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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

8.4 Security and Access Control Issues

Every time a new component is added to the Internet, it is vital to consider the impact this component has on the security and reliability of the Internet as a whole. In the case of proxies, this impact can be profound; it affects how Web servers implement access control—that is, limit the clients that can use their services—as well as a variety of security issues.

8.4.1 Proxies and Web Server Access Control

Many Web sites provide services only to specific clients, for example, those who agree to pay for the service. To enforce access restrictions, Web servers must implement client access control. Some Web servers implement access control at the IP layer. In this mechanism, a server maintains a list of IP addresses of authorized clients and accepts requests only from those clients. Unfortunately, a proxy may break IP-based access control. If a proxy intercepts requests and issues its own requests on a client's behalf, these requests carry the proxy IP address as their source IP address. The Web site will not recognize this IP address and will refuse to service these requests.

An actual example of this problem involved three companies, CyberCache, Gleim, and Digex. CyberCache is a company that signs up business customers to execute their monetary transactions with their clients (we refer to them as end-customers). Gleim was CyberCache's customer, and Digex was the ISP providing connectivity to Gleim. Once Digex deployed an interception proxy, CyberCache stopped honoring Gleim's requests, which were now conveyed to CyberCache by Digex's proxy. Gleim was unable to process orders from its end-customers and was considering suing Digex for losses it suffered from Digex's interception proxies.

Of course, an explicit proxy would cause the same problem; the difference is that the business customer would have to configure its client software to use the proxy. Presumably it would not do this or would reconfigure its software so as not to use the explicit proxy once the problem transpires. With an interception proxy, the client is not aware of the proxy and cannot unilaterally bypass the proxy even if it learns about its existence.

One could say that a proxy should impersonate the client when sending its request to the origin server; then situations such as CyberCache's would not arise. Unfortunately, asymmetric routing (see Section 2.3) invalidates this solution. Considering Figure 8.6 again, we note that asymmetric routing could cause the bottom route to be the primary route for packets from a client to a server while the top route would be the primary route for responses from the server. Then, if the interception proxy at the bottom ISP impersonated the client, the server packets would bypass the proxy and arrive at the client. The proxy would get no response, assume that the connection to the server is broken, and return an error to the client.

Thus far, the only current technical remedy to the IP-based authentication problem is for the proxy to identify this problem from the error messages of the origin servers. Once an origin server is suspected of performing IP-based access control, the proxy should stop caching this server and simply forward the client packets to the origin server unchanged. In a transparent deployment using the NECP protocol, the proxy can also inform the intercepter to stop intercepting packets destined for this server.

A nontechnical remedy is for the Web sites to avoid this method of access control. There are better methods for authenticating clients and restricting access to information that could be used instead. These methods include HTTP authentication, cookie headers, digital signatures, and encryption.

8.4.2 Proxies and Security

Proxy deployment leads to security concerns that can be classified in four major areas. The first is secure systems management. Proxies are generally high-performance, well-connected computers running complex software. This makes them prime candidates for hackers to break into and to use for various attacks. On the other hand, proxies do not score worse than other well-connected computers such as popular Web servers. Therefore, the problem of secure systems management is not really specific to proxies. Still, experience has shown that this important issue is frequently neglected, and a reminder in the context of this book seems advisable.

The second area of concern is the protection against denial-of-service attacks. In a denial-of-service attack, the attacker overloads either the proxy, the network connection to the proxy, or other necessary components like DNS servers, to prevent legitimate users from receiving service. There are multiple possible methods an attacker can use to achieve this goal. For example, the attacker could send IP fragments to the proxy, overloading the proxy and thereby preventing legitimate clients from receiving service. In contrast to a single Web site, such an attack on a proxy blocks not only a single site, but all sites for all clients using the proxy. This makes it extremely important that proxies provide a fail-over mechanism in case they become unavailable.

The third area of concern is the security of a client browsing the Web. The Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol is generally used to secure traffic between a client and a Web server. The use of SSL protects the privacy and integrity of the data transmitted. Since SSL aims at ensuring end-to-end privacy, it by definition precludes the use of proxies, which stand in between the intended communicating parties. The SSL issue is therefore a concern for proxy caching because SSL narrows the applicability of the latter: ubiquitous use of SSL would push proxies into oblivion.

The last area of concern is integrity of the content. Since caches do serve data for a Web server, it is important to ensure not only that the content is up to date (as described in Chapter 10), but also that the content cannot be substituted or altered by an attacker. In the context of proxies, there are two potential problems. The first is the retrieval of the content from the origin server. The attacker could pose as the origin server to the proxy by, for example, subverting the routing infrastructure. Requests to the origin server would then be fulfilled by the attacker, which could replace the content of the Web site arbitrarily. The second possible problem is that an attacker could target the proxy itself. An attacker breaking into the proxy can add, delete, and replace cached documents arbitrarily.

In terms of integrity, explicit proxies have one additional area of concern. An explicit proxy has to perform a DNS resolution to find the origin server. This DNS resolution could be intercepted by an attacker that could trick the explicit proxy into retrieving the content from the wrong server. Interception proxies do not face the DNS problem, since they already know the IP address of the origin server and do not have to resolve a DNS name to reach it.

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