Use and misuse of code-signing (part I)

Or, there is no “evil bit” in X509

A recent paper from CCS2015 highlights the incidence of digitally signed PUP— potentially unwanted programs: malicious applications that harm users, spying on them, stealing private information or otherwise acting against the interests of the user. While malware is dime-a-dozen and occurence of malware digitally-signed with valid certificates is not new either, this is one of the first systemic studies of how malware authors operate when it comes to code signing. But before evaluating the premise of the paper, let’s step back and revisit the background on code-signing in general and MSFT Authenticode in particular.

ActiveX: actively courting trouble

Rewinding the calendar back to the mid-90s: the web is still in its infancy and browsers highly primitive in their capabilities compared to native applications. These are the “Dark Ages” before AJAX, HTML5 and similar modern standards which make web applications competitive with their native counterparts. Meanwhile JavaScript itself is still new and awfully slow. Sun Microsystems introduced Java applets as an alternative client-side programming model to augment web pages. Ever paranoid, MSFT responds in the standard MSFT way: by retreating to the familiar ground of Windows and trying to bridge the gap from good-old Win32 programming to this this scary, novel web platform. ActiveX controls were the solution the company seized on in hopes of continuing the hegemony of the Win32 API. Developers would not have to learn any new tricks. They would write native C/C++ applications using COM and invoking native Windows API as before—conveniently guaranteeing that it could only run on Windows— but they could now deliver that code over the web, embedded into web pages. And if the customers visiting those web pages were running a different operating system such as Linux or running on different hardware such as DEC Alpha? Tough luck.

Code identity as proxy for trust

Putting aside the sheer Redmond-centric nature of this vision, there is one minor problem: unlike the JavaScript interpreter, these ActiveX controls execute native code with full access to  operating system APIs. They are not confined by an artificial sandbox. That creates plenty of room to wreak havoc with machine: read files, delete data, interfere with the functioning of other applications. Even for pre-Trustworthy-Computing MSFT with nary a care in the world for security, that was an untenable situation: if any webpage you visit could take over your PC, surfing the web becomes a dangerous game.

There are different ways to solve this problem, such as constraining the power of these applications delivered over the web. (That is exactly what JavaScript and Java aim for with a sandbox.) Code-signing was the solution MSFT pushed: code retains full privileges but it must carry some proof of its origin. That would allow consumers to make an informed decision about whether to trust the application, based on the reputation of the publisher. Clearly there is nothing unique to ActiveX controls about code-signing. The same idea applies to ordinary Windows applications sure enough was extended to cover them. Before there were centralized “App Stores” and “App Markets” for purchasing applications, it was common for software to be downloaded straight from the web-page of the publisher or even a third-party distributor website aggregating applications. The exact same problems of trust arises here: how can consumers decide whether some application is trustworthy? The MSFT approach translates that into a different question: is the author of this application trustworthy?

Returning to the paper, the researchers make a valuable contribution in demonstrating that revocation is not quite working as expected. But the argument is undermined by a flawed model. (Let’s chalk up the minor errors to lack of fact-checking or failure to read specs: for example asserting that Authenticode was introduced in Windows 2000 when it  predates that, or stating that only SHA1 is supported when MSFT signtool has supported SHA256 for some time.) There are two major conceptual flaws in this argument:
First one is misunderstanding the meaning of revocation, at least as defined by PKIX standards. More fundamentally, there is a misunderstanding what code-signing and identity of the publisher represent, and the limits of what can be accomplished by revocation.

Revocation and time-stamping

The first case of confusion is misunderstanding how revocation dates are used: the authors have “discovered” that malware signed and timestamped continues to validate even after the certificate has been revoked. To which the proper response is: no kidding, that is the whole point of time-stamping; it allows signatures to survive expiration or revocation of the digital certificate associated with that signature. This behavior is 100% by design and makes sense for intended scenarios.

Consider expiration. Suppose Acme Inc obtains a digital certificate valid for exactly one year, say the calendar year 2015. Acme then uses this certificate so sign some applications published on various websites. Fast forward to 2016, and a consumer has downloaded this application and attempts to validate its pedigree. The certificate itself has expired. Without time-stamping, that would be a problem because there is no way to know whether the application was signed when the certificate was still valid. With time-stamping, there is a third-party asserting that the signature happened while the certificate was still valid. (Emphasis on third-party; it is not the publisher providing the timestamp because they have an incentive to backdate signatures.)

Likewise the semantics of revocation involve a point-in-time change in trust status. All usages of the key afterwards are considered void; usage before that time is still acceptable. That moment is intended to capture the transition point when assertions made in the certificate are no longer true. Recall that X509 digital certificates encode statements made by the CA about an entity, such as “public key 0x1234… belongs to the organization Acme Inc which is headquartered in New York, USA.” While competent CAs are responsible for verifying the validity of these facts prior to issuance, not even the most diligent CA can escape the fact that their validity can change afterwards. For example the private-key can be compromised and uploaded to Pastebin, implying that it is no longer under sole possession of Acme. Or the company could change its name and move its business registration to Timbuktu, a location different than the state and country specified in the original certificate.  Going back to the above example of the Acme certificate valid in 2015: suppose that half-way through the calendar year Acme private-key is compromised. Clearly signatures produced after that date can not be reliably attributed to Acme: it could be Acme or it could be the miscreants that stole the private-key. On the other hand signatures made before, as determined by third-party trusted timestamp should not be affected by events that occurred later.**

In some scenarios this distinction between before/after is moot. If an email message was encrypted using the public-key found in an S/MIME certificate months ago, it is not possible for the sender to go back in time and recall the message now that the certificate is revoked. Likewise authentication happens in real-time and it is not possible to “undo” previous instances when a revoked certificate was accepted. Digital signatures on the other hand are unique: the trust status of a certificate is repeatedly evaluated at future dates when verifying a signature created in the past. Intuitively signatures created before revocation time should still be afforded full trust, while those created afterwards are considered bogus. Authenticode follows this intuition. Signatures time-stamped prior to the revocation instant continue to validate, while those produced afterwards (or lacking a time-stamp altogether) are considered invalid. The alternative does not scale: if all trust magically evaporates due to revocation, one would have to go back and re-create all signatures.

To the extent that there is a problem here, it is an operational error on the part of CAs in choosing the revocation time. When software publishers are caught red-handed signing malware and this behavior is reported to certificate authorities, it appears that CAs are setting revocation date to the time of the report, as opposed to all the way back to original issuance time of the certificate. That means signed malware still continues to validate successfully according to Authenticode policy, as long as the crooks remembered to timestamp their signatures. (Not exactly a high-bar for crooks, considering that Verisign and others also operate free, publicly accessible time-stamping services.) The paper recommends “hard-revocation” which is made-up terminology for setting revocation time all the way back to issuance time of the certificate, or more precisely the notBefore date. This is effectively saying some assertion made in the certificate was wrong to begin with and the CA should never have issued it in the first place. From a pragmatic stance, that will certainly have the intended effect of invalidating all signatures. No unsuspecting user will accidentally trust the application because of a valid signature. (Assuming of course that users are not overriding Authenticode warnings. Unlike the case of web-browser SSL indicators which have been studied extensively, there is comparatively little research on whether users pay attention to code-signing UI.) While that is an admirable goal, this ambitious project to combat malware by changing CAs behavior is predicated on misunderstanding of what code-signing and digital certificates stand for.



** In practice this is complicated by the difficulty of determining precise time of key-compromise and typically involves conservatively estimating on the early side.

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