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Home Asian e-Marketing November - December 2009 BUZZWORD: Denial-of-service attack (DoS)

BUZZWORD: Denial-of-service attack (DoS)

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A denial-of-service attack (DoS attack) or distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack) is an attempt to make a computer resource unavailable to its intended users. Although the motives for carrying out a DoS attack may vary, it generally consists of the concerted efforts of a person or people to prevent an Internet site or service from functioning efficiently or at all, temporarily or indefinitely. Perpetrators of DoS attacks typically target sites or services hosted on high-profile web servers such as banks, credit card payment gateways, and even root nameservers.

One common method of attack involves saturating the target (victim) machine with external communications requests, such that it cannot respond to legitimate traffic, or responds so slowly as to be rendered effectively unavailable. In general terms, DoS attacks are implemented by either forcing the targeted computer(s) to reset, or consuming its resources so that it can no longer provide its intended service or obstructing the communication media between the intended users and the victim so that they can no longer communicate adequately.

Denial-of-service attacks are considered violations of the IAB's Internet proper use policy, and also violate the acceptable use policies of virtually all Internet Service Providers.

Symptoms of denial-of-service attacks include:

  • Unusually slow network performance (opening files or accessing web sites)
  • Unavailability of a particular web site
  • Inability to access any web site
  • Dramatic increase in the number of spam emails received—(this type of DoS attack is considered an e-mail bomb)

Denial-of-service attacks can also lead to problems in the network 'branches' around the actual computer being attacked. For example, the bandwidth of a router between the Internet and a LAN may be consumed by an attack, compromising not only the intended computer, but also the entire network. If the attack is conducted on a sufficiently large scale, entire geographical regions of Internet connectivity can be compromised without the attacker's knowledge or intent by incorrectly configured or flimsy network infrastructure equipment.

Methods of attack

A "denial-of-service" attack is characterized by an explicit attempt by attackers to prevent legitimate users of a service from using that service. Attacks can be directed at any network device, including attacks on routing devices and web, electronic mail, or Domain Name System servers.

A DoS attack can be perpetrated in a number of ways. The five basic types of attack are:

  1. Consumption of computational resources, such as bandwidth, disk space, or processor time
  2. Disruption of configuration information, such as routing information.
  3. Disruption of state information, such as unsolicited resetting of TCP sessions.
  4. Disruption of physical network components.
  5. Obstructing the communication media between the intended users and the victim so that they can no longer communicate adequately.

A DoS attack may include execution of malware intended to:

  • Max out the processor's usage, preventing any work from occurring.
  • Trigger errors in the microcode of the machine.
  • Trigger errors in the sequencing of instructions, so as to force the computer into an unstable state or lock-up.
  • Exploit errors in the operating system, causing resource starvation and/or thrashing i.e. to use up all available facilities so no real work can be accomplished.
  • Crash the operating system itself.

Related to DoS are:

Smurf attack

A smurf attack is one particular variant of a flooding DoS attack on the public Internet. It relies on misconfigured network devices that allow packets to be sent to all computer hosts on a particular network via the broadcast address of the network, rather than a specific machine. The network then serves as a smurf amplifier. In such an attack, the perpetrators will send large numbers of IP packets with the source address faked to appear to be the address of the victim. The network's bandwidth is quickly used up, preventing legitimate packets from getting through to their destination. To combat Denial of Service attacks on the Internet, services like the Smurf Amplifier Registry have given network service providers the ability to identify misconfigured networks and to take appropriate action such as filtering.

Ping flood

Ping flood is based on sending the victim an overwhelming number of ping packets, usually using the "ping" command from Unix like hosts (the -t flag on Windows systems has a far less malignant function). It is very simple to launch, the primary requirement being access to greater bandwidth than the victim.

SYN flood

SYN flood sends a flood of TCP/SYN packets, often with a forged sender address. Each of these packets is handled like a connection request, causing the server to spawn a half-open connection, by sending back a TCP/SYN-ACK packet, and waiting for a packet in response from the sender address. However, because the sender address is forged, the response never comes. These half-open connections saturate the number of available connections the server is able to make, keeping it from responding to legitimate requests until after the attack ends.

Teardrop Attacks

A Teardrop attack involves sending mangled IP fragments with overlapping, over-sized payloads to the target machine. This can crash various operating systems due to a bug in their TCP/IP fragmentation re-assembly code. Windows 3.1x, Windows 95 and Windows NT operating systems, as well as versions of Linux prior to versions 2.0.32 and 2.1.63 are vulnerable to this attack.

Peer-to-peer attacks

Attackers have found a way to exploit a number of bugs in peer-to-peer servers to initiate DDoS attacks. The most aggressive of these peer-to-peer-DDoS attacks exploits DC++. Peer-to-peer attacks are different from regular botnet-based attacks. With peer-to-peer there is no botnet and the attacker does not have to communicate with the clients it subverts. Instead, the attacker acts as a 'puppet master,' instructing clients of large peer-to-peer file sharing hubs to disconnect from their peer-to-peer network and to connect to the victim’s website instead. As a result, several thousand computers may aggressively try to connect to a target website. While a typical web server can handle a few hundred connections/sec before performance begins to degrade, most web servers fail almost instantly under five or six thousand connections/sec. With a moderately big peer-to-peer attack a site could potentially be hit with up to 750,000 connections in a short order. The targeted web server will be plugged up by the incoming connections. While peer-to-peer attacks are easy to identify with signatures, the large number of IP addresses that need to be blocked (often over 250,000 during the course of a big attack) means that this type of attack can overwhelm mitigation defenses. Even if a mitigation device can keep blocking IP addresses, there are other problems to consider. For instance, there is a brief moment where the connection is opened on the server side before the signature itself comes through. Only once the connection is opened to the server can the identifying signature be sent and detected, and the connection torn down. Even tearing down connections takes server resources and can harm the server. This method of attack can be prevented by specifying in the p2p protocol which ports are allowed or not. If port 80 is not allowed, the possibilities for attack on websites can be very limited.

Permanent denial-of-service attacks

A permanent denial-of-service (PDoS), also known loosely as phlashing, is an attack that damages a system so badly that it requires replacement or reinstallation of hardware. Unlike the distributed denial-of-service attack, a PDoS attack exploits security flaws in the remote management interfaces of the victim's hardware; it may be the routers, printers, or other networking hardware. These flaws leave the door open for an attacker to remotely 'update' the device firmware to a modified, corrupt or defective firmware image, therefore "bricking" the device and making it permanently unusable for its original purpose. The PDoS is a pure hardware targeted attack which can be much faster and requires fewer resources than using a botnet in a DDoS attack. Because of these features, and the potential and high probability of security exploits on Network Enabled Embedded Devices (NEEDs), this technique has come to the attention of numerous hacker communities.

Nuke

A Nuke is an old denial-of-service attack against computer networks consisting of fragmented or otherwise invalid ICMP packets sent to the target, achieved by using a modified ping utility to repeatedly send this corrupt data, thus slowing down the affected computer until it comes to a complete stop.
In online gaming, nuking is used by spamming another user, or all other users, with random repeated messages in quick succession. Such techniques are also seen in instant messaging programs as repeatedly sending text can be assigned to a macro or AppleScript. Modern operating systems are usually resistant to these nuke attacks, and online games now have third party "Flood control."

Distributed attack

A distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) occurs when multiple systems flood the bandwidth or resources of a targeted system, usually one or more web servers. These systems are compromised by attackers using a variety of methods. Malware can carry DDoS attack mechanisms; one of the better-known examples of this was MyDoom. Its DoS mechanism was triggered on a specific date and time. This type of DDoS involved hardcoding the target IP address prior to release of the malware and no further interaction was necessary to launch the attack.

A system may also be compromised with a trojan, allowing the attacker to download a zombie agent (or the trojan may contain one). Attackers can also break into systems using automated tools that exploit flaws in programs that listen for connections from remote hosts. This scenario primarily concerns systems acting as servers on the web.

Stacheldraht (see graphic) is a classic example of a DDoS tool. It utilizes a layered structure where the attacker uses a client program to connect to handlers, which are compromised systems that issue commands to the zombie agents, which in turn facilitate the DDoS attack. Agents are compromised via the handlers by the attacker, using automated routines to exploit vulnerabilities in programs that accept remote connections running on the targeted remote hosts. Each handler can control up to a thousand agents.  These collections of systems compromisers are known as botnets. DDoS tools like stacheldraht still use classic DoS attack methods centered on IP spoofing and amplification like smurf attacks and fraggle attacks (these are also known as bandwidth consumption attacks). SYN floods (also known as resource starvation attacks) may also be used. Newer tools can use DNS servers for DoS purposes.

Reflected attack

A distributed reflected denial of service attack (DRDoS) involves sending forged requests of some type to a very large number of computers that will reply to the requests. Using Internet protocol spoofing, the source address is set to that of the targeted victim, which means all the replies will go to (and flood) the target. ICMP Echo Request attacks (Smurf Attack) can be considered one form of reflected attack, as the flooding host(s) send Echo Requests to the broadcast addresses of mis-configured networks, thereby enticing many hosts to send Echo Reply packets to the victim. Some early DDoS programs implemented a distributed form of this attack.

Degradation-of-service attacks

"Pulsing" zombies are compromised computers that are directed to launch intermittent and short-lived floodings of victim websites with the intent of merely slowing it rather than crashing it. This type of attack, referred to as "degradation-of-service" rather than "denial-of-service", can be more difficult to detect than regular zombie invasions and can disrupt and hamper connection to websites for prolonged periods of time, potentially causing more damage than concentrated floods. Exposure of degradation-of-service attacks is complicated further by the matter of discerning whether the attacks really are attacks or just healthy and likely desired increases in website traffic.

Unintentional denial of service

This describes a situation where a website ends up denied, not due to a deliberate attack by a single individual or group of individuals, but simply due to a sudden enormous spike in popularity. This can happen when an extremely popular website posts a prominent link to a second, less well-prepared site, for example, as part of a news story. The result is that a significant proportion of the primary site's regular users — potentially hundreds of thousands of people — click that link in the space of a few hours, having the same effect on the target website as a DDoS attack. Remember what happened after the recent sudden death of Michael Jackson a few months ago, websites such as Google and Twitter slowed down or even crashed. Many sites' servers thought the requests were from a virus or spyware trying to cause a Denial of Service attack, warning users that their queries looked like “automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application”.

Denial-of-Service Level II

The goal of DoS L2 (possibly DDoS) attack is to cause a launching of a defense mechanism which blocks the network segment from which the attack originated. In case of distributed attack or IP header modification (that depends on the kind of security behavior) it will fully block the attacked network from Internet, but without system crash.

Blind denial of service

Blind denial-of-service attacks are particularly pernicious. With a blind attack, the attacker has a significant advantage. If the attacker must be able to receive traffic from the victim, then the attacker must either subvert the routing fabric or use the attacker's own IP address. Either provides an opportunity for the victim to track the attacker and/or filter out his traffic. With a blind attack the attacker can use forged IP addresses, making it extremely difficult for the victim to filter out those packets. The TCP SYN flood attack is an example of a blind attack. Designers should make every attempt possible to prevent blind denial of service attacks.

Performing DoS-attacks

A wide array of programs is used to launch DoS-attacks. Most of these programs are completely focused on performing DoS-attacks, while others are also true Packet injectors, thus able to perform other tasks as well. The investigative process should begin immediately after the DoS attack begins. There will be multiple phone calls, callbacks, emails, pages and faxes between the victim organization, one's provider, and others involved. This can be a very time consuming process. It has taken some very large networks with plenty of resources several hours to halt a DoS attack.


The major advantages to an attacker of using a distributed denial-of-service attack are that multiple machines can generate more attack traffic than one machine, multiple attack machines are harder to turn off than one attack machine, and that the behavior of each attack machine can be stealthier, making it harder to track down and shut down. These attacker advantages cause challenges for defense mechanisms.

Denial-of-service attacks and the law: In the Police and Justice Act 2006, the United Kingdom specifically outlawed denial-of-service attacks and set a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Source: Wikipedia

 

 
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Contents (November - December 2009)