OVE-20221101-0001: counter.social "private" account bypass

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Incorrect configuration on counter.social allowed random people on the internet to stalk counter.social users without having an account. Included are numerous methods people could use to bypass the "private" account system to stalk counter.social users without having to authenticate. There is also a paid account feature bypass that allowed any user to trivially create a user account token with the API and then have the same privilege as the web client. This normally requires a paid account, but a client that chooses to opt-out of the security measures didn't require a paid account.

At the time of publication, all of these issues have been patched.


counter.social is a social network built on the open source software Mastodon. For various reasons, counter.social is one of the few Mastodon servers that does not federate to the larger community, and as such has implemented unique account security features that allows it to differentiate itself from other Mastodon instances.

The focus today is on the "private" account system. This is a unique account security feature not implemented in Mastodon itself. This allows users to have their accounts only visible to other counter.social users and not the wider internet at large. This feature leaves a lot to be desired. It seems to be grafted on after the fact using JavaScript instead of integrated into Mastodon's Ruby on Rails configuration directly. This opens up "private" accounts to numerous security and privacy issues.

Incidentally, the paid account perk system (for perks like using a custom Mastodon app) is implemented on the back of the "private" account system. This also means that the paid account system is easily bypassed by using the same tricks.

Arguably these are both different issues, but I am tracking them both using the identifier OVE-20221101-0001 because they rely on the same security mechanism being bypassed. I attempted to get a CVE ID for this, but I was not able to in time for publication due to the counter.social modifications being closed source. If I get a CVE ID, this will be changed accordingly.

All "private" account logic is done in client-side JavaScript

In general, the entire "private" account system could be bypassed by disabling JavaScript in the browser, or using a browser that does not have JavaScript support. This is a trivial change that attackers can enable in their browser. Alternatively they can configure a content blocker such as ┬ÁBlock to block this route:


Doing so will completely bypass the "private" account system. This implementation opens users up to their "private" account being publicly visible through no fault of their own, as the client has to opt into respecting it instead of that feature being baked into the core of counter.social. Mitigation of this issue would require a complete rewrite of the "private" account system logic to embed it into Mastodon properly as a Rack middleware instead of something grafted in after the fact.

Alternatively, you can disable client-side JavaScript execution entirely and get the same result.

Visiting a "private" account's URL shows details about the account

Normally when you view a profile page for a user with a "private" account, your browser is instantly redirected to the page that complains about the user having a "private" account. This is intended to prevent passive scraping of counter.social user information. However, this is implemented in such a way that all the user information is present on the page that generates the redirect. Using the curl command, an untrusted actor from the internet can passively scrape the HTML of user accounts like this:

curl https://counter.social/@th3j35t3r

This exposes all of the recent toots made by that user to the public internet, which is not intended by my understanding. To mitigate this issue, I suggest changing the implementation of "private" accounts to handle the redirect before the HTML is rendered.

Security misconfiguration of ActivityPub "outbox" routes

ActivityPub (the federation protocol Mastodon uses) works by having an "inbox" and an "outbox". The "inbox" is what other servers post signed messages to and the "outbox" is what other servers subscribe to. The problem is that all counter.social users have their outboxes publicly visible. This allows a malicious actor to view the contents of a counter.social user's posts while having a "private" profile. For example, here is the outbox for th3j35t3r, who has a "private" profile:


It is easy to imagine how this could be problematic, this means an unsophisticated threat actor could passively scrape "private" profiles for keywords. To mitigate this issue, I suggest blocking access to the outbox for unauthenticated users. counter.social is not supposed to be federating anyways. I suspect it is safe to block this without too much issue.

Improper security of toots for "private" profiles

On a similar vein to how the "private" account system is implemented, it is possible for unauthenticated actors to get the contents of individual toots if they have the URL. Consider this toot by th3j35t3r:


This will correctly prevent users from seeing the contents of the toot, because it is from a "private" account and the user did not opt into public profile display. However, if you convert the route to this form, it is visible via JSON:


I suggest requiring authentication for this route or blocking it entirely. This works because Ruby on Rails (the framework Mastodon is based upon) will automatically create these handlers for resources when either the URL ends in .json or the Accept header is set to application/json. It may be worth reviewing the Rails configuration and revising things accordingly. This behavior is endemic to Rails apps and is a core part of how federation works, but this is not relevant for counter.social because it is not federated. In a pinch, setting Mastodon's "secure mode" will block this for most users.

Mara is hacker

It's worth noting that this Accept: application/json trick works on most other Mastodon, Akkoma, and Pleroma servers too. This is how the toot embedding feature of this blog works!

"Private" accounts can have their profile information viewed publicly

In a similar vein to the above disclosure, it is trivial for an unauthenticated user to scrape profile information for "private" accounts. You can reformat a user's profile URL to this form:


Or simply append .json to the end of a user's profile URL:


This also works if you set the Accept header to application/json.

This route should either be blocked for unauthenticated users or removed entirely. Setting Mastodon's "secure mode" will block this for unauthenticated users.

Creating a bot token is trivial

Mastodon has a very rich and featureful API. One of the major features that you can do with the API is authenticate to Mastodon with a username and password. counter.social prides itself on being free of bots and also requires users to pay for a subscription in order to use a custom client (such as a bot API client).

This is trivial to bypass by invoking authentication manually using the token grant OAuth2 route with the undocumented grant type password. The flow for an attacker would look like this:

curl \
  -F grant_type=password \
  -F client_id=${COSO_CLIENT_ID} \
  -F client_secret=${COSO_CLIENT_SECRET} \
  -F username=azurediamond@itsonlystarsto.me \
  -F password=hunter2 \

The access_token field in the resulting JSON response can be used to make requests against the Mastodon API. This can allow a malicious actor to create a bot with the privileges of any user. Basic stealth methods being employed (such as only lurking and never posting beyond an introduction message) means that an attacker could easily slip under the radar and monitor counter.social users however much they want. This means that counter.social is not free of bots like it claims and it is impossible to know if there are any existing bots.

Incidentally, this also bypasses part of the paid account upsell system, as you need a paid account to use a custom client such as Tusky or Toot. Most Mastodon client apps use this client API, so unless you want to block access to all third party clients you need to allow this. I am unsure what to suggest here other than further hardening the authentication logic and checking OAuth2 client IDs against known good entries.

Mara is hacker

This works because using the API to authenticate with a username and password doesn't load HTML into a browser like the normal OAuth2 flow does. When all of your security can be opted out of by the client then you don't really have security. You have obscurity. I suspect that configuring a content blocker for the account validation route would accomplish the same thing. At the very least, blocking JavaScript works too.


The above bypasses for counter.social "private" accounts are sufficient to allow anyone to anonymously follow counter.social users, read the contents of individual toots, and view profile information, all without requiring a counter.social account. I am certain that none of these are intentional. It is unfortunate that these issues are deep enough that they will require significant time and energy to mitigate, especially in the wake of Twitter dying.

Update History

Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: security, CoSo, mastodon, infosec