We can think of a software update system as “secure” if:

  • it knows about the latest available updates in a timely manner
  • any files it downloads are the correct files, and,
  • no harm results from checking or downloading files.

Making this happen requires workable preventive strategies against a number of potential attacks.

Attacks and Weaknesses

The following are some of the known attacks on software update systems, including the weaknesses that make these attacks possible. To design a secure software update framework, these attacks need to be understood and strategies to defend against them must be specified. Some of these issues are, or can be, related, depending on the design and implementation of the given software update system.

  • Arbitrary software installation. An attacker can provide arbitrary files in response to download requests and install anything he wants on the client system, yet none will be detected as illegitimate.

  • Rollback attacks. An attacker presents files to a software update system that are older than those the client has already seen. With no way to tell it is an obsolete version that may contain vulnerabilities, the user installs the software. Later on, the vulnerabilities can be exploited by attackers.

  • Fast-forward attacks. An attacker arbitrarily increases the version numbers of project metadata files in the snapshot metadata well beyond the current value, thus tricking a software update system into thinking that any subsequent updates are trying to rollback the package to a previous, out-of-date version. In some situations, such as those where there is a maximum possible version number, the perpetrator could use a number so high that the system would never be able to match it with the one in the snapshot metadata, and thus new updates could never be downloaded.

  • Indefinite freeze attacks. An attacker continues to present files to a software update system files that the client has already seen. As a result, the client is kept unaware of new files.

  • Endless data attacks. An attacker responds to a file download request with an endless stream of data, causing harm to clients (e.g. a disk partition filling up or memory exhaustion).

  • Extraneous dependencies attacks. An attacker indicates to clients that, in order to install the software they want, they also need to install unrelated software. This extra software may be from a trusted source, but could still have known vulnerabilities that are exploitable by the attacker.

  • Mix-and-match attacks. An attacker presents clients with a view of a repository that includes files that did not exist there together at the same time. This can result in outdated versions of dependencies being installed, and other complications.

  • Wrong software installation. An attacker provides a client with a trusted file that is just not the one the client wanted.

  • Malicious mirrors preventing updates. An attacker controls one repository mirror and is able to use it to prevent clients from obtaining updates from other, non-malicious mirrors.

  • Vulnerability to key compromises. An attacker who can compromise the one key in a single key system, or less than a given threshold of keys, can compromise clients. These attacks can occur whether the client relies on a single online key (if only being protected by SSL) or a single offline key (if protected by most software update systems that use keysigning).

Security Design Principles

To ensure systems are secure against all of the above attacks, the design and implementation of TUF relies on a few basic concepts. For details of how TUF conveys the information discussed below, see the Metadata documentation.


Trusting downloaded files really means assuming the files were provided by party without malicious designs. Two frequently overlooked aspects of trust in a secure software update system are:

  • Trust should not be granted forever. Trust should expire if it is not renewed.
  • Trust should not be granted equally to all parties. This type of compartmentalized trust means a party is only to be trusted for the files that the root role stipulates it is to provide.

Mitigating Key Risk (Compromise-Resilience)

Cryptographic signatures are a necessary component in securing a software update system. The safety of the keys used to create these signatures directly affects the security of the clients the system protects. Rather than naively assume that private keys are always safe from compromise, a secure software update system must anticipate how to keep clients as safe as possible when a compromise of those keys occurs. This is the basic principle of compromise resilience.

Keeping clients safe despite a key compromise involves:

  • Fast and secure key replacement and revocation.
  • Minimal trust placed in keys that are at high risk. Keys that are kept online or used in an automated fashion should not pose an immediate risk to clients if compromised.
  • Multiple key usage and a threshold/quorum of signatures.


Ensuring integrity in TUF not only refers to single files, but also to repository as a whole. It's fairly obvious that clients must verify that individual downloaded files are correct. It's not as obvious, but still very important for clients to be certain that their entire view of a repository is correct. For example, if a trusted party is providing two files, a software update system should see the latest versions of both files, not just one, and not versions of the two files that were never provided together.


Since software updates often fix security bugs, it is important for software update systems to obtain the latest versions available of these files. An attacker may want to trick a client into installing outdated versions of software or even just convince a client that no updates are available.

Ensuring freshness means:

  • Never accepting files older than those that have been seen previously.
  • Recognizing when there may be a problem obtaining updates.

Note that it won't always be possible for a client to successfully update if an attacker is responding to their requests. However, a client should be able to recognize that updates may exist that they haven't been able to obtain.

Implementation Safety

In addition to a secure design, TUF also works to be secure against implementation vulnerabilities, including those common to software update systems. In some cases this is assisted by the inclusion of additional information in metadata. For example, knowing the expected size of a target file that is to be downloaded allows TUF to limit the amount of data it will download when retrieving the file. As a result, TUF is secure against endless data attacks (discussed above).