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Linux gets security black eye

May 16, 2008 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

As has been widely reported, the maintainers of Debian's OpenSSL packages made some errors recently that have potentially compromised the security of any sshd-equipped system used remotely by Debian users. System administrators may wish to purge authorized_key files of public keys generated since 2006 by affected client machines.

Simply using a Debian-based machine to access a remote server via SSH would not be enough to put the machine at risk. However, if the user copied a public key generated on a Debian-based system to the remote server, for example to take advantage of the higher security offered by password-free logins, then the weak key could make the server susceptible to brute-force attacks, especially if the user's name is easily guessable.

Administrators of servers that run SSH may wish to go through users' authorized key files (typically ~/.ssh/authorized_keys), deleting any that may have been affected. A “detector” script, available here, appears to compare public key signatures against a list of just 262,800 entries. That in turn suggests that if the user's name is known, a brute force attack progressing at one guess per second could succeed within 73 hours (262,800 seconds).

A full explanation of the problem can be found here. In a nutshell, Debian's OpenSSL maintainers made some Debian-specific patches that, according to subscriber-only content at, were aimed at fixing a memory mapping error that surfaced during testing with the valgrind utility. The unintended consequence was a crippling of the randomness of keys, making them predictable, and thus possible to guess using “brute-force” attacks. And unfortunately, the Debian maintainers failed to submit their patches upstream, and thus the problem did not surface until very recently (there's certainly a lesson to be learned, there). Not surprisingly, brute force attacks are way up this week, also reported.

Users of Debian and Debian-based distributions such as Ubuntu should immediately upgrade the SSH software on their systems. The new ssh-client package will contain an “ssh-vulnkey” utility that, when run, checks the user's keys for the problem. Users should re-generate any affected keys as soon as possible.

Also possibly affected are “OpenVPN keys, DNSSEC keys, and key material for use in X.509 certificates and session keys used in SSL/TLS connections,” though not apparently Keys generated with GnuPG or GNUTLS. More details can be found here (Debian resource page), as well as on this webpage, which also links to lists of common keys and brute-force scripts that boast of 20-minute typical break-in times. More background can be found on eWEEK, here.

Henry Kingman

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