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5.3 L2TP

L2TP has minimal built-in security. The LAC and LNS can authenticate each other during tunnel setup, and most AVPs can be encrypted, but L2TP, like PPTP, depends on PPP to protect the user data in the tunnel. This default security has several problems.

Let's put aside the problems with MPPE and MS-CHAP for the moment and assume that we have robust versions of CHAP and an encryption protocol installed in our PPP implementation. Unfortunately, we are still far from secure. Let's take a look at some of the problems that remain.

First, the control channel, once set up, is unprotected except for any AVPs that are encrypted. This means that an attacker can easily disrupt the tunnel by, for example, sending a forged StopCCN message to the LAC or LNS. The attacker will have to know the tunnel ID and proper sequence numbers, of course, but they are easily obtained by snooping the tunnel or even by informed trial and error.

A parallel weakness exists in PPP. Although packets carrying user data are encrypted, control packets, such as LCP, CHAP, and IPCP packets, are not. This means that PPP can leak information, such as the internal IP addresses of the enterprise network. It also means that active attacks, such as sending a forged packet pointing to a compromised DNS server, are possible. Because PPP packets are not authenticated—whether or not encryption is in use—these types of attacks are particularly easy.

This last point is an important one. Because neither PPP nor L2TP messages are authenticated, they are subject to various manipulations.

We must distinguish here between the endpoint authentication, which happens at L2TP tunnel setup and PPP session establishment, and message authentication. Endpoint authentication typically involves a CHAP-like mechanism to convince each side of the proposed connection that its peer is who he says he is. Message authentication, on the other hand, refers to providing each message with a message authentication code, such as one of the HMACs we discussed in Chapter 3, to guarantee that the message is from the peer, not a forged message injected into the message stream by an attacker, and that it has not been modified since the MAC was calculated. Message authentication is sometimes called message integrity to distinguish it from endpoint authentication. Similarly, MACs are sometimes called message integrity codes (MICs).

Those who are not well versed in security and cryptographic protocols often believe that encryption alone provides message authentication. After all, if the message is not from the peer, how did the attacker encrypt it? Similarly, how could an attacker alter a message's plaintext without knowing the encryption key? Unfortunately, even encrypted messages are subject to manipulation by an attacker. Data that is encrypted with a stream cipher is subject to bit-flipping attacks, as we noted in our discussion of PPTP. Data encrypted with block ciphers is subject to cut-and-paste attacks, as we'll see in Chapter 12. Thus, the lack of message authentication in L2TP is a serious security shortcoming.

As we mentioned in Chapter 4, the forthcoming L2TPv3 will provide optional authentication for all messages in the control channel.

A consequence of L2TP's lack of message authentication is that there is no replay protection. That is, an attacker can replay previous messages in order to confuse the protocol or end application. We would not, for example, want to allow a previous request for a bank fund transfer to be replayed. Replay attacks can easily be prevented by adding a sequence number to each message and then authenticating the message. Notice that the sequence number alone is insufficient, as the attacker could merely supply the expected sequence number of an unauthenticated message. It is the authentication that prevents such trivial attacks.

Another problem with L2TP and PPP encryption and endpoint authentication is that they are based on a single shared secret. There are two issues with this: First, this shared secret could be compromised in some manner outside of the protocol, and once compromised, all previous and future traffic can be read, and the enterprise network that it is protecting is subject to immediate attack. Second, the shared secret is long lived, allowing an attacker to accumulate a large amount of data encrypted with it. The more data that a cryptanalyst has, the easier it is to break the encryption and discover the key.

VPNs generally have more robust key-management protocols that change keys often and prevent the accumulation of data that a cryptanalyst can work with. MPPE does this to a limited extent—the session key can change with every packet or after 256 packets—but because these keys are derived from a single shared secret and information sent in the clear, their security is no better than that of the shared secret. If the shared secret is compromised, all messages—past and future—can be read.

The ideal key-management protocol has a property called perfect forward secrecy (PFS). This means that each session key is independent and that the compromise of one such key does not compromise any of the others. Thus, our complaint about MPPE in the previous paragraph is that although it does change keys frequently, thereby making brute-force attacks more difficult, it does not enjoy the PFS property. This is a problem with PPP in general; none of the encryption protocols defined for use with it enjoy PFS or have robust key-management protocols. Indeed, as of this writing, they all depend on a shared secret.

L2TP and IPsec

Because L2TP has such weak native security, many experts consider it a remote access technology rather than a VPN. On the other hand, users tend to think of it as a VPN technology and are interested primarily in protecting their communications. One way of reconciling these two views is to combine L2TP with an external security protocol. The most popular way of doing this is to run L2TP over IPsec (Part 3).

IPsec provides encryption, authentication, and other security services at the network layer. IPsec can run in several modes and provide differing security services, but for now, let us merely stipulate that IPsec can provide encryption and authentication for IP packets. In particular, we shall be interested in ESP transport mode (Chapter 12), in which the payload of IP datagrams is encrypted and authenticated while in transit between, in this case, the LAC and LNS. Figure 5.1 shows the encapsulation of the L2TP header and message within IPsec, UDP, and IP.


Figure 5.1 Encapsulation of L2TP Within IPsec

With this encapsulation, the UDP header, the L2TP header, the L2TP message, and parts of the IPsec header and trailers are encrypted and authenticated, giving complete protection for everything in the L2TP tunnel. That is, the control channel and all the data channels, including the PPP control protocols, such as LCP and IPCP, are protected from snooping and alteration. This solves the problem that we have with plain L2TP of leaving these protocols unprotected. Finally, ESP provides replay protection, so L2TP/IPsec is also safe from replay attacks.

Given a connection over an L2TP/IPsec tunnel from a remote host to a host on the enterprise network, it is important to understand what parts of the path between the two hosts are protected. In the most common case of the road warrior with a voluntary connection to the enterprise network, we have the situation shown in Figure 5.2. If we assume that the remote host is communicating with one of the servers on the enterprise network, we almost have an end-to-end VPN. The L2TP/IPsec tunnel ends at the LNS on the enterprise network, so the final hop to the server is unprotected, but this won't matter for most applications, because the LNS and the server are both on the enterprise network, which is presumably protected by firewalls and other means from outside interference. Notice though, that the connection is still subject to snooping or manipulation by a host inside the enterprise. If this is a concern, another VPN could be established between the LNS and the server.


Figure 5.2 An L2TP/IPsec VPN Between a Road Warrior and the Enterprise Network

Another typical application of an L2TP/IPsec VPN is shown in Figure 5.3. Here, a remote network, such as a branch office, is connected to the enterprise network through an L2TP/IPsec tunnel. We assume that a host on the remote network has a connection to a server on the enterprise network.


Figure 5.3 An L2TP/IPsec VPN Between Networks

The security situation at the enterprise network is exactly like that in Figure 5.2: The connection is unprotected from the LNS to the server. The situation at the remote network is a little more complicated. If we assume that the host is talking to the LAC over a PPP connection, we can arrange that the data between the host and LNS is encrypted by PPP. That means, of course, that the data is doubly encrypted over most of the path between the host and the server, but more important, there is limited protection for the conversation on the remote network. Thus, such a connection would be resistant to snooping by a host on the remote network.

Other configurations are possible, of course, so it is important to evaluate the security of each leg in any proposed L2TP/IPsec VPN topology. If we trust the hosts and servers on the private networks, we needn't be too concerned about the lack of security there. If we don't trust them, we must take steps to ensure that any sensitive data is protected from snooping or alteration from within the private networks.

Microsoft uses the combination of L2TP/IPsec as its VPN solution (replacing PPTP), so we can expect to see this topology frequently. Nonetheless, not everyone agrees that this is a good solution.

First, it reintroduces the NAT problem. Recall that L2TP uses UDP encapsulation rather than GRE, as PPTP does, and that the rationale for this was that it allowed L2TP to interoperate with NAT. When L2TP is combined with IPsec, the UDP header is encrypted and thus unavailable to NAT. This means that the most common NAT mode, PAT, cannot be used. Fortunately, this problem is being solved. The IETF is developing a standard for a technology, called NAT traversal (NAT-T), that allows IPsec to interoperate with NAT. The Microsoft implementation of L2TP/IPsec includes a version of NATT. We discuss NAT-T further in Chapter 14.

The other common complaint about L2TP/IPsec is that it's a solution in search of a problem. Critics complain that L2TP not only adds overhead and does not scale well, but also fails to solve any problems that IPsec alone can't solve. Microsoft and other L2TP adherents counter that L2TP enables the use of existing session authentication protocols, such as MS-CHAP, and makes use of PPP's ability to assign IP addresses and DNS servers to the remote host. [Messmer 2000] discusses the pros and cons of L2TP/IPsec deployment. Chapter 10 of [Shea 2000] has an excellent summary of L2TP security concerns and a discussion of L2TP/IPsec. RFC 3193 [Patel, Aboba, Dixon et al. 2001] discusses securing L2TP with IPsec in detail.

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