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RUS-CERT Advisory 2002-09:01 – Remote detection of vulnerable OpenSSL versions

RUS-CERT has developed a tool to remotely detect vulnerable OpenSSL versions.

Why is such a tool required?

While the Slapper worm is spreading, many system administrators ask themselves whether their systems are vulnerable. Even if you apply vendor patches regularly, there are some risks which are hard to deal with:

  • Vendors might use OpenSSL to implement SSL services, but do not publicize it. Consequently, administrators might not know that they need to update.
  • Human error might leave systems vulnerable (e.g. people forget to restart services after applying patches, or are distracted by phone calls and miss a machine).
  • Other SSL implementations might have similar bugs.
  • Vendor upgrades often do not alter the version number, and their is no easy way to check if a patched version is running.
  • Vendor patches sometimes do not eliminate the vulnerability.

As a result, full disclosure is essential; it makes independent regression testing possible.

How does it work?

It is difficult to tell OpenSSL 0.9.6e from vulnerable versions because the OpenSSL developers chose to terminate the process if a buffer overflow attempt is detected. Over the network, a crash due to a buffer overflow and an abrupt, but deliberate process termination look the same: in both cases, the TCP connection breaks down. At first glance, it appears that we are out of luck and cannot detect vulnerable versions.

However, if we overrun the buffer by only a few bytes, the vulnerable version (without check) does not crash. This way, we can tell 0.9.6e from previous, vulnerable versions:

small overflow large overflow
pre-0.9.6e no crash crash
0.9.6e crash crash
0.9.6g error error

(0.9.6g signals an SSL error over the network, as one would expect.)

Other combinations are possible, of course, and this program tries to flag them in a reasonable way. (We consider malformed responses an indication of lack of care, and a potential security problem.)

This program performs a third connection attempt (actually the first one), to test compatibility of the the SSL implementations.

Obtaining and running the tool

You can download a copy of the C source code here:

Compiling this program requires an OpenSSL development environment (including header files). You have to link this program with OpenSSL’s “crypto” library (using “-lcrypto”, not-lcrypt”). On some systems, you have to link with “-ldl”, too.

After compilation, you can run this program using:

$ ./openssl-sslv2-master [-s] [-P] [-I] host-IP [port]

Then a test is performed against host-IP (an IP address in dotted-quad notation) and the TCP service running on port (a decimal number). port can be omitted, then the default port 443 is assumed.


You can use this program to test any SSL Version 2.0 server, not just HTTPS servers. For some services, a STARTTLS message is required to initiate the SSL handshake (e.g. SMTP, POP3, IMAP). This message is sent if you supply the “-s” option (for generic/SMTP STARTTLS support, or “-P” (POP3 STLS support), or “-I” (IMAP STARTTLS support).

Risks and limitations

The server could crash (when the large buffer overflow is attempted), and fail to restart automatically. The program detects this, but obviously cannot undo any damage.

If the server which is being tested does not support SSLv2, it often reacts in a strange way. The SSL protocol does not define a clear rejection message, so no proper diagnosis is return by the tool in such cases. To determine the cause of a handshake failure, you should use a full SSL/TLS implementation, such as “openssl s_client”.


This program was inspired by the source code of the “Slapper” worm.

Thanks to Helmut Springer for testing and spotting a few bugs, and Michael H. Warfield for helpful information on the STARTTLS protocol.


RUS-CERT is the Computer Emergency Response Team located at the Computing Center (RUS) of the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

Revision History

This document was published on 2002-09-17. STARTTLS support was fixed shortly after.