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Date: Fri, 2 May 2014 05:09:56 +0400
From: Solar Designer <>
Cc: Andreas Krennmair <>, Jim Hull <>
Subject: akpop3d review


As some of you might have guessed my review of akpop3d is prompted by
OpenBSD 5.5 dropping popa3d from base (a reasonable thing to do given
the mass surveillance, and given that it was high time I added builtin
SSL support, which I still have not), and not (yet) offering it in
packages.  akpop3d is suggested as the primary alternative:

"popa3d removed
The POP3 daemon has been removed. Alternatives are available in
packages, such as: akpop3d, courier-pop3 and others."

Is akpop3d a good choice, security-wise?  In terms of offering builtin
SSL and in terms of code size, yes.  In other ways, I think not so much,
although I didn't spot anything easily exploitable beyond DoS (so
there's no reason for end-users to panic, and my posting isn't aimed at

Here are some quick observations, based on akpop3d 0.7.7 released in
2004 (yes, 10 years ago), which I think is still the latest (that's
possibly fine for a small program, it could show code maturity).
Obviously, I might be biased, but I had considered many of the same
issues and tradeoffs while writing popa3d, so I think I am a right
person to comment on akpop3d's design and code.


akpop3d tries to be secure by means of being simple, to the extent of
lacking privsep.  This is a fine choice with its pros and cons, although
I think adequate simplicity can be achieved while also including privsep
(like I did in popa3d).  (I would especially not rely on the SSL library
code being somehow "safe" to run outside of a privsep child.  I was
planning to create a separate privsep child for the SSL in popa3d. but I
never got around to implementing that.)

akpop3d chooses to support dot-locking and copying of mbox contents (to
temporary per-message files, which I guess makes akpop3d rather slow,
perhaps even slower than the old qpopper).  Because of this, along with
lacking privsep, it retains group "mail" in its child process.  While
this is not as bad as continuing to run as root, it is pretty bad in
that group "mail" commonly allows to read/write/delete any other users'
mail, as well as to introduce trapdoors into the mail spool (thereby
potentially exploiting other mail programs' peculiar behavior and
vulnerabilities).  This is what's directly at stake on every line of
code of akpop3d.  (In contrast, in popa3d many lines of code run as the
target user only, with no group privileges.  Security aside, I admit
that there are pros and cons to either approach in terms of backwards
compatibility and reliability over system crashes vs. performance.)

A couple of other things akpop3d's design.txt mentions are "Secure
Creation Of Files" (true, but with popa3d's approach no files need to be
created in the first place) and "Parsing Emails" with the "Don't parse"
advice/approach (great, but the way UIDLs are calculated I guess they
are too often non-unique and unstable over other MUA runs - that's two
non-security problems, which I'd be happy to discuss separately).

Code, integer overflows:

It appears that integer overflows were not considered at all.  Luckily,
it is possible to audit the code and introduce the due checks (or
otherwise make the overflows and C unspecified behavior impossible to
trigger), but as it is it looks pretty bad.  Most notably:

static int number_mails;
      mails = realloc(mails,number_mails*sizeof(struct mail));

That's two potential integer overflows, which might be triggerable by
untrusted input (depending on mbox size limits with the MTA/LDA and
filesystem) on two adjacent lines of code.  sizeof(struct mail) is at
least 268 on a 32-bit system (and usually slightly more on 64-bit):

struct mail {
  unsigned long size;
  unsigned long adjsize;
  int deleted;
  char filename[256];

Luckily, sizeof(struct mail) is unsigned, and is of a type no smaller
than int.  Yet if the expression remains 32-bit, the multiplication
wraps around at "only" 16 million messages in the mbox.  When this
happens, "mails" is allocated with a smaller size than it needs to be,
and we have out of bounds writes somewhere on the heap.

In practice, this might be mitigated by a previous realloc() failing to
allocate the nearly 4 GiB of memory on a 32-bit platform, in which case
the function would have returned before the overflow could happen:

      if (mails==NULL) {
        return 0;

Are there platforms where size_t is 32-bit, yet an almost 4 GiB
allocation succeeds (meaning the process has more than 4 GiB of address
space, since more than 268 bytes would surely be already in use by the
program itself, its stack, etc.)?

Maybe we got lucky here, but we shouldn't continue to depend on subtle
things like that for security.

Code, async-signal-unsafe functions are used with signals:

akpop3d calls async-signal-unsafe functions from a signal handler:

static void sig_handler(int signo) {
  syslog(LOG_INFO,"%s: %u", "caught signal",signo);

It also has the signal handler setup while the main program uses
async-signal-unsafe functions, meaning that the signal handler can be
entered with e.g. syslog or stdio already in inconsistent state, and
would proceed to use that state as if it were consistent.  IIRC,
syslog() in particular is made async-signal-safe on OpenBSD, but not on
other systems.

syslog() from a signal handler in portable code is not considered
acceptable (see e.g. CVE-2008-4109).  exit() is not acceptable either
(flushes stdio buffers, which may already be in inconsistent state, and
invokes atexit() handlers, which may contain async-signal-unsafe
functions).  remove_lock() looks OK, though:

void remove_lock(char * maildrop) {
  size_t lf_len = (size_t)strlen(maildrop)+strlen(".lock")+1;
  char * lf = alloca(lf_len);
  if (lf!=NULL) {

Code, risky use of MySQL:

  { /* prevent SQL injections */
    int i, max = strlen(username);
    for (i=0;i<max;i++) {
    if (username[i]=='\'') {
      username[i] = '_';

        // send the query
        asprintf( &pszQuery, "SELECT username, uid, gid, password, homedir, shell, comment FROM %s where username = '%s'", TABLE, username );

If questionable functionality like this is included at all, it'd be
better to use prepared statements or/and whitelisting.  The code above
uses a blacklist (of only one char), and fails to blacklist '\', which
is a special character too.  I don't see how this can be exploited
(hopefully, it can't be) into anything more than incorrect syntax
(which can be achieved by making '\' the very last character in
attempted username, so the closing single quote is not treated as such).

Code, unsafe uses of asprintf():

The code snippet above also serves as an example of this issue. :-)
glibc's asprintf() leaves the pointer unchanged on error (unlike *BSD's),
indicating the error only via the return value.  Ulrich rejected a patch
to introduce the safer *BSD's behavior:

The patch has since been included in a few Linux distros, but most
distros retain upstream's unsafe behavior.

The code then proceeds to do:

        free( pszQuery );

where pszQuery might have been never initialized (it is not explicitly
initialized in the code above), so we get a free() call on some stack
contents in place of the pointer.  With some luck for and/or effort by
the attacker, this might be exploitable.

Luckily, this issue only occurs twice, and only in mysql.c (which per
README.MySQL is contributed code, but the author(s) should have reviewed
it more thoroughly before integration, I think).

README.MySQL also says:

"I originally added a patch like this to gnu-pop3d and then to gnu

So these two projects might be affected as well.

Code, lacks child count and frequency limits:

It appears that akpop3d's main daemon loop will happily overload the
system as long as connections keep coming.  It can also be used to flood
the logs (use up disk space or/and exhaust syslog bandwidth, which is
often pretty low, thereby affecting other services that do logging).
(popa3d has total and per-source connection count limits, and an extra
parameter and extra logic to mitigate log flooding while nevertheless
logging anything important about connections that were accepted.)

Code, MD5 may be miscompiled with wrong endianness:

There's no security impact from this, but the included GNU MD5 routines
are notorious of easy miscompiles, and akpop3d appears to suffer from
this problem.  md5.c contains:

#ifdef _LIBC
# include <endian.h>
# endif

and _LIBC is not defined anywhere in akpop3d.  Thus, I expect that on
big-endian systems akpop3d uses a non-MD5 where it wanted to use MD5.

(This is a reason why I wrote my own MD5 implementation for popa3d,
which doesn't depend on compile-time configuration.  Other suitably
licensed C implementations of MD5 that I could find suffered from this
potential problem.  Of course, writing one's own crypto code is a risk,
too, and is generally rightly frowned upon, so it was a tradeoff.)

Andreas, I hope you don't mind me posting this in public, and the
comparisons against popa3d.  I briefly considered notifying you in
private first (and I definitely would if I found anything requiring an
urgent patch), but I felt it's more optimal to make the info public
right away.  I actually wanted to avoid comparisons against popa3d at
first, but while writing this message I felt that the comparisons I did
include anyway are important to show which issues are inherent and which
could be avoided.  (I think it's obvious that integer overflows and
unsafe signal handling can be avoided, so I felt no need to include
explicit comparisons there.)

Finally, I need to add a disclaimer: this is an overall review of
akpop3d, not a security audit of akpop3d.  I had no goal to check every
line of code for potential vulnerabilities (e.g., verifying the length
calculations for possible off-by-ones, which is something I didn't do),
but rather I wanted to get the overall picture.

I hope someone finds this helpful.


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