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Advisory: Weak RNG in PHP session ID generation leads to session hijacking
From: Andreas Bogk <andreas () andreas org>
Date: Mon, 29 Mar 2010 19:50:07 +0200

PHP session ID generation uses RNG with weak properties

Advisory (c) 2010 Andreas Bogk <andreas () andreas org>

Product: PHP
Version: 5.3.2 and before
Type of vulnerability: Cryptographic weakness, session hijacking
Severity: Medium


PHP utilizes a cryptographically weak random number generator to
produce session ID information.  Additionally, not enough entropy is
used for the initial seeding of the RNG, and some of the entropy can
leak by careless use of the uniqid() PHP function.  Under certain
circumstances, these individual weaknesses interact and reduce the
number of possible values of a PHP session ID so much that exhaustive
search for a valid session ID against the web server becomes feasible.


A PHP site becomes vulnerable to the attack described below if it
meets the follogin requirements:

 * It uses the standard PHP session mechanism
 * It provides access to the output of the uniqid() function, with
   'more_entropy' set to 'true'.
 * It uses some mechanism to persist the PHP interpreter, such as FCGI.
 * It discloses login status and remote address of users

Attack description

The goal of the attack is guessing a valid session ID value of some
user, in order to impersonate this user and take over the session.
The standard PHP mechanism we're focusing on here provides an
interface for PHP code to access the session ID via the session_id()
function.  The session ID is passed on the HTTP layer under the name
of PHPSESSID or PHPSESSIONID, either as a cookie or as a parameter in
the request URL.

To understand where this session ID is coming form, let's take a look
at the code which generates it:

---- ext/session/session.c, php_session_create_id() -----
        spprintf(&buf, 0, "%.15s%ld%ld%0.8F",
                 remote_addr ? remote_addr : "",
                 (long int)tv.tv_usec,
                 php_combined_lcg(TSRMLS_C) * 10);

        switch (PS(hash_func)) {
                case PS_HASH_FUNC_MD5:
                                      (unsigned char *) buf,
                        digest_len = 16;

"remote_addr" is the remote address of the user as passed in the CGI
environment or equivalent (IPv4 address as string in dotted notation),
"tv" is a struct timeval as returned by the gettimeofday() function upon
ID creation.  php_combined_lcg() is the random generator, we will look
into this further below.  To summarize, PHP passes the remote address
of the user, the current server time to microsecond precision and a
pseudo-random value through MD5 to produce the session ID.

In order for an attacker to generate a valid session ID, she needs to
know all the parameters that go into its creation.  Or more precisely,
she needs to limit down the number of possible values for the
parameters so that exhaustively trying all of them becomes feasible.
Let's look at them in order.

remote address

Ignoring the trivial case of a configuration where the remote address
is not known to PHP (note the ' : ""'), success of this attack depends
on knowledge of the IP address.  In some cases, anonymous Wikipedia
users come to mind, the PHP application simply displays this address
publicly.  Rather more realistic is that the attacker induces the
victim to access an URL on a server under her control. e.g. by placing
an image link that the victim is bound to see on the attacked site.
If all else fails, the attacker might use knowledge about the victim
such as city of residence and ISP, or place of work and typically used
web proxy, to pin down as much of the address as he can, although the
attack effort grows with the number of possible addresses.

A special case is the usage of IPv6.  Note that only the first 15
characters of the remote address end up in the buffer.  For an IPv6
address in printed representation, this would be the first 6 octets.
Those usually don't vary between different customers of an ISP, and
current IPv6 address space utilization is sparse enough simply trying
all valid prefixes from BGP is within the reach.

time stamp

Quite a number of bits before MD5 processing come from the call to
gettimeofday() during session ID creation.  However, in the days of
ubiquitous NTP on all servers, an attacker can get quite a good
estimate of the server time simply by looking at his own clock.  Also,
most HTTP servers return the server time with a second precision.

If the PHP site under attack features a status indication that shows
whether a victim is online or not, the attacker can get an estimate on
the value of the time stamp at the moment of ID generation.  The
resolution of the gettimeofday() value is microseconds, so in theory
we have one possible value to try for every microsecond that passes
between each polling of the online status, plus the epsilon that our
estimate of the system time might be off.  In practice, there are some
platforms where gettimeofday() only runs with a precision of 1ms or
even 10ms, severely limiting the number of guesses we have to take.

Still, correctly predicting the timestamp is the major obstacle in
actually generating valid session IDs.  The uniqid(), which we will
discuss in the context of RNG prediction, is of great help here to get
a precise correlation between the attackers clock and the clock on the

random number generator value

The final ingredient in a PHP session ID is a value produced by
php_combined_lcg().  This function implements a combnation of two
linear congruential generators, both with a state of 32 bits.  As Samy
Kamkar[1] has pointed out, this is not a cryptographically sound RNG,
and given the internal state of the generator function, all previous and
future values can be predicted.  That's not a surprising result,
academic publications on the weaknesses of LCGs have been appearing
since 1977.

However, we do not get access to the internal state.  Let's have a
look at the php_combined_lcg() function:

---- ext/standard/lcg.c ----
PHPAPI double php_combined_lcg(TSRMLS_D)
        php_int32 q;
        php_int32 z;

        if (!LCG(seeded)) {

        MODMULT(53668, 40014, 12211, 2147483563L, LCG(s1));
        MODMULT(52774, 40692, 3791, 2147483399L, LCG(s2));

        z = LCG(s1) - LCG(s2);
        if (z < 1) {
                z += 2147483562;

        return z * 4.656613e-10;

We're only getting 2^31 different possible values out of the function
here.  Still, this is a lot of entropy we're getting here.  If we can
guess 35 bits of the state, one output should be sufficient to brute
force the other bits.

So let us consider lcg_seed() next:

---- ext/standard/lcg.c ----
static void lcg_seed(TSRMLS_D) /* {{{ */
        struct timeval tv;

        if (gettimeofday(&tv, NULL) == 0) {
                LCG(s1) = tv.tv_sec ^ (tv.tv_usec<<11);
        } else {
                LCG(s1) = 1;
#ifdef ZTS
        LCG(s2) = (long) tsrm_thread_id();
        LCG(s2) = (long) getpid();

        /* Add entropy to s2 by calling gettimeofday() again */
        if (gettimeofday(&tv, NULL) == 0) {
                LCG(s2) ^= (tv.tv_usec<<11);

        LCG(seeded) = 1;

That's btw. the code that's supposed to fix Samy's attack from PHP
5.3.2.  The second call to gettimeofday is new, in the old code, the
getpid() call was the only source of entropy in the LCG named s2
about, and Samy's code quite cleverly used that property to build a
time/memory tradeoff attack.

But let's look at the latest version, as shown above.  What we
immediately notice is the lack of non-predictable entropy sources in
the initial seeding.  The sources used here are the process ID and the
gettimeofday() value.  As already noted, the higher bits of the
current time are predictable by the attacker, only the lower bits of
the microsecond part offer some kind of real entropy.  Also, the
process ID tends to be predictable after system reboot.

We assume the attacker has a way to look at the result of
php_combined_lcg() (and we will come to that really soon now).  Then all
she has to do is wait for a system reboot, e.g. by constantly sending
ICMP Echo Requests to the target system and waiting for it to stop
answering and then coming back.  All she has to do now is fetching
some random value from the system, putting in good estimates for PID
and timeval, and start brute-forcing the bits considered random until
her own output matches the output from the target site.

How long will it take her to run the brute force attack?  To estimate
this, first observe that the second call to gettimeofday() will return
the very same data as the first call, plus the time that has passed in
between.  Chances are good that no preemptive scheduling happens, so
the time difference will be in the order of single digit microseconds,
giving a few meager bits of extra entropy.

Assuming we're able to pin down the server time of RNG seeding with
precision of one second, that's 20 bits of entropy for the
microseconds and 15 bits for the PID.  One round of LCG generation
requires one division and three multiplications, or, since there are
two LCGs combined, 8 float ops.  A modern GPU crunches through
1TFLOP/s, and thus exhausts that space in less than a second.

So, the final pice of the puzzle: where does the attacker get the lcg
values to brute force against from?  And the answer is: she hopes for
the server to call the PHP function uniqid() and hand her back the
value.  Let's look at code again:

---- ext/standard/uniqid.c, PHP_FUNCTION(uniqid) ----
        gettimeofday((struct timeval *) &tv, (struct timezone *) NULL);
        sec = (int) tv.tv_sec;
        usec = (int) (tv.tv_usec % 0x100000);

        if (more_entropy) {
                spprintf(&uniqid, 0, "%s%08x%05x%.8F", prefix, sec,
                usec, php_combined_lcg(TSRMLS_C) * 10);
        } else {
                spprintf(&uniqid, 0, "%s%08x%05x", prefix, sec, usec);

Do you see it?  Not only does this function hand us back a precise
server timestamp on a silver platter, it also adds in LCG output if we
request "more entropy".  Yeah, baby, give me more of your entropy, so
I can brute force your session IDs!!

Ahem, sorry.  Let me direct your attention to the fact that when I am
the first one to get to call php_combined_lcg through uniqid(), the
timestamp I'm getting back is almost identical to the one used to seed
the LCG, because they're both called right next to each other in
program flow.  This reduces the entropy unknown to me to the PID and
some microseconds.

Keep watching out for data in the format "xxxxxxxxxxxxx.dddddddd",
where x are hex digits and d decimal digits, in PHP applications.
Might be part of URLs, might be cookies, might be the autogenerated
filename for your file upload.  That's where it leaks entropy.

Note that you can substitute raw computing power for access to
uniqid() output.  The attacker knows her remote address and time of
login, and she has access to her own session ID.  As described above,
the LCG output has 31 bits of entropy.  Add 20 for the uncertainty in
the microseconds, for a total of 2^51 MD5 operations to try and brute
force the lcg value out of the attacker's cookie.  A modern GPU can
handle about 2^30 MD5 ops per second, so we're looking into 2^21 GPU
seconds.  This is within the reach of big organizations.


Here's a summary of the attack steps outlined above:

 * wait for the server to reboot
 * fetch a uniqid value
 * brute force the RNG seed from this
 * poll the online status to wait for target to appear
 * interleave status polls with uniqid polls to keep track of current
   server time and RNG value
 * brute force session ID against server using the time and RNG value
   interval established in polling


The attack requires a combination of properties of the system under
attack in order to be successful, as outlined above.  It also puts a
lot of stress on the system under attack.  However, the uniqid() leak
can be substituted by reasonable computing power, and some of the
other information can be gathered on other ways, making the attack
slightly flexible.

Recommendations for PHP authors

 * Make sure to use real entropy in your session IDs.  Usage of the
   Suhosin[2] patch in version 0.9.31 or later will do that for you

 * Never use the value of uniqid() directly, always hash the result.
   This is orthogonal to the recommendation above, especially if you
   depend on the uniqid() values to be unguessable.

Recommendations for PHP maintainers

 * Make sure the user has no way to generate insecure session IDs.
   There's no modern platform out there *not* supporting some real
   source of randomness.  Use this for seeding.  Use a construction
   like a chained hash or cipher for RNG instead of a LCG.

 * Change the definition of uniqid() so it always uses a hash.

 * While you're at it, replace MD5 and SHA with SHA-384 everywhere.

 * Read Schneier.


Thanks go out to Zamy Kamkar for inspiring this research, and to
Stefan Esser for providing feedback.  Also props to Jarno Huuskonen
for pointing out this very issue as much as 9 years back.

[1] http://samy.pl/phpwn/
[2] http://www.hardened-php.net/suhosin/
[3] http://seclists.org/vuln-dev/2001/Jul/33

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