Proprietary security protocols can lead to a number of security issues. We recommend using standard security protocols as much as possible.
The encyclopedia defines a security protocol as “a sequence of operations that ensure protection of data. Used with an underlying communication protocol, it provides secure delivery of data between two parties.”
We use security protocols in everyday computing. For example, when we use our domain credentials to log in to a Microsoft Windows environment, we use the Kerberos (or the NTLM protocol in the earlier versions of Windows) indirect authentication protocol. When we conduct an e-commerce transaction using a secure e-commerce site, we use various encryption protocols, integrity protocols, and so on. Of course, there are other types of security protocols – authentication protocols, access-control (or authorization protocols), encryption protocols, key management protocols, key distribution protocols, and so on.
In day-to-day computing, we use standard security protocols because they offer us significant security benefits.
For one, experts design standard security protocols. Once designed, these are reviewed and re-reviewed by experts in standards organizations (e.g., IEEE, W3C, IETF). New protocols are subjected to security threat modeling analysis to ensure that they offer protection against commonly known attack patterns. When these protocols are deployed in the field, their security is monitored, and over time their security kinks are worked out.
In addition, when these standard protocols become (eventually) insecure, more secure versions of protocols are made available (e.g., TLS 1.1/1.2 to replace TLS 1.0), or new protocols are designed to replace the aging ones (e.g., AES replaced aging DES/3DES).
There are weaknesses associated with the use of standard protocols as well. Since all the knowledge pertaining to a standard protocol design/implementation is in the public domain, there is a greater likelihood of finding zero-day exploits. Additionally, when an issue discovered, it is widely known and exploitable in a very short period of time. The Heartbleed bug is a good example of this. Finally, tools are widely available to exploit any older and unpatched versions of the software libraries/packages that are known to implement the standard protocol incorrectly.
In the world of embedded devices, there are a few reasons why people may choose to use proprietary protocols:
Most embedded devices have limited computing power. In such cases, there is a need or tendency to use lightweight / proprietary protocols.
Whatever the reasons are, when we design our own proprietary protocols, we need to worry about many security issues.
For example, if we are designing a custom cryptographic protocol (a really really bad idea), then we need to worry about whether our protocol is provably secure. If not, then is our proprietary protocol secure against passive attacks (CPA-secure) or active attacks (CCA-secure)?
If we are designing a distributed proprietary protocol (say, an custom authentication protocol or a custom key distribution protocol), then we need to worry many other security issues, such as these:
At Synopsys, we conduct reviews of thick clients / embedded systems / mobile applications in the healthcare, gaming, and financial industries, among others. In our reviews, we commonly find serious design-level and implementation-level issues in proprietary security protocol implementations. We’ve observed that it’s very difficult to design and implement a proprietary protocol correctly. Our security analysts are routinely able to find serious vulnerabilities in such protocols. A common example of such proprietary security protocol code is X.509 certificate validation. While most commonly used browsers do a good job of validating server-side X.509 certificates, we routinely find many issues when mobile applications (which are responsible for certificate validation) implement such validation.
Our recommendation is to use standard security protocols as much as possible. If you must use a proprietary security protocol, try to use it in conjunction with a standard protocol (e.g., implementing proprietary encryption or encoding scheme over a secure TLS link, or using custom white box cryptography controls in conjunction with other well-known obfuscation controls). If you use a proprietary security protocol exclusively, you must thoroughly assess its design and implementation for security vulnerabilities.
Chandu Ketkar is a principal security consultant at Synopsys. His vast security expertise includes architecture security, secure design assessment automation, medical device and systems security, cryptography, mobile application security, maturity models, and software security initiatives (SSI). Chandu also has over 25 years of experience building software and says if he knew back then what he knows now, he would have built it a lot safer. He is a member of the AAMI and is actively engaged in creating an automation tool to scale architecture/design risk assessments. When he’s not building code for medical devices, Chandu relaxes by singing and listening to music.