Attacks against security components have been fairly common on server operating systems for decades; on PC’s this wasn’t always necessary because of security models that resembled swiss cheese. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Microsoft has been working diligently to close obvious holes (for the most part.) As a result, researchers have shifted their focus to the attack surface of security-centric code on PC’s. Case in point; in the past several years we’ve seen loads of advisories released for vulnerabilities in anti-virus software. Read the Yankee Group’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The Hackers Turn Pro” for a more in-depth analysis of this trend. One area in particular where I feel PC protection is lacking is automated software security update mechanisms; there is a lot of room for improvement.
According to Hewlett-Packard, Digital Equipment Corporation was the first in the industry to perform patch delivery in 1983. Prior to this, updates were commonly delivered on tape by private courier. At one of 2600’s HOPE conferences, Kevin Mitnick spoke about an analog attack he had used to compromise this process during the social engineering panel. The gist of it was that he wore a UPS uniform (procured from a costume store) and delivered the “update” tape to his mark with a login trojan on it. Later, Mitnick became known for using SYN floods and TCP hijacking against Tsutomo Shimomura. Some sources even refer to this sort of digital man-in-the-middle as “The Mitnick Attack.”
Many software update components don’t use public key infrastructure to cryptographically verify the validity of the update server (i.e. SSL) or the updated package (i.e. digital signature.) This is a problem. Impersonating the software update server is usually trivial. Wi-Fi access point impersonation, DNS cache poisoning, ARP spoofing, session hijacking, and compromising the legitimate update server are all possibilities.
Some applications–I’m not going to name any names–rely on HTTP (note that I didn’t say HTTPS) for downloading packages after checking for updates instead of using a separate file transfer manager program or internal update component. This is much easier to reverse engineer than a custom update solution. Sometimes the attacker can allow the real update server to carry out most of the process and simply shoehorn their malcode into the update session(s) after initial preconditions are met.
SSL won’t save the day either unless it’s implemented properly. I’ve seen plaintext updaters with digital signatures that are safer than some HTTPS updaters. Gentoo’s Portage Tree (emerge and ebuild) is a good example of an effective plaintext digital signature approach. See SECOBJADV-2008-01 (CVE-2008-3249) for a description of a software updater with an erroneous SSL implementation.
The issue is further complicated because software updaters themselves need to be updated in order to resolve such vulnerabilities. Typically this requires a major architectural modification. What’s worse is that breaking the updater would force users to manually update. Hoyvin-Glayvin!