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The Consequences of Insecure Software Updates

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In this blog post, I discuss the impact of insecure software updates as well as several related topics, including mistakes made by software vendors in their update mechanisms, how to verify the security of a software update, and how vendors can implement secure software updating mechanisms.

Earlier in June of this year, I published two different vulnerability notes about applications that update themselves insecurely:

  • VU#846320 - Samsung Magician fails to update itself securely
  • VU#489392 - Acronis True Image fails to update itself securely

In both of these cases, the apparent assumption the software makes is that it is operating on a trusted network and that no attacker would attempt to modify the act of checking for or downloading the updates. This is not a valid assumption to make.

Consider the situation where you think you're on your favorite coffee shop's WiFi network. If you have a single application with an insecure update mechanism, you are at risk to be a victim of what's known as an evilgrade attack. That is, you may inadvertently install code from an attacker during the software update process. Given that software updaters usually run with administrative privileges, the attacker's code will subsequently run with administrative privileges as well. In some cases, this can happen with no user interaction. This risk has been publicly known since 2010.

The dangers of an insecure update process are much more severe than an individual user being compromised while on an untrusted network. As the recent ExPetr/NotPetya/Petya wiper malware has shown, the impact of insecure updates can be catastrophic. Let me expand on this topic by discussing several important aspects of software updates:

  1. What mistakes can software vendors make when designing a software update mechanism?
  2. How can I verify that my software performs software updates securely?
  3. How should vendors implement a secure software update mechanism?

Insecure Software Updates and Petya

Microsoft has reported that the Petya malware originated from the update mechanism for the Ukrainian tax software called MEDoc. Because of my language barrier, I was not able to thoroughly exercise the software. However, with the help of CERT Tapioca, I was able to see the network traffic that was being used for software updates. This software makes two critical mistakes in its update mechanism: (1) it uses the insecure HTTP protocol and (2) the updates are not digitally signed

These are the same two mistakes that the vulnerable Samsung Magician software (VU#846320) and the vulnerable Acronis True Image software (VU#489392) contain. Let's dig in to the two main flaws in software updaters:

Use of an Insecure Transport Layer

HTTP is used in a number of software update mechanisms, as opposed to the more-secure HTTPS protocol. What makes HTTPS more secure? Properly-configured HTTPS communications attempt to achieve three goals:

  1. Confidentiality - Traffic is protected against eavesdropping.
  2. Integrity - Traffic content is protected against modification.
  3. Authenticity - The client verifies the identity of the server being contacted.

Let's compare the differences between an update mechanism that uses a properly configured HTTPS protocol versus one that uses either HTTP or HTTPS but without validating certificates :

ProtocolConfidentialityIntegrityAuthenticity
Properly-configured HTTPS Software update request content is not visible to attackers. Software update requests cannot be modified by an attacker
Software update traffic cannot be redirected by an attacker
HTTP or HTTPS that is not validated An attacker can view the contents of software update requests. An attacker can modify update requests or responses to modify the update behavior or outcome. An attacker can intercept and redirect software update requests to a malicious server.

Based on its inability to address these three goals, it is clear that HTTP is not a viable solution for software update traffic.

Lack of Digital Signatures for Updates

If software updates are not digitally signed, or if the software update mechanism does not validate signatures, the absence of digital signatures can allow an attacker to replace a software update with malware. A simple test that I like to do when testing software updaters is to test if the software will download and install calc.exe from Windows instead of the expected update. If calc.exe pops up when the update occurs, we have evidence of a vulnerable update mechanism!

Verifying Software Updaters

CERT Tapioca can be used to easily observe if an application uses HTTP or non-validated HTTPS traffic for updates. Any update traffic that appears in the Tapioca mitmproxy window is an indication that the update uses an insecure transport layer. As long as the mitmproxy root CA certificate is not installed on the client system, the only traffic that will appear in the mitmproxy window will be HTTP traffic and HTTPS traffic that is not checked for a trusted root CA, both of which are insecure.

Determining whether an application validates the digital signatures of updates requires a little more work. Essentially, you need to intercept the update and redirect it to an update under your control that is either unsigned or signed by another vendor.

A "Belt and Suspenders" Approach to Updates

If an update mechanism uses HTTPS, it should ensure that a software update mechanism is only communicating with a legitimate update server, right? And shouldn't that be enough to ensure a secure update? Well, not exactly.

First, HTTPS is not without flaws. There have been a number of flaws in various protocols and ciphersuites supported by HTTPS, including FREAK, DROWN, BEAST, CRIME, BREACH, and POODLE. These known flaws, which were fixed in HTTPS communications using modern TLS protocols, can weaken the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity goals that HTTPS aims to provide. It is also important to realize that even without such flaws, HTTPS without pinning can ensure website authenticity only to the level that the PKI and certificate authority architecture allow. See Moxie Marlinspike's post SSL and the Future of Authenticity for more details.

HTTPS flaws and other weaknesses aside, using HTTPS without signature-validated updates leaves a large open hole that can be attacked. What happens if an attacker can compromise an update server? If software update signatures are not validated, a compromise of a single server can result in malicious software being deployed to all clients. There is evidence that this is exactly what happened in the case of MEDoc.

virus_attack.pngSource: archive.org / Google translate

Using HTTPS can help to ensure both the transport layer security as well as the identity of the update server. Validating digital signatures of the updates themselves can help limit the damage even if the update server is compromised. Both of these aspects are vital to the operation of a secure software update mechanism.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Despite evilgrade being a publicly-known attack for about seven years now, it is still a problem. Because of the nature of how software is traditionally installed on Windows and Mac systems, we live in a world where every application may end up implementing its own auto-update mechanism independently. And as we are seeing, software vendors are frequently making mistakes in these updaters. Linux and other operating systems that use package-management systems appear to be less affected by this problem, due to the centralized channel through which software is installed.

Recommendations for Users

So what can end users do to protect themselves? Here are my recommendations:

  • Especially when on untrusted networks, be wary of automatic updates. When possible, retrieve updates using your web browser from the vendor's HTTPS website. Popular applications from major vendors are less likely to contain vulnerable update mechanisms, but any software update mechanism has the possibility of being susceptible to attack.
  • For any application you use that contains an update mechanism, verify that the update is at least not vulnerable to a MITM attack by performing the update using CERT Tapioca as an internet source. Virtual machines make this testing easier.

Recommendations for Developers

What can software developers do to provide software updates that are secure? Here are my recommendations:

  • If your software has an update mechanism, ensure that it both:
    • Uses properly validated HTTPS for a communications channel instead of HTTP
    • Validates digital signatures of retrieved updates before installing them
  • To protect against an update server compromise affecting your users, ensure that the code signing key is not present on the update server itself. To increase protection against malicious updates, ensure the code signing key is offline, or otherwise unavailable to an attacker.

About the Author

Will Dormann

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