Man-in-the-middle attacks against Exchange ActiveSync

I love the BlackHat security conference, although it’s been a long-distance relationship, as I’ve never been. The constant flow of innovative attacks (and defenses!) is fascinating, but relatively few of the attacks focus on things that I know enough about to have a really informed opinion. At this year’s BlackHat, though, security researcher Peter Hannay presented a paper on a potential vulnerability in Exchange ActiveSync that can result in malicious remote wipe operations. (Hannay’s paper is here, and the accompanying presentation is here.)

In a nutshell, Hannay’s attack depends on the ability of an attacker to impersonate a legitimate Exchange server, then send the device a remote wipe command, which the device will then obey. The attack depends on the behavior of the EAS protocol provisioning mechanism, as described in MS-ASPROV.

Before discussing this in more detail, it’s important to point out three things. First, this attack doesn’t provide a way to retrieve or modify data on the device (apart from erasing it, which of course counts as “modifying” it in the strictest sense.) Second, the attack depends on use of a self-signed certificate. Self-signed certificates are installed and used by Exchange 2007, 2010, and 2013 by default, but Microsoft doesn’t recommend their use for mobile device sync (see the 2nd paragraph here); contrary to Hannay’s claim in the paper, my experience has been that relatively few Exchange sites depend on self-signed certs.

The third thing I want to highlight: this is an interesting result and I’m sure that the EAS team is studying it closely to ensure that the future attacks Hannay contemplates, like stealing data off the device, are rendered impossible. There’s no current cause for worry.

The basis of this attack is that EAS provides a policy update mechanism that allows the server to push an updated security policy to the device when the policy changes. There are 3 cases when the EAS Provision command can be issued by the server:

  • when the client contacts the server for the first time. In this case, the client should pull the policy and apply it. (I vaguely remember that iOS devices prompt the user to accept the policy, but Windows Phone devices don’t.)
  • when the policy changes on the server, in which case the server returns a response indicating that the client needs to issue another Provision command to get the update.
  • when the server tells the device to perform a remote wipe.

The client sends a policy key with each command it sends to the server, so the server always knows what version of the policy the device has; that’s how it knows when to send back the response indicating that the device should reprovision.

If the client doesn’t have a policy, or if the policy has changed on the server, the client policy key won’t match the current server policy key, so the server sends back a response indicating that the client must reprovision before the server will talk to it.

There seems to be a flaw in Hannay’s paper, though.

The mechanism he describes in the paper is that used by EAS 12.0 and 12.1, as shipped in Exchange 2007. In that version of EAS, the server returns a custom HTTP error, 449, to tell the device to get a new policy. A man-in-the-middle attack in this configuration is simple: set up a rogue server that pretends to be the victim’s Exchange server, using a self-signed certificate, then when any EAS device attempts to connect, send back HTTP 449. The client will then request reprovisioning, at which time the MITM device sends back a remote wipe command.

Newer versions of Exchange return an error code in the EAS message itself; the device, upon seeing this code, will attempt to reprovision. (The list of possible error codes is in the section “When should a client provision?” in this excellent MSDN article). I think this behavior would be harder to spoof, since the error code is returned as part of an existing EAS conversation.

In addition, there’s the whole question of version negotiation. I haven’t tested it, but I assume that most EAS devices are happy to use EAS 12.1. I don’t know of any clients that allow you to specify that you only want to use a particular version of EAS. It’s also not clear to me what would happen if you send a device using EAS 14.x (and thus expecting to see the policy status element) the HTTP 449 error.

Having said all that, this is still a pretty interesting result. It points to the need for better certificate-management behavior on the devices, since Hannay points out that Android and iOS devices behaved poorly in his tests. Windows Phone seems to do a better job of handling unexpected certificate changes, although it’s also the hardest of the 3 platforms to deal with from a perspective of installing and managing legitimate certificates.

More broadly, Hannay’s result points out a fundamental flaw in the way all of these devices interact with EAS, one that I’ve mentioned before: the granularity of data storage on these devices is poor. A remote-wipe request from a single Exchange account on the device arguably shouldn’t wipe out data that didn’t come from that server. The current state of client implementations is that they erase the entire device– apps, data, and all– upon receiving a remote wipe command. This is probably what you want if your device is lost or stolen (i.e. you don’t want the thief to be able to access your personal or company data), but when you leave a company you probably don’t want them wiping your entire device. This is an area where I hope for, and expect, improvement on the part of EAS client implementers.

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1 Comment

Filed under Security, UC&C

One response to “Man-in-the-middle attacks against Exchange ActiveSync

  1. I heard about this today from the UC architects podcast. But to be brutally honest this vulnerability in the Android isn’t new. Since 2.3 and possibly before Android handles SSL very differently from Windows Mobile/Phone, iOS and Blackberry, in that it will trust any certificate even if the chain is not trusted and present in the Phones certificate store. That alone presents a seriously vulnerability. I noticed this about 2 years when i first bought an Android phone and provisioned it for EAS with a 2003 box with a self signed cert.
    That said the likelihood of such an attack is minuscule to the point or being impossible because its extremely unlikely for an internet facing CAS to be using the default self signed cert or even self signed certs which would present too many configuration challenges and effectively a broken installation.
    Personally id like to see Microsoft take Mobile technology much more seriously. Windows Phone was a great start. Now they need to revisit their foray into MDM and deliver an Enterprise ready mobile device management system that is device and platform agnostic. Certainly a tall order and a big ask and may not even fit the cooperate or commercial model. But if anyone can do it and do it properly its MS.
    That being said it will be interesting to see the reaction from Microsoft on this.

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