The vulnerability, tracked as CVE-2019-14899, resides in the networking stack of various operating systems and can be exploited against both IPv4 and IPv6 TCP streams.
Since the vulnerability does not rely on the VPN technology used, the attack works against widely implemented virtual private network protocols like OpenVPN, WireGuard, IKEv2/IPSec, and more, the researchers confirmed.
This vulnerability can be exploited by a network attacker — controlling an access point or connected to the victim's network — just by sending unsolicited network packets to a targeted device and observing replies, even if they are encrypted.
As explained by the researchers, though there are variations for each of the impacted operating systems, the vulnerability allows attackers to:
- determine the virtual IP address of a victim assigned by the VPN server,
- determine if there is an active connection to a given website,
- determine the exact seq and ack numbers by counting encrypted packets and/or examining their size, and
- inject data into the TCP stream and hijack connections.
"The access point can then determine the virtual IP of the victim by sending SYN-ACK packets to the victim device across the entire virtual IP space," the team said in its advisory.
"When a SYN-ACK is sent to the correct virtual IP on the victim device, the device responds with a RST; when the SYN-ACK is sent to the incorrect virtual IP, nothing is received by the attacker."
While explaining variations in the behavior of different operating systems, as an example, researchers said the attack does not work against macOS/iOS devices as described.
Instead, an attacker needs to "use an open port on the Apple machine to determine the virtual IP address." In their testing, the researchers use "port 5223, which is used for iCloud, iMessage, FaceTime, Game Center, Photo Stream, and push notifications, etc."
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The researchers tested and successfully exploited the vulnerability against the following operating systems and the init systems, but they believe this list could go long as researchers test the flaw on more systems.
- Ubuntu 19.10 (systemd)
- Fedora (systemd)
- Debian 10.2 (systemd)
- Arch 2019.05 (systemd)
- Manjaro 18.1.1 (systemd)
- Devuan (sysV init)
- MX Linux 19 (Mepis+antiX)
- Void Linux (runit)
- Slackware 14.2 (rc.d)
- Deepin (rc.d)
- FreeBSD (rc.d)
- OpenBSD (rc.d)
"Most of the Linux distributions we tested were vulnerable, especially Linux distributions that use a version of systemd pulled after November 28th of last year, which turned reverse path filtering off," the researchers said.
"However, we recently discovered that the attack also works against IPv6, so turning reverse path filtering on isn't a reasonable solution."
As possible mitigation, researchers suggested to turn on reverse path filtering, implement bogon filtering, and encrypt packet size and timing to prevent attackers from making any inference.
While the researchers have not yet revealed technical details of the vulnerability, they are planning to publish an in-depth analysis of this flaw and its related implications, after affected vendors, including Systemd, Google, Apple, OpenVPN, WireGuard, and different Linux distros issue satisfactory workarounds and patches.