Monthly Archives: April 2015

Some thoughts on the recent JWT library vulnerabilities

Recently, a great post by Tim McLean about some “Critical vulnerabilities in JSON Web Token libraries” made the headlines, bringing the focus to the JWT spec, its usages and apparent security issues.

In this post, I want to share some of my assorted ideas on these subjects.

On the usefulness of the “none” algorithm

One of the problems identified in the aforementioned post is the “none” algoritm.

It may seem strange for a secure packaging format to support “none” as a valid protection, however this algorithm is useful in situations where the token’s integrity is verified by other means, namely the transport protocol.
One such example happens on the authorization code flow of OpenID Connect, where the ID token is retrieved via a direct TLS protected communication between the Client and the Authorization Server.

In the words of the specification: “If the ID Token is received via direct communication between the Client and the Token Endpoint (which it is in this flow), the TLS server validation MAY be used to validate the issuer in place of checking the token signature”.

Supporting multiple algorithms and the “alg” field

Another problem identified by Tim’s post was the usage of the “alg” field and the way some libraries handle it, namely using keys in an incorrect way.

In my opinion, supporting algorithm agility (i.e. the ability to support more than one algorithm in a specification) is essential for having evolvable systems.
Also, being explicit about what was used to protect the token is typically a good security decision.

In this case, the problem lies on the library side. Namely, having a verify(string token, string verificationKey) function signature seems really awkard for several reasons

  • First, representing a key as a string is a typical case of primitive obsession. A key is not a string. A key is a potentially composed object (e.g. two integers in the case of a public key for RSA-based schemes) with associated metadata, namely the algorithms and usages for which it applies. Encoding that as a string is opening the door to ambiguity and incorrect usages.
    A key representation should always contain not only the algorithm to which applies but also the usage conditions (e.g. encryption vs,. signature for a RSA key).

  • Second, it makes phased key rotation really difficult. What happens when the token signer wants to change the signing key or the algorithm? Must all the consumers synchronously change the verification key at the same moment in time? Preferably, consumers should be able to simultaneous support two or more key to be used, identified by the “kid” parameter.
    The same applies to algorithm changes and the use of the “alg” parameter.
    So, I don’t think that removing the “alg” header is a good idea

A verification function should allow a set of possible keys (bound to explicit algorithms) or receive a call back to fetch the key given both the algorithm and the key id.

Don’t assume, always verify

Verifying a JWT before using the claims that it asserts is alway more than just checking a signature. Who was the issuer? Is the token valid at the time of usage? Was the token explicitly revoked? Who is the intended audience? Is the protection algorithm compatible with the usage scenario? These are all questions that must be explicit verified by a JWT consumer application or component.

For instance, OpenID Connect lists the verification steps that must done by a client application (the relying party) before using the claims in a received ID token.

And so it begins …

If the recent history of SSL/TLS related problems has taught us anything is that security protocol design and implementation is far from easy, and that “obvious” vulnerabilities can remain undetected for long periods of time.
If these problems happen on well known and commonly used designs and libraries such as SSL and OpenSSL, we must be prepared for similar occurrences on JWT based protocols and implementations.
In this context, security analysis such as the one described in Tim’s post are of uttermost importance, even if I don’t agree with some of the proposed measures.