SETI@home contains vulnerability

Providing further proof of the adage that "No good deed goes unpunished," the SETI@home screen saver contains software vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to execute malicious code on machines running the popular program, according to an advisory released by a computer science student in The Netherlands.

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that marshals the processing power of Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Participants install a free software program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data.

The SETI@home software is packaged as a screensaver. While the screensaver runs, the software downloads, analyzes and uploads radio telescope data from a data server at the University of California, Berkeley. (See: http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.)

The screensaver software contains a buffer overrun vulnerability in code that processes responses from the SETI@home server, according to Berend-Jan Wever, the 26 year-old Dutch student who wrote the advisory.

After tricking the client into connecting to a server the attacker controls, an attacker could cause the buffer overrun by sending a long string of data followed by a "newline" character, Wever wrote.

The vulnerability affects all versions of the SETI@home client software, including those for the Microsoft Corp. Windows operating system, Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh operating system and versions of the UNIX operating system.

The software running on the main SETI@home server at UC Berkeley contains a similar vulnerability, according to the advisory.

A separate problem concerns the SETI@home client's transmission of information back to the SETI@home server. Wever discovered that all information from the SETI@home client is sent out in plain text form. That information includes data on the operating system and processor type used by the machine running the SETI@home client.

Malicious hackers could collect the SETI@home data using any one of a number of common packet sniffing programs, providing useful information for planning a larger network attack, according to the advisory.

The SETI@home team released a patched version of the client software, Version 3.08, which was described as a "precautionary security release," according to information on the SETI@home Web page. (See: http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/download.html.)

The vulnerability would require attackers to "spoof" a fake SETI@home server and trick the software clients into connecting to it before they could be compromised. The SETI@home team knew of no previous attack on a client that used such a method, the Web site said.

However, clients could easily be tricked using spoofing tools or attacked from HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) proxy servers or routers used by the SETI@home host machine, according to the advisory.

More than four million Internet users have registered with SETI@home. Of those registered users, more than 500,000 are considered "active," having returned data to the main server within the last four weeks, according to the project's Web page.

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Paul Roberts

IDG News Service
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