitM closes the TCP connection underneath them with an unexpected TCP FIN.

That’s bad – but combine it with FTP’s ability to resume a transfer from part-way into a file, and you realize that an MitM could actually stuff data into the middle of a file by allowing the upload to start, interrupting it after a few segments, and then when the client resumed, interjecting the data using the renegotiation attack.

The attacker wouldn’t even need to be able to insert the FIN at exactly the byte mark he wanted – after all, the client will be sending the REST command in clear-text thanks to the CCC command. That means the attacker can modify it, to pick where his data is going to sit.

Not as earth-shattering as the HTTPS attacks, but worth considering if you rely on FTPS for data security.

How does WFTPD Pro get around these attacks?

1. I never bothered implementing SSL / TLS renegotiation – didn’t see it as necessary; never had the feature requested. Implementing unnecessary complexity is often cause for a security failure.

2. I didn’t like the CCC command, and so I didn’t implement that, either. I prefer to push people towards using Block instead of Stream mode to get around NAT restrictions.

I know, it’s merely fortunate that I made those decisions, rather than that I had any particular foresight, but it’s nice to be able to say that my software is not vulnerable to the obvious attacks.

I’ve yet to run this by other SSL and FTP experts to see whether I’m still vulnerable to something I haven’t thought of, but my thinking so far makes me happy – and makes me wonder what other FTPS developers have done.

I wanted to contact one or two to see if they’ve thought of attacks that I haven’t considered, or that I haven’t covered. So far, however, I’ve either received no response, or I’ve discovered that they are no longer working on their FTPS software.

Let me know if you have any input of your own on this issue.

2 thoughts on “My take on the SSL MITM Attacks – part 3 – the FTPS attacks”

  1. You wouldnt do harm by putting a “posted date” somewhere so wannabe scholarly types like me can “quote” you in our papers!

  2. Is the “Published 11-18-2009 21:02” line acceptable? Last time I was a scholarly type, there wasn’t much of an Internet to quote from, so I don’t know the complete form 🙂
    I’d appreciate a quick line if you do quote from me, just for interest’s sake. Thanks for doing me the honour of reading my blog and passing it on to others.

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