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Chapter: Security in Computing : Security in Networks

Threats in Transit: Eavesdropping and Wiretapping

By now, you can see that an attacker can gather a significant amount of information about a victim before beginning the actual attack. Once the planning is done, the attacker is ready to proceed. In this section we turn to the kinds of attacks that can occur.

Threats in Transit: Eavesdropping and Wiretapping


By now, you can see that an attacker can gather a significant amount of information about a victim before beginning the actual attack. Once the planning is done, the attacker is ready to proceed. In this section we turn to the kinds of attacks that can occur. Recall from Chapter 1 that an attacker has many ways by which to harm in a computing environment: loss of confidentiality, integrity, or availability to data, hardware or software, processes, or other assets. Because a network involves data in transit, we look first at the harm that can occur between a sender and a receiver. Sidebar 7-5 describes the ease of interception.


The easiest way to attack is simply to listen in. An attacker can pick off the content of a communication passing in the clear. The term eavesdrop implies overhearing without expending any extra effort. For example, we might say that an attacker (or a system administrator) is eavesdropping by monitoring all traffic passing through a node. The administrator might have a legitimate purpose, such as watching for inappropriate use of resources (for instance, visiting non-work-related web sites from a company network) or communication with inappropriate parties (for instance, passing files to an enemy from a military computer).


A more hostile term is wiretap, which means intercepting communications through some effort. Passive wiretapping is just "listening," much like eavesdropping. But active wiretapping means injecting something into the communication. For example, Marvin could replace Manny's communications with his own or create communications purported to be from Manny. Originally derived from listening in on telegraph and telephone communications, the term wiretapping usually conjures up a physical act by which a device extracts information as it flows over a wire. But in fact no actual contact is necessary. A wiretap can be done covertly so that neither the sender nor the receiver of a communication knows that the contents have been intercepted.


Wiretapping works differently depending on the communication medium used. Let us look more carefully at each possible choice.




At the most local level, all signals in an Ethernet or other LAN are available on the cable for anyone to intercept. Each LAN connector (such as a computer board) has a unique address; each board and its drivers are programmed to label all packets from its host with its unique address (as a sender's "return address") and to take from the net only those packets addressed to its host.


But removing only those packets addressed to a given host is mostly a matter of politeness; there is little to stop a program from examining each packet as it goes by. A device called a packet sniffer can retrieve all packets on the LAN. Alternatively, one of the interface cards can be reprogrammed to have the supposedly unique address of another existing card on the LAN so that two different cards will both fetch packets for one address. (To avoid detection, the rogue card will have to put back on the net copies of the packets it has intercepted.) Fortunately (for now), LANs are usually used only in environments that are fairly friendly, so these kinds of attacks occur infrequently.


Clever attackers can take advantage of a wire's properties and read packets without any physical manipulation. Ordinary wire (and many other electronic components) emit radiation. By a process called inductance an intruder can tap a wire and read radiated signals without making physical contact with the cable. A cable's signals travel only short distances, and they can be blocked by other conductive materials. The equipment needed to pick up signals is inexpensive and easy to obtain, so inductance threats are a serious concern for cable-based networks. For the attack to work, the intruder must be fairly close to the cable; this form of attack is thus limited to situations with reasonable physical access.


If the attacker is not close enough to take advantage of inductance, then more hostile measures may be warranted. The easiest form of intercepting a cable is by direct cut. If a cable is severed, all service on it stops. As part of the repair, an attacker can easily splice in a secondary cable that then receives a copy of all signals along the primary cable. There are ways to be a little less obvious but accomplish the same goal. For example, the attacker might carefully expose some of the outer conductor, connect to it, then carefully expose some of the inner conductor and connect to it. Both of these operations alter the resistance, called the impedance, of the cable. In the first case, the repair itself alters the impedance, and the impedance change can be explained (or concealed) as part of the repair. In the second case, a little social engineering can explain the change. ("Hello, this is Matt, a technician with Bignetworks. We are changing some equipment on our end, and so you might notice a change in impedance.")


Signals on a network are multiplexed, meaning that more than one signal is transmitted at a given time. For example, two analog (sound) signals can be combined, like two tones in a musical chord, and two digital signals can be combined by interleaving, like playing cards being shuffled. A LAN carries distinct packets, but data on a WAN may be heavily multiplexed as it leaves its sending host. Thus, a wiretapper on a WAN needs to be able not only to intercept the desired communication but also to extract it from the others with which it is multiplexed. While this can be done, the effort involved means it will be used sparingly.




Microwave signals are not carried along a wire; they are broadcast through the air, making them more accessible to outsiders. Typically, a transmitter's signal is focused on its corresponding receiver. The signal path is fairly wide, to be sure of hitting the receiver, as shown in Figure 7-13. From a security standpoint, the wide swath is an invitation to mischief. Not only can someone intercept a microwave transmission by interfering with the line of sight between sender and receiver, someone can also pick up an entire transmission from an antenna located close to but slightly off the direct focus point.



A microwave signal is usually not shielded or isolated to prevent interception. Microwave is, therefore, a very insecure medium. However, because of the large volume of traffic carried by microwave links, it is unlikelybut not impossiblethat someone will be able to separate an individual transmission from all the others interleaved with it. A privately owned microwave link, carrying only communications for one organization, is not so well protected by volume.


Satellite Communication

Satellite communication has a similar problem of being dispersed over an area greater than the intended point of reception. Different satellites have different characteristics, but some signals can be intercepted in an area several hundred miles wide and a thousand miles long. Therefore, the potential for interception is even greater than with microwave signals. However, because satellite communications are generally heavily multiplexed, the risk is small that any one communication will be intercepted.


Optical Fiber


Optical fiber offers two significant security advantages over other transmission media. First, the entire optical network must be tuned carefully each time a new connection is made. Therefore, no one can tap an optical system without detection. Clipping just one fiber in a bundle will destroy the balance in the network.


Second, optical fiber carries light energy, not electricity. Light does not emanate a magnetic field as electricity does. Therefore, an inductive tap is impossible on an optical fiber cable.


Just using fiber, however, does not guarantee security, any more than does using encryption. The repeaters, splices, and taps along a cable are places at which data may be available more easily than in the fiber cable itself. The connections from computing equipment to the fiber may also be points for penetration. By itself, fiber is much more secure than cable, but it has vulnerabilities too.




Wireless networking is becoming very popular, with good reason. With wireless (also known as WiFi), people are not tied to a wired connection; they are free to roam throughout an office, house, or building while maintaining a connection. Universities, offices, and even home users like being able to connect to a network without the cost, difficulty, and inconvenience of running wires. The difficulties of wireless arise in the ability of intruders to intercept and spoof a connection.


As we noted earlier, wireless communications travel by radio. In the United States, wireless computer connections share the same frequencies as garage door openers, local radios (typically used as baby monitors), some cordless telephones, and other very short distance applications. Although the frequency band is crowded, few applications are expected to be on the band from any single user, so contention or interference is not an issue.


But the major threat is not interference; it is interception. A wireless signal is strong for approximately 100 to 200 feet. To appreciate those figures, picture an ordinary ten-story office building, ten offices "wide" by five offices "deep," similar to many buildings in office parks or on university campuses. Assume you set up a wireless base station (receiver) in the corner of the top floor. That station could receive signals transmitted from the opposite corner of the ground floor. If a similar building were adjacent, the signal could also be received throughout that building, too. (See Sidebar 7-5 on how easy it is to make a connection.) Few people would care to listen to someone else's baby monitor, but many people could and do take advantage of a passive or active wiretap of a network connection.


A strong signal can be picked up easily. And with an inexpensive, tuned antenna, a wireless signal can be picked up several miles away. In other words, someone who wanted to pick up your particular signal could do so from several streets away. Parked in a truck or van, the interceptor could monitor your communications for quite some time without arousing suspicion.




Interception of wireless traffic is always a threat, through either passive or active wiretapping. Sidebar 7-6 illustrates how software faults may make interception easier than you might think. You may react to that threat by assuming that encryption will address it. Unfortunately, encryption is not always used for wireless communication, and the encryption built into some wireless devices is not as strong as it should be to deter a dedicated attacker.


Theft of Service


Wireless also admits a second problem: the possibility of rogue use of a network connection. Many hosts run the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), by which a client negotiates a one -time IP address and connectivity with a host. This protocol is useful in office or campus settings, where not all users (clients) are active at any time. A small number of IP addresses can be shared among users. Essentially the addresses are available in a pool. A new client requests a connection and an IP address through DHCP, and the server assigns one from the pool.


This scheme admits a big problem with authentication. Unless the host authenticates users before assigning a connection, any requesting client is assigned an IP address and network access. (Typically, this assignment occurs before the user on the client workstation actually identifies and authenticates to a server, so there may not be an authenticatable identity that the DHCP server can demand.) The situation is so serious that in some metropolitan areas a map is available, showing many networks accepting wireless connections.


A user wanting free Internet access can often get it simply by finding a wireless LAN offering DHCP service. But is it legal? In separate cases Benjamin Smith III in Florida in July 2005 and Dennis Kauchak in Illinois in March 2006 were convicted of remotely accessing a computer wirelessly without the owner's permission. Kauchak was sentenced to a $250 fine. So, even though you are able to connect, it may not be legal to do so.


On the other hand, some cities or organizations make wireless access freely available as a community service. Free wireless cities include Albuquerque and Honolulu in the United States, Oulu in Finland, and the central districts of cities such as Hamburg, Germany, and Adelaide, Australia. The cities hope that providing free access will spur IT growth and attract tourists and business travelers.



Sidebar 7-6: Wireless Vulnerabilities


The New Zealand Herald [GRI02] reports that a major telecommunications company was forced to shut down its mobile e-mail service because of a security flaw in its wireless network software. The flaw affected users on the company's CDMA network who were sending e-mail on their WAP-enabled (wireless applications protocol) mobile phones.


The vulnerability occurred when the user finished an e-mail session. In fact, the software did not end the WAP session for 60 more seconds. If a second network customer were to initiate an e-mail session within those 60 seconds and be connected to the same port as the first customer, the second customer could then view the first customer's message.


The company blamed the third-party software provided by a mobile portal. Nevertheless, the company was highly embarrassed, especially because it "perceived security issues with wireless networks" to be "a major factor threatening to hold the [wireless] technology's development back." [GRI02]


But perceivedand realsecurity issues should hold back widespread use of wireless. It is estimated that 85 percent of wireless users do not enable encryption on their access points, and weaknesses in the WEP protocol leave many of the remaining 15 percent vulnerable.


Anyone with a wireless network card can search for an available network. Security consultant Chris O'Ferrell has been able to connect to wireless networks in Washington D.C. from outside a Senate office building, the Supreme Court, and the Pentagon [NOG02]; others join networks in airports, on planes, and at coffee shops. Internet bulletin boards have maps of metropolitan areas with dots showing wireless access points. The so-called parasitic grid movement is an underground attempt to allow strangers to share wireless Internet access in metropolitan areas. A listing of some of the available wireless access points by city is maintained at www.guerilla.net/freenets.html. Products like AirMagnet from AirMagnet, Inc., Observer from Network Instruments, and IBM's Wireless Security Analyzer can locate open wireless connections on a network so that a security administrator can know a network is open to wireless access.


And then there are wireless LAN users who refuse to shut off their service. Retailer BestBuy was embarrassed by a customer who bought a wireless product. While in the parking lot, he installed it in his laptop computer. Much to his surprise, he found he could connect to the store's wireless network. BestBuy subsequently took all its wireless cash registers offline. But the CVS pharmacy chain announced plans to continue use of wireless networks in all 4100 of its stores, arguing "We use wireless technology strictly for internal item management. If we were to ever move in the direction of transmitting [customer] information via in-store wireless LANs, we would encrypt the data" [BRE02].



Summary of Wiretapping


There are many points at which network traffic is available to an interceptor. Figure 7-14 illustrates how communications are exposed from their origin to their destination.

From a security standpoint, you should assume that all communication links between network nodes can be broken. For this reason, commercial network users employ encryption to protect the confidentiality of their communications, as we demonstrate later in this chapter. Local network communications can be encrypted, although for performance reasons it may be preferable to protect local connections with strong physical and administrative security instead.

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