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New Attack Leverages HTTP/2 for Effective Remote Timing Side-Channel Leaks

timing side channel hacking

Security researchers have outlined a new technique that renders a remote timing-based side-channel attack more effective regardless of the network congestion between the adversary and the target server.

Remote timing attacks that work over a network connection are predominantly affected by variations in network transmission time (or jitter), which, in turn, depends on the load of the network connection at any given point in time.

But since measuring the time taken to execute cryptographic algorithms is crucial to carrying out a timing attack and consequently leak information, the jitter on the network path from the attacker to the server can make it impractical to successfully exploit timing side-channels that rely on a small difference in execution time.

The new method, called Timeless Timing Attacks (TTAs) by researchers from DistriNet Research Group and New York University Abu Dhabi, instead leverages multiplexing of network protocols and concurrent execution by applications, thus making the attacks immune to network conditions.

“These concurrency-based timing attacks infer a relative timing difference by analyzing the order in which responses are returned, and thus do not rely on any absolute timing information,” the researchers said.

Using HTTP/2’s Request Multiplexing to Reduce Jitter

Unlike the typical timing-based attacks, wherein the execution times are measured independently and sequentially, the latest technique attempts to extract information from the order and the relative timing difference between two concurrently executed requests without relying on any timing information.

To do so, a bad actor initiates a pair of HTTP/2 requests to the victim server either directly or using a cross-site — such as a malicious advertisement or tricking the victim into visiting an attacker-controlled web page — to launch requests to the server via JavaScript code.

timing side channel attack

The server returns a result that contains the difference in response time between the second request and the first. The TTA, then, works by taking into account whether this difference is positive or negative, where positive indicates that the processing time of the first request takes less time than processing the second request.

“On web servers hosted over HTTP/2, we find that a timing difference as small as 100ns can be accurately inferred from the response order of approximately 40,000 request-pairs,” the researchers noted.

“The smallest timing difference that we could observe in a traditional timing attack over the Internet was 10μs, 100 times higher than our concurrency-based attack.”

A limitation of this approach is that attacks aimed at servers using HTTP/1.1 cannot exploit the protocol to coalesce multiple requests in a single network packet, thereby requiring that a concurrent timing attack be performed using multiple connections instead of sending all requests over the same connection.

This stems from HTTP/1.1’s use of head-of-line (HOL) blocking, which causes all requests over the same connection to be handled sequentially, whereas HTTP/2 addresses this issue through request multiplexing.

Currently, 37.46% of all desktop websites are served over HTTP/2, a number that increases further to 54.04% for sites that support HTTPS. Although this makes a huge number of websites susceptible to TTAs, the researchers note that many of them rely on content delivery networks (CDN), such as Cloudflare, which still uses HTTP/1.1 for connections between the CDN and the origin site.

Tor Onion Service and Wi-Fi EAP-PWD Vulnerable

But in a twist, the researchers found that concurrency-based timing attacks can also be deployed against Tor onion services, including those that only support HTTP/1.1, allowing an attacker to create two Tor connections to a particular onion service, and then simultaneously send a request on each of the connections to measure a timing difference of 1μs.

That’s not all. The EAP-PWD authentication method, which uses a shared password between the server and supplicant when connecting to Wi-Fi networks, is rendered vulnerable to dictionary attacks by exploiting a timing leak in the Dragonfly handshake protocol to reveal the information about the password itself.

Although timing attacks can be countered by ensuring constant-time execution, it’s easier said than done, especially for applications that rely on third-party components. Alternatively, the researchers suggest adding a random delay to incoming requests and ensure that different requests are not combined in a single packet.

This is not the first time remote timing attacks have been employed to leak sensitive information. Researchers have previously demonstrated it’s possible to exploit cache side-channels to sniff out SSH passwords from Intel CPU cache (NetCAT) and even achieve Spectre-like speculative execution over a network connection (NetSpectre).

“Since the NetSpectre attacks target applications above the network layer, an attacker could, in theory, leverage our concurrency-based timing attacks to improve the timing accuracy,” the researchers said.

The findings will be presented at the USENIX Security Symposium later this year. The researchers have also published a Python-based tool to test HTTP/2 servers for TTA vulnerabilities.

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