Module rustls::manual::_01_impl_vulnerabilities[][src]

This section discusses vulnerabilities in other TLS implementations, theorising their root cause and how we aim to avoid them in rustls.

A review of TLS Implementation Vulnerabilities

An important part of engineering involves studying and learning from the mistakes of the past. It would be tremendously unfortunate to spend effort re-discovering and re-fixing the same vulnerabilities that were discovered in the past.

Memory safety

Being written entirely in the safe-subset of Rust immediately offers us freedom from the entire class of memory safety vulnerabilities. There are too many to exhaustively list, and there will certainly be more in the future.


goto fail

This is the name of a vulnerability in Apple Secure Transport CVE-2014-1266. This boiled down to the following code, which validates the server’s signature on the key exchange:

    if ((err = SSLHashSHA1.update(&hashCtx, &serverRandom)) != 0)
        goto fail;
    if ((err = SSLHashSHA1.update(&hashCtx, &signedParams)) != 0)
        goto fail;
>       goto fail;
    if ((err =, &hashOut)) != 0)
        goto fail;

The marked line was duplicated, likely accidentally during a merge. This meant the remaining part of the function (including the actual signature validation) was unconditionally skipped.

Ultimately the one countermeasure to this type of bug is basic testing: that a valid signature returns success, and that an invalid one does not. rustls has such testing, but this is really table stakes for security code.

Further than this, though, we could consider that the lack of an error from this function is a poor indicator that the signature was valid. rustls, instead, has zero-size and non-copyable types that indicate a particular signature validation has been performed. These types can be thought of as capabilities originated only by designated signature verification functions – such functions can then be a focus of manual code review. Like capabilities, values of these types are otherwise unforgeable, and are communicable only by Rust’s move semantics.

Values of these types are threaded through the protocol state machine, leading to terminal states that look like:

struct ExpectTraffic {
    _cert_verified: verify::ServerCertVerified,
    _sig_verified: verify::HandshakeSignatureValid,
    _fin_verified: verify::FinishedMessageVerified,

Since this state requires a value of these types, it will be a compile-time error to reach that state without performing the requisite security-critical operations.

This approach is not infallible, but it has zero runtime cost.

State machine attacks: EarlyCCS and SMACK/SKIP/FREAK

EarlyCCS CVE-2014-0224 was a vulnerability in OpenSSL found in 2014. The TLS ChangeCipherSpec message would be processed at inappropriate times, leading to data being encrypted with the wrong keys (specifically, keys which were not secret). This resulted from OpenSSL taking a reactive strategy to incoming messages (“when I get a message X, I should do Y”) which allows it to diverge from the proper state machine under attacker control.

SMACK is a similar suite of vulnerabilities found in JSSE, CyaSSL, OpenSSL, Mono and axTLS. “SKIP-TLS” demonstrated that some implementations allowed handshake messages (and in one case, the entire handshake!) to be skipped leading to breaks in security. “FREAK” found that some implementations incorrectly allowed export-only state transitions (ie, transitions that were only valid when an export ciphersuite was in use).

rustls represents its protocol state machine carefully to avoid these defects. We model the handshake, CCS and application data subprotocols in the same single state machine. Each state in this machine is represented with a single struct, and transitions are modelled as functions that consume the current state plus one TLS message1 and return a struct representing the next state. These functions fully validate the message type before further operations.

A sample sequence for a full TLSv1.2 handshake by a client looks like:

  • hs::ExpectServerHello (nb. ClientHello is logically sent before this state); transition to tls12::ExpectCertificate
  • tls12::ExpectCertificate; transition to tls12::ExpectServerKX
  • tls12::ExpectServerKX; transition to tls12::ExpectServerDoneOrCertReq
  • tls12::ExpectServerDoneOrCertReq; delegates to tls12::ExpectCertificateRequest or tls12::ExpectServerDone depending on incoming message.
    • tls12::ExpectServerDone; transition to tls12::ExpectCCS
  • tls12::ExpectCCS; transition to tls12::ExpectFinished
  • tls12::ExpectFinished; transition to tls12::ExpectTraffic
  • tls12::ExpectTraffic; terminal state; transitions to tls12::ExpectTraffic

In the future we plan to formally prove that all possible transitions modelled in this system of types are correct with respect to the standard(s). At the moment we rely merely on exhaustive testing.

  1. a logical TLS message: post-decryption, post-fragmentation.