Be careful not to DROWN

On March 1st OpenSSL published a security advisory CVE-2016-0800, known as “DROWN”. This is described as a cross-protocol attack on TLS using SSLv2 and is classified with a High Severity. The advice given by OpenSSL is:

“We strongly advise against the use of SSLv2 due not only to the issues described below, but to the other known deficiencies in the protocol as described at https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6176

This vulnerability illustrates how vigilant organizations need to be over the specific versions of software that they use. However, this is easier said than done. Many organizations have a website or application that was built by a third party. The development may have been done some time ago and used what were the then current versions of readily available Open Source components. The developers may or may not have a contract to keep the package they developed up to date.

The application or website may be hosted on premise or externally; wherever it is hosted, the infrastructure upon which it runs also needs to be properly managed and kept up to date. OpenSSL is part of the infrastructure upon which the website runs. While there may be some reasons for continuing to use SSLv2 for compatibility, there is no possible excuse for reusing SSL Private Keys between websites. It just goes against all possible security best practices.

It may be difficult to believe but I have heard auditors report that when they ask “what does that server do?” they get the response “I don’t know – it’s always been here and we never touch it”. The same can be true of VMs in the cloud which get created, used and then forgotten (except by the cloud provider who keeps on charging for them).

So as vulnerabilities are discovered, there may be no process to take action to remediate the operational package. The cyber criminals just love this. They can set up an automated process to externally scan to find where known vulnerabilities exist unpatched and exploit the results at their leisure.

There are two basic lessons from this:

  1. Most code contains exploitable errors and its evolution generally leads to a deterioration in its quality over time unless there are very stringent controls over change. It is attractive to add functionality but increase in size and complexity leads to more vulnerabilities. Sometimes it is useful to go back to first principles and recode using a stringent approach.
    I provided an example of this in my blog AWS Security and Compliance Update. AWS has created a replacement for OpenSSL TLS - S2N Open Source implementation of TLS. S2N replaces the 500,000 lines code in OpenSSL with approximately 6,000 lines of audited code. This code has been contributed to Open Source and is available from S2N GitHub Repository.

  2. Organizations need to demand maintenance as part of the development of code by third parties. This is to avoid the need to maintain out of date infrastructure components for compatibility.
    The infrastructure, whether on premise or hosted, should be kept up to date. This will require change management processes to ensure that changes do not impact on operation. This should be supported by regular vulnerability scanning of operational IT systems using one of the many tools available together with remediation of the vulnerabilities detected.

IT systems need to have a managed lifecycle. It is not good enough to develop, deploy and forget.


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