This busy-loop is not a security issue

One of the toughest jobs I have, is to assess if a reported security problem is indeed an actual security vulnerability or “just” a bug. Let me take you through a recent case to give you an insight…

Some background

curl is 24 years old and so far in our history we have registered 111 security vulnerabilities in curl. I’ve sided with the “security vulnerability” side in reported issues 111 times. I’ve taken the opposite stance many more times.

Over the last two years, we have received 129 reports about suspected security problems and less than 15% of them (17) were eventually deemed actual security vulnerabilities. In the other 112 cases, we ended up concluding that the report was not pointing out a curl security problem. In many of those 112 cases, it was far from easy to end up with that decision and in several instances the reporter disagreed with us. (But sure, in the majority of the cases we could fairly quickly conclude that the reports were completely bonkers.)

The reporter’s view

Many times, the reporter that reports a security bug over on Hackerone has spent a significant amount of time and effort to find it, research it, reproduce it and report it. The reporter thinks it is a security problem and there’s a promised not totally insignificant monetary reward for such problems. Not to mention that a found and reported vulnerability in curl might count as something of a feat and a “feather in the hat” for a security researcher. The reporter has an investment in this work and a strong desire to have their reported issue classified as a security vulnerability.

The project’s view

If the reported problem is a security problem then we must consider it as that and immediately work on fixing the issue to reduce the risk of users getting hurt, and to inform all users about the risk and ask them to upgrade or otherwise mitigate and take precautions against the risks.

Most reported security issues are not immediately obvious. At least not in my eyes. I usually need to object, discuss, question and massage the data for a while in order to land on how we should best view the issue. I’m a skeptic by nature and I need to be convinced before I accept it.

Labeling something a “security vulnerability” if it indeed is not, is rather hurting users and the entire community rather than helping it. We must not cry wolf for a problem that cannot hurt users or that in practical terms is impossible to occur. Or maybe it is a problem that users are already expected to deal with. Or a result of an explicit or implicit application choice rather than a mistake done by us.

But we must not ignore actual security problems!

This latest MQTT problem

On March 24, 2022 we got a new report filed over on hackerone with the title Denial of Service vulnerability in curl when parsing MQTT server response.

Here’s (roughly) what the issue is about:

  1. A bug in current libcurl makes it misbehave under certain conditions. When the MQTT connection gets closed mid message, libcurl refuses to acknowledge that and thinks the connection is still alive. Easily triggered by a malicious server.
  2. libcurl considers the connection readable non-stop
  3. Reading from the connection brings no more data
  4. Busy-looping in the event-loop. Goto 2

The loop stops only once it reaches the set timeout, the progress callback can stop it and the speed-limit options will stop it if the right conditions are met.

By default, none of those options are set for a transfer and therefore, by default this makes an endless busy-loop.

At the same time…

A transfer can always stall and take a very long time to complete. A server can basically always just stop delivering more data, making the transfer take an infinite amount of time to complete. Applications that have not set any options to stop such a transfer risk doing a transfer that never ends. An endless transfer.

Also: if libcurl makes a transfer over a really fast network, such as localhost or using a super fast local network, then it might also reach the same level of busy-loop due to never having to wait for data. Albeit for a limited amount of time – until the transfer is complete. This busy-loop is highly unlikely to actually starve out any important threads in a system.

Yes, a closed connection is a much “cheaper” attack from server’s point of view than maintaining a long-living connection, but the cost of the attack is not a factor here.

Where in this grey area do we land?

This is difficult one.

I can see the point of the reporter, but I can also see how this flaw will basically not hurt any existing curl user. Where is our responsibility here?

I ended up concluding that this issue not a security vulnerability. The reporter disagreed.

It is a terribly annoying bug for sure. But the only applications that are seriously affected by it, are the ones that already allow an endless transfer.

The bug-fix was instead submitted as a normal pull-request: PR 8644, targeted to be fixed and included in the pending curl 7.83.0 release.

We publicize the reports after the fact

We make all (non-rubbish) previously reported hackerone issues public, whether they ended up being a vulnerability or not. To give everyone involved time to object or redact sensitive details, the publication date is usually within a month after the issue was closed.

By making the reports public, we allow everyone interested enough the ability and chance to check out and follow past discussions and deliberations for going the directions we did. The idea is primarily to be completely open about the reported issues and how we classify them, to show that we are not hiding anything and it also provides a chance for us to get more feedback from the surrounding and from security people who might disagree with previous analyses.

Security is hard.

What curl expects from dependencies

curl supports a large number of third party libraries. In a build, those libraries become “dependencies”. These components offer functionality and features that we don’t implement ourselves but still have been deemed interesting or even crucial to support to do Internet transfers the way we want.

A curl build done today can use one or more out of 35 different libraries. No build can actually use all of them at once as many are mutually exclusive and most of them only work on one or a subset of platforms.

The green boxes illustrate the third party dependencies curl can use as direct dependencies.

Keeping our backyard tidy

Every now and then we learn that one of the 3rd party libraries we can build curl to use has ceased development or has in some other way started to decay into a state where we feel is no longer healthy to the level that we can no longer recommend our users to use it.

We do this as a service to our users. If users build curl with a dependency we support, I think we should at least have some rudimentary knowledge that the dependencies we help users to use are not terrible. It’s not a guarantee, but we try. To help strengthen the ecosystem. To sweep our own backyard.

Also, getting rid of old code is good.

The different third party direct dependencies supported by curl by the time of the initial added support. A minus prefix means the support was dropped.

Indirect dependencies

There are of course also indirect dependencies in the form of libraries our direct dependencies use (or even libraries the indirect used libraries use), and we try to also include them in the “package” when we consider dependencies, but especially if they are optional we need to put less attention on them.

What is a healthy dependency?

We have no automatic checks or even fixed set of rules or conditions to help us make this distinction. It would of course be cool to have that, but we don’t.

Ideally, it would be awesome if all dependencies would be top-rated on bestpractices, as that would greatly help us figure this out. But unfortunately too many projects are still not even added to that effort so this doesn’t work – plus we also support a number of proprietary dependencies that can’t be rated there.

Instead, we need to rely on old-fashioned human checks and asking users and maintainers.

Maybe not add it to begin with

We have declined to add functionality to curl in the past just because the proposed 3rd party dependency it would use just didn’t live up to our standards. I don’t mean that we need to raise the bar to ridiculous levels, but if a casual browsing of the 3rd party library found issues and there were not satisfying answers in a reasonable time on how those should be addressed, then that library is probably not ready to be used by curl. There’s no need to “lure” curl users into a possibly bad situation if we can save them from it.


Sometimes work officially stops on a library we support. That’s a strong sign we should also stop.

curl users actually using it

Since curl is being developed, extended and bug-fixed at a fairly high pace, we can be fairly sure that if a dependency is actually being used, it needs to get fixed every now and then to keep up. If support code for a dependency hasn’t been updated or touched for many years, there’s a strong suspicion that there aren’t many users of it in modern curl.

Sometimes that can be verified to be the case when we notice a blatant bug that’s been present in the code for a good while without anyone noticing, but more often we need to ask users. Anyone using this anymore? (Which also is complicated because we often lack connections to users who don’t read any of our mailing lists and generally only upgrade curl once every decade so it might take a while until those users notice changes…)


A dependency that has stopped making new releases can be a signal that it on its way downwards. It could also be a sign that it has matured and doesn’t need much more to be done to it.

How do we even know they stopped? Maybe they just take forever from the previous release…

Developer activity

A library that is used by curl is almost required to have some level of developer activity over time. Nobody writes bug-free code unless its scope is razor-sharp-narrow and the project spent a lot of time perfecting it. No commits or developer activity for a long time means that clearly nobody takes care of the bug reports.

Slowly deteriorating projects are probably the hardest to handle. Are they still good enough?

Maintainers ultimately decide

But we just ship source code.

In the end of the day, the people who package curl or libcurl decide what third party libraries to actually get used. They are the ones who decide what dependencies users of their build rely on. In many cases this means the maintainers of the curl packages in Linux distros and other operating systems. Manufacturers of devices and tools that use libcurl often build their own and then they can decide and cherry-pick individually between all provided choices.

This makes it possible for such maintainers to add extra conditions and checks and only go with the dependencies they like.

The only binary packages the curl project itself provides, are the ones for Windows, and we try to go with only solid, reliable and conservative choices for those.