V8 hash seed timing attack

Wed Jan 18 2017 19:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)

Moment of History

There is a mostly forgotten security issue that was fixed in Node.js back in 2012. It was originally announced on the 28c3 conference December, 2011 and the final fix landed in January, 2012.

In few words, the most of dynamic languages use either bucket lists or open addressing variants of hash tables. V8 uses the latter one, and in such case when VM is asked to insert a property into an object it does the following sequence of actions:

  1. Compute the hash of the key (quite often with a Jenkins hash)
  2. Clear the high bits of the hash value
  3. Use it as an index in the internal array
  4. Find unused slot in that array
  5. Insert the key/value pair at that slot.

This sounds pretty much OK, except for the step 4. One may ask: What if the target slot is way too far from the index in the step 3? The answer is: it will take more time to do such insertion.

Do you see where it is going?

Collision attacks

If the attacker can insert many keys like these into the hash table - the whole procedure is going be much slower than usual (20x slower in some cases). During this time Node.js will be blocked, and performing such insertions one after another leads directly to Denial of Service attack. To put it in concrete context: req.headers in http.Server is populated with user data, and is thus susceptible to this kind of attack.

How does one generate such keys? Trivial and fast brute-force could generate as many keys as needed to give desired "collisions" given that attacker knows what hash function is used by VM.

What was done to fix it in V8/Node.js? Together with V8 team we added seeds to all hash tables used in V8, and made sure that they are randomized on the process start.

Inspiration for an Experiment

After reading this Perl blog post I thought that it would be funny to carry out an actual hash seed extraction out of the live node.js process: first - locally within the process itself, second - from http server on the same machine, third - remotely (no luck so far). Knowing the seed means being able to craft the collisions, and this gets us back to DoS problem.

Numerous code paths in V8 have been tried, until I stumbled upon a particular function. There V8 puts a new property into an internal list called DescriptorArray. For performance reasons properties in that array must be sorted, and since V8 extends the array - it has to shift all bigger properties to the right to make space for the new one.

By measuring timing of such insertions, attacker could figure out approximate position of the inserted key. DescriptorArray holds no more than 18 keys, so it could be attempted to insert the same 17 keys and one random one many times, and infer the difference in timing to find the random keys that were placed either at the very end or at the start of the array.

It's easier said than done, though. V8 has many layers of caching (which is one of the reasons why your JavaScript code is so fast!). In order to get through to that DescriptorArray::Append function, I had to outflank all of them. In the end, the resulting program does everything in reverse - the random key is inserted first, and then 17 predefined keys are inserted right after it. The difference is non-obvious, but that's the part of the solution to skip all of the caches.

This is how it looks:

function test(pre, list) {
  const o = {};
  o[pre] = null;
  for (let i = 0; i < list.length; i++)
    o[list[i]] = null;
  return o;

Now this script has to create a list of keys, and a large number of probes (2093 strings that are passed one after another as pre). It can try each probe with the same list, and measure the timing with process.hrtime() with nanosecond precision. Largertime difference means that the probe was inserted at the start of the DescriptorArray, and thus its hash value (32 bit number) is less than all hashes of the keys in the list. When the time delta is least

  • probe was appended to the end of the DescriptorArray, meaning that its hash is the biggest in it.

It may sound like not too much to stick to, but if one can collect enough such "relations" between the probe and keys - one can brute force all 32-bit seed values to find the one that gives the best approximation to this relation! In fact, it takes just about 15 minutes on 20 core machine to do it, and this time can be improved by using GPU (I dare you!).

The most important part of brute forcing function is check:

static int check(uint32_t seed) {
  int score;
  uint32_t key_hashes[ARRAY_SIZE(keys)];

  score = 0;

  for (size_t i = 0; i < ARRAY_SIZE(keys); i++) {
    key_hashes[i] = jenkins(keys[i], seed);

  for (size_t i = 0; i < ARRAY_SIZE(probes); i += 2) {
    uint32_t l;
    uint32_t r;

    l = jenkins(probes[i], seed);
    r = jenkins(probes[i + 1], seed);

    for (size_t j = 0; j < ARRAY_SIZE(keys); j++) {
      if (l < key_hashes[j])
      if (key_hashes[j] <= r)

  return score;

l is a probe that supposedly has the lowest hash value in DescriptorArray, r is a probe that has the highest. So all in all, brute.c just searches for the seed value that maximizes the result of check. Simple!

Conclusions and code

This works locally as a charm, and works with a http.Server on the same machine to some extent. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this attack doesn't work with remote servers (or I wasn't able to execute it), even when the ping is around 1ms. The timing difference that we are looking for is about several microseconds, and it looks like it is smudged out in the network delay distribution.

V8 team is aware of this effort, and the decision is that this is not a security defect - hence it is published here.

All code is available on github. Please enjoy with care!