Heartbleed Exposure, what is it really?
“Heap allocation patterns make private key exposure unlikely” Neel Mehta, discoverer of HeartBleed”
In the media, there’s been a lot of discussion about what might be exposed from the heartbleed OpenSSL attack. It is certainly true that very sensitive items can be exposed. And over thousands of test runs, sensitive items like private keying materials and the like have been returned by the heartbleed buffer overread.
A very strong case can be made for doing exactly as industry due diligence suggests. Teams should replace private keys on servers that had been vulnerable, once these are patched. But should every person on the Internet change every password? Let’s examine that problems by digging into the details of exactly how heartbleed works.
First, heartbleed has been characterized as an “overflow” error: “Heartbleed is basically a buffer-overflow vulnerability”. This unfortunately is a poor descriptor and somewhat inaccurate. It may make better media copy, but calling heartbleed an “overflow” is a poor technical description upon which to base a measured response.
Heartbleed is not a classic buffer overflow. No flow control or executable code may be injected via heartbleed. A read of attacker chosen memory locations is not possible, as I will explain, below. A better descriptor of heartbleed is a “buffer over-read”. Unintentionally, some data from memory is returned to the attacker. To be precise, heartbleed is a data leak, not a flow control error.
In order to understand what’s possible to disclose, it’s key to understand program “heap” memory. The heap is an area of memory that programs use to store data. Generally speaking, well-written programs (like OpenSSL) do not to put executable code into heap (that is, data) memory. Because data and execution are separated, the attacker has no way through this vulnerability to execute code. And that is key, as we shall see.
As a program runs, bits of data, large and small, temporary and more or less permanent for the run, are put into the heap. Typically, data are put wherever is convenient at the moment of allocation, depending upon what memory is available.
Memory that’s been deallocated gets reused. If an available piece of memory happens to be larger than a requested size, the new sized piece will be filled with the new data, while adjacent to the new data will remain bits and pieces of whatever was there previously.
In other words, while not entirely random, the heap is filled with bits and pieces of data, a little from here, a little from there, a nice big chunk from this session, with a bit left over from some other session, all helter-skelter amongst each other. The heap is a jumble; taking random bits from the heap may be considered to be like attending a jumble sale.
Now, let’s return to heartbleed. The heartbleed bug returns whatever happens to be on the heap just above the 16 bytes that are required for the TLS heartbeat packet. The attacker may request as much as 64K bytes. That’s a nice big chunk of stuff from the heap; make no mistake about it. Anything might be in there. At the very least, decrypted data intended for application processing will be returned to the attacker. That’s certainly bad! It breaks the confidentiality supposedly gained through the TLS encryption. But getting a random bit is different than requesting an arbitrary memory location at the discretion of the attacker. And that is a very important statement to hold in mind as we respond to this very serious situation.
An analogy to Heartbleed might be a bit like going fishing. Sometimes, we fish where we can clearly see the fish (mountain streams) or signs of fish (clearer lakes), or with a “fish finder” appliance, that identifies fish under the surface when the fish aren’t visible.
Heartbleed is a lot more like fishing for fish that are deep in a turbulent lake with no fish finding capability. The fisher is guessing. If she or he guesses correctly, fish for dinner. If not, it’s a long day holding onto the fishing rod.
In the same manner, the attacker, the “fisher” as it were, doesn’t know where the “fish”, the goodies are. The bait (the heartbleed request) is cast upon the “lake” (the program heap) in the hopes that a big fish will “bite” (secret “bytes” will get returned).
The attacker can heartbleed to her or his heart’s content (pun intended). That is, if left undiscovered, an attacker can continuously pound the other side of the connection with heartbleeds, perhaps thousands of times. Which means multiple chunks of memory will be returned to the attacker, as the heap allocates, deallocates, and moves data around.
Lots of different heap chunks will get returned. There will likely also be overlap between the chunks that are returned to the attacker. Somewhere within those memory chunks are likely to be some sensitive data. If the private key for a session happens to be in one of those chunks, it will be exposed to the attacker. If any particular session open through the OpenSSL library happens to a contain a password that had been transmitted, it’s been exposed. It won’t take an engineering genius to do an ASCII dump of returned chunks of memory in order to go poking about to find interesting bits.
Still, and nonetheless, this is hunting for goodies in a bit of a haystack. Some people are quite good at that. Let’s acknowledge that outright. But that’s very different than a directed attack.
And should a wise and prepared security team, making good use of appropriate security tools, notice a heartbleed attack, they will most likely kill the connection before thousands of buffers can be read. Heartbleed over any particular connection is a linear process, one packet retrieved at a time. Retrieving lots of data takes some time. Time to respond. Of course, an unprotected and unaware site could allow many sessions to get opened by an attacker, each linearly heartbled, thus revealing far more of what’s on the heap than a single session might. Wouldn’t you notice such anomalous behaviour?
It’s important to note that the returns in the heartbleed packets are not necessarily tied to the attackers’ session. Again, it’s whatever happens to be on the heap, which will contain parts of other sessions. And any particular heartbleed packet is not necessarily connected to the data in a previous or subsequent packet. Which means that there’s no continuity of session nor any linearity between heartbleed retrievals. All session continuity must be pieced together by the attacker. That’s not rocket science. But it’s also work, perhaps significant work.
I’ll reiterate in closing, that this is a dangerous bug to which we must respond in an orderly fashion.
On the other hand, this bug does not give attackers free reign to go after all the juicy targets that may be available on any host, server, or endpoint that happens to have OpenSSL installed. Whatever happens to be on the heap of the process using the OpenSSL library and that is adjacent to the heartbeat buffer will be returned. And that attack may only occur during a TLS session. Simply including the vulnerable library poses no risk, at all. Many programs make use of OpenSSL for other functionality beyond TLS sessions.
This bug is not the unfettered keys to the kingdom, unless a “key to the kingdom” just happens to be on the heap and happens to get returned in the over-read. What gets returned is entirely due to the distribution of the heap at the moment of that particular heartbeat.
These assertions have been demonstrated in the lab through numerous runs of the heartbleed attack by a team who cannot be named here. My thanks to them for confirming this assessment. Sorry for not disclosing.
 There are plenty of specialized cases that break this rule. But typically, code doesn’t run from the heap; data goes onto the heap. And generally speaking, programs refrain from executing on the heap because it’s a poor security practice. Let’s make that assumption about OpenSSL (and there’s nothing to indicate that this is NOT true in this case), in order to make clear what’s going on with heartbleed.
 The libraries that support programs developed with the major development tools and running on the major operating systems have sophisticated heap management services that are consumed by the running application as it allocates and deallocates memory. While care must be exercised in languages like C/C++, the location of where data end up on the heap is controlled by these low-level services.
 That is, intended for the application that is using OpenSSL for TLS services.