Trust on the Internet is underpinned by the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). PKI grants servers the ability to securely serve websites by issuing digital certificates, providing the foundation for encrypted and authentic communication.
Certificates make HTTPS encryption possible by using the public key in the certificate to verify server identity. HTTPS is especially important for websites that transmit sensitive data, such as banking credentials or private messages. Thankfully, modern browsers, such as Google Chrome, flag websites not secured using HTTPS by marking them “Not secure,” allowing users to be more security conscious of the websites they visit.
Now that we know what certificates are used for, let’s talk about where they come from.
Certificate Authorities (CAs) are the institutions responsible for issuing certificates.
When issuing a certificate for any given domain, they use Domain Control Validation (DCV) to verify that the entity requesting a certificate for the domain is the legitimate owner of the domain. With DCV the domain owner:
- creates a DNS resource record for a domain;
- uploads a document to the web server located at that domain; OR
- proves ownership of the domain’s administrative email account.
The DCV process prevents adversaries from obtaining private-key and certificate pairs for domains not owned by the requestor.
Preventing adversaries from acquiring this pair is critical: if an incorrectly issued certificate and private-key pair wind up in an adversary’s hands, they could pose as the victim’s domain and serve sensitive HTTPS traffic. This violates our existing trust of the Internet, and compromises private data on a potentially massive scale.
For example, an adversary that tricks a CA into mis-issuing a certificate for gmail.com could then perform TLS handshakes while pretending to be Google, and exfiltrate cookies and login information to gain access to the victim’s Gmail account. The risks of certificate mis-issuance are clearly severe.
Domain Control Validation
To prevent attacks like this, CAs only issue a certificate after performing DCV. One way of validating domain ownership is through HTTP validation, done by uploading a text file to a specific HTTP endpoint on the webserver they want to secure. Another DCV method is done using email verification, where an email with a validation code link is sent to the administrative contact for the domain.
Suppose Alice buys the domain name aliceswonderland.com and wants to get a dedicated certificate for this domain. Alice chooses to use Let’s Encrypt as their certificate authority. First, Alice must generate their own private key and create a certificate signing request (CSR). She sends the CSR to Let’s Encrypt, but the CA won’t issue a certificate for that CSR and private key until they know Alice owns aliceswonderland.com. Alice can then choose to prove that she owns this domain through HTTP validation.
When Let’s Encrypt performs DCV over HTTP, they require Alice to place a randomly named file in the
/.well-known/acme-challenge path for her website. The CA must retrieve the text file by sending an HTTP
GET request to
http://aliceswonderland.com/.well-known/acme-challenge/<random_filename>. An expected value must be present on this endpoint for DCV to succeed.
For HTTP validation, Alice would upload a file to
where the body contains:
curl http://aliceswonderland.com/.well-known/acme-challenge/YnV0dHNz GET /.well-known/acme-challenge/LoqXcYV8...jxAjEuX0 Host: aliceswonderland.com HTTP/1.1 200 OK Content-Type: application/octet-stream YnV0dHNz.TEST_CLIENT_KEY
The CA instructs them to use the Base64 token
TEST_CLIENT_KEY in an account-linked key that only the certificate requestor and the CA know. The CA uses this field combination to verify that the certificate requestor actually owns the domain. Afterwards, Alice can get her certificate for her website!
Another way users can validate domain ownership is to add a DNS TXT record containing a verification string or token from the CA to their domain’s resource records. For example, here’s a domain for an enterprise validating itself towards Google:
$ dig TXT aliceswonderland.com aliceswonderland.com. 28 IN TXT "google-site-verification=COanvvo4CIfihirYW6C0jGMUt2zogbE_lC6YBsfvV-U"
Here, Alice chooses to create a TXT DNS resource record with a specific token value. A Google CA can verify the presence of this token to validate that Alice actually owns her website.
Types of BGP Hijacking Attacks
Certificate issuance is required for servers to securely communicate with clients. This is why it’s so important that the process responsible for issuing certificates is also secure. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Researchers at Princeton University recently discovered that common DCV methods are vulnerable to attacks executed by network-level adversaries. If Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is the “postal service” of the Internet responsible for delivering data through the most efficient routes, then Autonomous Systems (AS) are individual post office branches that represent an Internet network run by a single organization. Sometimes network-level adversaries advertise false routes over BGP to steal traffic, especially if that traffic contains something important, like a domain’s certificate.
Bamboozling Certificate Authorities with BGP highlights five types of attacks that can be orchestrated during the DCV process to obtain a certificate for a domain the adversary does not own. After implementing these attacks, the authors were able to (ethically) obtain certificates for domains they did not own from the top five CAs: Let’s Encrypt, GoDaddy, Comodo, Symantec, and GlobalSign. But how did they do it?
Attacking the Domain Control Validation Process
There are two main approaches to attacking the DCV process with BGP hijacking:
- Sub-Prefix Attack
- Equally-Specific-Prefix Attack
These attacks create a vulnerability when an adversary sends a certificate signing request for a victim’s domain to a CA. When the CA verifies the network resources using an
HTTP GET request (as discussed earlier), the adversary then uses BGP attacks to hijack traffic to the victim’s domain in a way that the CA’s request is rerouted to the adversary and not the domain owner. To understand how these attacks are conducted, we first need to do a little bit of math.
Every device on the Internet uses an IP (Internet Protocol) address as a numerical identifier. IPv4 addresses contain 32 bits and follow a slash notation to indicate the size of the prefix. So, in the network address 220.127.116.11/24, “/24” refers to how many bits the network contains. This means that there are 8 bits left that contain the host addresses, for a total of 256 host addresses. The smaller the prefix number, the more host addresses remain in the network. With this knowledge, let’s jump into the attacks!
Attack one: Sub-Prefix Attack
When BGP announces a route, the router always prefers to follow the more specific route. So if 18.104.22.168/8 and 22.214.171.124/24 are advertised, the router will use the latter as it is the more specific prefix. This becomes a problem when an adversary makes a BGP announcement to a specific IP address while using the victim’s domain IP address. Let’s say the IP address for our victim, leagueofentropy.com, is 126.96.36.199/8. If an adversary announces the prefix 188.8.131.52/24, then they will capture the victim’s traffic, launching a sub-prefix hijack attack.
For example, in an attack during April 2018, routes were announced with the more specific /24 vs. the existing /23. In the diagram below, /23 is Texas and /24 is the more specific Austin, Texas. The new (but nefarious) routes overrode the existing routes for portions of the Internet. The attacker then ran a nefarious DNS server on the normal IP addresses with DNS records pointing at some new nefarious web server instead of the existing server. This attracted the traffic destined for the victim’s domain within the area the nefarious routes were being propagated. The reason this attack was successful was because a more specific prefix is always preferred by the receiving routers.
Attack two: Equally-Specific-Prefix Attack
In the last attack, the adversary was able to hijack traffic by offering a more specific announcement, but what if the victim’s prefix is /24 and a sub-prefix attack is not viable? In this case, an attacker would launch an equally-specific-prefix hijack, where the attacker announces the same prefix as the victim. This means that the AS chooses the preferred route between the victim and the adversary’s announcements based on properties like path length. This attack only ever intercepts a portion of the traffic.
There are more advanced attacks that are covered in more depth in the paper. They are fundamentally similar attacks but are more stealthy.
Once an attacker has successfully obtained a bogus certificate for a domain that they do not own, they can perform a convincing attack where they pose as the victim’s domain and are able to decrypt and intercept the victim’s TLS traffic. The ability to decrypt the TLS traffic allows the adversary to completely Monster-in-the-Middle (MITM) encrypted TLS traffic and reroute Internet traffic destined for the victim’s domain to the adversary. To increase the stealthiness of the attack, the adversary will continue to forward traffic through the victim’s domain to perform the attack in an undetected manner.
Another way an adversary can gain control of a domain is by spoofing DNS traffic by using a source IP address that belongs to a DNS nameserver. Because anyone can modify their packets’ outbound IP addresses, an adversary can fake the IP address of any DNS nameserver involved in resolving the victim’s domain, and impersonate a nameserver when responding to a CA.
This attack is more sophisticated than simply spamming a CA with falsified DNS responses. Because each DNS query has its own randomized query identifiers and source port, a fake DNS response must match the DNS query’s identifiers to be convincing. Because these query identifiers are random, making a spoofed response with the correct identifiers is extremely difficult.
Adversaries can fragment User Datagram Protocol (UDP) DNS packets so that identifying DNS response information (like the random DNS query identifier) is delivered in one packet, while the actual answer section follows in another packet. This way, the adversary spoofs the DNS response to a legitimate DNS query.
Say an adversary wants to get a mis-issued certificate for victim.com by forcing packet fragmentation and spoofing DNS validation. The adversary sends a DNS nameserver for victim.com a DNS packet with a small Maximum Transmission Unit, or maximum byte size. This gets the nameserver to start fragmenting DNS responses. When the CA sends a DNS query to a nameserver for victim.com asking for victim.com’s TXT records, the nameserver will fragment the response into the two packets described above: the first contains the query ID and source port, which the adversary cannot spoof, and the second one contains the answer section, which the adversary can spoof. The adversary can continually send a spoofed answer to the CA throughout the DNS validation process, in the hopes of sliding their spoofed answer in before the CA receives the real answer from the nameserver.
In doing so, the answer section of a DNS response (the important part!) can be falsified, and an adversary can trick a CA into mis-issuing a certificate.
At first glance, one could think a Certificate Transparency log could expose a mis-issued certificate and allow a CA to quickly revoke it. CT logs, however, can take up to 24 hours to include newly issued certificates, and certificate revocation can be inconsistently followed among different browsers. We need a solution that allows CAs to proactively prevent this attacks, not retroactively address them.
We’re excited to announce that Cloudflare provides CAs a free API to leverage our global network to perform DCV from multiple vantage points around the world. This API bolsters the DCV process against BGP hijacking and off-path DNS attacks.
Given that Cloudflare runs 175+ datacenters around the world, we are in a unique position to perform DCV from multiple vantage points. Each datacenter has a unique path to DNS nameservers or HTTP endpoints, which means that successful hijacking of a BGP route can only affect a subset of DCV requests, further hampering BGP hijacks. And since we use RPKI, we actually sign and verify BGP routes.
This DCV checker additionally protects CAs against off-path, DNS spoofing attacks. An additional feature that we built into the service that helps protect against off-path attackers is DNS query source IP randomization. By making the source IP unpredictable to the attacker, it becomes more challenging to spoof the second fragment of the forged DNS response to the DCV validation agent.
By comparing multiple DCV results collected over multiple paths, our DCV API makes it virtually impossible for an adversary to mislead a CA into thinking they own a domain when they actually don’t. CAs can use our tool to ensure that they only issue certificates to rightful domain owners.
Our multipath DCV checker consists of two services:
- DCV agents responsible for performing DCV out of a specific datacenter, and
- a DCV orchestrator that handles multipath DCV requests from CAs and dispatches them to a subset of DCV agents.
When a CA wants to ensure that DCV occurred without being intercepted, it can send a request to our API specifying the type of DCV to perform and its parameters.
The DCV orchestrator then forwards each request to a random subset of over 20 DCV agents in different datacenters. Each DCV agent performs the DCV request and forwards the result to the DCV orchestrator, which aggregates what each agent observed and returns it to the CA.
This approach can also be generalized to performing multipath queries over DNS records, like Certificate Authority Authorization (CAA) records. CAA records authorize CAs to issue certificates for a domain, so spoofing them to trick unauthorized CAs into issuing certificates is another attack vector that multipath observation prevents.
As we were developing our multipath checker, we were in contact with the Princeton research group that introduced the proof-of-concept (PoC) of certificate mis-issuance through BGP hijacking attacks. Prateek Mittal, coauthor of the Bamboozling Certificate Authorities with BGP paper, wrote:
“Our analysis shows that domain validation from multiple vantage points significantly mitigates the impact of localized BGP attacks. We recommend that all certificate authorities adopt this approach to enhance web security. A particularly attractive feature of Cloudflare’s implementation of this defense is that Cloudflare has access to a vast number of vantage points on the Internet, which significantly enhances the robustness of domain control validation.”
Our DCV checker follows our belief that trust on the Internet must be distributed, and vetted through third-party analysis (like that provided by Cloudflare) to ensure consistency and security. This tool joins our pre-existing Certificate Transparency monitor as a set of services CAs are welcome to use in improving the accountability of certificate issuance.
An Opportunity to Dogfood
Building our multipath DCV checker also allowed us to dogfood multiple Cloudflare products.
The DCV orchestrator as a simple fetcher and aggregator was a fantastic candidate for Cloudflare Workers. We implemented the orchestrator in TypeScript using this post as a guide, and created a typed, reliable orchestrator service that was easy to deploy and iterate on. Hooray that we don’t have to maintain our own
We use Argo Tunnel to allow Cloudflare Workers to contact DCV agents. Argo Tunnel allows us to easily and securely expose our DCV agents to the Workers environment. Since Cloudflare has approximately 175 datacenters running DCV agents, we expose many services through Argo Tunnel, and have had the opportunity to load test Argo Tunnel as a power user with a wide variety of origins. Argo Tunnel readily handled this influx of new origins!
Getting Access to the Multipath DCV Checker
If you and/or your organization are interested in trying our DCV checker, email [email protected] and let us know! We’d love to hear more about how multipath querying and validation bolsters the security of your certificate issuance.
As a new class of BGP and IP spoofing attacks threaten to undermine PKI fundamentals, it’s important that website owners advocate for multipath validation when they are issued certificates. We encourage all CAs to use multipath validation, whether it is Cloudflare’s or their own. Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, Tech Lead, Let’s Encrypt, wrote:
“BGP hijacking is one of the big challenges the web PKI still needs to solve, and we think multipath validation can be part of the solution. We’re testing out our own implementation and we encourage other CAs to pursue multipath as well”
Hopefully in the future, website owners will look at multipath validation support when selecting a CA.