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A security researcher says some versions of the Oracle database contain a vulnerability so serious that anyone with access to the server over a network can crack database passwords using a basic brute-force attack, given nothing more than the name of the database and a valid username.

"This is a critical issue because it's very easy to exploit, and it doesn't require any privileges," AppSec's Esteban Martinez Fayó said in an interview with Dark Reading.

According to a report issued on Thursday by Kaspersky Labs' Threatpost, the vulnerability stems from a fundamental flaw in the logon authentication protocol used by Oracle Database 11g Releases 1 and 2.

Normally, Oracle databases maintain connections with clients by issuing each a unique value known as a Session Key. But affected versions of Oracle 11g send the Session Key before the user is fully authenticated. As a result, an attacker can send a username, receive a Session Key, then hang up the connection and use the Session Key to guess the user's password.

"The attacker can perform a brute force attack on the Session Key by trying millions of passwords per second until the correct one is found," Fayó said, adding, "This is very similar to a SHA-1 password hash cracking."

According to Fayó, he and his team first alerted Oracle to the bug in May 2010. It was fixed in mid-2011, he says, but the patch was not included in a Critical Patch Update, and it only solved the problem by issuing a new, incompatible version of the authentication protocol, version 12.

Even when the patch is applied to a database, it will still use version 11.1 of the protocol by default. To get up and running with version 12, database servers and clients must both be patched, which means a large number of organizations are still using version 11.1 – and are therefore still vulnerable.

According to Fayó, Oracle currently has no plans to patch version 11.1 of the protocol to fix the flaw, and they aren't doing much to help customers migrate to version 12, either.

"The only comment from them was a paragraph about a new protocol fixing some security issues," he said. "They haven't said anything that made people aware to update the database and all of the database clients."

Mind you, brute-force attacks are not the easiest way to crack a password, since they essentially involve exhausting every possible combination of characters until the right combination is found. And Fayó says advanced cracking techniques, such as rainbow tables, can't be used to exploit this vulnerability, because of the way Oracle's cryptography is designed.

Still, he says, GPU acceleration and hybrid dictionary attacks can speed up the process of guessing passwords considerably, and Fayó has developed a proof-of-concept attack that can crack eight-character Oracle passwords in around five hours using standard CPUs.

In lieu of a fix from Oracle, Fayó recommends several work-arounds. One is to wrap database connections in some additional form of authentication, such as SSL or directory services. Another is to disable version 11.1 of the authentication protocol altogether and use an earlier version, such as 10g, which isn't vulnerable. ®

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