Suidnet - An Ongoing Solution

By Kurt Seifried, [email protected]

I come not to bury Suidnet, but to praise it. Well, that is not entirely true - there are still some significant problems with Suidnet, but it looks to be the start of something good. I wouldn't be surprised if you haven't heard of Suidnet. It's an effort by IRC and security enthusiasts to create a more secure IRC network. IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat. You have servers linked together, and they relay what people are saying, so that you can have 50,000+ people logged in to multiple channels (or in AOL speak "rooms"), all talking about various topics. A lot of people use IRC to discuss reasonably sensitive topics - just like they use email - from personal things such as medical problems to generic discussion about what a twinky the new boss is. It is trivial to monitor what a person says on IRC through a variety of means, making it very similar to email: Don't say anything you wouldn't mind your mother/wife/competitor seeing.

Suidnet has started this process by allowing people to connect to the servers using SSL-enabled IRC clients (or SSL tunneling software). This is a good start; it prevents local snooping on the user, and would be effective in a business environment where users may be monitored, or a shared computer lab on a university campus. The data moving between servers is also encrypted, preventing widespread snooping by one party with access to a machine in the path between servers. Unfortunately, a determined snooper can monitor what a user is up to online. Admittedly, it will take more effort, but it is far from impossible. As I see it, there are currently three primary problems with Suidnet, all of which will take a significant amount of effort solve.

Self-signed Certificates

The first issue is the SSL certificates used on the servers - they are self-signed, and improperly at that. Using the default settings in OpenSSL for certificate creation, they have created certificates for the server "localhost," which is fine for local testing but inexcusable for anything going into production. This is the certificate information:

localhost, Stunnel Developers Ltd, Some-State, PL
Issued under:
Stunnel Developers Ltd
Serial number:
Thu Feb 10, 2000 to Fri Feb 09, 2001

The certificate is completely and utterly useless. It is trivial for me as a business to redirect dns for to an internal server, and then set up stunnel on port 9999 and direct it to the real servers. Users would then be directed at this "proxy," allowing me to monitor what they are doing with ease. What Suidnet needs to do is create a certificate authority, with a protected master certificate in a safe location that is used to sign the server certificates (a process identical for Web server certificates). Even if Suidnet were to do this properly - which is unlikely, since properly creating and maintaining a certificate authority takes quite a bit of work - it would be pointless without the root certificate being shipped in IRC clients.

The theory behind why SSL secures connections is simple. Certificates are signed by a root certificate (Thawte's or Verisign's). The public key portion of this root certificate can be used to verify the signatures, and this public key is shipped with the software. If an attacker is able to fiddle with the key that ships with the software package, they can also fiddle with the software package, rendering any security ineffective. This whole method of securing connections relies heavily on the client installing a "trusted" client that contains the public portions of the root keys. Now to fix this, they would need to work with the creators of popular IRC software such as Epic IRC or BitchX, or possibly create their own packages and distribute them on a secure Web server. Since the client has to trust the server not to be logging everything, Suidnet says it is feasible for them to distribute the client software as well. Hopefully Suidnet will fix this shortly.

Server Security

This is the next area that Suidnet appears to be having significant problems with. If the server is not secure, then an attacker can break in and modify the software so that they can monitor what is going on. A quick audit of the Suidnet servers showed almost every server running at least 2 or 3 services, ranging from ssh, dns and ftp to samba (windows file sharing), mysql, X11, portmap and NFS. On the server with NFS available, I was able to connect and query it - not exactly an encouraging sign, especially when you consider the number of software flaws present in Linux and the various BSDs. It doesn't do much good to write secure software and then run it on servers where an attacker can likely gain root-level access remotely. If Suidnet is serious about security, the only thing the servers should be running is the IRC software, and SSH for remote access. Not pop, X11 (yikes) and samba. They definitely need to cut down on the number of services available, and the number of user accounts.

Human Security

This one is by far the hardest to deal with in many ways. A really determined attacker can simply set up a server and ask to join the Suidnet IRC network. It would then be relatively easy to fiddle with the server software so that the cleartext messages of users are logged to a database or some similar feature (or he could simply copy the private SSL certificates to another machine, snoop all the network traffic and decrypt it with the certificate). No matter how much technical security goes into assuring that the IRC software running on the server has not been tampered with (self-verifying software and other neat tricks) the attacker possesses the private certificate and can easily decrypt all network traffic. Even if the server administrator is not given this information, and some trusted Suidnet member logs in to initialize the software, the attacker can copy it out of the machine's memory (this is much easier than previously thought) and use it to decrypt traffic. This issue boils down to carefully vetting server administrators and making sure they are trustworthy.

Suidnet Says...

I also got a chance to interview one of the primary people behind Suidnet, David N. Hulton ([email protected]). The good news is they seem aware of the current problems and are working on them. Security is an ongoing process that never ends.

Q: What inspired you to create Suidnet? Why are you doing it?
A: We found it too difficult to be able to talk to one another encrypted (for exchange of passwords and personal information mainly) and found that there wasn't much out there that could accommodate what we needed. We originally started Suidnet just so we could talk to one another encrypted and didn't really expect much more users on the system besides us.
Q: What is the goal(s) of Suidnet?
A: The main goal is to provide a IRC network where you don't have to worry about people listening to your conversations. To provide the facility for people to trust that their conversations are only heard by those they are intended for.
Q: Do you think that IRC client software authors will be receptive to this, and make SSL support a standard part of SSL clients? (Assume that the actual crypto is provided externally via OpenSSL.)
A: I think that they will. It has already been widely implemented in many Unix clients, so it seems only natural that more and more clients will begin to support it as it grows more popular.
Q: Do you have any plans to add anonymity to the Suidnet IRC network?
A: We have no plans to do anything of the sort. The only degree of anonymity that we are offering is that we do not, and never will do, any ident checks. We still feel that hostnames and usernames should be kept to provide enough information so you can actually tell who you are talking to. I personally would want to have some way to verify who I'm talking to before giving out any information.
Q: Do you worry about the possibility of people using this to discuss illegal things, or trade illegal items - child pornography for example? Do you have a plan to deal with this should it come to your attention?
A: We are merely providing the facility to talk to other people with the least possibility of interception. What people talk about is their own business. We believe in freedom of speech no matter what the situation. We are also (obviously) not responsible for any files being traded client -> client.
Q: Do you have plans to do similar things with other network services?
A: There is work in progress by one of our team members on implementing ssldcc in IRC clients. Besides that and IRC encryption, there aren't any other plans as of yet.


Security is a holistic practice. You can't just plug one hole and expect all your problems to be solved. No matter how perfect a technological solution you use (encryption, firewalls, etc.), as long as there are humans involved mistakes can be made. People you thought you could trust turn out to be hostile in intent. If Suidnet is serious about running a secure IRC network, then they have made only the first few steps in what will be a long journey. But as the famous saying goes, "A journey of 500 miles starts with half a step." I hope that Suidnet will complete the journey, and inspire others to do so. We need more people to focus on making secure network services.

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