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OpenSSL Privilege Separation Analysis

Andrew Griffiths published on 2014-06-18T13:30:11+00:00, last updated 2014-06-18T13:30:11+00:00

As part of the security response process, Red Hat Product Security looks at the information that we obtain in order to align future endeavors, such as source code auditing, to where problems occur in order to attempt to prevent repeats of previous issues.

Private key isolation

When Heartbleed was first announced, a patch was proposed to store private keys in isolated memory, surrounded by an unreadable page. The idea was that the process would crash due to a segmentation violation before the private key memory was read.

However, it was quickly pointed out that the proposed patch was flawed. It did not store the private keys in the isolated memory space, and the contents of memory accessible by Heartbleed could still contain information that can be used to quickly reconstruct the private key.

The lesson learned here was that an audit of how and where private keys can be accessed, and where useful information is stored, should be undertaken to identify any potential weaknesses in the approach. Additionally, testing and verifying results would have identified that the private keys were not located in memory surrounded by unreadable memory pages.

Private key privilege separation

The idea behind private key privilege separation is to reduce the risk of an equivalent Heartbleed-style memory leak vulnerability. This can be implemented by using an application in front of the end service being protected or be implemented in the target application itself.

One example of using an application in front of the service being protected is Titus.  This application runs a separate process per TLS connection and stores the private key in another process. This helps prevent Heartbleed-style bugs from leaking private keys and other information about application state. The per-connection process model also protects against information from other connections being leaked or affected.

One drawback of the current implementation in Titus is that it fork()s and doesn't execve() itself.  If there are any memory corruption vulnerabilities present in Titus, or OpenSSL, writing an exploit against the target is far easier than it could have been and potentially leaves useful information in memory that can be obtained later on.

Additionally, depending on the how chroot directories are set up, there may not be devices such as /dev/urandom available, which reduces the possible entropy sources available to OpenSSL.

Another approach is to implement the private key privilege separation in the process itself which is what some of the OpenBSD software has started to do. The aim being that while it won't protect against OpenSSL vulnerabilities in and of itself, it will help restrict private keys from being leaked.

Privilege-separated OpenSSL

Sebastian Krahmer wrote a OpenSSL Privilege Separation (sslps) proof of concept which uses the Linux Kernel Secure Computing (seccomp) interface to isolate OpenSSL from the lophttpd process. This effectively reduces the available system calls that OpenSSL itself makes.

This has the advantage that if there is a memory corruption or arbitrary code execution vulnerability present in OpenSSL an attacker requires a further kernel vulnerability present either in the allowed system calls or in the lophttpd IPC mechanism to gain access.

Another possibility is that the attacker is happy to sit in the restricted OpenSSL process and monitor the SSL_read and SSL_write traffic, potentially gaining access to the private keys in memory.

While the current version of sslps doesn't mitigate against Heartbleed-style memory leaking the private key, it helps make an attacker's job harder in a memory corruption or arbitrary code execution vulnerability situation in OpenSSL.

It will be interesting to see if the OpenSSL or LibreSSL developers investigate using privilege separation or sandboxing in the future and what approaches are taken to implement them.


One approach to help restrict compromises from software is to store the private keys elsewhere to prevent key compromise. One such approach is using a Hardware Security Module (HSM) to handle key generation, encryption, and signing. We may discuss using HSMs in the future.

It is also possible to use a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) to provide key generation, storage, encryption, and signing with OpenSSL, but this approach may be too slow for non-client side consideration.

Designing a new approach

Having laid out what's available, a rough draft of an idealized approach for hardening SSL processing can now be made.

First, the various private keys should be isolated from the main processing of SSL traffic. This will help reduce the impact of Heartbleed-style memory leaks which makes the attackers job of getting the private keys harder.

Second, the SSL traffic processing should be isolated from the application itself. This helps restrict the impact of bugs in OpenSSL from affecting the rest of the application and system to the maximum possible extent.

Lastly, use existing kernel features, such as executing a new process to have address space randomization and stack cookie values reapplied, as this helps reduce the amount of information available to attack other processes. Additionally, features such as seccomp could be used to restrict what the private key process and the SSL traffic process can do, which in turn helps restrict the attack surface available to a process. Furthermore, it may be possible to utilize mandatory access control (MAC) systems, such as SELinux, to further contain and restrict the processes involved.

Potential Pitfalls

Implementing all of the above may introduce some backwards compatibility issues. An example to consider is when applications which utilize chroot() and can no longer access the required executables to implement an idealized approach. Perhaps it might be feasible to implement a fallback to a fork() based mechanism.

There are other functionality that may be adversely affected by such restrictions, and would require proper indepth analysis, such as looking up server and client certificate validity. Some API compatibilities could also get in the way.

It's possible that the IPC mechanisms would introduce some performance impact, but overhead would be dwarfed by the cryptographic processing side, and actually may not be measurable. It may be possible to reduce the amount of overhead with some compromise of security by using shared pages, or page migration between processes to reduce the data copying aspect of IPC, and just have the IPC mechanism used for message passing.


We've covered currently existing approaches and drawn up a rough list of idealized features that would be required to help reduce the current attack surface of OpenSSL. These features would make an attackers job harder in compromising private keys and compromising applications that use OpenSSL. A follow-up post may look at using an OpenSSL engine to move the private key from the application itself, into another process to prevent Heartbleed-style memory leaks from disclosing the private keys.

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Andrew Griffiths