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Chapter: Security in Computing : Security in Networks


In many instances, there is an easier way than wiretapping for obtaining information on a network: Impersonate another person or process. Why risk tapping a line, or why bother extracting one communication out of many, if you can obtain the same data directly?



In many instances, there is an easier way than wiretapping for obtaining information on a network: Impersonate another person or process. Why risk tapping a line, or why bother extracting one communication out of many, if you can obtain the same data directly?


Impersonation is a more significant threat in a wide area network than in a local one. Local individuals often have better ways to obtain access as another user; they can, for example, simply sit at an unattended workstation. Still, impersonation attacks should not be ignored even on local area networks, because local area networks are sometimes attached to wider area networks without anyone's first thinking through the security implications.


In an impersonation, an attacker has several choices:


Guess the identity and authentication details of the target.


Pick up the identity and authentication details of the target from a previous communication or from wiretapping.


Circumvent or disable the authentication mechanism at the target computer.

Use a target that will not be authenticated.


Use a target whose authentication data are known. Let us look at each choice.


Authentication Foiled by Guessing


Chapter 4 reported the results of several studies showing that many users choose easy-to-guess passwords. In Chapter 3, we saw that the Internet worm of 1988 capitalized on exactly that flaw. Morris's worm tried to impersonate each user on a target machine by trying, in order, a handful of variations of the user name, a list of about 250 common passwords and, finally, the words in a dictionary. Sadly, many users' accounts are still open to these easy attacks.


A second source of password guesses is default passwords. Many systems are initially configured with default accounts having GUEST or ADMIN as login IDs; accompanying these IDs are well-known passwords such as "guest" or "null" or "password" to enable the administrator to set up the system. Administrators often forget to delete or disable these accounts, or at least to change the passwords.


In a trustworthy environment, such as an office LAN, a password may simply be a signal that the user does not want others to use the workstation or account. Sometimes the password-protected workstation contains sensitive data, such as employee salaries or information about new products. Users may think that the password is enough to keep out a curious colleague; they see no reason to protect against concerted attacks. However, if that trustworthy environment is connected to an untrustworthy wider-area network, all users with simple passwords become easy targets. Indeed, some systems are not originally connected to a wider network, so their users begin in a less exposed situation that clearly changes when the connection occurs.


Dead accounts offer a final source of guessable passwords. To see how, suppose Professor Romine, a faculty member, takes leave for a year to teach at another university. The existing account may reasonably be kept on hold, awaiting the professor's return. But an attacker, reading a university newspaper online, finds out that the user is away. Now the attacker uses social engineering on the system administration ("Hello, this is Professor Romine calling from my temporary office at State University. I haven't used my account for quite a while, but now I need something from it urgently. I have forgotten the password. Can you please reset it to ICECREAM? No? Well, send me a new password by email to my account r1@stateuniv.edu.") Alternatively, the attacker can try several passwords until the password guessing limit is exceeded. The system then locks the account administratively, and the attacker uses a social engineering attack. In all these ways the attacker may succeed in resetting or discovering a password.


Authentication Thwarted by Eavesdropping or Wiretapping


Because of the rise in distributed and client-server computing, some users have access privileges on several connected machines. To protect against arbitrary outsiders using these accesses, authentication is required between hosts. This access can involve the user directly, or it can be done automatically on behalf of the user through a host-to-host authentication protocol. In either case, the account and authentication details of the subject are passed to the destination host. When these details are passed on the network, they are exposed to anyone observing the communication on the network. These same authentication details can be reused by an impersonator until they are changed.


Because transmitting a password in the clear is a significant vulnerability, protocols have been developed so that the password itself never leaves a user's workstation. But, as we have seen in several other places, the details are important.


Microsoft LAN Manager was an early method for implementing networks. It had a password exchange mechanism in which the password itself was never transmitted in the clear; instead only a cryptographic hash of it was transmitted. A password could consist of up to 14 characters. It could include upper- and lowercase letters, digits, and special characters, for 67 possibilities in any one position, and 6714 possibilities for a whole 14 -character passwordquite a respectable work factor. However, those 14 characters were not diffused across the entire hash; they were sent in separate substrings, representing characters 17 and 814. A 7-character or shorter password had all nulls in the second substring and was instantly recognizable. An 8-character password had 1 character and 6 nulls in the second substring, so 67 guesses would find the one character. Even in the best case, a 14- character password, the work factor fell from 6714 to 677 + 67 7 = 2 * 677. These work factors differ by a factor of approximately 10 billion. (See [MUD97] for details.) LAN Manager authentication was preserved in many later systems (including Windows NT) as an option to support backward compatibility with systems such as Windows 95/98. This lesson is a good example of why security and cryptography are very precise and must be monitored by experts from concept through design and implementation.


Authentication Foiled by Avoidance


Obviously, authentication is effective only when it works. A weak or flawed authentication allows access to any system or person who can circumvent the authentication.


In a classic operating system flaw, the buffer for typed characters in a password was of fixed size, counting all characters typed, including backspaces for correction. If a user typed more characters than the buffer would hold, the overflow caused the operating system to bypass password comparison and act as if a correct authentication had been supplied. These flaws or weaknesses can be exploited by anyone seeking access.


Many network hosts, especially those that connect to wide area networks, run variants of Unix System V or BSD Unix. In a local environment, many users are not aware of which networked operating system is in use; still fewer would know of, be capable of, or be interested in exploiting flaws. However, some hackers regularly scan wide area networks for hosts running weak or flawed operating systems. Thus, connection to a wide area network, especially the Internet, exposes these flaws to a wide audience intent on exploiting them.


Nonexistent Authentication


If two computers are used by the same users to store data and run processes and if each has authenticated its users on first access, you might assume that computer-to-computer or local user-to-remote process authentication is unnecessary. These two computers and their users are a trustworthy environment in which the added complexity of repeated authentication seems excessive.


However, this assumption is not valid. To see why, consider the Unix operating system. In Unix, the file .rhosts lists trusted hosts and .rlogin lists trusted users who are allowed access without authentication. The files are intended to support computer-to-computer


connection by users who have already been authenticated at their primary hosts. These "trusted hosts" can also be exploited by outsiders who obtain access to one system through an authentication weakness (such as a guessed password) and then transfer to another system that accepts the authenticity of a user who comes from a system on its trusted list.


An attacker may also realize that a system has some identities requiring no authentication. Some systems have "guest" or "anonymous" accounts to allow outsiders to access things the systems want to release to anyone. For example, a bank might post a current listing of foreign currency rates, a library with an online catalog might make that catalog available for anyone to search, or a company might allow access to some of its reports. A user can log in as "guest" and retrieve publicly available items. Typically, no password is required, or the user is shown a message requesting that the user type "GUEST" (or your name, which really means any string that looks like a name) when asked for a password. Each of these accounts allows access to unauthenticated users.


Well-Known Authentication


Authentication data should be unique and difficult to guess. But unfortunately, the convenience of one well-known authentication scheme sometimes usurps the protection. For example, one computer manufacturer planned to use the same password to allow its remote maintenance personnel to access any of its computers belonging to any of its customers throughout the world. Fortunately, security experts pointed out the potential danger before that idea was put in place.


The system network management protocol (SNMP) is widely used for remote management of network devices, such as routers and switches, that support no ordinary users. SNMP uses a "community string," essentially a password for the community of devices that can interact with one another. But network devices are designed especially for quick installation with minimal configuration, and many network administrators do not change the default community string installed on a router or switch. This laxity makes these devices on the network perimeter open to many SNMP attacks.


Some vendors still ship computers with one system administration account installed, having a default password. Or the systems come with a demonstration or test account, with no required password. Some administrators fail to change the passwords or delete these accounts.


Trusted Authentication


Finally, authentication can become a problem when identification is delegated to other trusted sources. For instance, a file may indicate who can be trusted on a particular host. Or the authentication mechanism for one system can "vouch for" a user. We noted earlier how the Unix .rhosts, .rlogin, and /etc/hosts/equiv files indicate hosts or users that are trusted on other hosts. While these features are useful to users who have accounts on multiple machines or for network management, maintenance, and operation, they must be used very carefully. Each of them represents a potential hole through which a remote useror a remote attackercan achieve access.




Guessing or otherwise obtaining the network authentication credentials of an entity (a user, an account, a process, a node, a device) permits an attacker to create a full communication under the entity's identity. Impersonation falsely represents a valid entity in a communication. Closely related is spoofing, when an attacker falsely carries on one end of a networked interchange. Examples of spoofing are masquerading, session hijacking, and man-in-the-middle attacks.




In a masquerade one host pretends to be another. A common example is URL confusion. Domain names can easily be confused, or someone can easily mistype certain names. Thus xyz.com, xyz.org, and xyz.net might be three different organizations, or one bona fide organization (for example, xyz.com) and two masquerade attempts from someone who registered the similar domain names. Names with or without hyphens (coca-cola.com versus cocacola.com) and easily mistyped names (l0pht.com versus lopht.com, or citibank.com versus citybank.com) are candidates for masquerading.


From the attacker's point of view, the fun in masquerading comes before the mask is removed. For example, suppose you want to attack a real bank, First Blue Bank of Chicago. The actual bank has the domain name BlueBank.com, so you register the domain name Blue-Bank.com. Next, you put up a web page at Blue-Bank.com, perhaps using the real Blue Bank logo that you downloaded to make your site look as much as possible like that of the Chicago bank. Finally, you ask people to log in with their name, account number, and password or PIN. (This redirection can occur in many ways. For example, you can pay for a banner ad that links to your site instead of the real bank's, or you can send e-mail to Chicago residents and invite them to visit your site.) After collecting personal data from several bank users, you can drop the connection, pass the connection on to the real Blue Bank, or continue to collect more information. You may even be able to transfer this connection smoothly to an authenticated access to the real Blue Bank so that the user never realizes the deviation. (First Blue Bank would probably win a suit to take ownership of the Blue-Bank.com domain.)


A variation of this attack is called phishing. You send an e-mail message, perhaps with the real logo of Blue Bank, and an enticement to click on a link, supposedly to take the victim to the Blue Bank web site. The enticement might be that your victim's account has been suspended or that you offer your victim some money for answering a survey (and need the account number and PIN to be able to credit the money), or some other legitimate-sounding explanation. The link might be to your domain Blue-Bank.com, the link might say click here to access your account (where the click here link connects to your fraudulent site), or you might use some other trick with the URL to fool your victim, like www.redirect.com/bluebank.com.


In another version of a masquerade, the attacker exploits a flaw in the victim's web server and is able to overwrite the victim's web pages. Although there is some public humiliation at having one's site replaced, perhaps with obscenities or strong messages opposing the nature of the site (for example, a plea for vegetarianism on a slaughterhouse web site), most people would not be fooled by a site displaying a message absolutely contrary to its aims. However, a clever attacker can be more subtle. Instead of differentiating from the real site, the attacker can try to build a false site that resembles the real one, perhaps to obtain sensitive information (names, authentication numbers, credit card numbers) or to induce the user to enter into a real transaction. For example, if one bookseller's site, call it Books-R-Us, were overtaken subtly by another, called Books Depot, the orders may actually be processed, filled, and billed to the naïve users by Books Depot. Test your ability to distinguish phishing sites from real ones at http://survey.mailfrontier.com/survey/quiztest.html.


Phishing is becoming a serious problem, according to a trends report from the Anti-Phishing Working Group [APW05]. This group received over 12,000 complaints each month from March 2005 to March 2006, with the number peaking above 18,000 for March 2006.


Session Hijacking


Session hijacking is intercepting and carrying on a session begun by another entity. Suppose two entities have entered into a session but then a third entity intercepts the traffic and carries on the session in the name of the other. Our example of Books-R-Us could be an instance of this technique. If Books Depot used a wiretap to intercept packets between you and Books-R-Us, Books Depot could simply monitor the information flow, letting Books-R-Us do the hard part of displaying titles for sale and convincing the user to buy. Then, when the user has completed the order, Books Depot intercepts the "I'm ready to check out" packet, and finishes the order with the user, obtaining shipping address, credit card details, and so forth. To Books-R-Us, the transaction would look like any other incomplete transaction: The user was browsing but for some reason decided to go elsewhere before purchasing. We would say that Books Depot had hijacked the session.


A different type of example involves an interactive session, for example, using Telnet. If a system administrator logs in remotely to a privileged account, a session hijack utility could intrude in the communication and pass commands as if they came from the administrator.


Man-in-the-Middle Attack


Our hijacking example requires a third party involved in a session between two entities. A man-in-the -middle attack is a similar form of attack, in which one entity intrudes between two others. We studied one form of this attack in Chapter 3. The difference between man-in-the-middle and hijacking is that a man-in-the-middle usually participates from the start of the session, whereas a session hijacking occurs after a session has been established. The difference is largely semantic and not too significant.


Man-in-the-middle attacks are frequently described in protocols. To see how an attack works, suppose you want to exchange encrypted information with your friend. You contact the key server and ask for a secret key with which to communicate with your friend. The key server responds by sending a key to you and your friend. One man-in-the-middle attack assumes someone can see and enter into all parts of this protocol. A malicious middleman intercepts the response key and can then eavesdrop on, or even decrypt, modify, and reencrypt any subsequent communications between you and your friend. This attack is depicted in Figure 7-15.


This attack would be changed with public keys, because the man-in-the-middle would not have the private key to be able to decrypt messages encrypted under your friend's public key. The man-in-the-middle attack now becomes more of the three-way interchange its name implies. The man-in-the-middle intercepts your request to the key server and instead asks for your friend's public key. The man-in-the-middle passes to you his own public key, not your friend's. You encrypt using the public key you received (from the man-in-the-middle); the man-in-the-middle intercepts and decrypts, reads, and reencrypts, using your friend's public key; and your friend receives. In this way, the man-in-the-middle reads the messages and neither you nor your friend is aware of the interception. A slight variation of this attack works for secret key distribution under a public key.

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