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How does Akamai's "secure heap" patch to OpenSSL work?

April 12, 2014

For more than a decade, Akamai has guarded their users’ private RSA keys using a security-conscious variant of the malloc family. In effect, this allows their systems to maintain a second, more secure heap, which makes it significantly harder to execute a broad class of security vulnerabilities.

Yesterday, Rich Salz disseminated a patch to openssl-users that adds a variation of this malloc family to OpenSSL. An archived version of Salz’s email is here. The effect is that in the forseeable future, it should be possible for OpenSSL to store RSA private keys on a the so-called “secure” heap.

Now, I know literally nothing about security or systems programming, but I found this fascinating, and couldn’t help but crack it open to see how it worked. In the rest of this post we’ll explore the implementation in detail.

What you’ll need

I’ve gone ahead and forked OpenSSL v1.0.1g, integrated Salz’s patch, and put it on GitHub so that it takes a minimal amount of effort to tinker with. To build the patched OpenSSL, simply download the repot and run ./configure and make.

Basic architecture

Salz describes the patch as adding a “secure arena”:

The patch

A nice highlighted GitHub diff of Salz’s original patch is in my repository here. Note that the part that protects the guard pages with PROT_NONE actually appears later in my commit history.

There are two interesting parts of this patch:

The tl;dr of how this is accomplished is:

If you’re following along at home, the interesting parts of this are contained mainly in three files, which you can see in the above diff:

Receiving and allocating the RSA private keys on the secure heap

The gist of this section is that OpenSSL uses ASN.1 to encode structured data of various types, including RSA private keys. Since all private keys must come through the function ASN1_item_ex_d2i (in the crypto/asn1/tasn_dec.c file), we need only to augment the function to allocate all ASN.1 items that encode RSA private keys on the secure heap instead of the normal heap. Anything else, in contrast, will go on the normal heap.

If you’re not interested in the plumbing of this, you can skip this section. Otherwise a more detailed description follows.

ASN.1 items are sent to the ASN1_item_ex_d2i function, which is located on line 154 of my patched version of crypto/asn1/tasn_dec.c:

 /* Decode an item, taking care of IMPLICIT tagging, if any.
   * If 'opt' set and tag mismatch return -1 to handle OPTIONAL

  int ASN1_item_ex_d2i(ASN1_VALUE **pval, const unsigned char **in, long len,
            const ASN1_ITEM *it,
            int tag, int aclass, char opt, ASN1_TLC *ctx);

This means that any time we receive an RSA private key, it must come through this function, encoded as an ASN.1 object. Now our task is to simply find all the ASN.1 items that encode RSA private keys, and allocated them on the secure heap instead of the normal heap.

To begin, on line 173 of the ASN1_item_ex_d2i function, Salz adds the following local variables, which we will use to track whether the current ASN.1 item contains an RSA private key (rather than, say, and RSA public key).

    int ret = 0;
    ASN1_VALUE **pchptr, *ptmpval;
 +  int ak_is_rsa_key      = 0; /* Are we parsing an RSA key? */
 +  int ak_is_secure_field = 0; /* should this field be allocated from the secure arena? */
 +  int ak_is_arena_active = 0; /* was the secure arena already activated? */
    if (!pval)
        return 0;
    if (aux && aux->asn1_cb)

Then, beginning on line 417 (this is still in the function ASN1_item_ex_d2i) Salz adds code to check if the ASN.1 item has sname starting with the characters 'R', 'S', and 'A'. If this is true, this item encodes either an RSA private key, or an RSA public key. So we set ak_is_rsa_key = 1:

        if (asn1_cb && !asn1_cb(ASN1_OP_D2I_PRE, pval, it, NULL))
                goto auxerr;

 +      /* Watch out for this when OpenSSL is upgraded! */
 +      /* We have to be sure that it->sname will still be "RSA" */
 +      if (it->sname[0] == 'R' && it->sname[1] == 'S' && it->sname[2] == 'A' && it->sname[3] == 0)
 +          ak_is_rsa_key = 1;
        /* Get each field entry */
        for (i = 0, tt = it->templates; i < it->tcount; i++, tt++)

Finally, starting on line 469, Salz adds code to check whether the ASN.1 template field name starts with any of the following characters: 'd', 'p', or 'q'. If so, this item is our private key, and it must be allocated on the secure heap.

The corresponding code:

            /* attempt to read in field, allowing each to be
             * OPTIONAL */

 +          /* Watch out for this when OpenSSL is upgraded! */
 +          /* We have to be sure that seqtt->field_name will still be */
 +          /* "d", "p", and "q" */
 +          ak_is_secure_field = 0;
 +          ak_is_arena_active = 0;
 +          if (ak_is_rsa_key)
 +          {
 +              /* ak_is_rsa_key is set for public keys too */
 +                  /* however those don't have these variables */
 +              const char *f = seqtt->field_name;
 +              if ((f[0] == 'd' || f[0] == 'p' || f[0] == 'q') && f[1] == 0)
 +              {
 +                  ak_is_secure_field = 1;
 +                  ak_is_arena_active = start_secure_allocation();
 +              }
 +          }

So what happens next? Don’t we need to call secure_malloc and allocate this RSA private key on the heap?

No! In fact, in crypto/crypto.h, we see that Salz changes OpenSSL’s core malloc-wrapping macro, OPENSSL_malloc, to point to secure_malloc instead of CRYPTO_malloc:

 -#define OPENSSL_malloc(num)   CRYPTO_malloc((int)num,__FILE__,__LINE__)
 +#define OPENSSL_malloc(s)       secure_malloc(s)

(NOTE: of course Salz this also redefines all the other family members like OPENSSL_free and OPENSSL_realloc, not just malloc. We’ve just chosen to omit them here.)

This means that, later in the function ASN1_item_ex_d2i, when it is time to save this ASN.1-encoded item, we will call asn1_enc_save (which, by the way, is in crypto/asn1/tasn_utl.c):

        /* Save encoding */
        if (!asn1_enc_save(pval, *in, p - *in, it))
            goto auxerr;

Internally, this will call OPENSSL_malloc, but instead of calling the normal malloc, we will now call secure_malloc, since OPENSSL_malloc now points at secure_malloc. See the function for yourself:

int asn1_enc_save(ASN1_VALUE **pval, const unsigned char *in, int inlen,
                             const ASN1_ITEM *it)
    enc->enc = OPENSSL_malloc(inlen);
    if (!enc->enc)
        return 0;
    return 1;

Internally our secure_malloc will allow us to allocate to the secure heap if and only if the secure heap is initialized; if not, it defaults to normal malloc. See below, the switch between malloc and cmm_malloc (which we haven’t seen yet):

void *secure_malloc(size_t size)
  void *ret;

  if (!secure_allocation_enabled())
    return malloc(size);
  ret = cmm_malloc(size);
  return ret;

This allows us to make the same call and simply change how we allocate based on whether the secure heap is enabled.

The secure malloc

This section is a bit of a misnomer, because it turns out that the magic of secure_malloc isn’t actually in the malloc function itself. Like most mallocs, secure_malloc basically traverses free lists, and peels off some memory to service the request, or returns NULL if allocation failed.

The initialization code, on the other hand, is interesting.

We begin with a call to secure_malloc_init (in crypto/buddy_allocator.c). It takes as arguments size, the size in bytes we’re to give the secure heap, mem_min_unit, which I think is the minimum number of bytes to give an object allocated in the secure heap, and overrun_bytes, which I frankly didn’t bother to understand.

/* Module initialization, returns >0 upon success */
int secure_malloc_init(size_t size, int mem_min_unit, int overrun_bytes)

The interesting part of this function is the central if-else chain in the middle. We will unpack it in a second.

  if (arena)
  else if ((arena = (char *) cmm_init(arena_size, mem_min_unit, overrun_bytes)) == NULL)
  else if (mlock(arena, arena_size))
  else if (pthread_key_create(&secure_allocation_key, 0) != 0)
    secure_allocation_support = 1;
    ret = 1;

Put succinctly:

Important to note is that if any of these fails, the else-if block terminates early and ret never gets set to 1, which means we will return reporting a state of error.

So what does the call to cmm_init do? This is the part where the secure heap is actually built in memory.

cmm_init is in crypto/buddy_allocator.c. The declaration looks like the following, taking the same parameters as secure_malloc_init.

void *
cmm_init(int size, int mem_min_unit, int overrun_bytes)

Most of the method is spent allocing enough space for things like free lists. The interesting part comes after this:

    cmm_arena = mmap(NULL, pgsize + mem_arena_size + pgsize, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE,
             MAP_ANON|MAP_PRIVATE, 0, 0);

    assert(MAP_FAILED  != cmm_arena);
    mprotect(cmm_arena, pgsize, PROT_NONE);
    mprotect(cmm_arena + aligned, pgsize, PROT_NONE);


    return cmm_arena;

In the first line, we’re using mmap to allocate space requested for the secure heap (denoted as mem_arena_size), plus space for one page on either side of the secure heap (denoted by the variable pgsize). Because we pass in NULL as the first parameter — normally it’s an address — the kernel will just put this memory wherever it wants. This space is readable and writable. The MAP_ANON and MAP_PRIVATE flags mean that the memory mapping does not correspond to a file, and when it is written, it should never be attached to a file.

The next two lines are calls to mprotect. They are essentially ensuring that the guard pages on either side of the secure heap are marked PROT_NONE, which means you will segfault if you try to access them. Here the variable aligned denotes the total size of the secure heap between the guard pages (which if you look at the function itself, is rounded up to the nearest page).

We return cmm_arena in the last line.

Wrapping up

The end result of the initialization phase is more or less what Salz promised. The secure heap is pinned to memory, and the guard pages cause segfaults if you accidentally access them.

If you’re interested to see how the rest of the system works, the malloc, realloc, free, etc. are all worth a read, but they’re not especially crazy as malloc implementations go.

One interesting thing to note: I couldn’t find anywhere that secure_malloc_init was actually called in the code. This means that it’s never actually being initialized, and therefore never being used. Or I’m missing something.

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