I read about a "new" TCP flaw that, according to C|Net News, Related Posts
puts Web sites at risk. There is very little technical information available; the researchers who discovered this tasty TCP tidbit canceled a conference talk on the subject and have been sketchy about the details of the flaw when talking publicly. So I did some digging and ran into a wall of secrecy almost as high as the one Kaminsky placed around the DNS vulnerability.

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So I hit Twitter and leveraged the simple but effective power of asking for help. Which resulted in several replies, leading me to Fyodor and an April 2000 Bugtraq entry. The consensus at this time seems to be that the wall Kaminsky built was for good reason, but this one? No one's even trying to ram it down because it doesn't appear to be anything new. Which makes the "oooh, scary!" coverage by mainstream and trade press almost amusing and definitely annoying.

The latest 'exploit' appears to be, in a nutshell, a second (or more) discovery regarding the nature of TCP. It appears to exploit the way in which TCP legitimizes a client. In that sense the rediscovery (I really hesitate to call it that, by the way) is on par with Kaminsky's DNS vulnerability simply because the exploit appears to be about the way in the protocol works, and not any technical-based vulnerability like a buffer overflow.

TCP and applications riding atop TCP inherently trust any client that knocks on the door (SYN) and responds correctly (ACK) when TCP answers the door (SYN ACK). It is simply the inherent trust of the TCP handshake as validation of the legitimacy of a client that makes these kinds of attacks possible. But that's what makes the web work, kids, and it's not something we should be getting all worked up about. xfiles-mulder-and-scully

Really, the headlines should read more like "Bad people could misuse the way the web works. Again." This likely isn't about technology, it's about trust, and the fact that the folks who wrote TCP never thought about how evil some people can be and that they'd take advantage of that trust and exploit it. Silly them, forgetting to take into account human nature when writing a technical standard. If they had, however, we wouldn't have the Internet we have today because the trust model on the Web would have to be "deny everything, trust no one" rather than "trust everyone unless they prove otherwise."

So is the danger so great as is being portrayed around the web? I doubt it, unless the researchers have stumbled upon something really new. We've known about these kinds of attacks for quite some time now. Changing the inherent nature of TCP isn't something likely to happen anytime soon, but contrary to the statements made regarding there being no workarounds or solutions to these problem, there are plenty of solutions that address these kinds of attacks.

I checked in with our engineers, just in case, and got the low-down on how BIG-IP handles this kind of a situation and, as expected, folks with web sites and applications being delivered via a BIG-IP really have no reason to be concerned about the style of attack described by Fyodor. If it turns out there's more to this vulnerability, then I'll check in again. But until then, I'm going to join the rest of the security world and not worry much about this "new" attack.

In the end, it appears that the researchers are not only exploiting the trust model of TCP, they're exploiting the trust between people; the trust that the press has in "technology experts" to find real technical vulnerabilities and the trust that folks have in the trade press to tell them about it.

That kind of exploitation is something that can't be addressed with technology. It can't be fixed by rewriting a TCP stack, and it certainly can't be patched by any vendor.

 

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