ACROS Security: Poisoning Cached HTTPS Documents in Internet Explorer
From: ACROS Security (lists_at_ACROS.SI)
Date: Wed, 13 Oct 2004 12:21:25 +0200 To: NTBUGTRAQ@LISTSERV.NTBUGTRAQ.COM
Below please find our public report for the HTTPS cache poisoning issue in
Internet Explorer. It includes workarounds for server operators, allowing
them to protect their web services without having to rely on users to patch
ACROS Security Problem Report #2004-10-13-1
ASPR #2004-10-13-1: Poisoning Cached HTTPS Documents in Internet Explorer
Document ID: ASPR #2004-10-13-1-PUB
Vendor: Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com)
Target: Internet Explorer
Impact: Arbitrarily modifying the content of HTTPS pages shown
in Internet Explorer
Status: Official patch available, workarounds available
Discovered by: Mitja Kolsek of ACROS Security
Under specific circumstances, Internet Explorer does not warn the user about
an invalid server SSL certificate. This allows an attacker to "poison" a
user's browser cache with a malicious document that will later be used from
cache when the user visits the legitimate site. Furthermore, once the user
on the legitimate site and the malicious document is used from browser's
cache, even manual inspection of the document's certificate will not reveal
anything suspicious - in contrast to most other SSL content-faking
vulnerabilities, where manual certificate inspection alerts the user about
The attacker can exploit this vulnerability for "replacing" HTML documents,
images, script files (.js), cascading style sheet files (.css) and other
static documents on a legitimate secured web server, thereby possibly
completely compromising the component of its security provided by the SSL
- Internet Explorer 6 - affected
All patches applied, up to and excluding Cumulative Security Update for
Internet Explorer (834707).
Note: Windows XP Service Pack 2 resolves the issue on Windows XP.
Other versions may also be affected.
In 1999, our company has informed Microsoft about a vulnerability  in
Internet Explorer that allowed the attacker to force IE to communicate with
malicious web server over HTTPS without the browser issuing a warning about
invalid SSL certificate used by that server. To summarize, IE did not check
the validity of SSL certificates for (1) connections with web servers with
which a successful SSL connection has previously been established, and for
connections established via images or (i)frames. Microsoft has subsequently
fixed both aspects of this vulnerability.
Recently, we've discovered a somewhat similar security problem in Internet
Explorer, although one which does not pose such an obvious threat. Under
certain circumstances, Internet Explorer again doesn't perform all three of
the required SSL certificate validations.
The threat is not obvious since it is very unlikely that a secure production
site would provide such circumstances. However, we have found an attack
that allows the attacker to "replace" arbitrary static documents on a
web server using only DNS spoofing and little or no social engineering.
Furthermore, the attack can take place any time before the user actually
visits the "attacked" web server (note: actually, the browser is attacked,
the server), and the user may even restart his computer in between.
The key to the attack is browser's cache (temporary internet files). IE by
default caches all documents except those which web servers instruct it not
cache. While there is a "Do not save encrypted pages to disk" option in IE,
is turned off by default, which means that HTTPS documents are cached by
When a web server includes a "Last-Modified" header in its response
a document, IE remembers its value and when it subsequently needs the same
document again, includes an "If-Modified-Since" header in its request for
the document. The web server, receiving an "If-Modified-Since" header,
whether the document it hosts is newer than the one browser claims it has
cached, and sends the document to browser only if it is newer - otherwise,
returns a "304" (meaning "Not Modified") response, instructing the browser
use the locally cached copy.
Using the discovered vulnerability in IE, the attacker can covertly "poison"
browser's cache with a fake document that seemingly comes from a legitimate
secured web server while the user opens a page on a malicious web server.
fake document can be used to effectively replace an image or HTML (e.g., a
login form) on the legitimate server, or even to introduce a malicious
that will, for example, steal visitors' credentials and send them to the
What the attacker needs to do in order to execute the attack is this:
1. Temporarily poison the user's DNS server or send a fake DNS response to
user's browser ("man in the middle") to redirect requests for the legitimate
secured web server to a malicious web server.
2. Set up a malicious web server hosting a fake document that will poison
user's browser cache.
3. Make the user's browser visit the malicious web server, either using
engineering or by modifying the HTTP traffic from/to the browser ("man in
4. Wait for the user to visit the legitimate secured web site where the fake
document will be used instead of the real one, possibly introducing
scripts, fake images or fake text.
Two important facts distinguish this attack from many other attacks on SSL-
A. The active component of the attack takes place before the user actually
visits the targeted web site (e.g., a web-banking site). No attacker's
activity is required during the user's visit of the legitimate ("spoofed")
site. Furthermore, there can be a long pause between steps 3 and 4 above,
during which the user can restart his computer any number of times. The only
serious limitation is that the user must not manually delete the browser's
cache (and hence the fake document) during this period.
B. Once on the legitimate secured site, the user has no way to determine
a fake document (be it an image or an HTML document) is not legitimate -
a manual SSL certificate inspection will show that the document has come
the legitimate server. This is, by the way, not the case in most "URL
obfuscation" attacks that only modify the apparent URL for web sites or
documents and try to trick the user into believing that he is actually
visiting some other site - these attacks can generally be detected at least
manual certificate inspection.
Some additional notes regarding this vulnerability:
- While it may be tempting to think that the described attack requires quite
resourceful attacker (poisoning DNS response, getting the user to visit a
malicious web server), we should remember that SSL (and HTTPS) protocol is
being used for defending against this exact type of attacker - the attacker
being able to monitor and possibly modify network traffic between browser
- The attacker can use any web server certificate issued by any one of the
IE's trusted issuers (currently 109 of them!), which can be long expired and
issued for any host name. A useable certificate can also be bought by any
commercial trusted CA like Verisign or Thawte.
- It seems that IE will always send en explicit GET for the first request in
an HTTPS connection - for example, in case of index.html with three inline
images, index.html will be, as the first request, requested unconditionally
(i.e., without "If-Modified-Since" header), while the images will be
with "If-Modified-Since" header. Consequently, it is easier to successfully
poison documents that are loaded from another document, e.g., images, script
files or style sheet files. However, HTML documents can also be successfully
poisoned as long as they're not the first to be requested over an HTTPS
- Malicious scripts can also be introduced via fake cascading style sheets.
- The attacker can only poison sites that respect "If-Modified-Since"
Furthermore, the attacker can only poison documents (HTML documents, images,
.JS files etc.) that the web server considers static and therefore subject
- It makes no difference if the targeted web server tries to make sure its
pages aren't written to browser's cache (using cache-related HTTP response
headers). The attacker's malicious server will always be able to demand its
fake page to be cached and there's nothing the legitimate web server can do
- Caching HTTP proxy servers in general have no effect on this vulnerability
as HTTPS sessions run through them encrypted. Proxy servers that actually
decrypt and re-encrypt the traffic can either mitigate, or even escalate
the issue, depending on their logic.
1) Browsers with the "Do not save encrypted pages to disk" option enabled
not affected by this issue as the fake document(s) can't be written to
2) Web servers that ignore browser's "If-Modified-Since" header and always
send the requested document are not "spoofable" using this vulnerability.
Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer (834707) was released,
fixes this issue. Affected users can install it via Windows Update or by
downloading it from
Note that Windows XP Service Pack also fixes this issue on Windows XP.
Turning the option "Do not save encrypted pages to disk" on will disable the
cache poisoning attack. Deleting the browser's temporary files is advised
afterwards to remove any malicious documents.
If you're running a critical web site and don't want to rely on your
to install the patch, implement a workaround or even know about this issue,
there are steps you can take to protect them. As the described attack relies
on the fact that the browser will (re)use a cached page when the web server
responds with "304 - Not Modified" response, preventing the server from ever
sending such a response will thwart it. Following, we provide specific
solutions for IIS and Apache web servers. All solutions are aimed at
"If-Modified-Since" headers from browsers' requests, effectively bypassing
server's "Not Modified" functionality.
Internet Information Services
We wrote a simple, minimum overhead ISAPI filter (24 lines of code) that
intercepts browsers' requests and removes any "If-Modified-Since" headers
it. The filter is available on our web site at
(Visual C++ project)
[Remember to always review the source code before using it!]
Edi Weitz from Germany wrote a simple Apache module called
specifically intended for changing incoming HTTP headers. This module can be
used for eliminating "If-Modified-Since" headers from incoming requests
the following directives in httpd.conf:
mod_header_modify module can be downloaded from
Note: Apache must be built with DSO support.
[Remember to always review the source code before using it!]
Apache 2.0 already comes with mod_headers module. Rebuild Apache with this
module included and use the following directive in httpd.conf:
RequestHeader unset If-Modified-Since
We would like to acknowledge Microsoft Security Response Center for prompt
and professional response to our notification of the identified
 ACROS Security, "Bypassing Warnings For Invalid SSL Certificates In
Makedonska ulica 113
SI - 2000 Maribor
phone: +386 2 3000 280
fax: +386 2 3000 282
ACROS Security PGP Key
[Fingerprint: FE9E 0CFB CE41 36B0 4720 C4F1 38A3 F7DD]
ACROS Security Advisories
ACROS Security Papers
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purpose of education and protection. ACROS d.o.o. shall in no event be
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October 13, 2004: Initial release
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