This section attempts to document the Zulip security model. It likely does not cover every issue; if there are details you’re curious about, please feel free to ask questions in #production help on the Zulip community server (or if you think you’ve found a security bug, please report it to email@example.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 individuals 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
zulipuser 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 server 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 log in to Zulip is using a single sign-on (SSO) solution like Google authentication, LDAP, or similar, but Zulip also supports password authentication. See the authentication methods documentation for details on Zulip’s available authentication methods.
Zulip stores user passwords using the standard Argon2 and PBKDF2 algorithms. Argon2 is used for all new and changed passwords as of Zulip Server 1.6.0, but legacy PBKDF2 passwords that were last changed before the 1.6.0 upgrade are still supported.
When the user is choosing a password, Zulip checks the password’s
strength using the popular zxcvbn library. Weak passwords
are rejected, and strong passwords encouraged. The minimum password
strength allowed is controlled by two settings in
PASSWORD_MIN_LENGTH: The minimum acceptable length, in characters. Shorter passwords are rejected even if they pass the
zxcvbntest controlled by
PASSWORD_MIN_GUESSES: The minimum acceptable strength of the password, in terms of the estimated number of passwords an attacker is likely to guess before trying this one. If the user attempts to set a password that
zxcvbnestimates to be guessable in less than
PASSWORD_MIN_GUESSES, then Zulip rejects the password.
PASSWORD_MIN_GUESSESis 10000. This provides significant protection against online attacks, while limiting the burden imposed on users choosing a password. See password strength for an extended discussion on how we chose this value.
Estimating the guessability of a password is a complex problem and impossible to efficiently do perfectly. For background or when considering an alternate value for this setting, the article “Passwords and the Evolution of Imperfect Authentication” is recommended. The 2016 zxcvbn paper adds useful information about the performance of zxcvbn, and a large 2012 study of Yahoo users is informative about the strength of the passwords users choose.
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 streams.
Any non-guest user can join any public stream in the organization, and can view the complete message history of any public stream without joining the stream. Guests can only access streams that another user adds them to.
Organization owners and administrators can see and modify most aspects of a private stream, including the membership and estimated traffic. Owners and administrators generally cannot see messages sent to private streams or do things that would indirectly give them access to those messages, like adding members or changing the stream privacy settings.
Non-admins cannot easily see which private streams exist, or interact with them in any way until they are added. Given a stream name, they can figure out whether a stream with that name exists, but cannot see any other details about the stream.
See Stream permissions for more details.
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. In all configurations:
Message content can only ever be modified by the original author.
Any message visible to an organization owner or administrator can be deleted at any time by that administrator.
See Configuring message editing and deletion for more details.
Users and bots
There are several types of users in a Zulip organization: organization owners, organization administrators, members (normal users), guests, and bots.
Owners and administrators have the ability to deactivate and reactivate other human and bot users, archive streams, add/remove administrator privileges, as well as change configuration for the organization.
Being an organization administrator does not generally provide the ability to read other users’ private messages or messages sent to private streams to which the administrator is not subscribed. There are two exceptions:
Organization owners may get access to private messages via some types of data export.
Administrators can change the ownership of a bot. If a bot is subscribed to a private stream, then an administrator can indirectly get access to stream messages by taking control of the bot, though the access will be limited to what the bot can do. (E.g. incoming webhook bots cannot read messages.)
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 a single sign-on (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 via Zulip’s “Organization settings” interface.
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.
Guest users are like Members, but they do not have automatic access to public streams.
Zulip supports several kinds of bots with different capabilities.
Incoming webhook bots can only send messages into Zulip.
Outgoing webhook bots and Generic bots can essentially do anything a non-administrator user can, with a few exceptions (e.g. a bot cannot log in to the web application, register for mobile push notifications, or create other bots).
Bots with the
can_forge_senderpermission can send messages that appear to have been sent by another user. They also have the ability to see the names of all streams, including private streams. This is important for implementing integrations like the Jabber, IRC, and Zephyr mirrors.
These bots cannot be created by Zulip users, including organization owners. They can only be created on the command line (via
manage.py change_user_role can_forge_sender).
User-uploaded content and user-generated requests
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).
We support two ways of hosting them: the basic
LOCAL_UPLOADS_DIRfile storage backend, where they are stored in a directory on the Zulip server’s filesystem, and the S3 backend, where the files are stored in Amazon S3. It would not be difficult to add additional supported backends should there be a need; see
zerver/lib/upload.pyfor the full interface.
For both backends, the URLs used to access uploaded files are long, random strings, providing one layer of security against unauthorized users accessing files uploaded in Zulip (an authorized user would need to share the URL with an unauthorized user in order for the file to be accessed by the unauthorized user. Of course, any such authorized user could have just downloaded and sent the file instead of the URL, so this is arguably pretty good protection.) However, to help protect against accidental sharing of URLs to restricted files (e.g. by forwarding a missed-message email or leaks involving the Referer header), we provide additional layers of protection in both backends as well.
In the Zulip S3 backend, the random URLs to access files that are presented to users don’t actually host the content. Instead, the S3 backend verifies that the user has a valid Zulip session in the relevant organization (and that has access to a Zulip message linking to the file), and if so, then redirects the browser to a temporary S3 URL for the file that expires a short time later. In this way, possessing a URL to a secret file in Zulip does not provide unauthorized users with access to that file.
We have a similar protection for the
LOCAL_UPLOADS_DIRbackend. Every access to an uploaded file has access control verified (confirming that the browser is logged into a Zulip account that has received the uploaded file in question).
Zulip supports using the go-camo image proxy to proxy content like inline image previews, that can be inserted into the Zulip message feed by other users. This ensures that clients do not make requests to external servers to fetch images, improving privacy.
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
Zulip may make outgoing HTTP connections to other servers in a number of cases:
Outgoing webhook bots (creation of which can be restricted)
Inline image previews in messages (enabled by default, but can be disabled)
Inline webpage previews and embeds (must be configured to be enabled)
Twitter message previews (must be configured to be enabled)
BigBlueButton and Zoom API requests (must be configured to be enabled)
Mobile push notifications (must be configured to be enabled)
Notably, these first 3 features give end users (limited) control to cause the Zulip server to make HTTP requests on their behalf. Because of this, Zulip routes all outgoing HTTP requests through Smokescreen to ensure that Zulip cannot be used to execute SSRF attacks against other systems on an internal corporate network. The default Smokescreen configuration denies access to all non-public IP addresses, including 127.0.0.1.
The Camo image server does not, by default, route its traffic through Smokescreen, since Camo includes logic to deny access to private subnets; this can be overridden.
Final notes and security response
If you find some aspect of Zulip that seems inconsistent with this security model, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can investigate and coordinate an appropriate security release if needed.
Zulip security announcements will be sent to email@example.com, so you should subscribe if you are running Zulip in production.