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Red Hat has shipped products with randomization, stack protection, and other security mechanisms turned on by default since 2003. Vista recently shipped with similar protections and I read today an article about how the Microsoft Security Response Team were not treating Vista any differently when rating the severity of security issues. The Red Hat Security Response team use a similar guide for classification and I thought it would be worth clarifying how we handle this very situation.

We rate the impact of individual vulnerabilities on the same four point scale, designed to be an at-a-glance guide to how worried Red Hat is about each security issue. The scale takes into account the potential risk of a flaw based on a technical analysis of the exact flaw and it's type, but not the current threat level. Therefore the rating given to an issue will not change if an exploit or worm is later released for a flaw, or if one is available before release of a fix.

For the purpose of evaluating severities, our protection technologies fall into roughly three categories:

  1. Security innovations that completely block a particular type of security flaw. An example of this is Fortify Source. Given a particular vulnerability we can evaluate if the flaw would be caught at either compile time or run time and blocked. Because this is deterministic, we will adjust the security severity of an issue where we can prove it would not be exploitable.

  2. Security innovations that should block a particular security flaw from being remotely exploitable. Examples of this would be support for NX, Randomisation, and Stack canaries. Although these technologies can reduce the likelyhood of exploiting certain types of vulnerabilities, we don't take them into account and don't downgrade the security severity.

  3. Security innovations that try to contain an exploit for a vulnerability. I'm thinking here of SELinux. An attacker who can exploit a flaw in any of the remotely accessible daemons protected by a default SELinux policy will find themselves tightly constrained by that policy. We do not take SELinux into account when setting the security severity.

I've not been keeping a list of vulnerabilities that are deterministically blocked, but I have a couple of examples I recall where we did alter the severity:

Enterprise Linux 5 has been consuming much of my time over the last few months. From work on the signing server and new key policy, through testing of the new update mechanism, and continuing audits of outstanding vulnerabilities. Yesterday was release day, and we also pushed security updates for 12 packages in Enterprise Linux 5.

It may seem surprising that we release security updates for a product exactly at the same time we release it, but product development is frozen for some weeks before we release the product to give time testing from the various Quality Engineering teams as well as release engineering work. During that time we want to minimise the number of changes that will invalidate the overall testing, so we instead prepare the changes as updates. Since the vulnerabilities being fixed are already public, we push the updates out as soon as we can; holding them off to some scheduled monthly date would just increase customer risk.

Security advisories for Enterprise Linux 5 are available from the usual places, on the web, sent to the enterprise-watch-list mailing list, and via OVAL definitions. Red Hat Network subscribers can also get customized mails for the subset of issues that affect the packages they actually have installed.

For me, what's going to be interesting to watch over the next few months is how specific vulnerabilities and exploits affect this platform. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 packages are compiled both with Fortify Source and stack smashing protection in addition to all the security features that were in version 4. I'll be reporting on what difference this makes through the year.

We're changing the package signing key we use for all new Red Hat products.

Since 1999, all RPM packages in Red Hat products have been gpg signed by the master key "Red Hat, Inc <>" (keyid DB42A60E). I'll call this the legacy signing key for the rest of this article. This signature is one of two security mechanisms we use to ensure that customers can trust the installation of packages and their updates. The other is that the update client, up2date, checks the SSL server signature when it connects to the Red Hat Network to ensure that it only talks to official Red Hat servers; so removing the possibility of a man-in-the-middle attack.

From 2007, all new products will be signed with a different master key, "Red Hat, Inc. (release key) <>" (keyid 37017186). This includes Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, and any other new products that use RPM packages. The exception to this rule is that any new layered products designed for older versions of Enterprise Linux will still use the legacy key: so for example, a new version of the Application Stack for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 will be signed with the legacy key.

The legacy key hasn't been compromised so why change keys? It's all to do with the way the keys are stored and managed internal to Red Hat. The legacy key is a software key and so the key material exists, protected by a passphrase, on a hard disk. When packages need to be signed one of the Red Hat authorised signers manually runs a signing command, this calls rpm --resign which asks for the passphrase then in turn calls out to GNUpg to do the actual signature creation. So the authorised signers not only had the ability to sign with the key, but they also have the ability to read the key material. In theory this means that a malicious internal signer could copy the key, take it away with them, and sign whatever and whenever they wanted. Or, more likely, a clever intruder who gained access to our internal network could perhaps capture the key and passphrase, compromising the key. The risks mean we've had to be really careful who has signing privileges with the legacy key and how the key signing is handled.

The new key, in contrast, was created in a hardware cryptographic device which does not allow the unprotected key material to be exported. This means we can give authorised signers the ability to sign with the key, but no one can ever can get access to the key material itself. This is an important distinction. If for example a current authorised signer switches roles and is no longer responsible for package signing we can instantly revoke their rights and know that they no longer have the ability to sign any more packages with that key.

There was no off-the-shelf solution available for hardware-based RPM key management, so we developed one internally ourselves. We used nCipher nShield hardware security modules (FIPS 140-2 validated) for the key protection along with custom patches I developed to interface RPM/GNUpg to the unit. At the same time we also introduced an extra layer of abstraction to the signing software, so we can authorize signers using their existing internal kerberos credentials.

So, as a customer, you won't really notice any difference. For Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 you'll find the public keys on our website as well as in the /etc/pki/rpm-gpg/ directory and you'll be prompted when updating or installing new packages for the first time to import that new public key.

This change basically makes it easier for us to protect our signing key and reduce the risk of it being compromised, therefore reducing the chances we'll need to change the key and involve customer effort in the future.

Late last year a reporter contacted me who was interested in the various security features and innovations in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora. She particularly wanted to know the dates when each first made it into a shipping product. In the end the article was published in a German magazine and was not publically available. It's a shame to waste the work as I don't think this has ever all been collected together into one place before, so here is the table. It's possible I've missed one or two of the features, and I've not broken down the big things like SELinux where we could talk about the number of default policies in each release or the number of binaries compiled PIE, but drop me a mail if you see any issues.

  Fedora Core Red Hat Enterprise Linux
123456 34
2003Nov2004May2004Nov2005Jun2006Mar2006Oct 2003Oct2005Feb
Default requires signed updates YYYYYY YY
NX emulation using segment limits by default YYYYYY since 2004SepY
Support for Position Independent Executables (PIE) YYYYYY since 2004SepY
ASLR for Stack/mmap by default YYYYYY since 2004SepY
ASLR for vDSO (if vDSO enabled) no vDSOYYYYY no vDSOY
Restricted access to kernel memory by default  YYYYY  Y
NX by default for supported processors/kernels  since 2004JunYYYY since 2004SepY
Support for SELinux  YYYYY  Y
SELinux default enabled with targetted policies   YYYY  Y
glibc heap/memory checks by default   YYYY  Y
Support for FORTIFY_SOURCE, used on selected packages   YYYY  Y
All packages compiled using FORTIFY_SOURCE    YYY   
Support for ELF Data Hardening    YYY  Y
All packages compiled with stack smashing protection     YY   
Pointer encryption      Y   
CVE compatible        YY
OVAL compatible        since 2006Maysince 2006May

New: Updated version from 7th January 2008

Red Hat Network got a minor update last night which added a couple of new security features we've been working on: These features are now live and also enhance our public interface to the Red Hat Network (no login required).

Earlier this month, Steve Christey posted a draft report of the Vulnerability Type Distributions in CVE. The report notices, amongst other things, some differences between open and closed source vendors. I thought it would be more interesting to focus just on one of our released distributions to see if it made a difference to the trends. Steve kindly provided some reports based on a list of CVE names I gave him, and this led to the analysis and these two graphs.

First, the Vulnerability Type Distribution graph. This is not really a big surprise, the most common vulnerabilities we fix are buffer overflows. Technologies such as ExecShield (PIE, support for NX, FORTIFY_SOURCE and so on) were designed specifically to reduce the risk of being able to exploit this flaw type. Secondly, compared to the industry as a whole we fix far less web application flaws such as cross-site scripting or SQL injection. This result is to be expected as most of these are in PHP web applications we don't ship in our distributions.

Our usual security audit for Fedora Core 6 is now available. For 20020101 to 20061023 there are a potential 1758 CVE named vulnerabilities that could have affected FC6 packages. 93% of those are fixed because FC6 includes an upstream version that includes a fix, 1% are still outstanding, and 6% are fixed with a backported patch. Most of those outstanding issues are for low or moderate severity flaws that are not fixed upstream.

The full details broken out by CVE name are available as at GOLD (fixed) or latest status (updated daily)

There's a new Apache HTTP Server security issue out today, an off-by-one bug that affects the Rewrite module, mod_rewrite. We've not had many serious Apache bugs in some time, in fact the last one of note was four years ago, the Chunked Encoding Vulnerability.

This issue is technically interesting as the off-by-one only lets you write one pointer to the space immediately after a stack buffer. So the ability to exploit this issue is totally dependent on the stack layout for a particular compiled version of mod_rewrite. If the compiler used has added padding to the stack immediately after the buffer being overwritten, this issue can not be exploited, and Apache httpd will continue operating normally. Many older (up to a year or so ago) versions of gcc pad stack buffers on most architectures.

The Red Hat Security Response Team analysed Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 binaries for all architectures as shipped by Red Hat and determined that these versions cannot be exploited. We therefore do not plan on providing updates for this issue.

In contrast, our Fedora Core 4 and 5 builds are vulnerable as the compiler version used adds no stack padding. For these builds, the pointer being overwritten overwrites a saved register and, unfortunately, one that has possible security consequences. It's still quite unlikely we'll see a worm appear for this issue that affects Fedora though: for one thing, the vulnerability can only be exploited when mod_rewrite is enabled and a specific style of RewriteRule is used. So it's likely to be different on every vulnerable site (unless someone has some third party product that relies on some vulnerable rewrite rules). Even then, you still need to be able to defeat the Fedora Core randomization to be able to reliably do anything interesting with this flaw.

So, as you can probably tell, I spent a few days this week analysing assembler dumps of our Apache binaries on some architectures. It was more fun than expected; mostly because I used to code full-time in assembler, although that was over 15 years ago.

In the past I've posted timelines of when we found out about issues and dealt with them in Apache; so for those who are interested:

20060721-23:29 Mark Dowd forwards details of issue to
20060722-07:42 Initial response from Apache security team
20060722-08:14 Investigation, testing, and patches created
20060724-19:04 Negotiated release date with reporter
20060725-10:00 Notified NISCC and CERT to give vendors heads up
20060727-17:00 Fixes committed publically
20060727-23:30 Updates released to Apache site
20060828       Public announcement from Apache, McAfee, CERT, NISCC
Here is the patch against 2.0, the patch against 1.3 or 2.2 is almost identical.

On Friday 14th July an exploit was widely posted for a vulnerability in the Linux 2.6 kernel, CVE-2006-3626, which attempts to allow a local user to gain root privileges. The exploit relies on the kernel supporting the a.out binary format.

This vulnerability does not affect Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 or 3 as they are based on 2.4 kernels.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, Fedora Core 4, and Fedora Core 5 do not support the a.out binary format, causing the exploit to fail. We are not currently aware of any way to exploit this vulnerability if a.out binary format is not enabled. In addition, a default installation of these OS enables SELinux in enforcing mode. SELinux also completely blocks attempts to exploit this issue.

For more technical details of this issue please see bz#198973

The Red Hat Security response team have therefore rated this as having moderate security severity for Enterprise Linux 4. No asynchronous kernel update for this issue is currently planned; the fix for the flaw will be included in some later scheduled update.

Earlier this month Red Hat started publishing Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language (OVAL) definitions for Red Hat Enterprise Linux security issues and today we obtained official compatibility. But what are these definitions, how do you use them, and why are they important?

One of the goals of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is to maintain backward compatibility of the packages we ship where possible. This goal means making sure that when we release security updates to fix vulnerabilities that we include just the security fixes in isolation, a process known as backporting. Backporting security fixes has the advantage that it makes installing updates safer and easier for customers, but has the disadvantage that it can cause confusion to people unfamiliar with the process who try to use the version number of a particular piece of software to determine it's patch status.

In 2002, Red Hat started publishing Common Vulnerability and Exposures (CVE) vulnerability identifiers on every security advisory in order to make it easy to see what we fixed and how. Customers need only know the CVE identifiers for the vulnerabilities they are interested in and can then find out quickly and easily which of our updates addressed that particular vulnerability. CVE is now used on security advisories from nearly all the major vendors.

Red Hat has a single common mechanism for keeping systems up to date with security errata, the Red Hat Network. The Red Hat Network looks at a customers machines to determine which updates are required and gives anything from a customised notification that an update is available through to automated installation. Third party patch auditing tools don't have such an easy time figuring out what up dates are required: they have to maintain their own list of Red Hat package versions against vulnerability names. As this list is different for each operating system version from each potential vendors, these tools are prone to many errors and lag behind our updates.

We've also found customers that query the Red Hat Network errata pages directly to gather information about our security advisories and put them into a format they can integrate with their own processes. Many customers take feeds of vulnerability data, usually in some XML format, from third party security vulnerability companies.

MITRE recognised both of these issues a number of years ago when they founded the Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language project, OVAL in 2002. The aim of OVAL is to provide a language for defining how to test for vulnerabilities and system configuration errors in an open and cross-platform manner. Red Hat was a founding board member of the OVAL project as part of our overall commitment to security quality.

So Red Hat now publishes OVAL 5 definitions for our Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 security advisories. Each security advisory gets a separate XML OVAL file which defines the steps needed to test if an update is required for the target system. In an ideal world every Red Hat Enterprise Linux system would be consuming every update from Red Hat Network automatically, but for those that don't or where systems have been disconnected for some time, these definitions can help determine the patch status. In addition, these definitions contain selected info rmation from our advisories which can be combined with vulnerability feeds from third parties.

Red Hat OVAL patch definitions contain:

The actual OVAL definitions themselves are available from and are public within a couple of hours of an advisory being pushed to the Red Hat Network. OVAL definitions for all previous Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 advisories are also available. At present we do not ship OVAL tools such as a definition interpreter, but there are severalopen-source and commercial OVAL-compatible tools available.

For the future we encourage other vendors to publish definitive OVAL definitions for their products too, and we hope to work on compatibility testing with other operating system and tool vendors.

More information about the make-up of the OVAL patch definitions can be found at the MITRE OVAL site. An FAQ about our implementation and where to contact us with comments or questions is also available.

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Hi! I'm Mark Cox. This blog gives my thoughts and opinions on my security work, open source, fedora, home automation, and other topics.