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Security in Networks

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Threats In Networks

Up to now, we have reviewed network concepts with very little discussion of their security implications. But our earlier discussion of threats and vulnerabilities, as well as outside articles and your own experiences, probably have you thinking about the many possible attacks against networks. This section describes some of the threats you have already hypothesized and perhaps presents you with some new ones. But the general thrust is the same: threats aimed to compromise confidentiality, integrity, or availability, applied against data, software, and hardware by nature, accidents, nonmalicious humans, and malicious attackers.

What Makes a Network Vulnerable?

An isolated home user or a stand-alone office with a few employees is an unlikely target for many attacks. But add a network to the mix and the risk rises sharply. Consider how a network differs from a stand-alone environment:

  • Anonymity. An attacker can mount an attack from thousands of miles away and never come into direct contact with the system, its administrators, or users. The potential attacker is thus safe behind an electronic shield. The attack can be passed through many other hosts in an effort to disguise the attack's origin. And computer-to-computer authentication is not the same for computers as it is for humans; as illustrated by Sidebar 7-2, secure distributed authentication requires thought and attention to detail.

    Sidebar 7-2 Distributed Authentication in Windows NT and 2000

    Authentication must be handled carefully and correctly in a network because a network involves authentication not just of people but of processes, servers, and services only loosely associated with a person. And for a network, the authentication process and database are often distributed for performance and reliability. Consider Microsoft's authentication scheme for its Windows operating systems. In Windows NT 4.0, the authentication database is distributed among several domain controllers. Each domain controller is designated as a primary or backup controller. All changes to the authentication database must be made to the (single) primary domain controller; then the changes are replicated from the primary to the backup domain controllers.

    In Windows 2000, there no longer is a concept of primary and backup domain controllers. Instead, the network views the controllers as equal trees in a forest, in which any domain controller can update the authentication database. This scheme reflects Microsoft's notion that the system is "multimaster": only one controller can be master at a given time, but any controller can be a master. Once changes are made to a master, they are automatically replicated to the remaining domain controllers in the forest.

    This approach is more flexible and robust than the primary-secondary approach, because it allows any controller to take charge—especially useful if one or more controllers have failed or are out of service for some reason. But the multimaster approach introduces a new problem. Because any domain controller can initiate changes to the authentication database, any hacker able to dominate a domain controller can alter the authentication database. And, what's worse, the changes are then replicated throughout the remaining forest. Theoretically, the hacker could access anything in the forest that relies on Windows 2000 for authentication.

    When we think of attackers, we usually think of threats from outside the system. But in fact the multimaster approach can tempt people inside the system, too. A domain administrator in any domain in the forest can access domain controllers within that domain. Thanks to multimaster, the domain administrator can also modify the authentication database to access anything else in the forest.

    For this reason, system administrators must consider how they define domains and their separation in a network. Otherwise, we can conjure up scary but possible scenarios. For instance, suppose one domain administrator is a bad apple. She works out a way to modify the authentication database to make herself an administrator for the entire forest. Then she can access any data in the forest, turn on services for some users, and turn off services for other users.

  • Many points of attack—both targets and origins. A simple computing system is a self-contained unit. Access controls on one machine preserve the confidentiality of data on that processor. However, when a file is stored in a network host remote from the user, the data or the file itself may pass through many hosts to get to the user. One host's administrator may enforce rigorous security policies, but that administrator has no control over other hosts in the network. Thus, the user must depend on the access control mechanisms in each of these systems. An attack can come from any host to any host, so that a large network offers many points of vulnerability.

  • Sharing. Because networks enable resource and workload sharing, more users have the potential to access networked systems than on single computers. Perhaps worse, access is afforded to more systems, so that access controls for single systems may be inadequate in networks.

  • Complexity of system. In Chapter 4 we saw that an operating system is a complicated piece of software. Reliable security is difficult, if not impossible, on a large operating system, especially one not designed specifically for security. A network combines two or more possibly dissimilar operating systems. Therefore, a network operating/control system is likely to be more complex than an operating system for a single computing system. Furthermore, the ordinary desktop computer today has greater computing power than did many office computers in the last two decades. The attacker can use this power to advantage by causing the victim's computer to perform part of the attack's computation. And because an average computer is so powerful, most users do not know what their computers are really doing at any moment: What processes are active in the background while you are playing Invaders from Mars? This complexity diminishes confidence in the network's security.

  • Unknown perimeter. A network's expandability also implies uncertainty about the network boundary. One host may be a node on two different networks, so resources on one network are accessible to the users of the other network as well. Although wide accessibility is an advantage, this unknown or uncontrolled group of possibly malicious users is a security disadvantage. A similar problem occurs when new hosts can be added to the network. Every network node must be able to react to the possible presence of new, untrustable hosts. Figure 7-12 points out the problems in defining the boundaries of a network. Notice, for example, that a user on a host in network D may be unaware of the potential connections from users of networks A and B. And the host in the middle of networks A and B in fact belongs to A, B, C, and E. If there are different security rules for these networks, to what rules is that host subject?

    Figure 12Figure 7-12 Unclear Network Boundaries.

  • Unknown path. Figure 7-13 illustrates that there may be many paths from one host to another. Suppose that a user on host A1 wants to send a message to a user on host B3. That message might be routed through hosts C or D before arriving at host B3. Host C may provide acceptable security, but not D. Network users seldom have control over the routing of their messages.

    Figure 7-13Figure 7-13 Uncertain Message Routing in a Network.

Thus, a network differs significantly from a stand-alone, local environment. Network characteristics significantly increase the security risk.

Who Attacks Networks?

Who are the attackers? We cannot list their names, just as we cannot know who all the criminals in our city, country, or the world are. Even if we knew who they were, we do not know if we could stop their behavior. (See Sidebar 7-3 for a first, tenuous link between psychological traits and hacking.) To have some idea of who the attackers might be, we return to concepts introduced in Chapter 1, where we described the three necessary components of an attack: method, opportunity, and motive.

Sidebar 7-3 An Attacker's Psychological Profile?

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a sufferer from a mental disorder called Asperger syndrome (AS), thinks that Kevin Mitnick and several other widely described hackers show classic symptoms of Asperger syndrome. Although quick to point out that no research has established a link between AS and hacking, Grandin notes similar behavior traits among Mitnick, herself, and other AS sufferers. An article in USA Today (29 March 2001) lists the following AS traits:

  • Poor social skills, often associated with being loners during childhood; the classic "computer nerd"

  • Fidgeting, restlessness, inability to make eye contact, unresponsive to cues in social interaction, such as facial expressions or body language

  • Exceptional ability to remember long strings of numbers

  • Ability to focus on a technical problem intensely and for a long time, although easily distracted on other problems and unable to manage several tasks at once

  • Deeply honest and law abiding

Donn Parker [PAR98] has studied hacking and computer crime for over 20 years. He states "hackers are characterized by an immature, excessively idealistic attitude... They delight in presenting themselves to the media as idealistic do-gooders, champions of the underdog."

Consider the following excerpt from an interview [SHA00] with "Mixter," the German programmer who admitted he was the author of the denial-of-service attacks called Tribal Flood Network (TFN) and its sequel TFN2K:

Q: Why did you write the software?

A: I first heard about Trin00 [another denial of service attack] in July '99 and I considered it as interesting from a technical perspective, but also potentially powerful in a negative way. I knew some facts of how Trin00 worked, and since I didn't manage to get Trin00 sources or binaries at that time, I wrote my own server-client network that was capable of performing denial of service.

Q: Were you involved ... in any of the recent high-profile attacks?

A: No. The fact that I authored these tools does in no way mean that I condone their active use. I must admit I was quite shocked to hear about the latest attacks. It seems that the attackers are pretty clueless people who misuse powerful resources and tools for generally harmful and senseless activities just "because they can."

Notice that from some information about denial-of-service attacks, he wrote his own server-client network and then a denial-of-service attack. But he was "quite shocked" to hear they were used for harm.

More research is needed before we will be able to define the profile of a hacker. And even more work will be needed to extend from that profile to the profile of a (malicious) attacker. Not all hackers become attackers; some hackers become extremely dedicated and conscientious system administrators, developers, or security experts. But some psychologists see in AS the rudiments of a hacker's profile.

In the next sections we explore method: tools and techniques the attackers use. Here we consider first the motives of attackers. Focusing on motive may give us some idea of who might attack a networked host or user. Four important motives are challenge or power, fame, money, and ideology.


Why do people do dangerous or daunting things, like climb mountains or swim across the English Channel or engage in extreme sports? Because of the challenge. The situation is no different for someone skilled in writing or using programs. The single most significant motivation for a network attacker is the intellectual challenge. He or she is intrigued with knowing the answers to Can I defeat this network? What would happen if I tried this approach or that technique?

Some attackers enjoy the intellectual stimulation of defeating the supposedly undefeatable. For example, Robert Morris, who perpetrated the Internet worm in 1988 (described in Chapter 3), attacked supposedly as an experiment to see if he could exploit a particular vulnerability. Other attackers, such as the Cult of the Dead Cow, seek to demonstrate weaknesses in security defenses so that others will pay attention to strengthening security. Still other attackers are unnamed, unknown individuals working persistently just to see how far they can go in performing unwelcome activities.

However, as we will soon see, only a few attackers find previously unknown flaws. The vast majority of attackers repeat well-known and even well-documented attacks, sometimes only to see if they work against different hosts. In these cases, intellectual stimulation is certainly not the driving force, when the attacker is merely pressing [run] to activate an attack discovered, designed, and implemented by someone else.


The challenge of accomplishment is enough for some attackers. But other attackers seek recognition for their activities. That is, part of the challenge is doing the deed; another part is taking credit for it. In many cases, we do not know who the attackers really are, but they leave behind a "calling card" with a recognizable name: Mafiaboy, Kevin Mitnick, and members of the Chaos Computer Club, for example. The actors often retain some anonymity by using pseudonyms, but they achieve fame nevertheless. They may not be able to brag too openly, but they enjoy the personal thrill of seeing their attacks written up in the news media.

Money and Espionage

As in other settings, financial reward motivates attackers, too. Some attackers perform industrial espionage, seeking information on a company's products, clients, or long-range plans. We know industrial espionage has a role when we read about laptops and sensitive papers having been lifted from hotel rooms when other more valuable items were left behind. Some countries are notorious for using espionage to aid their state-run industries.

Sometimes industrial espionage is responsible for seemingly strange corporate behavior. For example, in July 2002, newspapers reported that a Yale University security audit had revealed that admissions officers from rival Princeton University broke into Yale's online admissions notification system. The Princeton snoops admitted looking at the confidential decisions about eleven students who had applied to both schools but who had not yet been told of their decisions by Yale. In another case, a startup company was about to activate its first application on the web. Two days before the application's unveiling, the head offices were burglarized. The only item stolen was the one computer containing the application's network design. Corporate officials had to make a difficult choice: go online knowing that a competitor might then take advantage of knowing the internal architecture or delay the product's rollout until the network design was changed. They chose the latter. Similarly, the chief of security for a major manufacturing company has reported privately to us of evidence that one of the company's competitors had stolen information. But he could take no action because he could not determine which of three competitors was the actual culprit.

Industrial espionage is illegal, but it occurs, in part because of the high potential gain. Its existence and consequences can be embarrassing for the target companies. Thus, many incidents go unreported, and there are few reliable statistics on how much industrial espionage and "dirty tricks" go on. Yearly since 1997, the Computer Security Institute and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have surveyed security professionals from companies, government agencies, universities, and organizations, asking them to report perceptions of computer incidents. About 500 responses are received for each survey. One question asks about sources of attacks, and a respondent can answer "yes" to more than one category, indicating more than one apparent attack. For the period between 1997 and 2002, between 72 percent and 81 percent indicated they had been attacked by an independent hacker. In addition, 38 percent to 53 percent reported they were attacked by a U.S. competitor and 23 percent to 31 percent by a foreign corporation. (For full details on the survey see [CSI02].) Clearly, security administrators believe there is a serious degree of industrial espionage; that is, not all security attacks come from individual hackers.


In the last few years, we are starting to find cases in which attacks are perpetrated to advance ideological ends. For example, many security analysts believe that the Code Red worm of 2001 was launched by a group motivated by the tension in U.S.–China relations. Dorothy Denning [DEN99a] has distinguished between two types of related behaviors, hactivism and cyberterrorism. Hactivism involves "operations that use hacking techniques against a target's [network] with the intent of disrupting normal operations but not causing serious damage." In some cases, the hacking is seen as giving voice to a constituency that might otherwise not be able to be heard by the company or government organization. For example, Denning describes activities such as virtual sit-ins, in which an interest group floods an organization's web site with traffic to demonstrate support of a particular position. Cyberterrorism is more dangerous than hactivism: "politically motivated hacking operations intended to cause grave harm such as loss of life or severe economic damage."

Threat Precursors

Now that we have listed many motives for attacking, we will turn to how attackers perpetrate their attacks. Attackers do not ordinarily sit down at a terminal and launch an attack. A clever attacker investigates and plans before acting. Just as you might invest time in learning about a jewelry store before entering to steal from it, a network attacker learns a lot about a potential target before beginning the attack. We study the precursors to an attack so that if we can recognize characteristic behavior, we may be able to block the attack before it is launched.

Because most vulnerable networks are connected to the Internet, the attacker begins preparation by finding out as much as possible about the target. An example of information gathering is given in [HOB97].

Port Scan

An easy way to gather network information is to use a port scan, a program that, for a particular IP address, reports which ports respond to messages and which of several known vulnerabilities seem to be present.

A port scan is much like a routine physical examination from a doctor, particularly the initial questions used to determine a medical history. The questions and answers by themselves may not seem significant, but they point to areas that suggest further investigation.

Port scanning tells an attacker three things: which standard ports or services are running and responding on the target system, what operating system is installed on the target system, and what applications and versions of applications are present. This information is readily available for the asking from a networked system; it can be obtained quietly, anonymously, without identification or authentication, drawing little or no attention to the scan.

Port scanning tools are readily available, and not just to the underground community. The nmap scanner by Fyodor at http://www.insecure.org/nmap is a useful tool that anyone can download. Given an address, nmap will report all open ports, the service they support, and the owner (user ID) of the daemon providing the service. (The owner is significant because it implies what privileges would descend upon someone who compromised that service.) Another readily available scanner is netcat, written by Hobbit at http://www.l0pht.com/users/l0pht. (That URL is "letter ell," "digit zero," p-h-t.) Commercial products are a little more costly, but not prohibitive. Well-known commercial scanners are Nessus (Nessus Corp.), CyberCop Scanner (Network Associates), Secure Scanner (Cisco), and Internet Scanner (Internet Security Systems).

Social Engineering

The port scan gives an external picture of a network—where are the doors and windows, of what are they constructed, to what kinds of rooms do they open? The attacker also wants to know what is inside the building. What better way to find out than to ask?

Suppose, while sitting at your workstation, you receive a phone call. "Hello, this is John Davis from IT support. We need to test some connections on the internal network. Could you please run the command ipconfig/all on your workstation and read to me the addresses it displays?" The request sounds innocuous. But unless you know John Davis and his job responsibilities well, the caller could be an attacker gathering information on the inside architecture.

Social engineering involves using social skills and personal interaction to get someone to reveal security-relevant information and perhaps even to do something that permits an attack. The point of social engineering is to persuade the victim to be helpful. The attacker often impersonates someone inside the organization who is in a bind: "My laptop has just been stolen and I need to change the password I had stored on it," or "I have to get out a very important report quickly and I can't get access to the following thing." This attack works especially well if the attacker impersonates someone in a high position, such as the division vice president or the head of IT security. (Their names can sometimes be found on a public web site, in a network registration with the Internet registry, or in publicity and articles.) The attack is often directed at someone low enough to be intimidated or impressed by the high-level person. A direct phone call and expressions of great urgency can override any natural instinct to check out the story.

Because the victim has helped the attacker (and the attacker has profusely thanked the victim), the victim will think nothing is wrong and not report the incident. Thus, the damage may not be known for some time.

An attacker has little to lose in trying a social engineering attack. At worst it will raise awareness of a possible target. But if the social engineering is directed against someone who is not skeptical, especially someone not involved in security management, it may well succeed. We as humans like to help others when asked politely.


From a port scan the attacker knows what is open. From social engineering, the attacker knows certain internal details. But a more detailed floor plan would be nice. Reconnaissance is the general term for collecting information. In security it often refers to gathering discrete bits of information from various sources and then putting them together like the pieces of a puzzle.

One commonly used reconnaissance technique is called "dumpster diving." It involves looking through items that have been discarded in rubbish bins or recycling boxes. It is amazing what we throw away without thinking about it. Mixed with the remains from lunch might be network diagrams, printouts of security device configurations, system designs and source code, telephone and employee lists, and more. Even outdated printouts may be useful. Seldom will the configuration of a security device change completely. More often only one rule is added or deleted or modified, so an attacker has a high probability of a successful attack based on the old information.

Reconnaissance may also involve eavesdropping. Trained spies may follow employees to lunch and listen in from nearby tables as coworkers discuss security matters. Or spies may befriend key personnel in order to co-opt, coerce, or trick them into passing on useful information.

Most reconnaissance techniques require little training and minimal investment of time. If an attacker has targeted a particular organization, spending a little time to collect background information yields a big payoff.

Operating System and Application Fingerprinting

The port scan supplies the attacker with very specific information. For instance, an attacker can use one to find out that port 80 is open and supports HTTP, the protocol for transmitting web pages. But the attacker is likely to have many related questions, such as which commercial server application is running, what version, and what the underlying operating system and version are. Once armed with this additional information, the attacker can consult a list of specific software's known vulnerabilities to determine which particular weaknesses to try to exploit.

How can the attacker answer these questions? The network protocols are standard and vendor independent. Still, each vendor's code is implemented independently, so there may be minor variations in interpretation and behavior. The variations do not make the software noncompliant with the standard, but they are different enough to make each version distinctive. For example, each version may have different sequence numbers, TCP flags, and new options. To see why, consider that sender and receiver must coordinate with sequence numbers to implement the connection of a TCP session. Some implementations respond with a given sequence number, others respond with the number one greater, and others respond with an unrelated number. Likewise, certain flags in one version are undefined or incompatible with others. How a system responds to a prompt (for instance, by acknowledging it, requesting retransmission, or ignoring it) can also reveal the system and version. Finally, new features offer a strong clue: A new version will implement a new feature but an old version will reject the request. All these peculiarities, sometimes called the operating system or application fingerprint, can mark the manufacturer and version.

For example, in addition to performing its port scan, the nmap scanner will respond with a guess at the target operating system. For more information about how this is done, see the paper at http://www.insecure.org/nmap/nmap-fingerprinting-article.html.

Sometimes the application identifies itself. Usually a client-server interaction is handled completely within the application according to protocol rules: "Please send me this page; OK but run this support code; thanks, I just did." But the application cannot respond to a message that does not follow the expected form. For instance, the attacker might use a Telnet application to send meaningless messages to another application. Ports such as 80 (HTTP), 25 (SMTP), 110 (POP), and 21 (FTP) may respond with something like

Server: Netscape-Commerce/1.12
Your browser sent a non-HTTP compliant message.


Microsoft ESMTP MAIL Service, Version: 5.0.2195.3779

This reply tells the attacker which application and version are running.

Bulletin Boards and Chats

The Internet is probably the greatest tool for sharing knowledge since the invention of the printing press. It is probably also the most dangerous tool for sharing knowledge.

Numerous underground bulletin boards and chat rooms support exchange of information. Attackers can post their latest exploits and techniques, read what others have done, and search for additional information on systems, applications, or sites. Remember that, as with everything on the Internet, anyone can post anything, so there is no guarantee that the information is reliable or accurate. And you never know who is reading from the Internet. (See Sidebar 7-4 on law enforcement officials' "going underground" to catch malicious hackers.)

Sidebar 7-4 To Catch a Thief

The U.S. FBI launched a program in 1999 to identify and arrest malicious hackers. Led by William Swallow, the FBI set up a classic sting operation in which it tracked hackers. Swallow chose an online identity and began visiting hackers' web sites and chat rooms. At first the team merely monitored what the hackers posted. To join the hacker underground community, Swallow had to share knowledge with other hackers. He and his team decided what attack techniques they could post without compromising the security of any sites; they reposted details of attacks that they picked up from other sites or combined known methods to produce shortcuts.

But, to be accepted into "the club," Swallow had to demonstrate that he personally had hacker skills—that he was not just repeating what others had done. This situation required that Swallow pursue real exploits. With permission, he conducted more than a dozen defacements of government web sites to establish his reputation. Sharing information with the hackers gave Swallow credibility. He became "one of them."

During the eighteen-month sting operation, Swallow and his team gathered critical evidence on several people, including "Mafiaboy," the 17-year old hacker who pled guilty to 58 charges related to a series of denial-of-service attacks in February 2000 against companies such as Amazon.com, eBay, and Yahoo.

Proving the adage that "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," Swallow, in his 40s, was able to befriend attackers in their teens.

Availability of Documentation

The vendors themselves sometimes distribute information that is useful to an attacker. For example, Microsoft produces a resource kit by which application vendors can investigate a Microsoft product in order to develop compatible, complementary applications. This toolkit also gives attackers tools to use in investigating a product that can subsequently be the target of an attack.

Reconnaissance: Concluding Remarks

A good thief, that is, a successful one, spends time understanding the context of the target. To prepare for perpetrating a bank theft, the thief might monitor the bank, seeing how many guards there are, when they take breaks, when cash shipments arrive, and so forth.

Remember that time is usually on the side of the attacker. In the same way that a bank might notice someone loitering around the entrance, a computing site might notice exceptional numbers of probes in a short time. But the clever thief or attacker will collect a little information, go dormant for a while, and resurface to collect more. So many people walk past banks and peer in the windows, or scan and probe web hosts that individual peeks over time are hard to correlate.

The best defense against reconnaissance is silence. Give out as little information about your site as possible, whether by humans or machines.

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 there are many ways by which an attacker can do 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 in between a sender and a receiver.

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 communicating 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 will know 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 Alphanetworks. 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 7-14. 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.

Figure 7-14Figure 7-14 Path of Microwave Signals.

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 unlikely—but not impossible—that 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, 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 there were a similar building adjacent, the signal could also be received throughout that building, too. 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 7-5 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.

Sidebar 7-5 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 perceived—and real—security 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 http://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].

The wireless communication standards are 802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g. The -b and -a standards are very similar, differing primarily in which frequency they use and what transfer rate they can support. The -b standard can currently support up to 10 Mbps (million bits per second), and -a slightly over 50 Mbps.

The encryption standard is Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). WEP is a classical stream cipher using a 40- or 104-bit key. As we noted in Chapter 2, a 40-bit key can be easily discerned by any interested attacker. But surveys reveal that WEP has been disabled in 85 percent (!) of wireless installations, probably because it is difficult for the administrator to configure and manage encryption. Moreover, even when encryption is used, the design of the encryption solution sometimes makes it easy to crack.

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 authenticable identity that the DHCP server can demand.) The situation is so serious that in some metropolitan areas a map is available, showing many accepting wireless connections. A user wanting free Internet access can often get it simply by finding a wireless LAN offering DHCP service.

Summary of Wiretapping

There are many points of which network traffic is available to an interceptor. Figure 7-15 illustrates how communications are exposed from their origin to their destination.

Figure 7-15Figure 7-15 Wiretap Vulnerabilities.

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.

Protocol Flaws

Internet protocols are publicly posted for scrutiny by the entire Internet community. Each accepted protocol is known by its Request for Comment (RFC) number. Many problems with protocols have been identified by sharp reviewers and corrected before the protocol was established as a standard.

But protocol definitions are made and reviewed by fallible humans. Likewise, protocols are implemented by fallible humans. For example, TCP connections are established through sequence numbers. The client (initiator) sends a sequence number to open a connection, the server responds with that number and a sequence number of its own, and the client responds with the server's sequence number. Suppose (as pointed out by Morris [MOR85]) someone can guess a client's next sequence number. That person could impersonate the client in an interchange. Sequence numbers are incremented regularly, so it can be easy to predict the next number. (Similar protocol problems are summarized in [BEL89].)


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?") 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 password—quite a respectable work factor. However, those 14 characters were not diffused across the entire hash; they were sent in separate substrings, representing characters 1–7 and 8–14. 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 + 677 = 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 user—or a remote attacker—can 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 Blue-Bank.com, so you register the domain name BlueBank.com. Next, you put up a web page at BlueBank.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.

There are no known cases of this kind of fraudulent connection involving banks or finance. But there are two U.S. web sites that are easily confused: http://www.whitehouse. com and http://www.whitehouse.gov; only the latter is maintained by the U.S. government.

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.

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. 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, 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 7-16.

Figure 7-16Figure 7-16 Key Interception by a Man-in-the-Middle Attack.

This attack would be foiled 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.

Message Confidentiality Threats

An attacker can easily violate message confidentiality (and perhaps integrity) because of the public nature of networks. Eavesdropping and impersonation attacks can lead to a confidentiality or integrity failure. Here we consider several other vulnerabilities that can affect confidentiality.


Sometimes messages are misdelivered because of some flaw in the network hardware or software. Most frequently, messages are lost entirely, which is an integrity or availability issue. Occasionally, however, a destination address will be modified or some handler will malfunction, causing a message to be delivered to someone other than the intended recipient. All of these "random" events are quite uncommon.

More frequent than network flaws are human errors. It is far too easy to mistype an address such as 100064,30652 as 10064,30652 or 100065,30642, or to type "idw" or "iw" instead of "diw" for David Ian Walker, who is called Ian by his friends. There is simply no justification for a computer network administrator to identify people by meaningless long numbers or cryptic initials when "iwalker" would be far less prone to human error.


To protect the confidentiality of a message, we must track it all the way from its creation to its disposal. Along the way, the content of a message may be exposed in temporary buffers; at switches, routers, gateways, and intermediate hosts throughout the network; and in the workspaces of processes that build, format, and present the message. In earlier chapters, we considered confidentiality exposures in programs and operating systems. All of these exposures apply to networked environments as well. Furthermore, a malicious attacker can use any of these exposures as part of a general or focused attack on message confidentiality.

Passive wiretapping is one source of message exposure. So also is subversion of the structure by which a communication is routed to its destination. Finally, intercepting the message at it source, destination, or at any intermediate node can lead to its exposure.

Traffic Flow Analysis

Sometimes not only is the message itself sensitive but the fact that a message exists is also sensitive. For example, if the enemy during wartime sees a large amount of network traffic between headquarters and a particular unit, the enemy may be able to infer that significant action is being planned involving that unit. In a commercial setting, messages sent from the president of one company to the president of a competitor could lead to speculation about a takeover or conspiracy to fix prices. Or communications from the prime minister of one country to another with whom diplomatic relations were suspended could lead to inferences about a rapprochement between the countries. In these cases, we need to protect both the content of messages and the header information that identifies sender and receiver.

Message Integrity Threats

In many cases, the integrity or correctness of a communication is at least as important as its confidentiality. In fact for some situations, such as passing authentication data, the integrity of the communication is paramount. In other cases, the need for integrity is less obvious. Next we consider threats based on failures of integrity in communication.

Falsification of Messages

Increasingly, people depend on electronic messages to justify and direct actions. For example, if you receive a message from a good friend asking you to meet at the pub for a drink next Tuesday evening, you will probably be there at the appointed time. Likewise, you will comply with a message from your supervisor telling you to stop work on project A and devote your energy instead to project B. As long as it is reasonable, we tend to act on an electronic message just as we would on a signed letter, a telephone call, or a face-to-face communication.

However, an attacker can take advantage of our trust in messages to mislead us. In particular, an attacker may

  • change some or all of the content of a message

  • replace a message entirely, including the date, time, and sender/receiver identification

  • reuse (replay) an old message

  • combine pieces of different messages into one

  • change the apparent source of a message

  • redirect a message

  • destroy or delete a message

These attacks can be perpetrated in the ways we have already examined, including:

  • active wiretap
  • Trojan horse
  • impersonation
  • preempted host
  • preempted workstation


Signals sent over communications media are subject to interference from other traffic on the same media, as well as from natural sources, such as lightning, electric motors, and animals. Such unintentional interference is called noise. These forms of noise are inevitable, and they can threaten the integrity of data in a message.

Fortunately, communications protocols have been intentionally designed to overcome the negative effects of noise. For example, the TCP/IP protocol suite ensures detection of almost all transmission errors. Processes in the communications stack detect errors and arrange for retransmission, all invisible to the higher-level applications. Thus, noise is scarcely a consideration for users in security-critical applications.

Web Site Defacement

One of the most widely known attacks is the web site defacement attack. Because of the large number of sites that have been defaced and the visibility of the result, the attacks are often reported in the popular press.

A defacement is common not only because of its visibility but also because of the ease with which one can be done. Web sites are designed so that their code is downloaded, enabling an attacker to obtain the full hypertext document and all programs directed to the client in the loading process. An attacker can even view programmers' comments left in as they built or maintained the code. The download process essentially gives the attacker the blueprints to the web site.

The ease and appeal of a defacement are enhanced by the seeming plethora of vulnerabilities that web sites offer an attacker. For example, between December 1999 and June 2001 (the first 18 months after its release), Microsoft provided 17 security patches for its web server software, Internet Information Server (IIS) version 4.0. And version 4.0 was an upgrade for three previous versions, so theoretically Microsoft had a great deal of time earlier to work out its security flaws.

The web site vulnerabilities enable attacks known as buffer overflows, dot-dot problems, application code errors, and server-side include problems.

Buffer Overflows

Buffer overflow is alive and well on web pages, too. It works exactly the same as described in Chapter 3: The attacker simply feeds a program far more data than it expects to receive. A buffer size is exceeded, and the excess data spill over into adjoining code and data locations.

Perhaps the best-known web server buffer overflow is the file name problem known as iishack. This attack is so well known that is has been written into a procedure (see http://www.technotronic.com). To execute the procedure, an attacker supplies as parameters the site to be attacked and the URL of a program the attacker wants that server to execute.

Other web servers are vulnerable to extremely long parameter fields, such as passwords of length 10,000 or a long URL padded with space or null characters.

Dot-Dot and Address Problems

Web server code should always run in a constrained environment. Ideally, the web server should never have editors, xterm and Telnet programs, or even most system utilities loaded. By constraining the environment in this way, even if an attacker escapes from the web server application, no other executable programs will help the attacker use the web server's computer and operating system to extend the attack. The code and data for web applications can be transferred manually to a web server or pushed as a raw image.

But many web applications programmers are naïve. They expect to need to edit a web application in place, so they expect to need editors and system utilities to give them a complete environment in which to program.

A second, less desirable, condition for preventing an attack is to create a fence confining the web server application. With such a fence, the server application cannot escape from its area and access other potentially dangerous system areas (such as editors and utilities). The server begins in a particular directory subtree, and everything the server needs is in that same subtree.

Enter the dot-dot. In both Unix and Windows, '..' is the directory indicator for "predecessor." And '../..' is the grandparent of the current location. So someone who can enter file names can travel back up the directory tree one .. at a time. Cerberus Information Security analysts found just that vulnerability in the webhits.dll extension for the Microsoft Index Server. For example, passing the following URL causes the server to return the requested file, autoexec.nt, enabling an attacker to modify or delete it.


Application Code Errors

A user's browser carries on an intricate, undocumented protocol interchange with the web server. To make its job easier, the web server passes context strings to the user, making the user's browser reply with full context. A problem arises when the user can modify that context.

To see why, consider our fictitious shopping site called CDs-R-Us, selling compact disks. At any given time, a server at that site may have a thousand or more transactions in various states of completion. The site displays a page of goods to order, the user selects one, the site displays more items, the user selects another, the site displays more items, the user selects two more, and so on until the user is finished selecting. Many people go on to complete the order by specifying payment and shipping information. But other people use web sites like this one as an online catalog or guide, with no real intention of ordering. For instance, they can use this site to find out the price of the latest CD from Cherish the Ladies; they can use an online book service to determine how many books by Iris Murdoch are in print. And even if the user is a bona fide customer, sometimes web connections fail, leaving the transaction incomplete. For these reasons, the web server often keeps track of the status of an incomplete order in parameter fields appended to the URL. These fields travel from the server to the browser and back to the server with each user selection or page request.

Assume you have selected one CD and are looking at a second web page. The web server has passed you a URL similar to


This URL means you have chosen CD number 459012, and its price is $15.99. You now select a second and the URL becomes


But if you are a clever attacker, you realize that you can edit the URL in the address window of your browser. Consequently, you change each of 1599 and 1499 to 199. And when the server totals up your order, lo and behold, your two CDs cost only $1.99 each.

This failure is an example of the time-of-check to time-of-use flaw that we discussed in Chapter 3. The server sets (checks) the price of the item when you first display the price, but then it loses control of the checked data item and never checks it again. This situation arises frequently in server application code because application programmers are generally not aware of security (they haven't read Chapter 3!) and typically do not anticipate malicious behavior.

Server-Side Include

A potentially more serious problem is called a server-side include. The problem takes advantage of the fact that web pages can be organized to invoke a particular function automatically. For example, many pages use web commands to send an e-mail message in the "contact us" part of the displayed page. The commands, such as e-mail, if, goto, and include, are placed in a field that is interpreted in HTML.

One of the server-side include commands is exec, to execute an arbitrary file on the server. For instance, the server-side include command

<!—#exec cmd="/usr/bin/telnet &"—>

will open a Telnet session from the server running in the name of (that is, with the privileges of) the server. An attacker may find it interesting to execute commands such as chmod (change access rights to an object), sh (establish a command shell), or cat (copy to a file).

Denial of Service

So far, we have discussed attacks that lead to failures of confidentiality or integrity—problems we have also seen in the contexts of operating systems, databases, and applications. Availability attacks, sometimes called denial-of-service or DOS attacks, are much more significant in networks than in other contexts. There are many accidental and malicious threats to availability or continued service.

Transmission Failure

Communications fail for many reasons. For instance, a line is cut. Or network noise makes a packet unrecognizable or undeliverable. A machine along the transmission path fails for hardware or software reasons. A device is removed from service for repair or testing. A device is saturated and rejects incoming data until it can clear its overload. Many of these problems are temporary or automatically fixed (circumvented) in major networks, including the Internet.

However, some failures cannot be easily repaired. A break in the single communications line to your computer (for example, from the network to your network interface card or the telephone line to your modem) can be fixed only by establishment of an alternative link or repair of the damaged one. The network administrator will say "service to the rest of the network was unaffected," but that is of little consolation to you.

From a malicious standpoint, you can see that anyone who can sever, interrupt, or overload capacity to you can deny you service. The physical threats are pretty obvious. We consider instead several electronic attacks that can cause a denial of service.

Connection Flooding

The most primitive denial-of-service attack is flooding a connection. If an attacker sends you as much data as your communications system can handle, you are prevented from receiving any other data. Even if an occasional packet reaches you from someone else, communication to you will be seriously degraded.

More sophisticated attacks use elements of Internet protocols. In addition to TCP and UDP, there is a third class of protocols, called ICMP or Internet Control Message Protocols. Normally used for system diagnostics, these protocols do not have associated user applications. ICMP protocols include:

  • ping, which requests a destination to return a reply, intended to show that the destination system is reachable and functioning

  • echo, which requests a destination to return the data sent to it, intended to show that the connection link is reliable (ping is actually a version of echo)

  • destination unreachable, which indicates that a destination address cannot be accessed

  • source quench, which means that the destination is becoming saturated and the source should suspend sending packets for a while

These protocols have important uses for network management. But they can also be used to attack a system. The protocols are handled within the network stack, so the attacks may be difficult to detect or block on the receiving host. We examine how two of these protocols can be used to attack a victim.


This attack works between two hosts. Chargen is a protocol that generates a stream of packets; it is used to test the network's capacity. The attacker sets up a chargen process on host A that generates its packets as echo packets with a destination of host B. Then, host A produces a stream of packets to which host B replies by echoing them back to host A. This series puts the network infrastructures of A and B into an endless loop. If the attacker makes B both the source and destination address of the first packet, B hangs in a loop, constantly creating and replying to its own messages.

Ping of Death

A ping of death is a simple attack. Since ping requires the recipient to respond to the ping request, all the attacker needs to do is send a flood of pings to the intended victim. The attack is limited by the smallest bandwidth on the attack route. If the attacker is on a 10-megabyte (MB) connection and the path to the victim is 100 MB or more, the attacker cannot mathematically flood the victim alone. But the attack succeeds if the numbers are reversed: The attacker on a 100-MB connection can easily flood a 10-MB victim. The ping packets will saturate the victim's bandwidth.


The smurf attack is a variation of a ping attack. It uses the same vehicle, a ping packet, with two extra twists. First, the attacker chooses a network of unwitting victims. The attacker spoofs the source address in the ping packet so that it appears to come from the victim. Then, the attacker sends this request to the network in broadcast mode by setting the last byte of the address to all 1s; broadcast mode packets are distributed to all hosts on the network. The attack is shown in Figure 7-17.

Figure 7-17Figure 7-17 Smurf Attack.

Syn Flood

Another popular denial-of-service attack is the syn flood. This attack uses the TCP protocol suite, making the session-oriented nature of these protocols work against the victim.

For a protocol such as Telnet, the protocol peers establish a virtual connection, called a session, to synchronize the back-and-forth, command-response nature of the Telnet terminal emulation. A session is established with a three-way TCP handshake. Each TCP packet has flag bits, two of which are denoted SYN and ACK. To initiate a TCP connection, the originator sends a packet with the SYN bit on. If the recipient is ready to establish a connection, it replies with a packet with both the SYN and ACK bits on. The first party then completes the exchange to demonstrate a clear and complete communication channel by sending a packet with the ACK bit on, as shown in Figure 7-18.

Figure 18Figure 7-18 Three-Way Connection Handshake.

Occasionally packets get lost or damaged in transmission. The destination maintains a queue called the SYN_RECV connections, tracking those items for which a SYN–ACK has been sent but no corresponding ACK has yet been received. Normally, these connections are completed in a short time. If the SYN–ACK (2) or the ACK (3) packet is lost, eventually the destination host will time out the incomplete connection and discard it from its waiting queue.

The attacker can deny service to the target by sending many SYN requests and never responding with ACKs, thereby filling the victim's SYN_RECV queue. Typically, the SYN_RECV queue is quite small, such as 10 or 20 entries. Because of potential routing delays in the Internet, typical holding times for the SYN_RECV queue can be minutes. So the attacker needs only to send a new SYN request every few seconds and it will fill the queue.

Attackers using this approach usually do one more thing: They spoof the nonexistent return address in the initial SYN packet. Why? For two reasons. First, the attacker does not want to disclose the real source address in case someone should inspect the packets in the SYN_RECV queue to try to identify the attacker. Second, the attacker wants to make the SYN packets indistinguishable from legitimate SYN packets to establish real connections. Choosing a different (spoofed) source address for each one makes them unique. A SYN–ACK packet to a nonexistent address will result in an ICMP Destination Unreachable result, but this will not be the ACK for which the TCP connection is waiting. (Remember that TCP and ICMP are different protocol suites, so an ICMP reply does not necessarily get back to the sender's TCP handler.)

For more on these and other denial of service threats, see [CER99].

Traffic Redirection

As we saw earlier, at the network layer, a router is a device that forwards traffic on its way through intermediate networks between a source host's network and a destination's. So if an attacker can corrupt the routing, traffic can disappear.

Routers use complex algorithms to decide how to route traffic. No matter the algorithm, they essentially seek the best path (where "best" is measured in some combination of distance, time, cost, quality, and the like). Routers are aware only of the routers with which they share a direct network connection, and they use gateway protocols to share information about their capabilities. Each router advises its neighbors about how well it can reach other network addresses. This characteristic allows an attacker to disrupt the network.

To see how, keep in mind that, in spite of its sophistication, a router is simply a computer with two or more network interfaces. Suppose a router advertises to its neighbors that it has the best path to every other address in the whole network. Soon all routers will direct all traffic to that one router. The one router may become flooded, or it may simply drop much of its traffic. In either case, a lot of traffic never makes it to the intended destination.

DNS Attacks

Our final denial-of-service attack is actually a class of attacks based on the concept of domain name server. A domain name server (DNS) is a table that converts domain names like ATT.COM into network addresses like; this process is called resolving the domain name. A domain name server queries other name servers to resolve domain names it does not know. For efficiency, it caches the answers it receives so it can resolve that name more rapidly in the future.

In the most common implementations of Unix, name servers run software called Berkeley Internet Name Domain or BIND or named (a shorthand for "name daemon"). There have been numerous flaws in BIND, including the now-familiar buffer overflow.

By overtaking a name server or causing it to cache spurious entries, an attacker can redirect the routing of any traffic, with an obvious implication for denial of service.

Distributed Denial of Service

The denial-of-service attacks we have listed are powerful by themselves, and Sidebar 7-6 shows us that many are launched. But an attacker can construct a two-stage attack that multiplies the effect many times. This multiplicative effect gives power to distributed denial of service.

Sidebar 7-6 How Much Denial-of-Service Activity Is There?

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) studied the amount of denial-of-service activity on the Internet [UCS01]. Because many DOS attacks use a fictitious return address, the researchers asserted that traffic to nonexistent addresses was indicative of the amount of denial-of-service attacking. They monitored a large, unused address space on the Internet for a period of three weeks. They found:

  • More than 12,000 attacks were aimed at more than 5,000 targets during the three-week period.

  • Syn floods likely accounted for more than half of the attacks.

  • Half the attacks lasted less than ten minutes, and 90 percent of attacks lasted less than an hour.

Steve Gibson of Gibson Research Corporation (GRC) experienced several denial-of-service attacks in mid-2001. He collected data for his own forensic purposes [GIB01]. The first attack lasted 17 hours, at which point he was able to reconfigure the router connecting him to the Internet so as to block the attack. During those 17 hours he found his site was attacked by 474 Windows-based PCs. A later attack lasted 6.5 hours before it stopped by itself. These attacks were later found to have been launched by a 13-year old from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

To perpetrate a distributed denial-of-service (or DDoS) attack, an attacker does two things, as illustrated in Figure 7-19. In the first stage, the attacker uses any convenient attack (such as exploiting a buffer overflow or tricking the victim to open and install unknown code from an e-mail attachment) to plant a Trojan horse on a target machine. That Trojan horse does not necessarily cause any harm to the target machine, so it may not be noticed. The Trojan horse file may be named for a popular editor or utility, bound to a standard operating system service, or entered into the list of processes (daemons) activated at startup. No matter how it is situated within the system, it will probably not attract any attention.

Figure 7-19Figure 7-19 Distributed Denial-of-Service Attack.

The attacker repeats this process with many targets. Each of these target systems then becomes what is known as a zombie. The target systems carry out their normal work, unaware of the resident zombie.

At some point the attacker chooses a victim and sends a signal to all the zombies to launch the attack. Then, instead of the victim's trying to defend against one denial-of-service attack from one malicious host, the victim must try to counter n attacks from the n zombies all acting at once. Not all of the zombies need to use the same attack; for instance, some can use smurf attacks and others syn floods to address different potential weaknesses.

In addition to their tremendous multiplying effect, distributed denial-of-service attacks are a serious problem because they are easily launched from scripts. Given a collection of denial-of-service attacks and a Trojan horse propagation method, one can easily write a procedure to plant a Trojan horse that can launch any or all of the denial-of-service attacks. DDoS attack tools first appeared in mid-1999. Some of the original DDoS tools include Tribal Flood Network (TFN), Trin00, and TFN2K (Tribal Flood Network, year 2000 edition). As new vulnerabilities are discovered that allow Trojan horses to be planted and as new denial-of-service attacks are found, new combination tools appear. For more details on this topic, see [HAN00a].

According to the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) [HOU01], scanning to find a vulnerable host (potential zombie) is now being included in combination tools; a single tool now identifies its zombie, installs the Trojan horse, and activates the zombie to wait for an attack signal. Recent target (zombie) selection has been largely random, meaning that attackers do not seem to care which zombies they infect. This revelation is actually bad news, because it means that no organization or accessible host is safe from attack. Perhaps because they are so numerous and because their users are assumed to be less knowledgeable about computer management and protection, Windows-based machines are becoming more popular targets for attack than other systems. Most frightening is the CERT finding that the time is shrinking between discovery of a vulnerability and its widespread exploitation.

Threats to Active or Mobile Code

Active code or mobile code is a general name for code that is pushed to the client for execution. Why should the web server waste its precious cycles and bandwidth doing simple work that the client's workstation can do? For example, suppose you want your web site to have bears dancing across the top of the page. To download the dancing bears, you could download a new image for each movement the bears take: one bit forward, two bits forward, and so forth. However, this approach uses far too much server time and bandwidth to compute the positions and download new images. A more efficient use of (server) resources is to download a program that runs on the client's machine and implements the movement of the bears.

Since you have been studying security and are aware of vulnerabilities, you probably are saying to yourself, "You mean a site I don't control, which could easily be hacked by teenagers, is going to push code to my machine that will execute without my knowledge, permission, or oversight?" Welcome to the world of (potentially malicious) mobile code. In fact, there are many different kinds of active code, and in this section we look at the related potential vulnerabilities.


Strictly speaking, cookies are not active code. They are data files that can be stored and fetched by a remote server. However, cookies can be used to cause unexpected data transfer from a client to a server, so they have a role in a loss of confidentiality.

A cookie is a data object that can be held in memory (a per-session cookie) or stored on disk for future access (a persistent cookie). Cookies can store anything about a client that the browser can determine: keystrokes the user types, the machine name, connection details (such as IP address), date and type, and so forth. On command a browser will send to a server the cookies saved for it. Per-session cookies are deleted when the browser is closed, but persistent cookies are retained until a set expiration date, which can be years in the future.

Cookies provide context to a server. Using cookies, certain web pages can greet you with "Welcome back, James Bond" or reflect your preferences, as in "Shall I ship this order to you at 135 Elm Street?" But as these two examples demonstrate, anyone possessing someone's cookie becomes that person in some contexts. Thus, anyone intercepting or retrieving a cookie can impersonate the cookie's owner.

What information about you does a cookie contain? Even though it is your information, most of the time you cannot tell what is in a cookie, because the cookie's contents are encrypted under a key from the server.

So a cookie is something that takes up space on your disk, holding information about you that you cannot see, forwarded to servers you do not know whenever the server wants it, without informing you. The philosophy behind cookies seems to be "Trust us, it's good for you."


Clients can invoke services by executing scripts on servers. Typically, a web browser displays a page. As the user interacts with the web site via the browser, the browser organizes user inputs into parameters to a defined script; it then sends the script and parameters to a server to be executed. But all communication is done through HTML. The server cannot distinguish between commands generated from a user at a browser completing a web page, and a user's handcrafting a set of orders. The malicious user can monitor the communication between a browser and a server to see how changing a web page entry affects what the browser sends and then how the server reacts. With this knowledge, the malicious user can manipulate the server's actions.

To see how easily this manipulation is done, remember that programmers do not often anticipate malicious behavior; instead, programmers assume that users will be benign and will use a program in the way it was intended to be used. For this reason, programmers neglect to filter script parameters to ensure that they are reasonable for the operation and safe to execute. Some scripts allow arbitrary files to be included or arbitrary commands to be executed. An attacker can see the files or commands in a string and experiment with changing them.

A well-known attack against web servers is the escape-character attack. A common scripting language for web servers, CGI (Common Gateway Interface), defines a machine-independent way to encode communicated data. The coding convention uses %nn to represent ASCII special characters. However, special characters may be interpreted by CGI script interpreters. So, for example, %0A (end-of-line) instructs the interpreter to accept the following characters as a new command. The following command requests a copy of the server's password file:


CGI scripts can also initiate actions directly on the server. For example, an attacker can observe a CGI script that includes a string of this form:

<!-#action arg1=value arg2=value ...>

and submit a subsequent command where the string is replaced by

<!-#exec cmd="rm *">

to cause a command shell to execute a command to remove all files in the shell's current directory.

Microsoft uses active server pages (ASP) as its scripting capability. Such pages instruct the browser on how to display files, maintain context, and interact with the server. These pages can also be viewed at the browser end, so any programming weaknesses in the ASP code are available for inspection and attack.

The server should never trust anything received from a client, because the remote user can send the server a string crafted by hand, instead of one generated by a benign procedure the server sent the client. As with so many cases of remote access, these examples demonstrate that if you allow someone else to run a program on your machine, you can no longer have confidence that your machine is secure.

Active Code

Displaying web pages started simply with a few steps: generate text, insert images, and register mouse clicks to fetch new pages. Soon, people wanted more elaborate action at their web sites: toddlers dancing atop the page, a three-dimensional rotating cube, images flashing on and off, colors changing, totals appearing. Some of these tricks, especially those involving movement, take significant computing power; they require a lot of time and communication to download from a server. But typically, the client has a capable and underutilized processor, so the timing issues are irrelevant.

To take advantage of the processor's power, the server may download code to be executed on the client. This executable code is called active code. The two main kinds of active code are JavaScript and ActiveX controls.


Sun Microsystems [GOS96] designed and promoted Java as a truly machine-independent programming language. A Java program consists of Java bytecode executed on a Java virtual machine (JVM). The bytecode programs are machine independent, and only the JVM needs to be implemented on each class of machine to achieve program portability. The JVM contains a built-in security manager that enforces a security policy. A Java program runs in a Java "sandbox," a constrained resource domain from which the program cannot escape. The Java programming language is strongly typed, meaning that the content of a data item must be of the appropriate type for which it is to be used (for example, a text string cannot be used as a numeric).

The original specification, called Java 1.1, was very solid, very restrictive, and hence very unpopular. In it, a program could not write permanently to disk, nor could it invoke arbitrary procedures that had not been included in the sandbox by the security manager's policy. Thus, the sandbox was a collection of resources the user was willing to sacrifice to the uncertainties of Java code. Although very strong, the Java 1.1 definition proved unworkable. As a result, the original restrictions on the sandbox were relaxed, to the detriment of security.

The Java 1.2 specification opened the sandbox to more resources, particularly to stored disk files and executable procedures. (See, for example, [GON96, GON97].) Although it is still difficult to break its constraints, the Java sandbox contains many new toys, enabling more interesting computation but opening the door to exploitation of more serious vulnerabilities. (For more information, see [DEA96] and review the work of the Princeton University Secure Internet Programming group, http://www.cs.princeton.edu/sip/history/index.php3.)

Does this mean that Java's designers made bad decisions? No. As we have seen many times before, a product's security flaw is not necessarily a design flaw. Sometimes the designers choose to trade some security for increased functionality or ease of use. In other cases, the design is fine, but implementers fail to uphold the high security standards set out by designers. The latter is certainly true for Java. There have been problems with implementations of Java virtual machines for different platforms and in different components. For example, a version of Netscape browser failed to implement type checking on all data types, as is required in the Java specifications. A similar vulnerability affected Microsoft Internet Explorer. Although these vulnerabilities have been patched, other problems could occur with subsequent releases.

A hostile applet is downloadable Java code that can cause harm on the client's system. Because an applet is not screened for safety when it is downloaded and because it typically runs with the privileges of its invoking user, a hostile applet can cause serious damage. Dean et al. [DEA96] list necessary conditions for secure execution of applets:

  • The system must control applets' access to sensitive system resources, such as the file system, the processor, the network, the user's display, and internal state variables.

  • The language must protect memory by preventing forged memory pointers and array (buffer) overflows.

  • The system must prevent object reuse by clearing memory contents for new objects; the system should perform garbage collection to reclaim memory that is no longer in use.

  • The system must control interapplet communication as well as applets' effects on the environment outside the Java system through system calls.


Microsoft's answer to Java technology is ActiveX. Using ActiveX, objects of arbitrary type can be downloaded to a client. If the client has a viewer or handler for the object's type, that viewer is invoked to present the object. For example, downloading a Microsoft Word .doc file would invoke Microsoft Word on a system on which it is installed. Files for which the client has no handler cause other code to be downloaded. Thus, in theory, an attacker could invent a type, called .bomb, and cause any unsuspecting user who downloaded a web page with a .bomb file also to download code that would execute .bombs.

To prevent arbitrary downloads, Microsoft uses an authentication scheme under which downloaded code is cryptographically signed and the signature is verified before execution. But the authentication verifies only the source of the code, not its correctness or safety. Code from Microsoft (or Netscape or any other manufacturer) is not inherently safe, and code from an unknown source may be more or less safe than that from a known source. Proof of origin shows where it came from, not how good or safe it is. And some vulnerabilities allow ActiveX to bypass the authentication.

Auto Exec by Type

Data files are processed by programs. For some products, the file type is implied by the file extension, such as .doc for a Word document, .pdf (Portable Document Format) for an Adobe Acrobat file, or .exe for an executable file. On many systems, when a file arrives with one of these extensions, the operating system automatically invokes the appropriate processor to handle it.

By itself, a Word document is unintelligible as an executable file. To prevent someone from running a file temp.doc by typing that name as a command, Microsoft embeds within a file what type it really is. Double-clicking the file in a Windows Explorer window brings up the appropriate program to handle that file.

But, as we noted in Chapter 3, this scheme presents an opportunity to an attacker. A malicious agent might send you a file named innocuous.doc, which you would expect to be a Word document. Because of the .doc extension, Word would try to open it. Suppose that file is renamed "innocuous" (without a .doc). If the embedded file type is .doc, then double-clicking innocuous also brings the file up in Word. The file might contain malicious macros or invoke the opening of another, more dangerous file.

Generally, we recognize that executable files can be dangerous, text files are likely to be safe, and files with some active content, such as .doc files, fall in between. If a file has no apparent file type and will be opened by its built-in file handler, we are treading on dangerous ground. An attacker can disguise a malicious active file under a nonobvious file type.

Complex Attacks

As if these vulnerabilities were not enough, two other phenomena multiply the risk. Scripts let people perform attacks even if they do not understand what the attack is or how it is performed. Building blocks let people combine components of an attack, almost like building a house from prefabricated parts.

Script Kiddies

Attacks can be scripted. A simple smurf denial-of-service attack is not hard to implement. But an underground establishment has written scripts for many of the popular attacks. With a script, attackers need not understand the nature of the attack nor even the concept of a network. The attackers merely download the attack script (no more difficult than downloading a newspaper story from a list of headlines) and execute it. The script takes care of selecting an appropriate (that is, vulnerable) victim and launching the attack.

The hacker community is active in creating scripts for known vulnerabilities. For example, within three weeks of a CERT advisory for a serious SNMP vulnerability in February 2002 [CER02], scripts had appeared. These scripts probed for the vulnerability's existence in specific brands and models of network devices; then they executed attacks when a vulnerable host was found.

People who download and run attack scripts are called script kiddies. As the rather derogatory name implies, script kiddies are not well respected in the attacker community because the damage they do requires almost no creativity or innovation. Nevertheless, script kiddies can cause serious damage, sometimes without even knowing what they do.

Building Blocks

This chapter's attack types do not form an exhaustive list, but they are representative of the kinds of vulnerabilities being exploited, their sources, and their severity. A good attacker knows these vulnerabilities and many more.

An attacker simply out to cause minor damage to a randomly selected site could use any of the techniques we have described, perhaps under script control. A dedicated attacker who targets one location can put together several pieces of an attack in order to compound the damage. Often, the attacks are done in series so that each part builds on the information gleaned from previous attacks. For example, a wiretapping attack may yield reconnaissance information with which to form an ActiveX attack that transfers a Trojan horse that monitors for sensitive data in transmission. Putting the attack pieces together like building blocks expands the number of targets and increases the degree of damage.

Summary of Network Vulnerabilities

A network has many different vulnerabilities, but all derive from an underlying model of computer, communications, and information systems security. Threats are raised against the key aspects of security: confidentiality, integrity, and availability, as shown in Table 7-4.

Table 7-4 Network Vulnerabilities.



Precursors to attack

  • Port scan
  • Social engineering
  • Reconnaissance
  • OS and application fingerprinting

Authentication failures

  • Impersonation
  • Guessing
  • Eavesdropping
  • Spoofing
  • Session hijacking
  • Man-in-the-middle attack

Programming flaws Confidentiality

  • Buffer overflow
  • Addressing errors
  • Parameter modification, time-of-check to time-of-use errors
  • Server-side include
  • Cookie
  • Malicious active code: JavaScript, ActiveX
  • Malicious code: virus, worm, Trojan horse

Malicious typed code

  • Protocol flaw
  • Eavesdropping
  • Passive wiretap
  • Misdelivery
  • Exposure within the network
  • Traffic flow analysis
  • Cookie


  • Protocol flaw
  • Active wiretap
  • Impersonation
  • Falsification of message
  • Noise
  • Web site defacement
  • DNS attack


  • Protocol flaw
  • Transmission or component failure
  • Connection flooding, e.g., echo-chargen, ping of death, smurf, syn flood
  • DNS attack
  • Traffic redirection
  • Distributed denial of service

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  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020