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Introduction to Network-Based Intrusion Detection Systems

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Bill Stallings covers the subject of network-based intrusion detection systems in this book excerpt. He looks at strategies for detecting intrusions.
This chapter is from the book

A network-based IDS (NIDS) monitors traffic at selected points on a network or interconnected set of networks. The NIDS examines the traffic packet by packet in real time, or close to real time, to attempt to detect intrusion patterns. The NIDS may examine network-, transport- and/or application-level protocol activity. Note the contrast with a host-based IDS; a NIDS examines packet traffic directed toward potentially vulnerable computer systems on a network. A host-based system examines user and software activity on a host.

A typical NIDS facility includes a number of sensors to monitor packet traffic, one or more servers for NIDS management functions, and one or more management consoles for the human interface. The analysis of traffic patterns to detect intrusions may be done at the sensor, at the management server, or some combination of the two.

Types of Network Sensors

Sensors can be deployed in one of two modes: inline and passive. An inline sensor is inserted into a network segment so that the traffic that it is monitoring must pass through the sensor. One way to achieve an inline sensor is to combine NIDS sensor logic with another network device, such as a firewall or a LAN switch. This approach has the advantage that no additional separate hardware devices are needed; all that is required is NIDS sensor software. An alternative is a stand-alone inline NIDS sensor. The primary motivation for the use of inline sensors is to enable them to block an attack when one is detected. In this case the device is performing both intrusion detection and intrusion prevention functions.

More commonly, passive sensors are used. A passive sensor monitors a copy of network traffic; the actual traffic does not pass through the device. From the point of view of traffic flow, the passive sensor is more efficient than the inline sensor, because it does not add an extra handling step that contributes to packet delay.

Figure 6.4 illustrates a typical passive sensor configuration. The sensor connects to the network transmission medium, such as a fiber optic cable, by a direct physical tap. The tap provides the sensor with a copy of all network traffic being carried by the medium. The network interface card (NIC) for this tap usually does not have an IP address configured for it. All traffic into this NIC is simply collected with no protocol interaction with the network. The sensor has a second NIC that connects to the network with an IP address and enables the sensor to communicate with a NIDS management server.

Figure 4

Figure 6.4 Passive NIDS Sensor

Source: Based on [CREM06].

NIDS Sensor Deployment

Consider an organization with multiple sites, each of which has one or more LANs, with all of the networks interconnected via the Internet or some other WAN technology. For a comprehensive NIDS strategy, one or more sensors are needed at each site. Within a single site, a key decision for the security administrator is the placement of the sensors.

Figure 6.5 illustrates a number of possibilities. In general terms, this configuration is typical of larger organizations. All Internet traffic passes through an external firewall that protects the entire facility2. Traffic from the outside world, such as customers and vendors that need access to public services, such as Web and mail, is monitored. The external firewall also provides a degree of protection for those parts of the network that should only be accessible by users from other corporate sites. Internal firewalls may also be used to provide more specific protection to certain parts of the network.

Figure 5

Figure 6.5 Example of NIDS Sensor Deployment

A common location for a NIDS sensor is just inside the external firewall (location 1 in the figure). This position has a number of advantages:

  • Sees attacks, originating from the outside world, that penetrate the network’s perimeter defenses (external firewall).
  • Highlights problems with the network firewall policy or performance.
  • Sees attacks that might target the Web server or ftp server.
  • Even if the incoming attack is not recognized, the IDS can sometimes recognize the outgoing traffic that results from the compromised server.

Instead of placing a NIDS sensor inside the external firewall, the security administrator may choose to place a NIDS sensor between the external firewall and the Internet or WAN (location 2). In this position, the sensor can monitor all network traffic, unfiltered. The advantages of this approach are as follows:

  • Documents number of attacks originating on the Internet that target the network
  • Documents types of attacks originating on the Internet that target the network

A sensor at location 2 has a higher processing burden than any sensor located elsewhere on the site network.

In addition to a sensor at the boundary of the network, on either side of the external firewall, the administrator may configure a firewall and one or more sensors to protect major backbone networks, such as those that support internal servers and database resources (location 3). The benefits of this placement include the following:

  • Monitors a large amount of a network’s traffic, thus increasing the possibility of spotting attacks
  • Detects unauthorized activity by authorized users within the organization’s security perimeter

Thus, a sensor at location 3 is able to monitor for both internal and external attacks. Because the sensor monitors traffic to only a subset of devices at the site, it can be tuned to specific protocols and attack types, thus reducing the processing burden.

Finally, the network facilities at a site may include separate LANs that support user workstations and servers specific to a single department. The administrator could configure a firewall and NIDS sensor to provide additional protection for all of these networks or target the protection to critical subsystems, such as personnel and financial networks (location 4). A sensor used in this latter fashion provides the following benefits:

  • Detects attacks targeting critical systems and resources
  • Allows focusing of limited resources to the network assets considered of greatest value

As with a sensor at location 3, a sensor at location 4 can be tuned to specific protocols and attack types, thus reducing the processing burden.

Intrusion Detection Techniques

As with host-based intrusion detection, network-based intrusion detection makes use of signature detection and anomaly detection.

Signature Detection

[SCAR07] lists the following as examples of that types of attacks that are suitable for signature detection:

  • Application layer reconnaissance and attacks: Most NIDS technologies analyze several dozen application protocols. Commonly analyzed ones include Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), DNS, Finger, FTP, HTTP, Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Network File System (NFS), Post Office Protocol (POP), rlogin/rsh, Remote Procedure Call (RPC), Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Server Message Block (SMB), SMTP, SNMP, Telnet, and Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP), as well as database protocols, instant messaging applications, and peer-to-peer file sharing software. The NIDS is looking for attack patterns that have been identified as targeting these protocols. Examples of attack include buffer overflows, password guessing, and malware transmission.
  • Transport layer reconnaissance and attacks: NIDSs analyze TCP and UDP traffic and perhaps other transport layer protocols. Examples of attacks are unusual packet fragmentation, scans for vulnerable ports, and TCP-specific attacks such as SYN floods.
  • Network layer reconnaissance and attacks: NIDSs typically analyze IPv4, ICMP, and IGMP at this level. Examples of attacks are spoofed IP addresses and illegal IP header values.
  • Unexpected application services: The NIDS attempts to determine if the activity on a transport connection is consistent with the expected application protocol. An example is a host running an unauthorized application service.
  • Policy violations: Examples include use of inappropriate Web sites and use of forbidden application protocols.

Anomaly Detection Techniques

[SCAR07] lists the following as examples of that types of attacks that are suitable for anomaly detection:

  • Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks: Such attacks involve either significantly increased packet traffic or significantly increase connection attempts, in an attempt to overwhelm the target system. These attacks are analyzed in Chapter 8. Anomaly detection is well suited to such attacks.
  • Scanning: A scanning attack occurs when an attacker probes a target network or system by sending different kinds of packets. Using the responses received from the target, the attacker can learn many of the system’s characteristics and vulnerabilities. Thus, a scanning attack acts as a target identification tool for an attacker. Scanning can be detected by atypical flow patterns at the application layer (e.g., banner grabbing3), transport layer (e.g., TCP and UDP port scanning), and network layer (e.g., ICMP scanning).
  • Worms: Worms4 spreading among hosts can be detected in more than one way. Some worms propagate quickly and use large amounts of bandwidth. Worms can also be detected because they can cause hosts to communicate with each other that typically do not, and they can also cause hosts to use ports that they normally do not use. Many worms also perform scanning. Chapter 7 discusses worms in detail.

Logging of Alerts

When a sensor detects a potential violation, it sends an alert and logs information related to the event. The NIDS analysis module can use this information to refine intrusion detection parameters and algorithms. The security administrator can use this information to design prevention techniques. Typical information logged by a NIDS sensor includes the following:

  • Timestamp (usually date and time)
  • Connection or session ID (typically a consecutive or unique number assigned to each TCP connection or to like groups of packets for connectionless protocols)
  • Event or alert type
  • Rating (e.g., priority, severity, impact, confidence)
  • Network, transport, and application layer protocols
  • Source and destination IP addresses
  • Source and destination TCP or UDP ports, or ICMP types and codes
  • Number of bytes transmitted over the connection
  • Decoded payload data, such as application requests and responses
  • State-related information (e.g., authenticated username)
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