A quick crypto lesson – why “MAC then encrypt” is a bad choice

In light of the numerous recent attacks against SSL, I thought I’d offer up a quick and simple crypto lesson about why MAC-then-encrypt schemes are bad. This post will require only a minimum of knowledge about cryptography, so hopefully it’ll be useful to a wide range of people.

This is not designed to be a full and detailed description of how SSL works, or how various attacks against it works, but rather a short primer on the subject for those who know a bit about crypto but don’t really understand how something as seemingly strong as SSL might be broken. Some parts have been generalised or simplified for brevity and ease of understanding, so please don’t take anything I say here as a literal description of how it all works.

Anyway, let’s get started…

A secure network protocol has two main jobs:

  1. Keep the information in the conversation completely confidential.
  2. Prevent an attacker from tampering with the conversation.

The first part, as you probably already know, is performed by encryption. This usually involves exchanging one or more secret session keys between two endpoints, then using them with a cipher of some kind in order to provide safety against eavesdroppers.

The second part is a little more involved. In this case, when I say “tampering with the conversation”, I mean forging packets that look like they came from a legitimate endpoint, in such a way that they have a meaningful effect on the security of the conversation. This part is often implemented via a Message Authentication Code (MAC), which verifies that all data received was in fact sent by an authorised endpoint. Usually, a HMAC hash will be used, which is a keyed version of a cryptographic hash function. By using the session key as the key for the HMAC hash, it is possible to produce a hash of the payload in a way that cannot be forged by anyone that does not know the session key. By computing the same HMAC hash on the receiving end, using the same session key, it is possible to verify the authenticity of the data.

However, there’s a catch. One implementation option, called MAC-then-encrypt, is to compute the MAC on the plaintext data, then encrypt the data. The receiving endpoint then decrypts the data using the session key, and verifies its authenticity. Unfortunately, this means that an unauthenticated attacker can send arbitrary messages, and the receiving endpoint must decrypt them first in order to verify the MAC. Without knowing the session key, the attacker will likely produce garbage data after decryption, and the MAC will not match.

There is, however, an interesting trick that can be done here. Block ciphers require the length of all plaintext messages to be a multiple of the cipher’s block size. Since there is often a length discrepancy, padding is used to ensure that the message length is extended to fit. There are many different algorithms for generating padding data, but the padding is usually reliant on the plaintext in some way. This padding is checked during the decryption phase, and invalid padding results in an error. An attacker can flip certain bits in the ciphertext to modify this padding, and identify changes in behaviour and timing based on these altered bits. This is called a padding oracle attack, and can lead to full discovery of the plaintext.

A better solution, called encrypt-then-MAC, is to encrypt the data first, then compute the MAC of the ciphertext. This leads to a situation where the receiving endpoint checks the MAC first, before performing decryption, and drops the connection if the MAC is incorrect. Since the attacker can’t forge the MAC without knowing the session key, this completely negates the padding oracle attack.

How is all of this relevant to SSL? Well, in TLS 1.0 and earlier, a MAC-then-encrypt scheme was used. This resulted in various attacks, including BEAST and Lucky 13. In TLS 1.1 and later, these types of attacks are prevented.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into one of the ways that SSL can be vulnerable.

Advertisements