Just how serious is the “ROBOT Attack”?
back to BLOG

Just how serious is the “ROBOT Attack”?

Daniel Andrew

The ROBOT attack. Sounds pretty ominous, right? Choosing catchy names for web-based cryptography (TLS) vulnerabilities has become pretty popular lately (e.g. ‘CRIME’, ‘DROWN’), and this sort of effective ‘branding’ of vulnerabilities can be misleading, giving those in charge of keeping their organisation’s systems secure the fright of their lives. The reality is, however, that frequently these vulnerabilities are much less critical than they sound.

The recently disclosed ROBOT (VU#144389) — or “Return Of Bleichenbacher’s Oracle Threat” — vulnerability is a newly discovered re-hash of a vulnerability discovered way back in 1998. In very brief terms, the attack works by exploiting an issue with the way a particular cryptosystem (RSA) exchanges the secret key used to encrypt secure traffic between clients and servers.

So why isn’t this as bad as it sounds? Like many weaknesses associated with TLS, ROBOT is in practice difficult to pull off. There are a couple of significant barriers to an attacker wanting to use this in a real-life attack:

In practical terms, spying on a target’s traffic is not as simple as breaking out the binoculars.

The main enterprise vulnerability scanners don’t yet have checks for this weakness. Of course, as soon as they do, Intruder will be deploying them for our customers. So they will be notified as soon as possible where their weaknesses lie, without having to wait around checking their tools.

However, if you’re still concerned after reading the above mitigations, it is possible to stop the ROBOT in its tracks. Firstly, you can watch for and apply patches which many hardware and software vendors are already issuing for this weakness. Secondly, we recommend to fully disable the use of RSA for encryption, and where possible opt for the ECDHE ciphers instead.

Although this vulnerability isn’t easy to practically carry out, it is still possible that a dedicated, skilled attacker could use it to compromise the transfer of sensitive data. This kind of advanced targeted attack may be rare, so our recommendation is still to patch it at the next convenient opportunity. But in the meantime, it’s probably not one to lose sleep over.

Thanks to Chris Wallis.

Release Date
Level of Ideal
Before CVE details are published
Limited public information is available about the vulnerability.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers, threat actors have to actively research type of vulnerability, location in vulnerable software and build an associated exploit.

Tenable release checks for 47.43% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 32.96%.
Day of CVE publish
Vulnerability information is publicly accessible.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers and threat actors now have access to some of the information they were previously having to hunt themselves, speeding up potential exploit creation.

Tenable release checks for 17.12% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 17.69%.
First week since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 week.

The likelihood that exploitation in the wild is going to be happening is steadily increasing.

Tenable release checks for 10.9% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 20.69%.
Between 1 week and 1 month since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 month, and some very clever people have had time to craft an exploit.

We’re starting to lose some of the benefit of rapid, automated vulnerability detection.

Tenable release checks for 9.58% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 12.43%.
After 1 month since CVE publish
Information has been publicly available for more than 31 days.

Any detection released a month after the details are publicly available is decreasing in value for me.

Tenable release checks for 14.97% of the CVEs they cover over a month after the CVE details have been published, and Greenbone release 16.23%.

With this information in mind, I wanted to check what is the delay for both Tenable and Greenbone to release a detection for their scanners. The following section will focus on vulnerabilities which:

These are the ones where an attacker can point their exploit code at your vulnerable system and gain unauthorised access.

We’ve seen previously that Tenable have remote checks for 643 critical vulnerabilities, and OpenVAS have remote checks for 450 critical vulnerabilities. Tenable release remote checks for critical vulnerabilities within 1 month of the details being made public 58.4% of the time, but Greenbone release their checks within 1 month 76.8% of the time. So, even though OpenVAS has fewer checks for those critical vulnerabilities, you are more likely to get them within 1 month of the details being made public. Let’s break that down further.

In Figure 10 we can see the absolute number of remote checks released on a given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability has been published. What you can immediately see is that both Tenable and OpenVAS release the majority of their checks on or before the CVE details are made public; Tenable have released checks for 247 CVEs, and OpenVAS have released checks for 144 CVEs. Then since 2010 Tenable have remote released checks for 147 critical CVEs and OpenVAS 79 critical CVEs on the same day as the vulnerability details were published. The number of vulnerabilities then drops off across the first week and drops further after 1 week, as we would hope for in an efficient time-to-release scenario.

Figure 10: Absolute numbers of critical CVEs with a remote check release date from the date a CVE is published

While raw numbers are good, Tenable have a larger number of checks available so it could be unfair to go on raw numbers alone. It’s potentially more important to understand the likelihood that OpenVAS or Tenable will release a check of a vulnerability on any given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability is released. In Figure 11 we can see that Tenable release 61% their checks on or before the date that a CVE is published, and OpenVAS release a shade under 50% of their checks on or before the day that a CVE is published.

Figure 11: Percentage chance of delay for critical vulnerabilities

So, since 2010 Tenable has more frequently released their checks before or on the same day as the CVE details have been published for critical vulnerabilities. While Tenable is leading at this point, Greenbone’s community feed still gets a considerable percentage of their checks out on or before day 0.

I thought I’d go another step further and try and see if I could identify any trend in each organisations release delay, are they getting better year-on-year or are their releases getting later? In Figure 12 I’ve taken the mean delay for critical vulnerabilities per year and plotted them. The mean as a metric is particularly influenced by outliers in a data set, so I expected some wackiness and limited the mean to only checks released 180 days prior to a CVE being published and 31 days after a CVE being published. These seem to me like reasonable limits, as anything greater than 6 months prior to CVE details being released is potentially a quirk of the check details and anything after a 1-month delay is less important for us.

What can we take away from Figure 12?

Figure 12: Release delay year-on-year (lower is better)

With the larger number of checks, and still being able to release a greater percentage of their remote checks for critical vulnerabilities Tenable could win this category. However, the delay time from 2019 and 2020 going to OpenVAS, and the trend lines being so close, I am going to declare this one a tie. It’s a tie.

The takeaway from this is that both vendors are getting their checks out the majority of the time either before the CVE details are published or on the day the details are published. This is overwhelmingly positive for both scanning solutions. Over time both also appear to be releasing remote checks for critical vulnerabilities more quickly.

Get Our Free "Ultimate Guide to Vulnerability Scanning"
Learn everything you need to get started with vulnerability scanning and how to get the most out of your chosen product with our free PDF guide.

Written by

Daniel Andrew

Recommended articles

Ready to get started with your 30-day trial?

try for free