Security Model

This section attempts to document the Zulip security model. Since this is new documentation, it likely does not cover every issue; if there are details you're curious about, please feel free to ask questions on the Zulip development mailing list (or if you think you've found a security bug, please report it to zulip-security@googlegroups.com so we can do a responsible security announcement).

Secure your Zulip server like your email server

  • It's reasonable to think about security for a Zulip server like you do security for a team email server -- only trusted administrators within an organization should have shell access to the server.

    In particular, anyone with root access to a Zulip application server or Zulip database server, or with access to the zulip user on a Zulip application server, has complete control over the Zulip installation and all of its data (so they can read messages, modify history, etc.). It would be difficult or impossible to avoid this, because the server needs access to the data to support features expected of a group chat system like the ability to search the entire message history, and thus someone with control over the server has access to that data as well.

Encryption and Authentication

  • Traffic between clients (web, desktop and mobile) and the Zulip is encrypted using HTTPS. By default, all Zulip services talk to each other either via a localhost connection or using an encrypted SSL connection.
  • Zulip requires CSRF tokens in all interactions with the web API to prevent CSRF attacks.
  • The preferred way to login to Zulip is using an SSO solution like Google Auth, LDAP, or similar, but Zulip also supports password authentication. See the authentication methods documentation for details on Zulip's available authentication methods.

Passwords

Zulip stores user passwords using the standard PBKDF2 algorithm. Password strength is checked and weak passwords are visually discouraged using the popular zxcvbn library. The minimum password strength allowed is controlled by two settings in /etc/zulip/settings.py; PASSWORD_MIN_LENGTH and PASSWORD_MIN_ZXCVBN_QUALITY. The former is self-explanatory; we will explain the latter.

Password strength estimation is a complicated topic that we can't go into great detail on here; we recommend reading the zxvcbn website for details if you are not familiar with password strength analysis.

In Zulip's configuration, a password has quality X if zxcvbn estimates that it would take e^(X * 22) seconds to crack the password with a specific attack scenario. The scenario Zulip uses is one where an the attacker breaks into the Zulip server and steals the hashed passwords; in that case, with a slow hash, the attacker would be able to make roughly 10,000 attempts per second. E.g. a password with quality 0.5 (the default), it would take an attacker about 16 hours to crack such a password in this sort of offline attack.

Another important attack scenario is the online attacks (i.e. an attacker sending tons of login requests guessing different passwords to a Zulip server over the web). Those attacks are much slower (more like 10/second without rate limiting), and you should estimate the time to guess a password as correspondingly longer.

As a server administrators, you must balance the security risks associated with attackers guessing weak passwords against the usability challenges associated with requiring strong passwords in your organization.

Messages and History

  • Zulip message content is rendered using a specialized Markdown parser which escapes content to protect against cross-site scripting attacks.

  • Zulip supports both public streams and private ("invite-only") streams. Any Zulip user can join any public stream in the realm, and can view the complete message history of any public stream without joining the stream.

  • A private ("invite-only") stream is hidden from users who are not subscribed to the stream. Users who are not members of a private stream cannot read messages on the stream, send messages to the stream, or join the stream, even if they are a Zulip realm administrator. Users can join private streams only when they are invited. However, any member of a private stream can invite other users to the stream. When a new user joins a private stream, they can see future messages sent to the stream, but they do not receive access to the stream's message history.

  • Zulip supports editing the content and topics of messages that have already been sent. As a general philosophy, our policies provide hard limits on the ways in which message content can be changed or undone. In contrast, our policies around message topics favor usefulness (e.g. for conversational organization) over faithfulness to the original.

    The message editing policy can be configured on the /#organization page. There are three configurations provided out of the box: (i) users cannot edit messages at all, (ii) users can edit any message they have sent, and (iii) users can edit the content of any message they have sent in the last N minutes, and the topic of any message they have sent. In (ii) and (iii), topic edits can also be propagated to other messages with the same original topic, even if those messages were sent by other users. The default setting is (iii), with N = 10.

    In addition, and regardless of the configuration above, messages with no topic can always be edited to have a topic, by anyone in the organization, and the topic of any message can also always be edited by a realm administrator.

    Also note that while edited messages are synced immediately to open browser windows, editing messages is not a safe way to redact secret content (e.g. a password) shared unintentionally. Other users may have seen and saved the content of the original message, or have an integration (e.g. push notifications) forwarding all messages they receive to another service. Zulip stores the edit history of messages, but it may or may not be available to clients, depending on an organization-level setting.

Users and Bots

  • There are three types of users in a Zulip realm: Administrators, normal users, and bots. Administrators have the ability to deactivate and reactivate other human and bot users, delete streams, add/remove administrator privileges, as well as change configuration for the overall realm (e.g. whether an invitation is required to join the realm). Being a Zulip administrator does not provide the ability to interact with other users' private messages or the messages sent to private streams to which the administrator is not subscribed. However, a Zulip administrator subscribed to a stream can toggle whether that stream is public or private. Also, Zulip realm administrators have administrative access to the API keys of all bots in the realm, so a Zulip administrator may be able to access messages sent to private streams that have bots subscribed, by using the bot's credentials.

    In the future, Zulip's security model may change to allow realm administrators to access private messages (e.g. to support auditing functionality).

  • Every Zulip user has an API key, available on the settings page. This API key can be used to do essentially everything the user can do; for that reason, users should keep their API key safe. Users can rotate their own API key if it is accidentally compromised.

  • To properly remove a user's access to a Zulip team, it does not suffice to change their password or deactivate their account in the SSO system, since neither of those prevents authenticating with the user's API key or those of bots the user has created. Instead, you should deactivate the user's account in the "Organization settings" interface (/#organization); this will automatically also deactivate any bots the user had created.

  • The Zulip mobile apps authenticate to the server by sending the user's password and retrieving the user's API key; the apps then use the API key to authenticate all future interactions with the site. Thus, if a user's phone is lost, in addition to changing passwords, you should rotate the user's Zulip API key.

  • Zulip bots are used for integrations. A Zulip bot can do everything a normal user in the realm can do including reading other, with a few exceptions (e.g. a bot cannot login to the web application or create other bots). In particular, with the API key for a Zulip bot, one can read any message sent to a public stream in that bot's realm. A likely future feature for Zulip is limited bots that can only send messages.

  • Certain Zulip bots can be marked as "API super users"; these special bots have the ability to send messages that appear to have been sent by another user (an important feature for implementing integrations like the Jabber, IRC, and Zephyr mirrors).

User-uploaded content

  • Zulip supports user-uploaded files; ideally they should be hosted from a separate domain from the main Zulip server to protect against various same-domain attacks (e.g. zulip-user-content.example.com) using the S3 integration.

    The URLs of user-uploaded files are secret; if you are using the "local file upload" integration, anyone with the URL of an uploaded file can access the file. This means the local uploads integration is vulnerable to a subtle attack where if a user clicks on a link in a secret .PDF or .HTML file that had been uploaded to Zulip, access to the file might be leaked to the other server via the Referrer header (see the "Uploads world readable" issue on GitHub).

    The Zulip S3 file upload integration is relatively safe against that attack, because the URLs of files presented to users don't host the content. Instead, the S3 integration checks the user has a valid Zulip session in the relevant realm, and if so then redirects the browser to a one-time S3 URL that expires a short time later. Keeping the URL secret is still important to avoid other users in the Zulip realm from being able to access the file.

  • Zulip supports using the Camo image proxy to proxy content like inline image previews that can be inserted into the Zulip message feed by other users over HTTPS.

  • By default, Zulip will provide image previews inline in the body of messages when a message contains a link to an image. You can control this using the INLINE_IMAGE_PREVIEW setting.

Final notes and security response

If you find some aspect of Zulip that seems inconsistent with this security model, please report it to zulip-security@googlegroups.com so that we can investigate and coordinate an appropriate security release if needed.

Zulip security announcements will be sent to zulip-announce@googlegroups.com, so you should subscribe if you are running Zulip in production.