Client-Side Certs – Oh my!

October 12, 2009

One of the techniques demonstrated during the BlackHat/DefCon talk I gave with RSnake was utilizing client-side certificates. Client-side certificates allow for a client to gain a certain amount of trust for the server in which they are connecting. They are used by companies that don’t want to worry about using tokens, so instead they use client-side certificates. Client-side certificates are also used by several sslvpn devices.

To demonstrate client-side certificates, I first needed to create a few certificates so the client could connect to the server.

Using openssl, I created the certificate:
openssl req \
-x509 -nodes -days 365 \
-newkey rsa:1024 -keyout mycert.pem -out mycert.pem

Next, I needed to setup the server to use the certificate. I started thinking about he easiest way to accomplish this goal. It occurred to me that instead of using Apache, I should use the built-in webserver in openssl. This made setup easier, since I replaced Apache with a single command

Here is an example:
openssl s_server -accept 443 -cert mycert.pem -www -verify 10

Finally, I setup a client and verified that the browser contained a client-side certificate for ANOTHER server. Therefore, there is no trust relationship between the public key within the client’s browser and the openssl server. The key is the browser, will ask to send the public key everytime! The only thing an attacker needs to do, is to be listening on the wire and intercept the public key.

Now you may ask, “who cares about the information in a public key?” Well, client-side certificates can contain the following information:

  • Email Address (perhaps a valid username)
  • Hostname and maybe OS of the server
  • Date the Certificate was Issued
  • Date the Certificate Expires

Sometimes, the email address being used contains the user’s name. For example, many organizations standardize on a common email schema to construct email addresses. For example, they may use some variation of the first and last name of the employee.


  • [firstname].[lastname]
  • [firstname]-[lastname]
  • [firstname]_lastname]

If this is the case, an attacker can extract this information and now the attacker knows the user’s full name. For the purposes of achieving remote access, it is only a piece of the puzzle.
The next piece of information was the date the certificate expires. Since we know of a valid email, it is possible this is also a valid username for a network based attacks. Putting both the username and dates together means that the attacker has a greater likelihood for performing a successful attack.


"Unmasking You!" at BlackHat 09 and DefCon 17

August 7, 2009

Last week, I gave a presentation with Robert “RSnake” Hansen called “Unmasking You!” at BlackHat 09 and DefCon 17.

The slides and demos can be found at:

Originally, we were only scheduled to speak at DefCon, but due to a last minute change we spoke at both venues. The backstory of how that occurred, is kind of funny so I figured I would share it with everyone who hasn’t heard it yet.

On July 26th, I decided to go out on a twilight fishing boat after a week long engagement in LA. We weren’t really having much luck catching fish, a few missed opportunities but no fish. As the sun began to set over the harbor, my expectations shifted to enjoying the evening and the week ahead in Las Vegas at BlackHat and DefCon. Around 10:30 or so, I got a call from “RSnake”, and he said “There has been a scheduling change, would you like to give the talk at BlackHat?” That was the only moment in my life, that I was happy I didn’t have a fish on my fishing line. I gladly accepted the invitation and knew that the next with 48 hours would be interesting, since I still needed to record many of my demos. Once I arrived in Vegas, I spent the majority of the time preparing all of the demos and getting things ready. The end result was around 9 recorded demos and 2 presentations.

Our presentations went really well and everyone had great comments and feedback. I had an amazing time hanging out with tons of friends who I only see once a year. I had a chance to meet Wade Alcorn (the author of BeEF). BeEF for those who have not used it, is an browser exploitation framework and it is very useful in performing penetration assessment. For the talks, I wrote all of my code and ported several of RSnake’s code to BeEF as modules, which will be included in the next release (should be out in a few weeks). All of the demos demonstrated methods that attackers can used to determine information about the victim’s machine.

I hope everyone enjoyed the talk and I look forward to seeing everyone again next year in Vegas!