Research: Crashing Browsers Remotely via Insecure Search Suggestions

Summary

Intercepting insecure search suggestion requests from browsers, and returning very large responses leads to browser crashes (but not RCE). Affected browsers are FireFox on the desktop and Android, and Chrome on desktop and Android – other Chromium and FireFox derived browsers maybe affected. Internet Explorer and Safari are not affected. The issue is exploitable remotely, albeit not easily.

Background – Search Suggestions

Most browsers, desktop and mobile, support a feature which allows users to type either in the address bar or the search box and see a list of “search suggestions”. These are similar to the search suggestions provided by most search engines within their homepages and search bars. Examples of search suggestions in the browser and search engine webpage appear below:

The protocol that underlies this mechanism is OpenSearch Suggestions Extensions, a JSON protocol running over HTTP (as defined here). This protocol allows browsers and other applications to send simple keyword queries to the search engine servers which return JSON responses translated by the browser into results in the search bar. It should be noted that some search engines define their own APIs instead of OpenSearch, which browsers then implement.

Search engines can also publish OpenSearch description documents (as defined here) and embed those in their webpages, which browsers can automatically discover and use. The discovery of new search engines happens automatically in some browsers when the user visits a particular site (Chrome and IE Edge [SSL only]), or triggered manually by the user via an icon in the search bar (FireFox). FireFox and Internet Explorer (prior to Edge) also support plugins and APIs for doing this as well.

An example of an open search description document defining the suggestion protocol from AOL Search (original from here) – note the bolded part that defines the search suggestion protocol:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<OpenSearchDescription xmlns="http://a9.com/-/spec/opensearch/1.1/"
                       xmlns:moz="http://www.mozilla.org/2006/browser/search/">
    <ShortName>AOL Search</ShortName>
    <Description>The AOL Search engine delivers great search results so
    you can search less and discover more.</Description>
    <Language>en-us</Language>
    <InputEncoding>UTF-8</InputEncoding>
    <Image width="16" height="16" type="image/x-icon">http://search.aol.com/favicon.ico</Image>
    <Url type="text/html" method="get" template="http://search.aol.com/aol/search?q={searchTerms}&amp;s_it=opensearch"/>
    <Url type="application/x-suggestions+json" template="http://autocomplete.search.aol.com/autocomplete/get?output=json&amp;it=opensearch&amp;q={searchTerms}"/>
    <moz:SearchForm>http://search.aol.com/aol/webhome</moz:SearchForm>
</OpenSearchDescription>

Background – Search Engines and HTTPS

Even in the the post-Snowden era, many popular search engines still do not support encryption (HTTPS). Other search engines may support HTTPS but also still support non-HTTPS connections and do not redirect users automatically to HTTPS. Because browser vendors tend to include the most popular search engines in specific countries by default, they end up including multiple search engines which are not using HTTPS. This also applies to the search suggestions endpoints used by browsers.

Some examples (for English locale, US only):

  • Android AOSP stock browser (source)
    • Bing (non-SSL version)
    • Yahoo (non-SSL version)
  • Chrome (desktop and Android) (source)
    • AOL Search (does not support SSL)
    • Ask.com (does not support SSL)
  • FireFox (desktop only) (source)
    • Ebay (does not support SSL)

Exploit Details

Because browsers include multiple non-HTTPS search engines with insecure search suggestions endpoints, it would be possible for an attacker on the network level to intercept the traffic flowing between the browser and the search engine endpoints, and substitute their own. If a very large response is returned (2+ GBs), the browser can run out of memory and crash. This is due to the fact that browsers do not check for sizes in the search suggestions responses. Obviously, this is more of an issue for mobile devices which have lower memory than desktops.

For Android AOSP browser and Chromium, this issue appear to be directly tied to the processing code of search engine responses. For FireFox, this is a more generic issue around large XMLHTTPRequest responses, which is what the browser is using internally for search suggestions. Our bug reports with the vendors provide more details on which code is causing this. This re-enforces the fact network traffic SHOULD NEVER be trusted.

The following crashes were observed – we have not been able to cause an RCE or a buffer overflow:

  • Android AOSP stock browser on Android (v4.4) – application crashes
  • Chrome v51 on Android (v6.01) – application crashes
  • Chrome v51 on desktop Linux (Ubuntu v16.04) – the entire computer freezes requires a reboot (this maybe to due to swapping being disabled with an SSD drive)
  • FireFox v47 on desktop Linux (Ubuntu v16.04) and Android (v6.01) – application crashes

Safari v9.1 and Internet Explorer 11 and Edge appear not to be are not affected, although a similar bug has happened before with Safari. We did not test prior versions of either Safari or IE. We also did not test any other browsers derived from Chromium or FireFox.

The practical exploitation of this issue is mitigated by several factors:

  • The attacker must have control over DNS and the network traffic of the victim machine. This is most likely in cases of a rogue WiFi hotspot or a hacked router.
  • Most browsers have a rather short timeout for search engine suggestions response, not allowing sufficient time for the large response packet to be transferred over network
  • Due to the very large response size needed to trigger this issue, it is only exploitable over broadband or local networks such as rogue WiFi hotspot

Vendor Responses

Google response re: Android AOSP browser:

The team reviewed this issue and don’t believe there is a security vulnerability here. It seems the worse things that can happen is the browser crashes due to resource exhaustion. The phone is still usable so there isn’t a denial of service.

Google response re: Chromium:

We don’t consider DoS to be a security vulnerability. See the Chrome Security FAQ:

https://www.chromium.org/Home/chromium-security/security-faq#TOC-Are-denial-of-service-issues-considered-security-bugs-

Mozilla / FireFox response has been to remove the security restriction on this bug, therefore indicating that this is not a security issue.

Steps to Replicate

(This is for Chrome but is similar for other browsers)

1. Install DNSMASQ and NGINX:
sudo apt-get install dnsmasq nginx
2. Modify the /etc/hosts file to add the following entries to map to the IP of the local computer (varies by vendor of the phone):
192.168.1.x ss.ask.com
3. Configure /etc/dnsmasq.conf file to listen on the IP:
listen-address=192.168.1.x
4. Restart DNSMASQ:
sudo /etc/init.d/dnsmasq restart
5. Use fallocate to create a file in “/var/www/html/”
sudo fallocate -l 5G query
6. Modify DNS settings on the test machine or the same machine to point to “192.168.1.x”. If same machine, modify resolve.conf as follows:
nameserver 192.168.1.x
7. Start Chrome, go to settings and choose “Ask.com” as the default search provider.
8. Open new tab and try to type something in the omnibox.

References

Android bug reports: 214784 and 214785
Chromium bug reports: 624779 and 624794 (patch accepted)
FireFox bug reports: 1283675 and 1283672
OpenSearch description document: doc here
OpenSearch Suggestions extension v1.1: doc here
Safari Search Suggestions bug: see ArsTechnica story here

Credits

Researched and written by Yakov Shafranovich.

Timeline

2016-06-30: Bug filed with Android
2016-06-30: Bug filed with Chromium
2016-06-30: Bug filed Mozilla/FireFox
2016-06-30: Response from Chromium, Won’t Fix
2016-07-12: Response from Android, not a security issue
2016-07-13: Android team is ok with disclosure
2016-07-14: Mozilla removes security restrictions on the bug
2016-07-26: Public disclosure

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