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Vulnerable clients allow a TLS protocol downgrade (FREAK)


Some client-side libraries, including un-patched versions of OpenSSL, contain a vulnerability which can allow a man-in-the-middle (MITM) to force a TLS version downgrade. Even though this vulnerability exists in the client side, an attack known as FREAK is exploitable when TLS servers offer weak cipher choices. This security note provides guidance to mitigate the FREAK attack on the server side, so that TLS provides reasonable security for even un-patched clients.

Affected Services / Software

Any service using TLS. Depending on the backend TLS library, this can include many components of an OpenStack cloud:

  • OpenStack services
  • OpenStack clients
  • Web servers (Apache, Nginx, etc)
  • SSL/TLS terminators (Stud, Pound, etc)
  • Proxy services (HAProxy, etc)
  • Miscellaneous services (eventlet, syslog, ldap, smtp, etc)


TLS connections are established by a process known as a TLS handshake. During this process a client first sends a message to the server known as "HELLO", where among other things the client lists all of the TLS encryption ciphers it supports. In the next step, the server responds with its own "HELLO" packet, in which the server picks one of the cipher options the client offered. After this the client and server continue on to securely exchange a secret which becomes a master key.

The FREAK attack exploits a flaw in client logic in which vulnerable clients don't actually check that the cipher which was selected by the server was one they had offered in the first place. This creates the possibility that an attacker on the network somewhere between the client and server can alter the client's HELLO packet, removing all choices except for really weak ciphers known as "export grade ciphers". If the server supports these weak ciphers, it will (regretfully) chose it, as it appears that this is the only option that the client supports, and send it back in the server HELLO message.

Export grade ciphers are a legacy of a time when the US government prohibited the export of cryptographic ciphers which were stronger than 512 bits for asymmetric ciphers and 40 bits for symmetric ciphers. Today these ciphers are easily and quickly crackable using commodity hardware or cloud resources.

Recommended Actions

Since this is a vulnerability in client logic, the best option is to ensure that all clients update to the latest version of the affected library. For more details about upgrading OpenSSL please see the link to the OpenSSL advisory in the "Further discussion" section below. Since it is unfeasible to assume that all clients have updated, we should also mitigate this on the TLS server-side.

To mitigate the FREAK attack on the server side, we need to remove support for any ciphers which are weak. This is to prevent a MITM from forcing the negotiation of a weak cipher. In particular we need to remove support for any export grade ciphers, which are especially weak.

The first step is to find what versions your TLS server currently supports. Two useful solutions exist for this: SSL Server Test at Qualys SSL Labs can be used to scan any web accessible endpoints, and SSLScan is a command line tool which attempts a TLS connection to a server with all possible cipher suites. Please see "tools" below for links to both.

The specific steps required to configure which cipher suites are supported in a TLS deployment depend on the software and configuration, and are beyond the scope of this note. Some good starting places are provided below in the section: "Resources for configuring TLS options".

Contacts / References