A very valuable vulnerabilityWhile I very firmly wear a white hat, it is useful to be able to consider things from the perspective of the bad guys, in order to assess the likelihood of a vulnerability being exploited and its potential impact. For the subset of bad guys who exploit security vulnerabilities for profit — as opposed to selling them to spy agencies, for example — I imagine that there are some criteria which would tend to make a vulnerability more valuable:
- the vulnerability can be exploited remotely, over the internet;
- the attack cannot be blocked by firewalls;
- the attack can be carried out without any account credentials on the system being attacked;
- the attack yields money (as opposed to say, credit card details which need to be separately monetized);
- once successfully exploited, there is no way for a victim to reverse or mitigate the damage; and
- the attack can be performed without writing a single line of code.
The vulnerability — which has since been fixed, or else I would not be writing about it publicly — was in Stripe's bitcoin payment functionality. Some background for readers not familiar with this: Stripe provides payment processing services, originally for credit cards but now also supporting ACH, Apple Pay, Alipay, and Bitcoin, and was designed to be the payment platform which developers would want to use; in very much the way that Amazon fixed the computing infrastructure problem with S3 and EC2 by presenting storage and compute functionality via simple APIs, Stripe fixed the "getting money from customers online" problem. I use Stripe at my startup, Tarsnap, and was in fact the first user of Stripe's support for Bitcoin payments: Tarsnap has an unusually geeky and privacy-conscious user base, so this functionality was quite popular among Tarsnap users.
Despite being eager to accept Bitcoin payments, I don't want to actually handle bitcoins; Tarsnap's services are priced in US dollars, and that's what I ultimately want to receive. Stripe abstracts this away for me: I tell Stripe that I want $X, and it tells me how many bitcoins my customer should send and to what address; when the bitcoin turns up, I get the US dollars I asked for. Naturally, since the exchange rate between dollars and bitcoins fluctuates, Stripe can't guarantee the exchange rate forever; instead, they guarantee the rate for 10 minutes (presumably they figured out that the exchange rate volatility is low enough that they won't lose much money over the course of 10 minutes). If the "bitcoin receiver" isn't filled within 10 minutes, incoming coins are converted at the current exchange rate.
For a variety of reasons, it is sometimes necessary to refund bitcoin transactions: For example, a customer cancelling their order; accidentally sending in the wrong number of bitcoins; or even sending in the correct number of bitcoins, but not within the requisite time window, resulting in their value being lower than necessary. Consequently, Stripe allows for bitcoin transactions to be refunded — with the caveat that, for obvious reasons, Stripe refunds the same value of bitcoins, not the same number of bitcoins. (This is analogous to currency exchange issues with credit cards — if you use a Canadian dollar credit card to buy something in US dollars and then get a refund later, the equal USD amount will typically not translate to an equal number of CAD refunded to your credit card.)
The vulnerability lay in the exchange rate handling. As I mentioned above, Stripe guarantees an exchange rate for 10 minutes; if the requisite number of bitcoins arrive within that window, the exchange rate is locked in. So far so good; but what Stripe did not intend was that the exchange rate was locked in permanently — and applied to any future bitcoins sent to the same address.
This made a very simple attack possible:
- Pay for something using bitcoin.
- Wait until the price of bitcoin drops.
- Send more bitcoins to the address used for the initial payment.
- Ask for a refund of the excess bitcoin.
Needless to say, I reported this to Stripe immediately. Fortunately, their website includes a GPG key and advertises a vulnerability disclosure reward (aka. bug bounty) program; these are two things I recommend that every company does, because they advertise that you take security seriously and help to ensure that when people stumble across vulnerabilities they'll let you know. (As it happens, I had Stripe security's public GPG key already and like them enough that I would have taken the time to report this even without a bounty; but it's important to maximize the odds of receiving vulnerability reports.) Since it was late on a Friday afternoon and I was concerned about how easily this could be exploited, I also hopped onto Stripe's IRC channel to ask one of the Stripe employees there to relay a message to their security team: "Check your email before you go home!"
Stripe's handling of this issue was exemplary. They responded promptly to confirm that they had received my report and reproduced the issue locally; and a few days later followed up to let me know that they had tracked down the code responsible for this misbehaviour and that it had been fixed. They also awarded me a bug bounty — one significantly in excess of the $500 they advertise, too.
As I remarked six years ago, Isaac Asimov's remark that in science "Eureka!" is less exciting than "That's funny..." applies equally to security vulnerabilities. I didn't notice this issue because I was looking for ways to exploit bitcoin exchange rates; I noticed it because a Tarsnap customer accidentally sent bitcoins to an old address and the number of coins he got back when I clicked "refund" was significantly less than what he had sent in. (Stripe has corrected this "anti-exploitation" of the vulnerability.) It's important to keep your eyes open; and it's important to encourage your customers to keep their eyes open, which is the largest advantage of bug bounty programs — and why Tarsnap's bug bounty program offers rewards for all bugs, not just those which turn out to be vulnerabilities.
And if you have code which handles fluctuating exchange rates... now might be a good time to double-check that you're always using the right exchange rates.
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