The optimal Ethereum heist: attacking the Parity wallet (part I)

On Jul 19 news started circulating on social media that a critical vulnerability existed in the Parity multi-signature wallet. This was quickly followed by even more startling update that the vulnerability was being actively exploited in the wild to steal funds from vulnerable wallets. By the time the dust settled, more than $30M (at the prevailing ETH/USD exchange rates) had been stolen. Meanwhile a “white-hat” group emerged, racing to use the exploit themselves  to rescue another $85M held in other vulnerable contracts from another strike by the perpetrator, sowing further confusion around who exactly are the good and bad guys in this episode. That would have been unprecedented in any other setting— akin to a vigilante neighborhood watch group preemptively looting a bank to secure its funds, knowing that a group of professional bank-robbers were going around hitting other branches. (Except it already happened once before in Ethereum: the summer of 2016 witnessed another self-appointed white-hat coalition deliberately exploiting a known smart-contract vulnerability to rescue funds remaining in the DAO during another high-profile Ethereum contract debacle.) This post examines the nature of the vulnerability, the modus operandi used by the attacker and some unresolved questions around why they did not maximize the monetary gains from this exploit.

Reverse engineering the vulnerability

While the Parity team put out an emergency PSA, they did not disclose the nature of the vulnerability, perhaps out of the mistaken notion that doing so would facilitate additional attacks. (Ironically they also committed the fix to a public repository in Github, unwittingly 0-daying themselves.) But it turns out that the vulnerability was so blatant it would have been easy to identify from the pattern of exploits. Let’s start with one of the first pieces of information that emerged during this episode: the thief hit an Ethereum contract at address 0xbec591de75b8699a3ba52f073428822d0bfc0d7e and siphoned funds to his/her own address at 0xb3764761e297d6f121e79c32a65829cd1ddb4d32. This turns out to be all the information required to work backwards and reverse engineer the bug.

Looking at the transactions originating from the attacker address around this time, we see 2 function calls into the victim contract, closely spaced in time. In fact this same pattern is repeated for two other vulnerable contracts that were exploited:
The “value” is displayed as 0 ethers in this blockchain explorer, which is misleading— it means that no funds were transferred from the attacker to the victim as part of making this function call into the smart-contract. (That makes sense; when you are trying to rob an establishment, you usually do not send them more funds.) But if we were to look at the victim view, we would find that the second, later transaction in fact resulted in the vulnerable contract transferring 82000ETH to the attacker—more than $15M at prevailing exchange rates, not bad for two function calls:

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 13.38.39.png

Across all three victims, the coup de grâce is delivered in this second call, resulting in transfer of funds from the targeted contract to the attacker. We will keep this in mind while diving into the call details.

Looking at the second call in a blockchain explorer, it is a call to the execute() method of the contract. If these function arguments look familiar, that’s because the first one is the Ethereum network address of the attacker. The second one is the amount in Weis to transfer to that destination address:

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 16.49.59.png

Why this call succeeded in transferring funds is mysterious. The source code clearly designates the function with the modifier “onlyowner,” suggesting that the developer intended for the function to be only callable by one of the contract owners. Surely the attacker is not already an owner of the contract? (Otherwise this is just an ordinary legal dispute involving insider malfeasance, not a critical vulnerability in the contract logic.) Of course it is one thing to intend for that outcome, another to achieve it; machines can only execute code, not good intentions. But looking at the implementation of the modifier and following the call chains, everything appears to be in order. By all indications, if the caller is not one of the contract owners, the execute() function will not actually execute.

Solving this puzzle requires going back to that preceding function call before the theft. We can theorize that perhaps that first call is a case of “prepping the battlefield” by placing the contract state into a vulnerable state such that the second call will succeed. Looking at the details in a blockchain explorer provides the missing clue:

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 13.50.07.png

That initWallet() function is supposed to be used for initializing the contract when it is originally created. It is called by the constructor and records the set of owners, the quorum required to authorize funds transfer and daily withdrawal limit. Looking at the parameters, there is that familiar attacker address again 0xb3764761e297d6f121e79c32a65829cd1ddb4d32 at parameter #5. There is also the number 1 passed in as argument. So we can posit that the attacker called this function to overwrite the contract state, listing that address as the sole owner and indicating that approval from just one owner is enough to authorize release of funds. That explains why the second call succeeded: by the time the “onlyowner” modifier was being checked to authorize the funds transfer, ownership information had already been corrupted.

So there is the vulnerability: a sensitive function that should have been only callable internally—and only during initialization of the contract— was left exposed to external calls from anyone on the blockchain. In fairness the reason for that unexpected reachability  is subtle: the Parity wallet is structured as a thin-wrapper that delegates the bulk of implementation to a much larger, shared wallet library. The vulnerable function is part of that shared library and can not be invoked directly. But the fallback method in the the outer wrapper forwards arbitrary calls to the library, effectively exposing even seemingly “internal” methods. Calling that particular function allows overwriting the ownership information, effectively redefining who controls the funds managed by the contract. Sure enough a commit to the public repo on Github shortly after the announcement confirms this theory: the fix adds a new modifier to protect the function from being called a second time after contract is already initialized.

Making a solid case for bad language design

So that is the cause in effect. But as with most vulnerabilities, it is more instructive to search for a systemic root cause— intrinsic properties of the system that made this class of error likely. Absent root causes, every vulnerability looks like bad luck: someone, somewhere made an unfortunate error or committed an oversight that they promise will never happen again. In this case a closer look at the programming language Solidity used for authoring smart-contracts suggests that some design choices in the language increased the likelihood for these errors. Specifically, Solidity defaults to allowing all methods in a contract to be invoked publicly by default. This fails the criteria of being secure by default: public methods are exposed to hostile inputs from anyone with access to the blockchain, in the same way that a service listening on a network port invites increases attack surface. Parity developers were also quick to blame Solidity in their own post-mortem:

Fourth, some blame for this bug lies with the Solidity language and, in its current incarnation, the difficulty with which one can understand the execution permissions over functions. […] We believe one or both of two ideas would help. One would be to change the default access mode of functions to “private”, rather than the eminently insecure “public”.

Ironically the bug was introduced during a refactoring, which moved the initialization code out of the constructor and into its own function. Refactoring is “a disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior.” It turns out in the case of Solidity, repackaging a few lines of code into a separate function does alter its semantics: those lines of code could become externally reachable outside of the original call path. (Note that it is not possible to invoke the constructor twice; there was an implicit guarantee of one-time execution present in the original version that is missing from the rearrange code.)

Language design aside, the contract itself contains some questionable logic. First notice the complexity around managing ownership: this contract allows dynamically modifying the ownership of an existing contract, voting out members or introducing new ones. How often is that logic exercised in the wild? Is it worth introducing this complexity? If it is an edge case, there are much simpler solutions: since the quorum for membership changes is identical to that for authorizing funds transfer, why not simply launch a contract with new membership and transfer all the funds there? But adding insult to injury, Solidity does not have a notion of “constantness” for object fields, the same way that “const” modifier can be applied to C++ or Java members. Confusingly there is the concept of constant state variables, but such fields must be initialized at compile time via immediate values—in contrast to the more powerful C++ version where they can be initialized using variable inputs supplied at construction time. That makes it difficult to express the notion that specific contract properties such as ownership list are immutable for the lifetime of the contract once constructed.

Given this background on why these smart-contracts were vulnerable to theft, the next post will look at some curious details around how attackers capitalized on the flaw for profit.



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