Types of Network Attacks

Types of Network Attacks


The internet has become mission critical for many institutions today, including large and small companies, universities, and government agencies. Many individuals also rely on the internet for many of their professional, social, and personal activities. But behind all this utility and excitement, there is a dark side, a side where “bad guys” attempt to wreak havoc in our daily lives by damaging our internet-connected computers, violating our privacy, and rendering inoperable the internet services on which we depend.

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The field of network security is about how the bad guys can attack computer networks and about how we, soon-to-be experts in computer networking, can defend networks against those attacks, or better yet, design new architectures that are immune to such attacks in the first place. Given the frequency and variety of existing attacks as well as the threat of new and more destructive future attacks, network security has become a central topic in the field of computer networking. One of the features of this course is that it brings network security issues to the forefront.

Since we don’t yet have expertise in computer networking and internet protocols, we’ll begin here by surveying some of today’s more prevalent security related problems. This will whet our appetite for more substantial discussions in the upcoming modules. So we begin here by simply asking, what can go wrong? How are computer networks vulnerable? What are some of the more prevalent types of attacks today?

Injecting Malware Into Your Host Through The Internet

We attach devices to the internet because we want to receive/send data from/to the internet. This includes all kinds of good stuff, including web pages, e-mail messages, MP3s, telephone calls, live video, search engine results, and so on. But, unfortunately, along with all the good stuff comes malicious stuff-collectively known as malware – that can also enter and infect our devices. Once malware infects our device it can do all kinds of devious things, including deleting our files; installing spyware that collectors our private information, such as social security numbers, passwords, and keystrokes, and then sends this (over the internet of course!) back to the bad guys. Our compromised host may also be enrolled in a network of thousands of similarly compromised devices, collectively known as a botnet , which the bad guys control and leverage for spam e-mail distribution or distributed denial-of-service attacks against targeted hosts.

Much of the malware out there today is self-replicating : once it infects one host, from that host it seeks entry into other hosts over the internet , and from the newly infected hosts, it seeks entry into yet more hosts. In this manner, self-replicating malware can spread exponentially fast. Malware can spread in the form of a virus or a worm. Viruses are malware that require some form of user interaction to infect the user’s device. This classic example is an e-mail attachment containing malicious executable code. If a user receivers and opens such an attachment , the user inadvertently runs the malware on the device. Typically, such e-mail viruses are self-replicating : once executed, the virus may send an identical message with an identical malicious attachment to, for example, every recipient in the user’s address book. Worms are malware that can enter a device without any explicit user interaction. For example, a user may be running a vulnerable network application to which an attacker can send malware. In some cases, without any user interaction, the application may accept the malware from the internet and run it creating a worm. The worm in the newly infected device then scans the internet, searching for other hosts running the same vulnerable network application. When it finds other vulnerable hosts, it sends a copy of itself to those hosts. Today, malware, is pervasive and costly to defend against. As you work through this course, we encourage you to think about the following questions: What can computer network designers do to defend internet-attached devices from malware attacks?

Attacking Servers and Network Infrastructure

Another broad class of security threats are known as denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. As the name suggest, a DoS attack renders a network, host, or other piece of infrastructure unusable by legitimate users. Web servers, e-mail servers, DNS servers and institutional networks can all be subjected to DoS attacks. Internet DoS attacks are extremely common, with thousands of DoS attacks occurring every year. Most internet DoS attacks fall into one of three categories:

  1. Vulnerability attack : This involves sending a few well-crafted messages to a vulnerable application or operating system running on a targeted host. If the right sequence of packets is sent to a vulnerable application or operating system, the service can stop or worse, the host can crash.
  2. Bandwidth flooding : The attacker sends a deluge of packets to the targeted host – so many packets that the target’s access link becomes clogged preventing legitimate packets from reaching the server.
  3. Connection flooding : The attacker establishes a large number of half-open or fully open TCP connections at the target host. The host can become so bogged down with these bogus connections that it stops accepting legitimate connections.

Let’s now explore the bandwidth-flooding attack in more detail. Recalling our delay and loss analysis discussion in section 1.4.2, it’s evident that if the server has an access rate of R bps, then the attacker will need to send traffic at a rate of approximately R bps to cause damage. If R is very large, a single attack source may not be able to generate enough traffic to harm the server. Furthermore, if all the traffic emanates from a single source, an upstream router may be able to detect the attack and block all traffic from that source before the traffic gets near the server. In a distributed DoS (DDoS) attack, illustrated in figure 1.25, the attacker controls multiple sources and has each source blast traffic at the target. With this approach, the aggregate traffic rate across all the controlled sources needs to be approximately R to cripple the service. DDoS attacks leveraging botnets with thousands of compromised hosts are a common occurrence today. DDoS attacks are much harder to detect and defend against than a DoS attack from a single host.

We encourage you to consider the following question as you work your way through the course: what can computer network designers do to defend against DoS attacks? We will see that different defences are needed for the three types of DoS attacks.

Sniffing Packets

Many users today access the internet via wireless devices, such as WiFi-connected laptops or handheld devices with cellular internet connections. While ubiquitous internet access is extremely convenient and enables marvellous new applications for mobile users, it also create a major security vulnerability – by placing a passive receiver in the vicinity of the wireless transmitter, that receiver can obtain a copy of every packet that is transmitted! These packets can contain all kinds of sensitive information, including passwords, social security numbers, trade secrets, and private personal messages. A passive receiver that records a copy of every packet that flies by is called a packet sniffer .

Sniffers can be deployed in wired environments as well. In wired broadcast environments, as in many Ethernet LANs, a packet sniffer can obtain copies of broadcast packets sent over the LAN. As described in section 1.2, cable access technologies also broadcast packets and are thus vulnerable to sniffing. Furthermore, a bad guy who gains access to an institution’s access router or access link to the internet may be able to plant a sniffer that makes a cop of every packet going to/from the organization. Sniffed packets can then be analysed offline for sensitive information

Packet-sniffing software is freely available at various web sites and as commercial products. Professors teaching a networking course have been known to assign lab exercises that involve writing a packet-sniffing and application-layer data reconstruction program.

Because packet sniffers are passive – that is, they do not inject packets into the channel – they are difficult to detect. So, when we send packets into a wireless channel, we must accept the possibility that some bad guy may be recording copies of our packets. As you may have guessed, some of the best defences against packet sniffing involve cryptography.

Masquerading as Someone You Trust

It is surprisingly easy (you will have the knowledge to do so shortly as you proceed through this article) to create a packet with an arbitrary source address, packet content, and destination address and then transmit this hand-crafted packet into the internet, which will dutifully forward the packet to its destination. Imagine the unsuspecting receiver (say an internet router) who receives such a packet, takes the (false) source address as being truthful, and then performs some command embedded in the packet’s contents (say modifies its forwarding table). The ability to inject packets into the internet with a false source address is known as IP spoofing, and is but one of many ways in which one user can masquerade as another user.

To solve this problem, we will need end-point authentication, that is, mechanism that will allow us to determine with certainty if a message originates from where we think it does. Once again, we encourage you to think about how this can be done for network applications and protocols as you progress through the modules in this course.

In closing this section it’s worth considering how the internet got to be such an insecure place in the first place. The answer, in essence, is that the internet was originally designed to be that way, based on the model of “a group of mutually trusting users attached to a transparent network”- a model in which there is no need for security. Many aspects of this original internet architecture deeply reflect this notion of mutual trust. For example, the ability of one user to send a packet to any other user is the default rather than a request/granted capability, and user identity is taken at declared face value, rather than being authenticated by default.

But today’s internet certainly does not involve “mutually trusting users.” Nonetheless, today’s users still need to communicate when they don’t necessarily trust each other, may wish to communicate anonymously, may communicate indirectly through third parties and may distrust the hardware, software, and even the air through which they communicate. We now have many security-related challenges before us as we progress through this course: We should seek defences against sniffing, end-point masquerading, man-in-the-middle attacks, DDoS attacks, malware, and more. We should keep in mind that communication among mutually trusted users is the exception rather than the rule. Welcome to the world of modern computer networking!