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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice : System Security : Malicious Software

Distributed Denial of Service Attacks

· DDoS Attack Description · Constructing the Attack Network · DDoS Countermeasures


Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks present a significant security threat to corporations, and the threat appears to be growing [VIJA02]. In one study, covering a three-week period in 2001, investigators observed more than 12,000 attacks against more than 5000 distinct targets, ranging from well-known ecommerce com- panies such as Amazon and Hotmail to small foreign ISPs and dial-up connections [MOOR01]. DDoS attacks make computer systems inaccessible by flooding servers, networks, or even end user systems with useless traffic so that legitimate users can no longer gain access to those resources. In a typical DDoS attack, a large number of compromised hosts are amassed to send useless packets. In recent years, the attack methods and tools have become more sophisticated, effective, and more difficult to trace to the real attackers, while defense technologies have been unable to with- stand large-scale attacks [CHAN02].

A denial of service (DoS) attack is an attempt to prevent legitimate users of a service from using that service. When this attack comes from a single host or net- work node, then it is simply referred to as a DoS attack. A more serious threat is posed by a DDoS attack. In a DDoS attack, an attacker is able to recruit a number of hosts throughout the Internet to simultaneously or in a coordinated fashion launch an attack upon the target. This section is concerned with DDoS attacks. First, we look at the nature and types of attacks. Next, we examine means by which an attacker is able to recruit a network of hosts for attack launch. Finally, this section looks at countermeasures.


DDoS Attack Description

A DDoS attack attempts to consume the target’s resources so that it cannot provide service. One way to classify DDoS attacks is in terms of the type of resource that is consumed. Broadly speaking, the resource consumed is either an internal host resource on the target system or data transmission capacity in the local network to which the target is attacked.

A simple example of an internal resource attack is the SYN flood attack.

Figure 21.9a shows the steps involved:

1.                        The attacker takes control of multiple hosts over the Internet, instructing them to contact the target Web server.

2.                        The slave hosts begin sending TCP/IP SYN (synchronize/initialization) packets, with erroneous return IP address information, to the target.

3.                        Each SYN packet is a request to open a TCP connection. For each such packet, the Web server responds with a SYN/ACK (synchronize/acknowl- edge) packet, trying to establish a TCP connection with a TCP entity at a spu- rious IP address. The Web server maintains a data structure for each SYN request waiting for a response back and becomes bogged down as more traffic floods in. The result is that legitimate connections are denied while the victim machine is waiting to complete bogus “half-open” connections.

The TCP state data structure is a popular internal resource target but by no means the only one. [CERT01] gives the following examples:

1.                        In many systems, a limited number of data structures are available to hold process information (process identifiers, process table entries, process slots, etc.). An intruder may be able to consume these data structures by writing a simple program or script that does nothing but repeatedly create copies of itself.

2.                        An intruder may also attempt to consume disk space in other   ways, including

                       generating excessive numbers of mail  messages

                       intentionally generating errors that must be logged

                       placing files in anonymous ftp areas or network-shared areas

Figure 21.9b illustrates an example of an attack that consumes data transmis- sion resources. The following steps are involved:

1.                        The attacker takes control of multiple hosts over the Internet, instructing them to send ICMP ECHO packets3 with the target’s spoofed IP address to a group of hosts that act as reflectors, as described subsequently.

2.                        Nodes at the bounce site receive multiple spoofed requests and respond by send- ing echo reply packets to the target site.

3.                        The target’s router is flooded with packets from the bounce site, leaving no data transmission capacity for legitimate traffic.

Another way to classify DDoS attacks is as either direct or reflector DDoS attacks. In a direct DDoS attack (Figure 21.10a), the attacker is able to implant zom- bie software on a number of sites distributed throughout the Internet. Often, the DDoS attack involves two levels of zombie machines: master zombies and slave zom- bies. The hosts of both machines have been infected with malicious code. The attacker coordinates and triggers the master zombies, which in turn coordinate and trigger the slave zombies. The use of two levels of zombies makes it more difficult to trace the attack back to its source and provides for a more resilient network of attackers.

A reflector DDoS attack adds another layer of machines (Figure 21.10b). In this type of attack, the slave zombies construct packets requiring a response that contains the target’s IP address as the source IP address in the packet’s IP header. These packets are sent to uninfected machines known as reflectors. The uninfected machines respond with packets directed at the target machine. A reflector DDoS attack can easily involve more machines and more traffic than a direct DDoS attack and hence be more damaging. Further, tracing back the attack or filtering out the attack packets is more difficult because the attack comes from widely dispersed uninfected machines.


Constructing the Attack Network

The first step in a DDoS attack is for the attacker to infect a number of machines with zombie software that will ultimately be used to carry out the attack. The essen- tial ingredients in this phase of the attack are the following:

1.                        Software that can carry out the DDoS attack. The software must be able to run on a large number of machines, must be able to conceal its existence, must be able to communicate with the attacker or have some sort of time-triggered mechanism, and must be able to launch the intended attack toward the target.

2.                        A vulnerability in a large number of systems. The attacker must become aware of a vulnerability that many system administrators and individual users have failed to patch and that enables the attacker to install the zombie software.

3.                        A strategy for locating vulnerable machines, a process known as scanning.



In the scanning process, the attacker first seeks out a number of vulnerable machines and infects them. Then, typically, the zombie software that is installed in the infected machines repeats the same scanning process, until a large distributed network of infected machines is created. [MIRK04] lists the following types of scan- ning strategies:


Random: Each compromised host probes random addresses in the IP address space, using a different seed. This technique produces a high volume of Internet traffic, which may cause generalized disruption even before the actual attack is launched.

                          Hit-List: The attacker first compiles a long list of potential vulnerable machines. This can be a slow process done over a long period to avoid detec- tion that an attack is underway. Once the list is compiled, the attacker begins infecting machines on the list. Each infected machine is provided with a portion of the list to scan. This strategy results in a very short scanning period, which may make it difficult to detect that infection is taking place.

                          Topological: This method uses information contained on an infected victim machine to find more hosts to scan.

                          Local subnet: If a host can be infected behind a firewall, that host then looks for targets in its own local network. The host uses the subnet address structure to find other hosts that would otherwise be protected by the firewall.


DDoS Countermeasures

In general, there are three lines of defense against DDoS attacks [CHAN02]:


                          Attack prevention and preemption (before the attack): These mechanisms enable the victim to endure attack attempts without denying service to legiti- mate clients. Techniques include enforcing policies for resource consumption and providing backup resources available on demand. In addition, prevention mechanisms modify systems and protocols on the Internet to reduce the possi- bility of DDoS attacks.

                          Attack detection and filtering (during the attack): These mechanisms attempt to detect the attack as it begins and respond immediately.This minimizes the impact of the attack on the target. Detection involves looking for suspicious patterns of behavior. Response involves filtering out packets likely to be part of the attack.

                          Attack source traceback and identification (during and after the attack): This is an attempt to identify the source of the attack as a first step in preventing future attacks. However, this method typically does not yield results fast enough, if at all, to mitigate an ongoing attack.


The challenge in coping with DDoS attacks is the sheer number of ways in which they can operate. Thus DDoS countermeasures must evolve with the threat.

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