Mbed TLS Security Advisory 2018-03


Local timing attack on RSA decryption




30th November 2018 ( Updated on 4th December 2018 )


All versions of Mbed TLS


Allows a local unprivileged attacker to recover the plaintext
of RSA decryption, which is used in RSA-without-(EC)DH(E) cipher suites




Eyal Ronen (Weizmann Institute), Robert Gillham (University of
Adelaide), Daniel Genkin (University of Michigan), Adi Shamir (Weizmann
Institute), David Wong (NCC Group), and Yuval Yarom (University of Adelaide
and Data61).


An attacker who can run code on the same machine that is performing an RSA decryption can potentially recover the plaintext through a Bleichenbacher-like oracle ( The 9 Lives of Bleichenbacher’s CAT: New Cache ATtacks on TLS Implementations). To mount the attack, the attacker needs:

  • a ciphertext that they want to decrypt;

  • the ability to submit modified ciphertexts for decryption;

  • the ability to run code on the same machine while Mbed TLS is decrypting the modified ciphertexts.

In particular, this affects (D)TLS connections that use a cipher suite that uses RSA decryption (these are cipher suites whose name includes RSA but not DH, DHE, ECDH or ECDHE). If the attacker is able to record the encrypted connection and to mount the ciphertext recovery attack against the server, they can decrypt the connection. If the attacker is able to intercept the connection, they may be able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack on the content.

The ciphertext recovery is made possible by two information leaks in the RSA decryption routine. An attacker who can execute code on the same machine as the decryption may observe branch prediction patterns and data or code memory access patterns. The vulnerabilities leak the size of the decrypted value or the content of the padding, which allows the attacker to obtain up to one bit of information about the plaintext for their chosen ciphertext, and by combining information about multiple chosen ciphertexts the attacker can recover the plaintext for the original ciphertext.


If the attacker has the advantage of all the conditions of the attack described above, they can potentially decrypt plaintexts encrypted with RSA. Furthermore, if the same RSA key is used for both decryption and signature, the attacker is able to use this vulnerability to forge a signature.

In particular, an attacker who can run unprivileged code on a (D)TLS server can decrypt connections to that server that use a cipher suite based on RSA decryption. If the attacker can perform a man-in-the-middle attack, they can downgrade connections to an affected cipher suite if the client is willing to use one. Furthermore, if the server uses the same RSA private key for encryption and signature, the attacker can use this vulnerability to forge a signature and thus affect even clients that do not accept cipher suites based on RSA decryption.


Affected users should upgrade to one of the most recent versions of Mbed TLS, including 2.14.1, 2.7.8 or 2.1.17 or later.

Up-to-date versions of Mbed TLS remain vulnerable to one of the leaks if the size of the RSA key is not a multiple of the machine word size. We recommend that you use key sizes that are a multiple of 64 bits.


Where possible, we recommend all impacted users upgrade to a newer version of Mbed TLS.

If this is not possible, as a workaround, we recommend that you disable all cipher suites using RSA decryption from your configuration. Cipher suites that use RSA signature combined with (EC)DH(E) are not affected.

In all cases, we recommend that you use key sizes that are a multiple of 64 bits. We also recommend not to use the same key for decryption and for signature.