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Netscape Navigator Improperly Validates SSL Sessions
Netscape Navigator Improperly Validates SSL Sessions Netscape Navigator Improperly Validates SSL Sessions Privacy and Legal Notice


K-040: Netscape Navigator Improperly Validates SSL Sessions

May 15, 2000 19:00 GMT
PROBLEM:       An attacker could compromise the integrity of an SSL connection 
               by taking advantage of a flaw in the way Netscape Communicator 
               checks certificates. 
PLATFORM:      All versions of Netscape up to, but not including version 4.73 
DAMAGE:        An attacker could steal information protected by SSL. 
SOLUTION:      Upgrade to Netscape Navigator 4.73. 

VULNERABILITY  The risk is medium. The procedure has been discussed in public  ASSESSMENT:    forums. 
[******  Start FEDCIRC Bulletin ******]

FedCIRC Advisory FA-2000-05 Netscape Navigator Improperly Validates SSL Sessions

Original release date: May 12, 2000

A complete revision history is at the end of this file. 

Systems Affected
Systems running Netscape Navigator 4.72, 4.61, and 4.07. Other versions less than 
4.72 are likely to be affected as well.
The ACROS Security Team of Slovenia has discovered a flaw in the way Netscape Navigator validates SSL sessions. 

I. Description
The text of the advisory from ACROS is included below. It includes information 
CERT/CC would not ordinarily publish, including specific site names and exploit 
information. However, because it is already public, we are including it here as 
part of the complete text provided by ACROS. 


   ACROS Security Problem Report #2000-04-06-1-PUB
   Bypassing Warnings For Invalid SSL Certificates In Netscape Navigator
   FULL REPORT                                                        PUBLIC

   Affected System(s): Netscape Navigator & Communicator
              Problem: Bypassing Warnings For Invalid SSL Certificates
             Severity: High
             Solution: Installing the Personal Security Manager or
                       Installing the newest Netscape Communicator (v4.73)
           Discovered: April 3, 2000
      Vendor notified: April 4, 2000
          Last update: May 10, 2000
            Published: May 10, 2000


Our team has discovered a flaw in Netscape Navigator that allows bypassing
of warning about an invalid SSL certificate. SSL protection is used in most
major Internet-based financial services (e-banking, e-commerce). The flaw
we have found effectively disables one of the two basic SSL functionalities:
to assure users that they are really communicating with the intended web
server - and not with a fake one.
Using this flaw, the attacker can make users send secret information (like
credit card data and passwords) to his web server rather than the real one -

INTRODUCTION (skip this section if you already understand how SSL works)

When a web browser tries to connect to a SSL-protected server, a so-called
SSL session is  established. At the beginning of this session the server
presents his SSL certificate containing his public key. At this point,
browser checks the certificate for the following conditions (*):

1) Certificate must be issued by a certificate authority trusted by browser
   (some are default: Verisign, Thawte etc.)
2) Certificate must not be expired (its expiry date:time must be later than
   the current system date:time on the computer browser is running on)
3) Certificate must be for the server that browser is connecting to (if
   browser is connecting to www.e-bank.com, the certificate must be for

All three conditions must be met for browser to accept the certificate. For
every condition not met, browser should display a warning to the user and
then user can decide whether connection should be established or not.
These three conditions combined provide user with assurance that his browser
is really connecting to the correct server and not to some fake server
placed on the Internet by malicious individual(s) trying to trick users to
give them credit card information, passwords and other secret information.

For example, let's take a look at a sample web e-banking system that doesn't
use SSL certificates and requires one-time password tokens for user
authentication. User connects to http://www.e-bank.com. Browser asks DNS
server for IP address of www.e-bank.com and gets Browser
then connects to and user is presented with login form
asking for his username and one-time password. He enters this data and
starts using e-banking services.
A simple attack (called web-spoofing) on this system is to attack the DNS
server and "poison" its entry for www.e-bank.com with attacker's IP address Attacker sets up a web server at that web-wise
looks exactly like the original www.e-bank.com server. User trying to
connect to www.e-bank.com will now instead connect to the attacker's server
and provide it with his one-time password. Attacker's server will use this
password to connect to the real server at and transfer all
of the user's money to his secret Swiss bank account ;-).

This attack is successfully disabled by using SSL protocol. In that
case, when browser falsely connects to www.e-bank.com at rather
than to, attacker's server must provide a valid certificate
for www.e-bank.com, which it can't unless the attacker has stolen the secret
key and the certificate from the real server. Let's look at three

1) Attacker could issue a certificate for www.e-bank.com himself (on his own
   CA). That wouldn't work since his CA is not trusted by user's browser.
2) Attacker could use a stolen expired key and certificate (those are often
   not protected as strongly as valid ones since one could think they can't
   be used any more). That wouldn't work since browser will notice that
   certificate is expired.
3) Attacker could use a valid key and certificate for some other site (e.g.
   www.something.org). That wouldn't work since browser will accept only
   valid certificates for www.e-bank.com.

It would seem that this problem of web-spoofing is successfully solved with
SSL certificates.


There is a flaw in implementation of SSL certificate checks in Netscape

The Flaw

Netscape Navigator correctly checks the certificate conditions (*) at the
beginning of a SSL session it establishes with a certain web server.
The flaw is, while this SSL session is still alive, all HTTPS
connections to *THAT SERVER'S IP ADDRESS* are assumed to be a part of this
session (and therefore certificate conditions are not checked again).
Instead of comparing hostnames to those of currently open sessions, Navigator
compares IP addresses. Since more than one hostname can have the same IP
address, there is a great potential for security breach.
This behavior is not in compliance with SSL specification.


The following will try to demonstrate the flaw. It is assumed that for
redirecting user's web traffic, the attacker will generally use "DNS
poisoning" or reconfiguring routers, while in our demonstration we will
use the HOSTS file on client computer to get the same effect and make it
easier to reproduce the flaw.

In this demonstration, we will make Navigator open Thawte's homepage over
secure (HTTPS) connection while requesting Verisign's home address at
Thawte's and Verisign's homepages are used as examples - this would work
just the same on any other secured web sites.

1) First, add the following line to the local HOSTS file on the computer
running the Navigator and save it: www.verisign.com

This will make the computer (and, consequently, the browser) think that IP
address of www.verisign.com (which is actually is in fact (which is actually IP address of www.thawte.com).

At this point it is important to note that SSL, if correctly implemented,
provides protection against such "domain name spoofing", because while the
browser will connect to the wrong server, that server will not be able to
provide a valid SSL certificate and the SSL session will not be
established (not without user being warned about the certificate).

2) Close all instances of Navigator to clean any cached IP addresses.

3) Open Navigator and go to https://www.thawte.com. It works as it should -
Thawte's server provides a valid SSL certificate for its hostname
(www.thawte.com) and so the SSL session is established.

4) With the same instance of Navigator, go to https://www.verisign.com. Now
watch the Thawte's homepage appear again WITHOUT ANY WARNINGS!

What happened here? In step 3), Navigator looked up the IP address for
www.thawte.com (from the DNS server) and found It tried to
establish a SSL session with that IP address and correctly checked all three
certificate conditions (*) - indeed, if any of them weren't true, a warning
would pop up.
In step 4), Navigator looked up the IP address for www.verisign.com (this
time from HOSTS file, but it could easily have been from the same DNS server)
and found again Now, since there was already one SSL session
open with that IP address, Navigator *INCORRECTLY* decided to use that
session instead of establishing another one.


This exploit will show how the flaw could be used to gather user's secret

Assume there is a web bookstore at www.thebookstore.com. Users go to
http://www.thebookstore.com (via normal HTTP connection), browse the
books and add them to their virtual shopping baskets. At the check-out,
they are directed to a secure order form (e.g.
https://www.thebookstore.com/order_form.html) where they enter their
personal and credit card information which is then submitted (again via
secure HTTPS connection) to the server. This is a typical web e-commerce
Assume that IP address of www.thebookstore.com is

The attacker sets up his own web server with IP address and
installs on it a valid SSL certificate for host www.attacker.com (he could
have purchased this certificate from e.g. Verisign if he owns the domain
attacker.com; he could have stolen the certificate or he could have broken
into a web server with a certificate already installed).
The attacker makes this web server function as a gateway to
www.thebookstore.com - meaning that all requests are forwarded to
www.thebookstore.com, so virtually this server "looks and feels" exactly like
the real www.thebookstore.com. There is just one difference: the page before
the order form (e.g. http://www.thebookstore.com/basket.html)
contains a small (1x1) image originating from https://www.attacker.com
(secure HTTPS connection).

Then, the attacker "poisons" a heavily used DNS server so that it will return for requests about www.thebookstore.com (normally it returns

What happens then?

All users of that DNS server who will try to visit (via normal HTTP)
http://www.thebookstore.com will connect to instead of but will not notice anything because everything will look
just the way it should. They will browse the books and add them to their
shopping baskets and at check-out, they will be presented with the order form
But the previous HTML page containing the hyperlink to the order form will
also contain a small (1x1) image with source https://www.attacker.com/a.gif.
Navigator will successfully download this image and for that it will
establish a SSL session with www.attacker.com. This session then stays open.
When the order form is accessed, Navigator tries to establish another SSL
session, this time to www.thebookstore.com. Since DNS server claims this
server has the same IP address as www.attacker.com (, Navigator
will use the existing SSL session with and will not check the
The result: Navigator is displaying a SECURE ORDER FORM that it believes to
be originating from the genuine server www.thebookstore.com while in fact
it is originating from the fake one. No warning about an invalid certificate
is issued to the user so he also believes to be safe.
When user submits his secret information, it goes to (through) the attacker's
server where it is collected for massive abuse.
For users to notice the foul play they would have to look at the certificate
properties while on a "secure" page https://www.thebookstore.com/...
The properties would show that the certificate used was issued for host
Also, monitoring network traffic would show that the server is not at where it should be but rather at

It is a very rare practice to check any of these when nothing suspect is


It should be noted that in the previous exploit, if the users tried to
access https://www.thebookstore.com over secure (HTTPS) connection from
the very start, Navigator would issue a warning. It is imperative for the
exploit to work that some time *before* the first secure connection to
https://www.thebookstore.com a successful secure connection is made to
https://www.attacker.com. That's why a valid certificate must be installed
on www.attacker.com.

Also, it should be noted that Navigator's SSL sessions don't last forever.
We haven't been able to predict the duration of these sessions
(it seems to be depending on many things like inactivity time, total time
etc.) and we also haven't investigated the possible effects of SSL
session resuming.


Netscape has (even prior to our notification - see the Acknowledgments
section) provided a Navigator Add-on called Personal Security Manager (PSM),
freely downloadable at:


Installation of PSM, as far as we have tested it, corrects the identified

Netscape Communicator (v4.73) currently includes the fix for this
vulnerability. It is available for download at:



Navigator/Communicator users who can't or don't want to install PSM can use
a "manual" method to make sure they are not under attack:

When visiting an SSL-protected site, double click on the lock icon (bottom
left corner) or the key icon (in older browsers) and see whether the
certificate used for the connection is really issued for the correct
hostname. E.g. If you visit https://www.verisign.com, make sure the
certificate used is issued for www.verisign.com and not for some other


It is important to emphasize that the flaw presented completely compromises
SSL's ability to provide strong server authentication and therefore poses
a serious threat to Navigator users relying on its SSL protection.

Users of web services

Netscape Navigator/Communicator users who are also users of any critical web
services employing Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protection to provide secrecy
and integrity of browser-server communication are strongly advised to
install Personal Security Manager or upgrade to Communicator 4.73 and thus
disable this vulnerability.

Main examples of such critical web services are:

- web banking systems (especially the ones using passwords for
  authentication - even one-time passwords),
- web stores (especially the ones accepting credit card data) and
- other web-based e-commerce systems.

Providers of web services

Providers of critical web services employing Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)
protection to provide secrecy and integrity of browser-server communication
should advise their users to install Personal Security Manager or upgrade to
Communicator 4.73 and thus disable this vulnerability.

Since this vulnerability allows for the type of attack that can completely
bypass the real/original web server, there are no technical countermeasures
which providers of web services could deploy at their sites.

Web services using client SSL certificates for user authentication

This vulnerability does NOT allow the attacker to steal client's SSL key
and thus execute the man-in-the-middle attack on web services using client
SSL certificates for user authentication. It still does, however, allow
the attacker to place a fake server (an exact copy) and collect other
information users provide (including the data in their client SSL


Tests were performed on:

Communicator 4.72 - affected
Communicator 4.61 - affected
Navigator 4.07 - affected


We would like to acknowledge Netscape (specifically Mr. Bob Lord and Mr.
Kevin Murray) for prompt and professional response to our notification of
the identified vulnerability and their help in understanding the flaw and
"polishing" this report.

We would also like to acknowledge Mr. Matthias Suencksen of Germany, who
has discovered some aspects of this vulnerability before we did (back in
May 1999).


Netscape has issued a Security Note about this vulnerability under a title
"The Acros-Suencksen SSL Vulnerability" at:



For further details about this issue please contact:

Mr. Mitja Kolsek

ACROS, d.o.o.
Stantetova 4
SI - 2000 Maribor, Slovenia

phone: +386 41 720 908
e-mail: mitja.kolsek@acros.si

PGP Key available at PGP.COM's key server.
PGP Fingerprint: A655 F61C 5103 F561  6D30 AAB2 2DD1 562A


This report was sent to:

- BugTraq mailing list
- NTBugTraq mailing list
- Win2KSecAdvice mailing list
- ACROS client mailing list


The information in this report is purely informational and meant only for
the purpose of education and protection. ACROS, d.o.o. shall in no event be
liable for any damage whatsoever, direct or implied, arising from use or
spread of this information.
All identifiers (hostnames, IP addresses, company names, individual names
etc.) used in examples and exploits are used only for explanatory purposes
and have no connection with any real host, company or individual. In no
event should it be assumed that use of these names means specific hosts,
companies or individuals are vulnerable to any attacks nor does it mean that
they consent to being used in any vulnerability tests.
The use of information in this report is entirely at user's risk.


(c) 2000 ACROS, d.o.o., Slovenia. Forwarding and publishing of this document
is permitted providing all information between marks "[BEGIN-ACROS-REPORT]"
and "[END-ACROS-REPORT]" remains unchanged.


II. Impact
Attackers can trick users into disclosing information (potentially including 
credit card numbers, personal data, or other sensitive information) intended 
for a legitimate web site, even if that web site uses SSL to authenticate 
and secure transactions. 

III. Solution
Install an update from your vendor. 
Appendix A lists information from vendors about updates.

If you are a DNS administrator, maintain the integrity of your DNS server
One way to exploit this vulnerability, described above, relies on the ability 
of the attacker to compromise DNS information. If you are a DNS administrator, 
making sure your DNS server is up-to-date and free of known vulnerabilities 
reduces the ability of an intruder to execute this type of attack. Administrators 
of BIND DNS servers are encouraged to read 

Validate certificates at each use
Despite the existence of this flaw, it is still possible to guard against attempted
attacks by validating certificates manually each time you connect to an SSL-secured 
web site. Doing so will substantially reduce the ability of an attacker to use flaws 
in the DNS system to bypass SSL-authentication. 

Appendix A. Vendor Information

Information about this problem is available at 

None of our products are affected by this vulnerability. 


The CERT Coordination Center thanks the ACROS Security Team of Slovenia 
(Contact: mitja.kolsek@acros.si), for the bulk of the text in this advisory. 


Shawn Hernan was the primary author of the CERT/CC portions of this document. 

This document is available from: http://www2.fedcirc.gov/advisories/FA-2000-05.html 

FedCIRC Contact Information
Email: fedcirc@fedcirc.gov
Phone: +1 888-282-0870 (24-hour toll-free hotline)
Phone: +1 412-268-6321 (24-hour hotline)
Fax: +1 412-268-6989
Postal address:

FedCIRC CERT Coordination Center
Software Engineering Institute
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3890

FedCIRC personnel answer the hotline 08:00-20:00 EST(GMT-5) / EDT(GMT-4) Monday 
through Friday; they are on call for emergencies during other hours, on U.S. holidays, 
and on weekends. 

Using encryption
We strongly urge you to encrypt sensitive information sent by email. Our public 
PGP key is available from

If you prefer to use DES, please call the FedCIRC hotline for more information. 

Getting security information
FedCIRC publications and other security information are available from our web site


FedCIRC (Federal Computer Incident Response Capability) is operated by the CERT/CC 
for the U.S. General Services Administration. FedCIRC provides security services to 
U.S. Federal civilian agencies. 

* "CERT" and "CERT Coordination Center" are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark 

Any material furnished by Carnegie Mellon University and the Software Engineering 
Institute is furnished on an "as is" basis. Carnegie Mellon University makes no 
warranties of any kind, either expressed or implied as to any matter including, but 
not limited to, warranty of fitness for a particular purpose or merchantability, 
exclusivity or results obtained from use of the material. Carnegie Mellon University 
does not make any warranty of any kind with respect to freedom from patent, trademark, 
or copyright infringement. 

Copyright 2000 Carnegie Mellon University; portions Copyright 2000 ACROS, d.o.o., Slovenia.

Revision History 

May 12, 2000:  Initial release

[******  End FEDCIRC Bulletin ******]

CIAC wishes to acknowledge the contributions of FEDCIRC for the information contained in this bulletin. CIAC would also like to thank Mitja Kolsek of the ACROS Security Team of Slovenia for discovering this flaw.
CIAC services are available to DOE, DOE Contractors, and the NIH. CIAC can be contacted at:
    Voice:          +1 925-422-8193 (7 x 24)
    FAX:            +1 925-423-8002
    STU-III:        +1 925-423-2604
    E-mail:          ciac@llnl.gov
    World Wide Web:  http://www.ciac.org/
                     (same machine -- either one will work)
    Anonymous FTP:   ftp.ciac.org
                     (same machine -- either one will work)

This document was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor the University of California nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or the University of California. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or the University of California, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.
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