Dual-interface smart-cards and problem of user intent (part I)

Comparing the security of NFC applications implemented with host-card emulation (HCE) against those using an embedded secure element, we noted that SE hardware architecture allows for interface detection, a critical mitigation against remote relay attacks.  This post expands on another application of the same feature: recognizing user intent in traditional smart card scenarios when they are used in conjunction with an untrusted PC.

Smart-cards and malicious hosts

First a few words on the problem. Consider a standard use-case for smart cards: accessing a remote resource, such as SSH or remote-desktop into another machine in the cloud. In a high-assurance environment that would call for strong authentication– in other words,bg not passwords– using cryptographic keys managed on the card. A typical flow might be:

  • User initiates the action
  • Local machine prompts the user for their smart-card.
  • User inserts their card into the reader (or in the case of NFC, brings it into the field of the reader)
  • PIN prompt is displayed
  • User enters their PIN
  • PIN is relayed to the card to authenticate the user to the card.
  • Once the card application is convinced it is dealing with the legitimate card-holder, it performs a cryptographic operation (such as signing a challenge) to authenticate the user to the remote resource.

When preventing key recovery is not enough

Consider the problem of malware resident on the host PC. Card applications and communication interface are designed to prevent the extraction of secret key material via pure software attacks, such as trying to exploit a memory corruption vulnerability. Let’s posit this is working correctly. Let’s further grant that cryptographic primitives are not vulnerable to side-channel leaks (such as timing differences or padding oracles) that can be used to recover keys using pure software attacks.

Smart-card meets hostile PC

Smart-card interacting with a hostile PC controller by adversary

That rules out the obvious avenue for malware to permanently exfiltrate cryptographic secrets out of the card and ship-them off for future use. But the host can ask the card to perform any operation using those secrets while the card is attached. This is because at the card level there is no concept of “user intent.” Looking at a typical architecture as pictured above, there is a compromised PC running malware controlled by the adversary. A card-reader is attached typically via USB or serial link, and the card is introduced to the reader, allowing the PC to issue commands to the card and receive responses in a standardized format known as APDU. Neither the card reader or card have any indication about the provenance of those APDUs, beyond the obvious fact that they originated from the host. There is no other verifiable indication about which particular application sent those commands, whether that application is acting on behalf of the legitimate card-holder or carrying out its own agenda. In effect, the card is just a passenger along for the ride, with PC software calling the shots on exactly what messages are being signed, decrypted or otherwise processed using the card. After card is attached to the system and the user has authenticate, there is an implicit channel (red-dashes above) available to the malware for issuing arbitrary requests to the card.

Just to drive home the point that this is not a hypothetical scenario– and choice of a US government PIV card for illustrative purposes above is not entirely coincidental: in 2012 AlienVault reported that the Sykipot malware was targeting smart cards  by using a key-logger to capture PINs and later issuing its own set of commands to the card.

Working around PIN checks

Requiring PIN entry, as many card applications do before performing sensitive operations, does not solve this problem.  In the most  common scenario, PIN is entered locally on the compromised PC. This input can be intercepted by malware running at sufficiently high privilege and replayed any time later to authenticate to the card to perform some other private-key operations desired by the attacker.

Consider the more advanced case observed in defense and banking scenarios where an external PIN entry device is used. This is a distinct piece of hardware with its own numeric key-pad. Individual keystrokes are not shipped to the PC but instead the entire PIN is delivered to the card as part of a PIN verification command. (Since the format of that command varies by card application, this must be decided upon in advance and programmed into the PIN-pad firmware.) While this will hide the PIN from  malware resident on the host, it does not stop the malware from free-riding on the authenticated channel after PIN verficiation is done. After all PIN entry is being done at the behest of some application the user started– for example it could be their email client trying to decrypt an encrypted message. There is no social engineering required here; malware can simply wait until the user has legitimate reason to enter their PIN on external device because some other application requested card usage. As long as attacker can take control of that application– which is often doable without special privileges– or more directly, take control of the PC/SC interface controlling all card communication, additional commands can be injected for processing by on-card application.

Towards establishing user intent

Some “card”-like devices in the form of USB tokens have a button or similar input device on the card itself to establish user intent. (In fact there are also cards with their own PIN pad to avoid the untrusted entry path problem; the one button for confirming a transaction is effectively a special case of that design.) This is effectively creating a user nuisance in the name of marginal security. It does prevent the card from being commandeered by malware on host, since sensitive operations requires the user to take action. On the other hand, the user still has no idea what operation is about to be performed when they press the button. For example is the token going to sign the document they submitted or another message chosen by malware? Suppose there is an error message saying the operation did not succeed and needs to be repeated; is there a way to distinguish an “honest” error from malware having hijacked the click for its own purpose?

Interface detection on dual-interface cards can emulate these button presses, but they can do one better by allowing the user to verify exactly what is being requested of the card.

[continue to part II]


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