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Next: Subterfuge attacks Up: Attacks on the monitor Previous: Overload attacks

Crash attacks

Crash attacks aim to knock the monitor completely out of action by causing it to either fault or run out of resources. As with an overload attack, the crash attack has two phases, the first during which the attacker crashes the monitor, and the second during which they then proceed with an intrusion.

Crash attacks can be much more subtle than overload attacks, though. By careful source code analysis, it may be possible to find a series of packets, or even just one, that, when received by the monitor, causes it to fault due to a coding error. The effect can be immediate and violent.

We can perhaps defend against this form of crash attack by careful coding and testing. Another type of crash attack, harder to defend against, is one that causes the monitor to exhaust its available resources: dynamic memory or disk space. Even if the monitor has no memory leaks, it still needs to maintain state for any active traffic. Therefore, one attack is to create traffic that consumes a large amount of state. When Bro supports timers for policy scripts, this attack will become more difficult, because it will be harder to predict the necessary level of bogus traffic. Attacks on disk space are likewise difficult, unless one knows the available disk capacity. In addition, the monitor might continue to run even with no disk space available, sacrificing an archival record but still producing real-time notifications, so a disk space attack might fail to mask a follow-on attack.

Bro provides two features to aid with defending against crash attacks. First, the event engine maintains a ``watchdog'' timer that expires every T seconds. (This timer is not a Bro internal timer, but rather a Unix ``alarm.'') Upon expiration, the watchdog handler checks to see whether the event engine has failed to finish processing the packet (and subsequent events) it was working on T seconds before. If so, then the watchdog presumes that the engine is in some sort of processing jam (perhaps due to a coding error, perhaps due to excessive time spent managing overburdened resources), and terminates the monitor process (first logging this fact, of course, and generating a core image for later analysis).

This feature might not seem particularly useful, except for the fact that it is coupled with a second feature: the script that runs Bro also detects if it ever unduly exits, and, if so, logs this fact and then executes a copy of tcpdump that records the same traffic that the monitor would have captured. Thus, crash attacks are (1) logged, and (2) do not allow a subsequent intrusion attempt to go unrecorded, only to evade real-time detection. However, there is a window of opportunity between the time when the Bro monitor crashes and when tcpdump runs. If an attacker can predict exactly when this window occurs, then they can still evade detection. But determining the window is difficult without knowledge of the exact configuration of the monitoring system.

next up previous Next: Subterfuge attacks Up: Attacks on the monitor Previous: Overload attacks

Vern Paxson
Sat Dec 6 01:53:24 PST 1997