The story behind MS-14-016 and Samba's CVE-2013-4496 (Password lockout on SAMR password changes)
abartlet at samba.org
Wed Aug 26 04:57:27 UTC 2015
Now that it has been long enough since the security releases, I figured
I would write up a blog article for work, giving a little of the story
of how we worked with Microsoft on a security fix, and the strange
world of fixing security bugs in both Samba and Windows.
Samba and Windows, and a tale of mutual insecurity
26 August 2015
This is a tale of working closely with Microsoft on a security issue,
the ethics, challenges and the collaborative relationship between
engineers that we must have to resolve any serious security issue.
In October 2013 a client of Catalyst asked us to implement 'bad
password lockout' in Samba's Active Directory domain controller,
following on from the similar support in Samba's previous domain
controller product. What followed however was a tale of how simple
choices in how validation checks are performed can have profound
The full name of the network operation in question is
SamrUnicodeChangePasswordUser2, and it is one of the many
security-critical network APIs that Samba must implement, and must do
so while matching the Microsoft Windows semantics.
The key phrase here is 'matching Windows', because both here at
Catalyst and on the Samba Team, when building Samba we generally take
the behaviour of Microsoft's implementation to be the gold standard.
Feature or mis-feature, we assume that the rest of the industry has
tested against that, and that good mimicry of the external behaviour
is the best way to blend in. (Internally the structures are quite
Taking on the client task first required setting a benchmark for what
needed to be done, and so old tests were revived and re-targeted, new
tests were written, and Samba's older code was examined for clues. One
area became quickly apparent: not only was the new AD DC code missing
an implementation of bad password lockout, the older Samba DC code,
implementing the NT4 DC, only handled half the job.
The problem was that while a normal logon would increment the bad
password count, and lock out the user, no such check was performed
during password changes. This quickly turned a normal feature
implementation task into a security issue.
Given the need to correctly implement bad password lockouts for the
SamrUnicodeChangePasswordUser2 call, we started writing tests, to
confirm the behaviour of the 'gold standard', that of Microsoft's
Windows. It was in doing those tests, and watching the exact pattern
of error codes that we got back that we got a nasty shock.
When implementing a logon system, the key is to maintain information
asymmetry. That is, to ensure that the attacker always knows less
than the target system. In a fanciful example, the logon system must
not helpfully tell the attacker 'almost right, try adding an extra
digit', or 'that password is OK, but I'm locked out for the moment,
It was this second situation that happened against Microsoft Windows.
When changing a password with SamrUnicodeChangePasswordUser2, both the
incoming password and the lockout status were correctly confirmed, but
in the wrong order, allowing the attacker unrestricted access to try
new passwords, looking for failure codes of 'wrong password' or
'locked out', meaning 'right password, but locked out'. The attacker
would only need to wait another few minutes to log in with the cracked
Naturally we reported this to our friends at Microsoft. But this
meant that suddenly we had not only two issues, but three, and the
complexity of multi-organisation co-ordination. While this is nothing
new in the security industry, it certainly amused the directors here
at Catalyst to be helping Microsoft fix their own Security issues.
A number of months passed while Microsoft implemented the fix, and did
'variant analysis' looking for (and finding) where they had a second
copy of the same code, but in March 2014, Microsoft released
MS-14-016, credited Andrew Bartlett of Catalyst and the Samba Team.
At the same time, Samba released Samba 4.1.6 with fixes for
CVE-2013-4496, and our developers were finally able to release that
addition of support on our AD DC (it released soon after with Samba
While painful, the slow and sometimes painful process of working with
other vendors is the correct thing to do. In particular we have a
moral responsibility given our deep knowledge of the AD System to
Microsoft's customers. Few others outside Microsoft have reason to
delve so deep, or probe so closely.
We are confident that will not be the last time that Catalyst and
Samba is credited with finding security holes in Microsoft's Windows.
Authentication Developer, Samba Team https://samba.org
Samba Development and Support, Catalyst IT
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