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July 10, 2014

Truth, Fiction and a 20 Year Old Vulnerability

The impact of a 20 year old flaw in the LZ4 is still a matter of conjecture. The moral of the story isn’t.

I think we can all agree it's not quite THIS critical.

I think we can all agree it's not quite THIS critical.


What were you doing in 1996? You remember ’96, right? Jerry McGuire, Independence Day and Fargo were in the theaters. Everybody was dancing the “Macarena”? In the technology world, 1996 was also a big year. Among other, less notable developments: two obscure graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, introduced a novel search engine called “Backrub.” Elsewhere, a software engineer named Markus F. X. J. Oberhumer published a novel compression algorithm dubbed LZO. Written in ANSI C, LZO offered what its author described as “pretty fast compression and *extremely* fast decompression.” LZO was particularly adept at compressing and decompressing raw image data such as photos and video. Soon enough, folks found their way to LZO and used it. Today, LZ4 – based upon LZO – is a core component of the Linux kernel and is implemented on Samsung’s version of the Android mobile device operating system. It is also a part of the ZFS file system which, in turn, is bundled with open source platforms like FreeBSD. But the true reach of LZ4 is a matter for conjecture. That’s a problem, because way back in 1996, Mr. Oberhumer managed to miss a pretty straight-forward, but serious integer overflow vulnerability in the LZ4 source code. As described by Kelly Jackson Higgins over at Dark Reading, the flaw could allow a remote attacker to carry out denial of service attacks against vulnerable devices or trigger

the flaw could allow a remote attacker to carry out denial of service attacks against vulnerable devices or trigger remote code execution on those devices

remote code execution on those devices – running their own (malicious) code on the device. The integer overflow bug was discovered during a code audit of LZ4. Twenty years later, that simple mistake is the source of a lot of heartbleed…err…heartburn as open source platforms, embedded device makers and other downstream consumers of LZ4 find themselves exposed. Patches for the integer overflow bug were issued in recent days for both the Linux kernel and affected open-source media libraries. But there is concern that not everyone who uses LZ4 may be aware of their exposure to the flaw. And Mr. Bailey has speculated that some critical operating systems – including embedded devices used in automobiles or even aircraft might be vulnerable. We really don’t know. As is often the case in the security industry, however, there is some disagreement about the seriousness of the vulnerability and some chest thumping over Mr. Bailey’s decision to go public with his findings. Writing on his blog, the security researcher Yann Collett (Cyan4973) has raised serious questions about the real impact of LZ4. While generally supporting the decision to patch the hole (and recommending patching for those exposed to it), Mr. Collett suggests that the LZ4 vulnerability is quite limited. Specifically: Collett notes that to trigger the vulnerability, an attacker would need to create a special compressed block to overflow the 32-bits address space. To do that, the malicious compressed block would need to be in the neighborhood of 16 MB of data. That’s possible, theoretically, but not practical. Legacy LZ4 limits file formats to 8MB blocks – maximum. “Any value larger than that just stops the decoding process,” he writes, and 8MB is not enough to trigger a problem. A newer streaming format is even stricter, with a hard limit at 4 MB. “As a consequence, it's not possible to exploit that vulnerability using the documented LZ4 file/streaming format,” he says. LZ4, Mr. Collett says, is no OpenSSL. In response to Collett and others, Bailey wrote an even more detailed analysis of the LZ4 vulnerability and found that attackers actually wouldn’t be limited by the 8MB or 4 MB limit. And, while all kinds of mitigating factors may exist, depending on the platform that LZ4 is running on, Bailey concludes that exploits could be written against the current implementations of LZ4 and that block sizes of less than 4MB could be malicious. While some modern platforms may have features that mitigate the risk, “this is the kind of critical arbitrary-write bug attackers look for when they have a corresponding memory information disclosure (read) that exposes addresses in memory.” While the LZ4 vulnerability debate has become an example of security industry “insider baseball,” there is (fortunately) a larger truth here that everyone can agree on. That larger truth is that we’re all a lot more reliant on software than we used to be. And, as that reliance has grown stronger, the interactions between software powered devices in our environment , has become more complex and our grasp of what makes up the software we rely on has loosened. Veracode has written about this before – in relation to OpenSSL and other related topics. It may be the case that the LZ4 vulnerability is a lot harder to exploit that we were led to believe. But nobody should take too much comfort in that when a casual audit of just one element of the Linux Kernel uncovered a 20 year old, remotely exploitable vulnerability. That discovery should make you wonder what else is out there has escaped notice. That’s a scary question.

Paul Roberts is an experienced technology writer and editor that has spent the last decade covering hacking, cyber threats, and information technology security, including senior positions as a writer, editor and industry analyst. His work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace Tech Report, The Boston Globe,, Fortune Small Business, as well as ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and He was, yes, a guest on The Oprah Show — but that’s a long story. You can follow Paul on Twitter here or visit his website The Security Ledger.

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