Analysis of the Green Dam Censorware System
Revision 2.4 – June 11, 2009
Summary We have discovered remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities in Green Dam, the censorship software reportedly mandated by the Chinese government. Any web site a Green Dam user visits can take control of the PC.
According to press reports, China will soon require all PCs sold in the country to include Green Dam. This software monitors web sites visited and other activity on the computer and blocks adult content as well as politically sensitive material.
We examined the Green Dam software and found that it contains serious security vulnerabilities due to programming errors. Once Green Dam is installed, any web site the user visits can exploit these problems to take control of the computer. This could allow malicious sites to steal private data, send spam, or enlist the computer in a botnet. In addition, we found vulnerabilities in the way Green Dam processes blacklist updates that could allow the software makers or others to install malicious code during the update process.
We found these problems with less than 12 hours of testing, and we believe they may be only the tip of the iceberg. Green Dam makes frequent use of unsafe and outdated programming practices that likely introduce numerous other vulnerabilities. Correcting these problems will require extensive changes to the software and careful retesting. In the meantime, we recommend that users protect themselves by uninstalling Green Dam immediately.
Green Dam displays this message when it detects banned phrases.
Accordingly to recent news reports (NYT, WSJ), the Chinese government has mandated that, beginning July 1, every PC sold in China must include a censorship program called Green Dam. This software is designed to monitor internet connections and text typed on the computer. It blocks undesirable or politically sensitive content and optionally reports it to authorities. Green Dam was developed by a company called Jin Hui and is available as a free download. We examined version 3.17.
How Green Dam Works
The Green Dam software filters content by blocking URLs and website images and by monitoring text in other applications. The filtering blacklists include both political and adult content. Some of the blacklists appear to have been copied from American-made filtering software.
Image filter Green Dam includes computer vision technology used to block online images containing nudity. The image filter reportedly works by flagging images containing large areas of human skin tone, while making an exception for close-ups of faces. We've found that the program contains code libraries and a configuration file from the open-source image recognition software OpenCV.
Text filter Green Dam scans text entry fields in various applications for blocked words, including obscenities and politically sensitive phrases (for example, references to Falun Gong). Blacklisted terms are contained in three files, encrypted with a simple key-less scrambling operation. We decrypted the contents of these files: xwordl.dat, xwordm.dat, and xwordh.dat. We also found what appears to be a word list for a more sophisticated sentence processing algorithm in the unencrypted file FalunWord.lib. When Green Dam detects these words, the offending program is forcibly closed and an error image (shown above) is displayed.
URL filter Green Dam filters website URLs using patterns contained in whitelist and blacklist files (*fil.dat, adwapp.dat, and TrustUrl.dat). These files are encrypted with the same key-less scrambling operation as the blacklists for the text filter. Five of the blacklists correspond to the categories in the content filtering section of Green Dam's options dialog (shown below).
We found evidence that a number of these blacklists have been taken from the American-made filtering program CyberSitter. In particular, we found an encrypted configuration file, wfileu.dat, that references these blacklists with download URLs at CyberSitter's site. We also found a setup file, xstring.s2g, that appears to date these blacklists to 2006. Finally, csnews.dat is an encrypted 2004 news bulletin by CyberSitter. We conjecture that this file was accidentally included because it has the same file extension as the filters.
After only one day of testing the Green Dam software, we found two major security vulnerabilities. The first is an error in the way the software processes web sites it monitors. The second is a bug in the way the software installs blacklist updates. Both allow remote parties to execute arbitrary code and take control of the computer.
Web Filtering Vulnerability
Green Dam intercepts Internet traffic and processes it to see whether visited web sites are blacklisted. In order to perform this monitoring, it injects a library called SurfGd.dll into software that uses the socket API. When a user access a web site, this code checks the address against the blacklist and logs the URL.
We discovered programming errors in the code used to process web site requests. The code processes URLs with a fixed-length buffer, and a specially-crafted URL can overrun this buffer and corrupt the execution stack. Any web site the user visits can redirect the browser to a page with a malicious URL and take control of the computer.
We have constructed a demonstration URL that triggers this problem. If you have Green Dam installed, clicking the button on our demonstration attack page will cause your browser (or tab) to crash.
This proof-of-concept shows that we are able to control the execution stack. An actual attacker could exploit this to execute malicious code.
Green Dam's design makes this problem exploitable from almost any web browser. At this time, the surest way for users to protect themselves is to uninstall Green Dam.
Blacklist Update Vulnerability
We found a second problem in the way Green Dam reads its filter files. This problem would allow Green Dam's makers, or a third-party impersonating them, to execute arbitrary code and install malicious software on the user's computer after installing a filter update. Users can enable automatic filter updates from the Green Dam configuration program.
Green Dam reads its filter files using unsafe C string libraries. In places, it uses the fscanf function to read lines from filter files into a fixed-length buffer on the execution stack. This creates classic buffer-overflow vulnerabilities. For example, if a line in the file TrustUrl.dat exceeds a certain fixed length, the buffer will be overrun, corrupting the execution stack and potentially giving the attacker control of the process.
The filter files can be replaced remotely by the software maker if the user has enabled filter updates. The updates could corrupt these vulnerable files to exploit the problems we found. This could allow Green Dam's makers to take control of any computer where the software is installed and automatic filter updates are enabled. Furthermore, updates are delivered via unencrypted HTTP, which could allow a third party to impersonate the update server (for example, by exploiting DNS vulnerabilities) and take control of users' computers using this attack.
Removing Green Dam
Green Dam allows users who know its administrator password to uninstall the software. We tested the uninstaller and found that it appears to effectively remove Green Dam from the computer. However, it fails to remove some log files, so evidence of users' activity remains hidden on the system.
In light of the serious vulnerabilities we outlined above, the surest way for users to protect themselves is to remove the software immediately using its uninstall function.
Our brief testing proves that Green Dam contains very serious security vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, these problems seem to reflect systemic flaws in the code. The software makes extensive use of programming techniques that are known to be unsafe, such as deprecated C string processing functions including sprintf and fscanf. These problems are compounded by the design of the program, which creates a large attack surface: since Green Dam filters and processes all Internet traffic, large parts of its code are exposed to attack.
If Green Dam is deployed in its current form, it will significantly weaken China's computer security. While the flaws we discovered can be quickly patched, correcting all the problems in the Green Dam software will likely require extensive rewriting and thorough testing. This will be difficult to achieve before China's July 1 deadline for deploying Green Dam nationwide.
Users can configure which categories of web sites are blocked by Green Dam.
Additional filters are used to block adult and politically-sensitive terms in text entry fields.
We wish to thank our colleagues at the University of Michigan who alerted us to Green Dam and assisted with translation.
Contacting the Authors
Please send questions or comments to Professor J. Alex Halderman.
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