A PoC of DoS attack in Elixir Actor Model

The naive way of using the Actor model in Elixir is using “receive” in a loop, which is then “spawn”d as a Erlang process. Unfortunately, a potential DoS attack could happen if the pattern matching is not coded carefully with security in mind. This post looks into this potential vulnerability, and provides a PoC implementation.

A typical “receive” block in Elixir provides different pattern matchings, like below:

receive do
      {sender_pid, {:msg, _msg}} ->
        send(sender_pid, {:ok, "gotcha"})
      _ ->
        IO.puts "WTF"
    end

Following the same order of matchings, the message goes through each matching one by one till finding a match. Otherwise, “_” (matching all) catchs whatever received. While this defensive matching all seems optional, it is vital to the security of the Erlang VM. As turns out, the message would stay in the mailbox forever, if no matching is able to “catch” the message. The potential result is DoS attack, caused by OOM (out of memory) of the mailbox.

To observe this potential DoS attack, please download the PoC (https://github.com/daveti/edos). As shown below, unmatched messages keep accumulating in the mailbox (message queue) when running edos:

msg 24645 sent
worker msg queue len {:message_queue_len, 24645}
msg 24646 sent
worker msg queue len {:message_queue_len, 24646}
msg 24647 sent
worker msg queue len {:message_queue_len, 24647}
msg 24648 sent
^C

“top” also shows the memory usage (of beam.smp) keep increasing as more messages are sent to the mailbox. This DoS could turn into DDoS easily in a distributed environment.

As usual, Elixir compiler does not complain about this during the compilation time, although it would be really useful for the compiler to give some warnings. Nothing is gonna happen in runtime as well, except the memory consumption of the mailbox, which is “invisible” to the user. Even worse, dialyxir also reports nothing regarding this potential issue.

One more thing needs to verify is whether a GenServer implementation without handle_info/2 would also cause DoS in the mailbox. I suspect it the same as above.

About daveti

Interested in kernel hacking, compilers, machine learning and guitars.
This entry was posted in Programming, Security, Static Code Analysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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