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14th USENIX Security Symposium — Abstract

Pp. 65–80 of the Proceedings

Robust TCP Stream Reassembly In the Presence of Adversaries

Sarang Dharmapurikar, Washington University in Saint Louis; Vern Paxson, International Computer Science Institute, Berkeley


There is a growing interest in designing high-speed network devices to perform packet processing at semantic levels above the network layer. Some examples are layer-7 switches, content inspection and transformation systems, and network intrusion detection/prevention systems. Such systems must maintain per-flow state in order to correctly perform their higher-level processing. A basic operation inherent to per-flow state management for a transport protocol such as TCP is the task of reassembling any out-of-sequence packets delivered by an underlying unreliable network protocol such as IP. This seemingly prosaic task of reassembling the byte stream becomes an order of magnitude more difficult to soundly execute when conducted in the presence of an adversary whose goal is to either subvert the higher-level analysis or impede the operation of legitimate traffic sharing the same network path.

We present a design of a hardware-based high-speed TCP reassembly mechanism that is robust against attacks. It is intended to serve as a module used to construct a variety of network analysis systems, especially intrusion prevention systems. Using trace-driven analysis of out-of-sequence packets, we first characterize the dynamics of benign TCP traffic and show how we can leverage the results to design a reassembly mechanism that is efficient when dealing with non-attack traffic. We then refine the mechanism to keep the system effective in the presence of adversaries. We show that although the damage caused by an adversary cannot be completely eliminated, it is possible to mitigate the damage to a great extent by careful design and resource allocation. Finally, we quantify the trade-off between resource availability and damage from an adversary in terms of Zombie equations that specify, for a given configuration of our system, the number of compromised machines an attacker must have under their control in order to exceed a specified notion of ``acceptable collateral damage.''

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