The weakness of doing authentication over a side channel

November 5, 2014

Yesterday I mentioned our method of authenticating NFS client hosts; fundamentally it operates by every so often verifying that the client host knows a secret. Suppose that we had a slightly improved version of this, where the NFS fileserver holds an authenticated TCP connection open with the client and periodically exchanges authenticated and encrypted packets with it; the simple version of this would just be a SSH connection with SSH level keepalives. Is this a reasonably secure system or is it attackable?

(A system without a continuous authentication connection is trivially attackable; get the real client to authenticate once, force it off the network, and replace it with your imposter client.)

Unfortunately, yes it is. Take your attack host with two network interfaces and insert it as a bridge between a valid client and the client's normal network. Now set your host to pass SSH traffic through the bridge to the valid client (and back out) but to intercept and generate its own NFS traffic. We will now authenticate the valid client but take NFS requests from your imposter client, and the authentication channel will stay perfectly live while you're doing this.

As far as I can tell this is a fundamental weakness of doing authentication over a side channel instead of the channel that your main communication is flowing over. If the authentication is not strongly connected with the actual real conversation, an attacker can peel the two apart and pass the authentication to a valid client while handling the real conversation itself. For full security, the authentication should be an intrinsic and inseparable part of the main communication.

(There are hacks you can try if you're stuck with separate channels, like having the client observe signs of the main protocol in action and report them back over the authentication channel. If this doesn't match the server's view of the client's activity, something's up.)

PS: I'm sure this is well known in the security and protocol design community. I'm writing it down for myself, because I want to remember the logic of this after I worked it out in my head.

Written on 05 November 2014.
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Last modified: Wed Nov 5 01:04:27 2014
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