Corsaire Security Advisory - Multiple vendor MIME Content-Transfer-Encoding mechanism issue
-- Corsaire Security Advisory --
Title: Multiple vendor MIME Content-Transfer-Encoding mechanism issue
Author: Martin O'Neal [martin.oneal@xxxxxxxxxxxx]
Audience: General distribution
-- Scope --
The aim of this document is to clearly define a MIME content evasion
issue that affects a variety of products including; browsers, proxy
servers, email clients, content security gateways and antivirus
-- History --
Discovered: 04.08.03 (Martin O'Neal)
NISCC notified: 28.01.04
Document released: 13.09.04
-- Overview --
There are a number of content security gateway and antivirus products
available that provide policy based security functionality. Part of this
functionality allows the products to block embedded file attachments
based on their specific content type, such as executables or those
containing viruses. However, by using MIME encapsulation techniques
centred on both standard & non-standard Content-Transfer-Encoding
mechanisms, this functionality can be evaded.
-- Analysis --
The MIME standards are intended to provide a common mechanism to
exchange data between systems and are used extensively by protocols such
as HTTP and SMTP. The structure of a MIME message is defined in RFC2045
, which in turn makes use of concepts introduced in RFC822 
(superseded by RFC2822 ).
The standards define a range of fields that control how data is encoded
within the transport, and how it should be interpreted by the receiving
agent. RFC2045 provides the Content-Transfer-Encoding field, which
allows the specification of an encoding type to allow 8bit data to
travel successfully through 7bit transport mechanisms.
Although the standard itself only provides for a limited set of encoding
mechanisms (7bit, 8bit, binary, quoted-printable and base64), there are
also a number of defacto mechanisms that are in use (uuencode, mac-
binhex40 and yenc).
The implementation of these encoding standards has not been universal by
all of the vendors, and additionally there has also been a degree of
variation in the actual mechanism value used within the Content-
Transfer-Encoding header field. For example the uuencode mechanism may
be specified interchangeably as "uue", "x-uue" or "x-uuencode" (plus
For many products, such as email clients and browsers, this scope for
variation might only result in some unreliable behaviour. However, for a
collection of security products, being unaware of the various ways that
the standard has been implemented can lead to more serious results, as
the products may fail to detect a threat within the data stream.
When a receiving agent is presented with a MIME message that contains an
unknown Content-Transfer-Encoding mechanism, it tends to respond in one
of two broad ways:
- It identifies the MIME message as malformed and blocks it.
- It fails to interpret the MIME field (or message).
The first of the two would be the correct behaviour for a security
conscious product, but based on empirical research this is not the
common result for a number of scenarios.
The Content-Transfer-Encoding mechanism issue has been observed to
affect many of the security products. To use this issue as an attack
vector, all that is required is to identify a target that has a client
agent that successfully interprets the chosen Content-Transfer-Encoding
mechanism, where any security products that protect it do not.
-- Recommendations --
To be effective tools, the security products must not only be able to
process encoding techniques implemented as per the relevant standard,
but also common misinterpretations and deliberate corruptions.
As an ongoing process, a study project should be undertaken by the
vendors to identify applications that routinely decode MIME objects and
have a liberal interpretation of the MIME standard.
NISCC have produced a document consolidating a number of vendor
statements on these issues . Contact your vendor directly to
establish whether you are affected by these issues.
-- Background --
This issue was discovered using a custom SMTP/HTTP vulnerability
analysis tool developed by Corsaire's security assessment team. This
tool is not available publicly, but is an example of the specialist
approach used by Corsaire's consultants as part of a commercial security
assessment. To find out more about the cutting edge services provided by
Corsaire simply visit our web site at http://www.corsaire.com
-- CVE --
The Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) project has assigned
the name CAN-2004-0051 to this issue. This is a candidate for
inclusion in the CVE list (http://cve.mitre.org), which standardises
names for security problems.
-- References --
-- Revision --
a. Initial release.
-- Distribution --
This security advisory may be freely distributed, provided that it
remains unaltered and in its original form.
-- Disclaimer --
The information contained within this advisory is supplied "as-is" with
no warranties or guarantees of fitness of use or otherwise. Corsaire
accepts no responsibility for any damage caused by the use or misuse of
-- About Corsaire --
Corsaire are a leading information security consultancy, founded in 1997
in Guildford, Surrey, UK. Corsaire bring innovation, integrity and
analytical rigour to every job, which means fast and dramatic security
performance improvements. Our services centre on the delivery of
information security planning, assessment, implementation, management
and vulnerability research.
A free guide to selecting a security assessment supplier is available at
Copyright 2003 Corsaire Limited. All rights reserved.