Daily Archives: 2006-08-11

Protocol design is hard — Flaws in ScatterChat

At the recent HOPE conference, the “secure instant messaging (IM) client”, ScatterChat, was released in a blaze of publicity. It was designed by J. Salvatore Testa II to allow human rights and democracy activists to securely communicate while under surveillance. It uses cryptography to protect confidentiality and authenticity, and integrates Tor to provide anonymity and is bundled with an easy to use user interface. Sadly not everything is as good as it sounds.

When I first started supervising undergraduates at Cambridge, Richard Clayton explained that the real purpose of the security course was to teach students not to invent the following (in increasing order of importance): protocols, hash functions, block ciphers and modes of operation. Academic literature is scattered with the bones of flawed proposals for all of these, despite being designed by very capable and experienced cryptographers. Instead, wherever possible, implementors should use peer-reviewed building blocks, as normally there is already a solution which can do the job, but has withstood more analysis and so is more likely to be secure.

Unfortunately, ScatterChat uses both a custom protocol and mode of operation, neither which are as secure as hoped. While looking at the developer documentation I found a few problems and reported them to the author. As always, there is the question of whether such vulnerabilities should be disclosed. It is likely that these problems would be discovered eventually, so it is better for them to be caught early and users allowed to take precautions, rather than attackers who independently find the weaknesses being able to exploit them with impunity. Also, I hope this will serve as a cautionary tale, reminding software designers that cryptography and protocol design is fraught with difficulties so is better managed through open peer-review.

The most serious of the three vulnerabilities was published today in an advisory (technical version), assigned CVE-2006-4021, from the ScatterChat author, but I also found two lesser ones. The three vulnerabilities are as follows (in increasing order of severity): Continue reading Protocol design is hard — Flaws in ScatterChat