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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Salami Attack

Examples of Salami Attacks, Why Salami Attacks Persist

Salami Attack


We noted in Chapter 1 an attack known as a salami attack. This approach gets its name from the way odd bits of meat and fat are fused in a sausage or salami. In the same way, a salami attack merges bits of seemingly inconsequential data to yield powerful results. For example, programs often disregard small amounts of money in their computations, as when there are fractional pennies as interest or tax is calculated. Such programs may be subject to a salami attack, because the small amounts are shaved from each computation and accumulated elsewheresuch as in the programmer's bank account! The shaved amount is so small that an individual case is unlikely to be noticed, and the accumulation can be done so that the books still balance overall. However, accumulated amounts can add up to a tidy sum, supporting a programmer's early retirement or new car. It is often the resulting expenditure, not the shaved amounts, that gets the attention of the authorities.


Examples of Salami Attacks


The classic tale of a salami attack involves interest computation. Suppose your bank pays 6.5 percent interest on your account. The interest is declared on an annual basis but is calculated monthly. If, after the first month, your bank balance is $102.87, the bank can calculate the interest in the following way. For a month with 31 days, we divide the interest rate by 365 to get the daily rate, and then multiply it by 31 to get the interest for the month. Thus, the total interest for 31 days is 31/365*0.065*102.87 = $0.5495726. Since banks deal only in full cents, a typical practice is to round down if a residue is less than half a cent, and round up if a residue is half a cent or more. However, few people check their interest computation closely, and fewer still would complain about having the amount $0.5495 rounded down to $0.54, instead of up to $0.55. Most programs that perform computations on currency recognize that because of rounding, a sum of individual computations may be a few cents different from the computation applied to the sum of the balances.


What happens to these fractional cents? The computer security folk legend is told of a programmer who collected the fractional cents and credited them to a single account: hers! The interest program merely had to balance total interest paid to interest due on the total of the balances of the individual accounts. Auditors will probably not notice the activity in one specific account. In a situation with many accounts, the roundoff error can be substantial, and the programmer's account pockets this roundoff.


But salami attacks can net more and be far more interesting. For example, instead of shaving fractional cents, the programmer may take a few cents from each account, again assuming that no individual has the desire or understanding to recompute the amount the bank reports. Most people finding a result a few cents different from that of the bank would accept the bank's figure, attributing the difference to an error in arithmetic or a misunderstanding of the conditions under which interest is credited. Or a program might record a $20 fee for a particular service, while the company standard is $15. If unchecked, the extra $5 could be credited to an account of the programmer's choice. The amounts shaved are not necessarily small: One attacker was able to make withdrawals of $10,000 or more against accounts that had shown little recent activity; presumably the attacker hoped the owners were ignoring their accounts.


Why Salami Attacks Persist


Computer computations are notoriously subject to small errors involving rounding and truncation, especially when large numbers are to be combined with small ones. Rather than document the exact errors, it is easier for programmers and users to accept a small amount of error as natural and unavoidable. To reconcile accounts, the programmer includes an error correction in computations. Inadequate auditing of these corrections is one reason why the salami attack may be overlooked.


Usually the source code of a system is too large or complex to be audited for salami attacks, unless there is reason to suspect one. Size and time are definitely on the side of the malicious programmer.

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