A recently fixed security vulnerability that affected both the Firefox and Tor browsers had a highly unusual characteristic that caused it to threaten users only during temporary windows of time that could last anywhere from two days to more than a month.
As a result, the cross-platform, malicious code-execution risk most recently visited users of browsers based on the Firefox Extended Release on September 3 and lasted until Tuesday, or a total of 17 days. The same Firefox version was vulnerable for an even longer window last year, starting on July 4 and lasting until August 11. The bug was scheduled to reappear for a few days in November and for five weeks in December and January. Both the Tor Browser and the production version of Firefox were vulnerable during similarly irregular windows of time.
While the windows were open, the browsers failed to enforce a security measure known as certificate pinning when automatically installing NoScript and certain other browser extensions. That meant an attacker who had a man-in-the-middle position and a forged certificate impersonating a Mozilla server could surreptitiously install malware on a user’s machine. While it can be challenging to hack a certificate authority or trick one into issuing the necessary certificate for addons.mozilla.org, such a capability is well within the means of nation-sponsored attackers, who are precisely the sort of adversaries included in the Tor threat model. Such an attack, however, was only viable at certain periods when Mozilla-supplied “pins” expired.
“It comes around every once in a while,” Ryan Duff, an independent researcher and former member of the US Cyber Command, told Ars, referring to the vulnerability. “It’s weird. I’ve never seen a bug that presented itself like that.”
Certificate pinning is designed to ensure that a browser accepts only specific certificates for a specific domain or subdomain and rejects all others, even if the certificates are issued by a browser-trusted authority. But because certificates inevitably must expire from time to time, the pins must periodically be updated so that newly issued certificates can be accepted. Mozilla used a static form of pinning for its extension update process that wasn’t based on the HTTP Public Key Pinning protocol (HPKP). Due to lapses caused by human error, older browser versions sometimes scheduled static pins to expire before new versions pushed out a new expiration date.
During those times, pinning wasn’t enforced. And when pinning wasn’t enforced, it was possible for man-in-the-middle attackers to use forged certificates to install malicious add-on updates when the add-on was obtained through Mozilla’s add-on site. Mozilla on Tuesday updated Firefox to fix the faulty expiration pins, and over the weekend, the organization also updated the add-ons server to make it start using HPKP. Tor officials fixed the weakness last week with the early release of a version based on Tuesday’s release from Mozilla.
Duff has a much more detailed explanation here.
The vulnerability was first described here by a researcher who goes by the handle movrcx and who complained that his attempts to privately report the weakness to Tor were “ridiculed.” Duff eventually confirmed the reported behavior. The irregular windows in which the vulnerability was active likely contributed to some of the skepticism that initially greeted movrcx’s report and made it hard to spot the problem.
“I’d be lying if I said luck didn’t play a significant role in the discovery of this bug,” Duff wrote in the above-linked postmortem. “If movrcx had tried his attack before 3 Sept or after 20 Sept, it would have failed in his tests. It’s only because he conducted it within that 17 day window that this was discovered.”