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Andrew Ayer


Titus Isolation Techniques, Continued

In my previous blog post, I discussed the unique way in which titus, my high-security TLS proxy server, isolates the TLS private key in a separate process to protect it against Heartbleed-like vulnerabilities in OpenSSL. In this blog post, I will discuss the other isolation techniques used by titus to guard against OpenSSL vulnerabilities.

A separate process for every connection

The most basic isolation performed by titus is using a new and dedicated process for every TLS connection. This ensures that a vulnerability in OpenSSL can't be used to compromise the memory of another connection. Although most of the attention around Heartbleed focused on extracting the private key, Heartbleed also exposed other sensitive information, such as user passwords contained in buffers from other connections. By giving each TLS connection a new and dedicated process, titus confines an attacker to accessing memory related to only his own connection. Such memory would contain at most the session key material for the connection and buffers from previous packets, which is information the attacker already knows.

Currently titus forks but does not call execve(). This simplifies the code greatly, but it means that the child process has access to all the memory of the parent process at the time of the fork. Therefore, titus is careful to avoid loading anything sensitive into the parent's memory. In particular, the private key is never loaded by the parent process.

However, some low-grade sensitive information may be loaded into the parent's memory before forking. For instance, the parent process calls getpwnam() during initialization, so the contents of /etc/passwd may persist in memory and be accessible by child processes. A future version of titus should probably call execve() to launch the child process so it starts off with a clean slate.

Another important detail is that titus must reinitialize OpenSSL's random number generator by calling RAND_poll() in the child process after forking. Failure to do so could result in multiple children generating the same random numbers, which would have catastrophic consequences.

Privilege separation

To protect against arbitrary code execution vulnerabilities, titus runs as dedicated non-root users. Currently two users are used: one for running the processes that talk to the network, and another for the processes that hold the private key.

Using the same user for all connections has security implications. The most serious problem is that, by default, users can use the ptrace() system call to access the memory of other processes running as the same user. To prevent this, titus disables ptracing using the PR_SET_DUMPABLE option to the prctl() syscall. This is an imperfect security measure: it's Linux-specific, and doesn't prevent attackers from disrupting other processes by sending signals.

Ultimately, titus should use a separate user for every concurrent connection. Modern Unix systems use 32 bit UIDs, making it completely feasible to allocate a range of UIDs to be used by titus, provided that titus reuses UIDs for future connections. To reuse a UID securely, titus would need to first kill off any latent process owned by that user. Otherwise, an attacker could fork a process that lies in wait until the UID is reused. Unfortunately, Unix provides no airtight way to kill all processes owned by a user. It may be necessary to leverage cgroups or PID namespaces, which are unfortunately Linux-specific.

Filesystem isolation

Finally, in order to reduce the attack surface even further, titus chroots into an empty, unwritable directory. Thus, an attacker who can execute arbitrary code is unable to read sensitive files, attack special files or setuid binaries, or download rootkits to the filesystem. Note that titus chroots after reseeding OpenSSL's RNG, so it's not necessary include /dev/urandom in the chroot directory.

Future enhancements

In addition to the enhancements mentioned above, I'd like to investigate using seccomp filtering to limit the system calls which titus is allowed to execute. Limiting titus to a minimal set of syscalls would reduce the attack surface on the kernel, preventing an attacker from breaking out of the sandbox if there's a kernel vulnerability in a particular syscall.

I'd also like to investigate network and process namespaces. Network namespaces would isolate titus from the network, preventing attackers from launching attacks on systems on your internal network or on the Internet. Process namespaces would provide an added layer of isolation and make it easy to kill off latent processes when a connection ends.

Why titus?

The TLS protocol is incredibly complicated, which makes TLS implementations necessarily complex, which makes them inevitably prone to security vulnerabilities. If you're building a simple server application that needs to talk TLS, the complexity of the TLS implementation is going to dwarf the complexity of your own application. Even if your own code is securely written and short and simple enough to be easily audited, your application may nevertheless be vulnerable if you link with a TLS implementation. Titus provides a way to isolate the TLS implementation, so its complexity doesn't affect the security of your own application.

By the way, titus was recently discussed on the Red Hat Security Blog along with some other interesting approaches to OpenSSL privilege separation, such as sslps, a seccomp-based approach. The blog post is definitely worth a read.

Hi, I'm Andrew. I'm the founder of SSLMate, which makes SSL certificates easy through automation, great software, and friendly support.

I blog about security, PKI, Linux, and more. If you liked this post, check out my other posts or subscribe to my Atom feed.

My email address is I'm AGWA at GitHub and @__agwa on Twitter.


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