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Because of different interpretations of standards in mail clients, IDS/IPS and antivirus products, it is possible to pass malware undetected to the end user. This is especially funny and dangerous if different interpretations happen inside a single product, like in Yahoo! Web Mail.
MIME describes the common transfer format for anything than trivial e-mails, that is e-mails which contain attachments, embedded images etc. This format dates back to the days when the internet was still young and slow and you could actually hear the bytes traveling.
Because the protocols used for mail transfer at this time, that is UUCP and the still used SMTP, were mostly ASCII-text based, anything binary or non-ASCII like umlauts had to be encoded for transport. And because a way was needed to specify the encoding the Content-Transfer-Encoding was born. This header can have different values. Especially popular are base64 for real binary data and quoted-printable for text with few non-ASCII characters.
A typical mail with a binary attachment looks like this:
From: foo To: bar Subject: foobar Mime-Version: 1.0 Content-type: multipart/mixed; boundary=barfoot --barfoot Content-type: text/plain This is only ASCII text, but the attachment contains an image. --barfoot Content-type: image/gif Content-transfer-encoding: base64 R0lGODlhHgAUAOMJAAAAAAgICAkJCRUVFSEhIfDw8PLy8vX19fj4+P////////////////////// /////yH5BAEKAA8ALAAAAAAeABQAAARaMMlJq7046827/2DoFQBQcKRJpWfCSm8Vw2VrzROOr/Xd 57/YzvWjqYjHYarEZLaERWBz+vwZAgKD72isHg+DwWFrQ3pbCAIBQeYloxhdEH6Rv+/lrvusF3ki ADs= --barfoot--
Since each of the possible transfer encodings already results in data suitable for transport there is no need to stack multiple encodings on top of each other and therefore the specification allows only a single header.
But what happens, if we use multiple different Content-Transfer-Encoding headers anyway? We take as example the following mail, which contains a single attachment with the Eicar test virus. And while the attachment is encoded in base64, we specify two Content-Transfer-Encoding headers, one for base64 and the other for quoted-printable:
It turns out, that there is no single interpretation. Most mail clients and web interfaces will use
the first Content-Transfer-Encoding header, while IDS like Bro and Snort and lots of Antivirus
products will only look at the last header.
All of the following detailed results are based on tests done on 2014/10/09.
Subject: eicar - base64 cte header preceding quoted-printable
Content-type: multipart/mixed; boundary=barfoot
Content-Disposition: attachment; name=eicar.txt
It turns out, that there is no single interpretation. Most mail clients and web interfaces will use the first Content-Transfer-Encoding header, while IDS like Bro and Snort and lots of Antivirus products will only look at the last header. All of the following detailed results are based on tests done on 2014/10/09.
The first Content-Transfer-Encoding header is used by:
- google MTA (blocks virus directly inside SMTP dialog)
- gmail Web interface
- GMX Web interface (will block mail if it contains virus, see below)
- AOL Web interface
- Apple Mail
- Opera Mail
- Perl MIME::Tools, which are used by amavisd
- KDE kmail
- horde Web interface
The last Content-Transfer-Encoding header is used by:
- Outlook.de Web interface (Windows Live Mail)
- based on source code analysis: snort 18.104.22.168. Interesting is that is also accepts "Encoding" in place of "Content-Transfer-Encoding".
- based on source code analysis: bro 2.3.1
Yet another behavior is shown by others:
- Android Mail seems to dislike conflicting content-transfer-encodings and will not show attachment.
- GMX finds the virus no matter which order of headers we use and replaces the affected mail by a mail informativing about the virus infection.
- AOL MTA finds the virus too in both cases and blocks the mail immediatly within the SMTP dialog. Well done!
Antivirus products show a variety of behavior. I've tested these products 2014/10/09 using virustotal.com with files in mbox or RFC822 format. Any scanners which did not find the test virus in any of these tests were ignored, because they don't seem to understand these formats. Results:
- The Rising virus scanner will only find the virus if a single header is given.
- 7 antivirus products only check the first header and thus are in line with most mail clients: Jiangmin, Kaspersky, Panda, Symantec, TrendMicro, TrendMicro-HouseCall, Zoner.
- 12 antivirus products only check the last header and behave thus contrary to most mail clients, which makes evasion possible: Agnitum, Avast, Avira, Comodo, Cyren, DrWeb, ESET-NOD32, Fortinet, F-Prot, NANO-Antivirus, Tencent, VBA32.
- 11 products detect the virus independent of the order of the headers and thus can not be evaded this way, no matter which mail client gets used: BitDefender, ClamAV, Emsisoft, F-Secure, GData, Icarus, McAfee, McAfee-GW-Edition, Microsoft, MicroWorld-eScan, Sophos.
Yahoo MTA itself seems to have no builtin virus scanning, but the Web Mail interface uses Norton by Symantec to scan attachments before download. But, the interaction between antivirus and download is totally broken which leads to immediate evasion of the built-in virus scanner:
- The antivirus looks at the last Content-Transfer-Encoding header and will thus not find the virus in our example mail.
- The download of the attachment will look instead at the first Content-Transfer-Encoding header and thus the virus will be successfully downloaded.
- The preview of the mail looks again at the last header.
The issue was reported to Yahoo via hackerone on 2014/10/9, but closed as "Won't fix" because "We are already aware of this functionality on our site and are working towards a fix.". No reply was received when I asked if it is ok to publish the bug. Last time I've checked (2014/10/28) the bug was still there.
Using different interpretations of the standard makes evading security systems easy. Lots of current security products assume that the attacker will behave in a sane way and adhere to the standards, which is probably not what you should expect from an attacker.
- checked again in 06/2015 and Yahoo! has fixed the problem in the mean time