Bleichenbacher vs. Forward Secrecy: How much of your TLS is still RSA?

The RSA algorithm has been the go-to public key algorithm for the last fifteen years. But, perhaps like RC4, MD5 and Al Franken, it’s time for RSA to retire. TLS 1.3, the upcoming version of the de facto web encryption protocol, does not even include RSA among its allowed key exchange algorithms.

The world is moving toward “Forward Secret” ciphers which use ephemeral keys, exchanged with either elliptic curve or straight-up Diffie-Hellman cryptography. These forward secret ciphers are typically noted as ECDHE or DHE. The former is vastly preferred these days; there are nearly 20 ECDHE servers for every DHE server.

Of immediate concern to F5 users is the recent issuance of CVE-2017-6168, a series of Bleichenbacher-style attacks against F5 RSA key exchanges from version 11.6 to version 13.

Patches have been issued for the vulnerable versions, but some customers have complicated patching schedules. They’re wondering if they can simply disable the RSA protocol on their F5 virtual servers and offer only forward secret ciphers.

The general answer is “very probably.” All modern browsers prefer forward secret ciphers, so most modern human end-users already use it.

A small but statistically significant number of F5 deployments offer no forward secrecy because they rely on passive TLS monitoring. If that is you, then may I suggest that instead of reading this article, you watch this ten-minute light-board video made specially for you. It's about how to do passive monitoring even with TLS 1.3.

But back to the task at hand. Let's assume that you aren't currently disabling forward secrecy, and we're back to the question “can you disable RSA?”

That depends on how many of your users are still using it.

Maybe your application has a bunch of automated queries from bespoke legacy software that only uses RSA.

Or maybe your Jet Li fan site, which is still somehow in Alexa’s top 8 billion list, still receives a lot visitors running Windows XP in Guangdong Province, using TLS v 1.0, RSA and RC4.

How would you know?

Getting the TLS Statistics

You can see what percentage of your customers are still using RSA instead of ECDHE with either F5 graphical user interface (GUI) or via command line (CLI). I’ll give examples of both methods using version 13.0 but these statistics have been available in the same methods since before germs.

In the GUI, From the Main tab on the left, select the Statistics control at the top of the list. Then select the Module Statistics menu and from that, the Local Traffic menu. When the screen refreshes, you’ll see a selector under Display Options titled Statistics Type. Click it and choose Profiles Summary.

You’ll see a giant list of profile types. When you click the View… link next to the “Client SSL” a giant, juicy list of crypto stats will appear. You’ll be interested in one group in particular; the one named “Key Exchange Method”.

Very likely most of the key exchange types will have 0 entries (no one should be using anonymous Diffie-Hellman for example). But three in the middle include the two forward secrecy algorithms, ephemeral Diffie-Hellman (DHE) and ephemeral elliptic curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDHE). Sandwiched between them is the RSA cipher. Here’s a sample:

Add the values of the two forward secret ciphers and compare that sum to the RSA. In this example, there are 99 forward secret key exchanges and only 5 RSA key exchanges, for a rate of just under 5%.

You can get these same statistics from the command line with the simple tmsh command:

(tmos)# show ltm profile client-ssl

This command shows the profile statistics individually and you may have to add them together to get the global numbers. Or maybe you wanted them broken down by specific profile in the first place.

Having the RSA percentage at hand can help you decide whether or not you want to disable the RSA key exchange.

If your F5 has a really long uptime, then the counts will include RSA key exchanges from months or years ago when forward secrecy wasn’t so popular, and that might distort your decision. You could get more timely numbers by hitting the “clear statistics” button at the top of the page and then watching for a period of hours or days to see the mix of ECDHE vs RSA key exchanges. I would record or screen shot the old numbers before you do, just in case.

Disabling RSA Key Exchanges

If you are a good enough administrator that you’re already using F5’s TMOS version 13, you can associate the “f5-ecc” cipher group to your client ssl profile and get only forward secret ciphers. Or you could use the cipher builder from the Local Traffic | Ciphers main tab to build a cipher group that excludes RSA.

If you’re using a version prior to 13.0, then see knowledge base article K21905460 associated to CVE-2017-6168 for some good cipher string recommendations. Or, read the cipher string primer in my award-winning F5 SSL Recommended Practices guide.

Note that using RSA certificates with forward secrecy is still okay. As long as each cipher in the cipher list includes ECDHE or DHE you’ll be safe from Bleichenbachers.

Hopefully this information was of some use to you, dear reader, and can help you make the decision about how to treat your cryptographic key exchanges now, and in the future.

Updated Jun 06, 2023
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