ALPACA-Attack: Cross-Protocol-Attacks

10.06.2021 - Robert Merget

In cooperation with the university Paderborn and Münster University of Applied Scienceshaben, scientists from the chair of Network- and Data security discovered a new flaw in the specification of TLS. The vulnerability is called ALPACA and exploits a weakness in the authentication of TLS for cross-protocol attacks. The attack allows an attacker to steal cookies or perform cross-site-scripting (XSS) if the specific conditions for the attack are met.

TLS is an internet standard to secure the communication between servers and clients on the internet, for example that of web servers, FTP servers, and Email servers. This is possible because TLS was designed to be application layer independent, which allows its use in many diverse communication protocols.

ALPACA is an application layer protocol content confusion attack, exploiting TLS servers implementing different protocols but using compatible certificates, such as multi-domain or wildcard certificates. Attackers can redirect traffic from one subdomain to another, resulting in a valid TLS session. This breaks the authentication of TLS and cross-protocol attacks may be possible where the behavior of one protocol service may compromise the other at the application layer.

We investigate cross-protocol attacks on TLS in general and conducted a systematic case study on web servers, redirecting HTTPS requests from a victim's web browser to SMTP, IMAP, POP3, and FTP servers. We show that in realistic scenarios, the attacker can extract session cookies and other private user data or execute arbitrary JavaScript in the context of the vulnerable web server, therefore bypassing TLS and web application security.

We evaluated the real-world attack surface of web browsers and widely-deployed Email and FTP servers in lab experiments and with internet-wide scans. We find that 1.4M web servers are generally vulnerable to cross-protocol attacks, i.e., TLS application data confusion is possible. Of these, 114k web servers can be attacked using an exploitable application server. As a countermeasure, we propose the use of the Application Layer Protocol Negotiation (ALPN) and Server Name Indication (SNI) extensions in TLS to prevent these and other cross-protocol attacks.

Although this vulnerability is very situational and can be challenging to exploit, there are some configurations that are exploitable even by a pure web attacker. Furthermore, we could only analyze a limited number of protocols, and other attack scenarios may exist. Thus, we advise that administrators review their deployments and that application developers (client and server) implement countermeasures proactively for all protocols.

More information can be found at


Tags: attack, cross-protocol, TLS