In the last few years, we have witnessed a wide range of attacks on the SSL/TLS mechanism. In this article, we will try to cover various attacks that were prominent in the field of cryptography. Transport layer security (TLS) ensures integrity of data transmitted between two parties (server and client) and also provides strong authentication for both parties. The attacks launched in the last few years have exploited various features in the TLS mechanism. We are going to discuss these attacks one by one.

Browser Exploit Against SSL/TLS Attack (BEAST)

This attack was revealed at the Ekoparty Security Conference in 2011. BEAST is based on a type of cryptographic attack called the “chosen plain text attack.” Before I jump into explaining the details of this attack, let us take a look at some of the basic concepts to be understood.

Background Information

There are two types of encryption schemes:

  1. Symmetric key encryption: Encryption and decryption keys are the same.
  2. Asymmetric key encryption: Encryption and decryption keys are not the same.

Symmetric-key encryption can use either stream ciphers or block ciphers. A stream cipher encrypts one bit at a time, while a block cipher encrypts plaintext in chunks. Let’s talk about block cipher. How is a message encrypted using block cipher? You don’t use the block cipher on the message directly but instead you first need to choose the “mode of operation.” CBC (cipher block chaining) is one such mode used by the block ciphers.

In CBC mode, to make each message unique, an initialization vector (IV) is used in the first block. An IV is a random string that is XORed with the plaintext message prior to encryption. Each block of plaintext is XORed with the previous cipher text block before being encrypted. In other words, each cipher text block depends on all plaintext blocks processed up to that point as shown in the figure below. It’s important to note that here IV is not a secret; it only adds randomness to the output. IV is sent along with the message in clear text format. With this background information, let us know focus on how the BEAST attack is accomplished.

How Is the Attack Accomplished?

It was noticed that TLS 1.0, when dealing with multiple packets, allows the following packets to use an IV that is the last cipher text block of the previous packet. In other words, an attacker who can see the encrypted traffic can note the IV used for session cookie (Why? Because the cookie’s location is predictable). Simply put, an active attacker will be able to gather the IVs for each record just by sniffing the network. So if the attacker can “guess” a plaintext message, he can make a guess at the session cookie and see if the cipher text matches. [Note that, since this is a MITM attack, the attacker can mix his traffic with the victim traffic to see the results].

Practical Example

Now let us consider the message: JSESSIONID=Gxs36NepewqeMI763Hej31pkl.

This is a plaintext and will have to be XORed with the IV (which is cipher text of the previous block). The attacker has this IV value in his hands. Now if he can “predict” this plaintext value and XOR with IV, he can check whether it corresponds to the cipher text value. Understandably, it’s not easy to predict such a random value, but he can guess it a single character at a time. For example “JSESSIONID=G” can be guessed by trying different characters. Once the first character is recovered, he can shift the attack to the next character. This way he can guess one character at a time and accomplish the attack. This attack is not so straightforward and has some limitations:

  1. The attacker has to be in the same network and play a MITM attack.
  2. The attacker has to modify the traffic to see if the results match; as a result, multiple requests have to be sent in this process.
  3. The attacker can guess only one block at a time.


This is a vulnerability in block ciphers that use the CBC mode of operation. It was identified in TLS 1.0. However it was addressed in TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2 by the use of “explicit IVs” for each block. Hence, TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2 are not exposed to this attack. Some of the browsers have attempted to implement a solution to address the vulnerability while still remaining compatible with the SSL 3.0/TLS 1.0 protocol. Apple’s Safari, even though it has released a mitigation, has chosen to keep it disabled by default.

Google: Update to Chrome 16 or later.

Microsoft: Apply the patch MS12-006.

Mozilla: Update to Firefox 10 or later.

SSL Renegotiation Attack

A vulnerability was discovered in the SSL renegotiation procedure that allows an attacker to inject plaintext into the victim’s requests. For instance, it allows an attacker who can hijack an HTTPS connection to add their own requests to the conversation the client has with the web server. Note that the attacker cannot decrypt the client-server communication.

Background Information

SSL renegotiation is helpful when the routine SSL session is already established and the client authentication has to take place. For example, say you are browsing an online shopping site which uses SSL, i.e., HTTPS. Initially, you browse through the site anonymously, add items to the cart, etc. But when you decide to purchase you will be asked to log in to the site, so now the SSL connection needs to be adjusted to allow the authentication. Whatever information is gathered prior to this authentication (e.g., items added to the cart) has to be maintained even after the authentication. So the new SSL session that has to be established uses the already existing connection. Note that renegotiation can be requested either by the client or by the server at any time. For the client to request renegotiation the client sends a “Client Hello” message in the already-established encrypted channel and the server responds with a “Server Hello” and then the negotiation follows the normal handshake process. The server can initiate the renegotiation by sending the client a “Hello Request” message. When the client receives the request, the client sends the “Client Hello” message and the handshake process takes place. This explains the basic SSL renegotiation process.

How Is the Attack Accomplished?

Using the renegotiation attack, an attacker can inject commands into an HTTPS session, downgrade a HTTPS connection to a HTTP connection, inject custom responses, perform denial of service, etc. That explains to some extent how serious the problem is. It is easier to understand how the attack is accomplished through the following example.

Practical Example

The action corresponding to each of the numbers present in the below figure are explained in the order below:

  1. Assume that a client wants to connect to a online banking site. He initiates the routine TLS handshake process
  2. The client blocks the request and holds the packets.
  3. The attacker initiates a new session and completes a full TLS handshake.
  4. The attacker sends a GET request (asking to send money to his account) to the bank application.
  5. Server asks for renegotiation.
  6. The TLS handshake initiated at step 1 and blocked by the attacker will now be forwarded to the server, which a new TLS handshake over the previously established encrypted TLS session 2. So the client now is authenticated and has a valid cookie.
  7. Due to this renegotiation, the server now assumes that the previously sent request in step 4 was actually sent by the client. Hence the request which goes to the server is as follows; it will be interpreted by the server as a legitimate request and then executed.

    GET /bank/sendmoney.asp?acct=attacker&amount=100000

    Ignore the rest: GET /ebanking

    Cookie: validcookie


One way to fix the renegotiation vulnerability for SSLv3 is to completely disable renegotiation on the server side. As a permanent fix for the vulnerability, a renegotiation indication extension was proposed for TLS that will require the client and server to include and verify information about previous handshakes in any renegotiation handshakes.