This is an analysis of security and DoS vulnerabilities associated with irker, exploring and explaining certain design choices. Much of it derives from a code audit and report by Daniel Franke.

Assumptions and Goals

We begin by stating some assumptions about how irker will be deployed, and articulating a set of security goals.

Communication flow in an irker deployment will look like this:

             Committers
                 |
                 |
        Version-control repositories
                 |
                 |
            irkerhook.py
                 |
                 |
               irkerd
                 |
                 |
             IRC servers

Here are our assumptions:

  1. The repositories are hosted on a public forge sites such as SourceForge, GitHub, Gitorious, Savannah, or Gna and must be accessible to untrusted users.

  2. Repository project owners can set properties on their repositories (including but not limited to irker.*), and may be able to set custom post-commit hooks which can execute arbitrary code on the repostory server. In particular, these people my be able to modify the local copy of irkerhook.py.

  3. The machine which hosts irkerd has the same owner as the machine which hosts the the repo; these machines are possibly but not necessarily one and the same.

  4. The network is protected by a perimeter firewall, and only a trusted group is able to emit arbitrary packets from inside the perimeter; committers are not necessarily part of this group.

  5. irkerd communicates with IRC servers over the open internet, and an IRC server’s administrator is assumed to hold no position of trust with any other party.

We can, accordingly, identify the following groups of security principals:

  1. irker administrators.

  2. Project committers.

  3. Project owners

  4. IRC server administrators.

  5. Other people on irker’s internal network.

  6. irkerd-IRC men-in-the-middle (i.e. people who control the network path between irkerd and the IRC server).

  7. Random people on the internet.

Our security goals for irker can be enumerated as follows:

  • Control: We don’t want anyone outside group A gaining control of the machines which host irkerd or the git repos.

  • Availability: Only group A should be able to to deny or degrade irkerd’s ability to receive commit messages and relay them to the IRC server. We recognize and accept as inevitable that MITMs (groups E and F) can do this too (by ARP spoofing, cable-cutting, etc.). But, in particular, we would like irker-mediated services to be resilient against DoS (denial of service) attacks.

  • Authentication/integrity: Notifications should be truthful, i.e., commit messages sent to IRC channels should actually reflect that a corresponding commit has taken place. We accept that groups A, C, D, and E can violate this property.

  • Secrecy: irker shouldn’t aid spammers (group G) in harvesting committers' email addresses.

  • Auditability: If people abuse irkerd, we want to be able to identify the abusive account or IP address.

Control Issues

We have audited the irker and irkerhook.py code for exploitable vulnerabilities. We have not found any in the code itself, and the use of Python gives us confidence in the absence of large classes of errors (such as buffer overruns) that afflict C programs.

However, the fact that irkerhook.py relies on external binaries to mine data out of its repository opens up a well-known set of vulnerabilities if a malicious user is able to insert binaries in a carelessly-set execution path. Normal precautions against this should be taken.

Availability

Solved problems

When the original implementation of irkerd saw a nick collision it generated new nicks in a predictable sequence. A malicious IRC user could have continuously changed his own nick to the next one that irkerd is going to try. Some randomness has been added to nick generation to prevent this.

Unsolved problems

DoS attacks on any networked application can never completely prevented, only mitigated by forcing attackers to invest more resources. Here we consider the easiest attack paths against irker, and possible countermeasures.

irker handles each connection to a particular IRC server in a separate thread - actually, due to server limits on open channels per connection, there may be multiple sessions per server. This may not scale well, especially on 32-bit architectures.

Thread instance overhead, combined with the lack of any restriction on how many URLs can appear in the to list, is a DoS vulnerability. If a repository’s properties specify that notifications should go to more than about 500 unique hostnames, then on 32-bit architectures we’ll hit the 4GB cap on virtual memory (even while the resident set size remains small).

Another ceiling to watch out for is the ulimit on file descriptors, which defaults to 1024 on many Linux systems but can safely be set much larger. Each connection instance costs a file descriptor.

We consider some possible ways of addressing the problem:

  1. Limit the number of URLs in a request. Pretty painless - it will be very rare that anyone wants to specify a larger set than a project channel plus freenode #commits - but also ineffective. A malicious hook could achieve DoS simply by spamming lots of requests.

  2. Limit the total number of requests than can be queued. Completely ineffective - just sets a target for the DoS attack.

  3. Limit the number of requests that can be queued by source IP address. This might be worth doing; it would stymie a single-source DoS attack through a publicly-exposed irkerd, though not a DDoS by a botnet. But there isn’t a lot of win here for a properly installed irker (e.g. behind a firewall), which is typically going to get all its requests from a single repo host anyway.

  4. Rate-limit requests by source IP address - that is, after any request discard additional ones during some timeout period. Again, good for stopping a single-source DoS against an exposed irker, won’t stop a DDoS. The real problem though, is that any such rate limit might interfere with legitimate high-volume use by a very active repo site.

After this we appear to have run out of easy options, as source IP address is the only thing irkerd can see that an attacker can’t spoof.

We mitigate some availability risks by reaping old sessions when we’re near resource limits. An ordinary DoS attack would then be prevented from completely blocking all message traffic; the cost would be a whole lot of join/leave spam due to connection churn.

Authentication/Integrity

One way to help prevent DoS attacks would be in-band authentication - requiring irkerd submitters to present a credential along with each message submission. In principle this, if it existed, could also be used to verify that a submitter is authorized to issue notifications with respect to a given project.

We rejected this approach. The design goal for irker was to make submissions fast, cheap, and stateless; baking an authentication system directly into the irkerd codebase would have conflicted with these objectives, not to mention probably becoming the camel’s nose for a godawful amount of code bloat.

The deployment advice in the installation instructions assumes that irkerd submitters are "authenticated" by being inside a firewall - that is, mesages are issued from an intranet and it can be trusted that anyone issuing messages from within a given intranet is authorized to do so. This fits the assumption that irker instances will run on forge sites receiving requests from instances of irkerhook.py.

One larger issue (not unique to irker) is that because of the insecured nature of IRC it is essentially impossible to secure #commits against commit notifications that are either garbled by software errors and misconfigurations or maliciously crafted to confuse anyone attempting to gather statistics from that channel. The lesson here is that IRC monitoring isn’t a good method for that purpose; going direct to the repositories via a toolkit such as Ohloh is a far better idea.

When this analysis was originally written, we recommended using spiped or stunnel to solve the problem of passing notifications from irkerd to IRC servers over a potentially hostile network that might interfere with them. Later, SSL/TLS support proved easy to add and is now in irkerd itself.

Secrecy

irkerd has no inherent secrecy risks.

The distributed version of irkerhook.py removes the host part of author addresses specifically in order to prevent address harvesting from the notifications.

Auditability

We previously noted that source IP address is the only thing irker can see that an attacker can’t spoof. This makes auditability difficult unless we impose conventions on the notifications passing though it.

The irkerhook.py that we ship inherits an auditability property from the CIA service it was designed to replace: the first field of every notification (terminated by a colon) is the name of the issuing project. The only other competitor to replace CIA known to us (kgb_bot) shares this property.

In the general case we cannot guarantee this property against groups A and F.

Risks relative to centralized services

irker and irkerhook.py were written as a replacement for the now-defunct CIA notification service. The author has written a critique of that service: "CIA and the perils of overengineering" at http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=4540. It is thus worth considering how a risk assessment of CIA compares to this one.

The principal advantages of CIA from a security point of view were (a) it provided a single point at which spam filtering and source blocking could be done with benefit to all projects using the service, and (b) since it had to have a database anyway for routing messages to project channels, the incremental overhead for an authentication feature would have been relatively low.

As a matter of fact rather than theory CIA never fully exploited either possibility. Anyone could create a CIA project entry with fanout to any desired set of IRC channels. Notifications were not authenticated, so anyone could masquerade as a member of any project. The only check on abuse was human intervention to source-block spammers, and this was by no means completely effective - spam shipped via CIA was occasionally seen on on the freenode #commits channel.

The principal security disadvantage of CIA was that it meant the entire notification system was subject to single-point failure due to software or hosting failures on cia.vc, or to DoS attacks against the server. While there is no evidence that the site was ever deliberately DoSed, failures were sufficiently common that a half-hearted DoS attack might not have been even noticed.

Despite the absence of authentication, irker instances on properly firewalled intranets do not obviously pose additional spamming risks beyond those incurred by the CIA service. The overall robustness of the notification system as a whole should be greatly improved.

Conclusions

The security and DoS issues irker has are not readily addressable by changing the irker codebase itself, short of a complete (much more complex and heavyweight) redesign. They are largely implicit risks of its operating environment and must be managed by properly controlling access to irker instances.