4.2. IPIP serves as a common middle ground for the Internet. It can have many different layers below it, such as Ethernet, token ring, FDDI, PPP, or carrier pigeon. IP can have many other protocols layered on top of it, with TCP, UDP, and ICMP being by far the most common, at least outside of research environments. In this section, we discuss the special characteristics of IP relevant to packet filtering.
See RFC 1149, dated 1 April 1990, which defines the Avian Transport Protocol; RFCs dated 1 April are usually worth reading.
4.2.1. IP Multicast and Broadcastost IP packets are what are called unicast; they are sent to an individual destination host. IP packets may also be multicast (sent to a group of hosts) or broadcast (intended for every host that can receive them). Multicast packets are like memos, which are sent to a group of people ("Employees in the purchasing department" or "People working on the Ishkabibble project" or "Potential softball players"); their destination is a group of hosts that ought to be interested in the information. Broadcast packets are like announcements made on overhead speakers; they are used when everybody needs the information ("The building is on fire, evacuate now") or when the message's sender can't determine which particular destination should get the message, but believes that the destination will be able to figure it out ("The green Honda with license plate 4DZM362 has its lights on").
The purpose of multicasting is to create efficiency. Unlike a memo, a multicast packet is a single object. If 7, or 17, or 70 hosts want the same information, a multicast packet allows you to get it to them by sending just one packet, instead of one packet each. A broadcast packet would give you the same savings in network resources, but it would waste computing time on the uninterested machines that would have to process the packet in order to decide it was irrelevant and reject it.
Note that multicast and broadcast addresses are meant as destination addresses, not as source addresses. A machine may use a broadcast address as a source address only if it does not have a legitimate source address and is trying to get one (see Chapter 22, "Administrative Services", for more information about DHCP, which may use this mechanism). Otherwise, multicast and broadcast source addresses are generally signs of an attacker who is using a destination machine as an amplifier. If a packet has a broadcast source address and a unicast destination address, any reply to it will have a unicast source address and a broadcast destination; thus, an attacker who uses a broadcast source can cause another machine to do the broadcasting.
This is a good deal for the attacker because it's rare that packets with a broadcast destination are allowed to cross a firewall (or, in fact, any router). The attacker probably wouldn't be able to get at a large number of hosts without using this kind of dirty trick. You don't want broadcast information from other networks; it's not relevant to your life, and it may be dangerous (either because it's incorrect for your network, or because it allows attackers to gather information about your network). Routers are sometimes configured to pass some or all broadcasts between networks that are part of the same organization, because some protocols rely on broadcasts to distribute information. This is tricky to get right and tends to result in overloaded networks and hosts, but it is more acceptable than passing broadcasts to or from the Internet.
Your firewall should therefore refuse to pass packets with broadcast destinations and packets with multicast or broadcast source addresses.
4.2.2. IP OptionsAs we saw in the previous discussion of the IP layer, IP headers include an options field, which is usually empty. In its design, the IP options field was intended as a place for special information or handling instructions that didn't have a specific field of their own in the header. However, TCP/IP's designers did such a good job of providing fields for everything necessary that the options field is almost always empty. In practice, IP options are very seldom used except for break-in attempts and (very rarely) for network debugging.
The most common IP option a firewall would be confronted with is the IP source route option. Source routing lets the source of a packet specify the route the packet is supposed to take to its destination, rather than letting each router along the way use its routing tables to decide where to send the packet next. Source routing is supposed to override the instructions in the routing tables. In theory, the source routing option is useful for working around routers with broken or incorrect routing tables; if you know the route that the packet should take, but the routing tables are broken, you can override the bad information in the routing tables by specifying appropriate IP source route options on all your packets. In practice though, source routing is commonly used only by attackers who are attempting to circumvent security measures by causing packets to follow unexpected paths.
This is in fact a circular problem; several researchers have proposed interesting uses of source routing, which are impossible to use widely because source routing is commonly disabled -- because it's useful for nothing but attacks. This situation interferes considerably with widespread use of most solutions for mobile IP (allowing machines to move from place to place while keeping a fixed IP address).
Some packet filtering systems take the approach of dropping any packet that has any IP option set, without even trying to figure out what the option is or what it means; this doesn't usually cause significant problems.
4.2.3. IP FragmentationAnother IP-level consideration for packet filtering is fragmentation. One of the features of IP is its ability to divide a large packet that otherwise couldn't traverse some network link (because of limitations on packet size along that link) into smaller packets, called fragments, which can traverse that link. The fragments are then reassembled into the full packet by the destination machine (not by the machine at the other end of the limited link; once a packet is fragmented, it normally stays fragmented until it reaches its destination).
Normally, any router can decide to fragment a packet. A flag in the IP header can be used to prevent routers from fragmenting packets. Originally, this wasn't much used, because a router that needs to fragment a packet but is forbidden to do so will have to reject the packet, and communication will fail, which is generally less desirable than having the packet fragmented. However, there is now a system called path maximum transmission unit (MTU) discovery that uses the flag that prevents fragmentation.
Path MTU discovery is a way for systems to determine what is the largest packet that can be sent to another machine without getting fragmented. Large unfragmented packets are more efficient than small packets, but if packets have to be broken up later in the process, this will significantly decrease transfer speed. Therefore, maximum efficiency depends on knowing how big to make the packets, but that depends on all the network links between the machines. Neither machine has any way to know what the answer is (and, in fact, it may vary from moment to moment). In order to discover the limit, systems can send out packets with "don't fragment" set and look for the error response that says that the packet has been dropped because it was too big but could not be fragmented. If there's an error, the machine reduces the packet size; if there's no error, it increases it. This adds some extra expense at the beginning of a connection, but for a connection that transmits a significant amount of data across a network that includes a limited link, the overall transmission time will probably be improved despite the intentionally lost packets. However, path MTU discovery will fail catastrophically if the error messages (which are ICMP messages, discussed later in this chapter) are not correctly returned (for instance, if your firewall drops them).
IP fragmentation is illustrated in Figure 4-3.
Figure 4-3. Data fragmentationFrom a packet filtering point of view, the problem with fragmentation is that only the first fragment will contain the header information from higher-level protocols, like TCP, that the packet filtering system needs in order to decide whether or not to allow the full packet. Originally, the common packet filtering approach to dealing with fragmentation was to allow any non-first fragments through and to do packet filtering only on the first fragment of a packet. This was considered safe because if the packet filtering decides to drop the first fragment, the destination system will not be able to reassemble the rest of the fragments into the original packet, regardless of how many of the rest of the fragments it receives. If it can't reconstruct the original packet, the partially reassembled packet will not be accepted.
However, there are still problems with fragmented packets. If you pass all non-first fragments, the destination host will hold the fragments in memory for a while, waiting to see if it gets the missing piece; this makes it possible for attackers to use fragmented packets in a denial of service attack. When the destination host gives up on reassembling the packet, it will send an ICMP "packet reassembly time expired" message back to the source host, which will tell an attacker that the host exists and why the connection didn't succeed.
In addition, attackers can use specially fragmented packets to conceal data. Each fragment contains information about where the data it contains starts and ends. Normally, each one starts after the last one ended. However, an attacker can construct packets where fragments actually overlap, and contain the same data addresses. This does not happen in normal operation; it can happen only when bugs or attackers are involved, and attackers are by far the most likely cause.
Operating systems differ in their response to overlapping fragments. Because overlapping fragments are abnormal, many operating systems respond very badly to them and may reassemble them into invalid packets, with the expected sorts of unfortunate results up to and including operating system crashes. When they are reassembled, there are differences in whether the first or second fragment's data is kept; these differences can be increased by sending the fragments out of order. Some machines prefer the first version received, others the most recent version received, others the numerically first, and still others the numerically last. This makes it nearly impossible for packet filtering or intrusion detection systems to figure out what data the receiving system will actually see if and when the fragments are reassembled.
Three kinds of attacks are made possible by overlapping fragments:
Figure 4-4. Overlapping fragmentsThere are other, special problems with passing outbound fragments. Outbound fragments could conceivably contain data you don't want to release to the world. For example, an outbound NFS packet would almost certainly be fragmented, and if the file were confidential, that information would be released. If this happens by accident, it's unlikely to be a problem; people do not generally hang around looking at the data in random packets going by just in case there's something interesting in them. You could wait a very long time for somebody to accidentally send a fragment out with interesting data in it.
If somebody inside intentionally uses fragmentation to transmit data, you have hostile users within the firewall, and no firewall can deal successfully with insiders. (They probably aren't very clever hostile users, though, because there are easier ways to get data out.)
However, there is one other situation in which outbound fragments could carry data: if you have decided to deal with some vulnerability by blocking outbound responses to something (instead of attempting to block the original request on the incoming side, which would be a better idea), and the reply is fragmented. In this situation, non-first fragments of the reply will get out, and the attacker has reason to expect them and look for them. You can deal with this by being careful to filter out requests and by not relying on filtering out the replies.
Because of these many and varied problems with fragmentation, you should look for a packet filter that does fragment reassembly; rather than either permitting or denying fragments, the packet filter should reassemble the packet locally (and, if necessary, refragment it before sending it on). This will increase the load on the firewall somewhat, but it protects against all fragmentation-based risks and attacks, except those the firewall itself is vulnerable to (for instance, denial of service attacks based on sending non-first fragments until the firewall runs out of memory).
If you cannot do fragment reassembly, your safest option is to reject all non-first fragments. This may destroy connections that otherwise would have succeeded, but it is the lesser of two evils. Denying fragments will cause some connections to fail mysteriously, which is extremely unpleasant to debug. On the other hand, allowing them will open you to a variety of attacks that are widely exploited on the Internet. Fortunately, fragmented packets are becoming rarer as the use of path MTU discovery increases.
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