Category Archives: Online

IETF 98

Last week I talked briefly about the state of open internet measurement for network anomalies at IETF 98. This was my first time attending an IETF in-person meeting, and it was very useful in getting a better understanding of how to navigate the standards process, how it’s used by others, and what value can be gained from it.

A couple highlights that I took away from the event:

There’s a concern throughout the IETF about solving the privacy leaks in existing protocols for general web access. There are three major points in the protocol that need to be addressed and are under discussion as part of this: The first is coming up with a successor to DNS that provides confidentiality. This, I think, is going to be the most challenging point. The second is coming up with a SNI equivalent that doesn’t send the requested domain in plain-text. The third is adapting the current public certificate transparency process to provide confidentiality of the specific domains issued certificates, while maintaining the accountability provided by the system.

Confidential DNS

There are two proposals with traction for encrypting DNS that I’m aware of. Neither fully solve the problem, but both provide reasonable ways forward. The first is dnscrypt, a protocol with support from entities like yandex and cloudflare. It maintains a stateless UDP protocol, and encrypts requests and responses against server and client keys. There are working client proxies for most platforms, although installation on mobile is hacky, and a set of running providers. The other alternative, which was represented at IETF and seems to be preferred by the standards community is DNS over TLS. The benefit here that there’s no new protocol, meaning less code that needs to be audited to gain confidence of the security properties for the system. There are some working servers and client proxies available for this, but the community seems more fragmented, unfortunately.

The eventual problem that isn’t yet addressed is that you still need to trust some remote party with your dns query and neither protocol changes the underlying protocol where the work of dns resolution is performed by someone chosen by the local network. Current proxies allow the client to choose who this is instead, but that doesn’t remove the trust issue, and doesn’t work well with captive portals or scale to widespread deployment. It also doesn’t prevent that third party from tracking the chain of dns requests made by the client and getting a pretty good idea about what the client is doing.

Hidden SNI

SNI, or server name identification, is a process that occurs at the beginning of an HTTPS request where the client tells the server which domain it wants to talk to. This is a critical part of the protocol, because it allows a single IP address to host HTTPS servers for multiple domains. Unfortunately, it also allows the network to detect and potentially block requests at a domain, rather than IP granularity.

Proposals for encrypting the SNI have been around for a couple years. Unfortunately, they did not get included in TLS1.3, which means that it will be a while before the next iteration of the standard and the potential to include this update.

The good news was that there seems to be continued interest in figuring out ways to protect the SNI of client requests, though no current proposal I’m aware of.

Certificate Transparency Privacy

Certificate Transparency is an addition to the HTTPS system to enforce additional accountability in to the certificate authority system. It requires authorities (CA)’s to publish a log of all certificates they issue publicly, so that third parties can audit their list and make sure they haven’t secretly mis-issued certificates. While a great feature for accountability and web security, it also opens an additional channel where the list of domains with SSL certificates can be enumerated. This includes internal or private domains that the owner would like to remain obscure.

As google and others have moved to require the CT log from all authorities through requirements on browser certificate validity, this issue is again at the fore. There’s been work on addressing this problem, including a cryptographic proposal and the IETF proposal for domain label redaction which seems to be advancing through the standards process.

There remains a ways to go to migrate to protocols which provide some protection against a malicious network, but there’s willingness and work to get there, which is at least a start.

Another Strike against Domain Fronting

In 2014, Domain Fronting became the newest obfuscation technique for covert, difficult to censor communication. Even today, the Meek Pluggable transport serves ~400GB of Tor traffic each day, at a cost of ~$3000/month.

The basic technique is to make an HTTPS connection to the CDN directly, and then once the encryption has begun, make the HTTP request to the actual backing site instead. Since many CDNs use the same “front-end cache” servers for incoming requests to all of the different sites they host, there is a disconnect between the software handling SSL, and the routing web server proxying requests to where they need to go.

Even as the technique became widely adopted in 2014-2015, its demise was already predicted, with practitioners in the censorship circumvention community focused on how long it could be made to last until the next mechanism was found. This prediction rested on two points:

  1. The CDN companies will find themselves in a difficult position politically, since they are now in the position of supporting circumvention while also maintaining a relationship with the censoring countries.
  2. The technique has security and cost implications that make it not great for either the CDNs, or the practitioners.

We’ve seen both of these predictions mature.

Cloudflare, explicitly doesn’t support this mechanism of circumvention, and coincidentally has major Chinese partnerships and worked to deploy into China. Google also has limited the technique over periods as they have struggled with abuse (although mute in China, since the Google cloud doesn’t work there as a CDN.)

In terms of cost, the most notable incident is the “Great Cannon”, which targeted not only Github as widely reported, but also caused a significant amount of traffic to go to Amazon-hosted pages run by GreatFire, a dissident news organization, and costing them significant amounts of money. GreatFire had been providing a free browser that operated by proxying all traffic through domain-fronting. Due to a separate and less reported Chinese “DDOS” they ended up with a monthly bill for several tens of thousands of dollars and had to turn down the service.

The latest strike against domain fronting is seen in posts by Cobalt Strike and FireEye that the technique is also gaining adoption for Malware C&C. This abuse case will further incentivize CDNs from allowing the practice to continue, since there will now be many legitimate western voices actively calling on them to stop. Enterprises attempting to track threats on their networks, and CDN customers wanting to not be blamed for attacks will both begin putting more pressure on the CDNs to remove the ability for different domains to be intermixed, and we should expect to see a continued drop in the willingness of providers to offer such a service.

Thoughts on Wulim

One of the exciting developments at CCC last month was a talk discussing the copy protection features in the Wulim tablet produced by the Pyongyang Information Center. This post is an attempt to reconcile the features they describe with my experience with devices around Pyongyang and provide some additional context of the environment the device exists within.

Threat Model

As mentioned in the talk, the Wulim tablet, and most of the devices available in Pyongyang for that matter, do a good job of defending against the primary threat model anticipated: of casual dissemination of subversive material. To that end, transfer of content between devices is strictly regulated, with watermarking to track how material has been transferred, a screenshot-based verification systems for visual inspection, and technical limitations on the ability to run externally created Applications.

One of the interesting points of note is that the Wulim, and the earlier pyongyang phone from PIC implement much of their security through a system application and kernel process named ‘Red Flag’, which shares an icon and name with the protection system on the Red Star desktop system. While the code is most likely entirely different (I haven’t actually compared), the interesting point is that these implementations come from two separate labs and entities, indicating that there is potentially coordination or joint compliance with a common set of security requirements.

System Security

The Wulim was difficult for the CCC presenters to gain access to. While there were bugs allowing them to view the file system, there was no easy way to casually circumvent the security systems in place. This indicates a general success of the threat model the system was designed to protect against and shows a significant increase in technical proficiency from the 2013/2014 devices. In the initial generations of android-based hardware, most devices had an enabled recovery mode, and the security could generally be breached without more than a computer. The alternative start-up mode found at CCC indicates that the labs are still not deeply familiar with all of the intricacies of Android, and there remain quirks in its operation that they haven’t anticipated. This will likely continue, with a pattern of an attack surface area that continues to shrink as exploits are discovered and make their way back to pyongyang.

The ‘crown jewel’ for this system, it should be noted, is an exploit that the CCC presenters did not claim to have found: the ability to create applications which can be installed on the device without modification. One of the first and most effective security mechanisms employed by the wulim and previous generations of PIC android systems is the requirement that applications be signed with a lab-issued key. While it might be possible that either the security check of applications, or information about the private key might be recovered from a device, this code has likely been checked quite well, and I expect such a major lapse in security to be unlikely.

The presence of this security means that I cannot install an Application on your tablet from an SD card, computer, or via bluetooth transfer if it has not already been pre-approved. This key is potentially shared between KCC and PIC, because the stores offering to install after-market applications around pyongyang have a single list, and are willing to try adding them to systems produced by either lab.

Connectivity

The Wulim is a 2015-2016 model, and evidences a feeling of confidence from the labs that they’ve got the software security at a reasonably appropriate level of security, and are more comfortable opening back up appropriate levels of connectivity between devices. 2013 and 2014 models of tablets and phones were quite limited in connectivity, with bluetooth as a ‘high-end’ option only available on the flag-ship models, and wifi connectivity removed completely. In contrast, the Wulim has models with both bluetooth and wifi, as well as the capability for PPPOE based connectivity to intranet services broader than a single network.

This connectivity extends in two additional ways of note:

  • First, there continue to be rumors of mobile data services being tested for broader availability within the country, and the Gateway mechanism in the wulim presents yet another clue towards how this will manifest down the road. While the wulim tablet does not have 3G connectivity, the same software stack has been seen on phones (for instance the pyongyang phone series with the most recent generation ‘2610’ released in 2015).
  • Second, the same basic android system is being used for wider installations, and is on display in the science and technology exhibition center. In that context, a custom deployment of tablets with modified software have been installed in both tablet and desktop configuration (desktop through USB peripheral keyboards and mice), and are connected through a LAN-local wifi network for searching the library resources on-site.

Tracking

The screenshot ‘trace viewer’ mentioned in the CCC talk is really just a file-system viewer of images taken by the same red flag security tool integrated into the system. The notable points here are that screen shots are taken at regular interval on images not in a predefined white-list, so even if new signed applications are created, there will be an alternative system were their presence can be detected even if they’ve been uninstalled by the user prior to inspection. It’s worth noting that it is more effective against the transmission of images and videos containing subversive content then against applications. Applications in android will likely be able to take advantage of screen-security APIs to prevent themselves from appearing in the list. Or, more to the point, once external code is running, the system age is typically 2-3 years behind current android and one of several root methods can be used to escalate privileges and disable the security measures on the device.

While the CCC talk indicates that images and videos can only be viewed on the device they have been created on, this was not what I observed. It was relatively common for citizens to transfer content between devices, including road-maps and pictures of family and friends. The watermarking may be able to indicate lineage, but these sorts of transfer were not restricted or prevented.

Releasing

Very little underlying data was released from the CCC talk, although they indicate the intention to release some applications and data available on the tablet they have access to. This is unfortunate. The talk, and the general environment has already signaled to Pyongyang that devices are available externally, and much of their reaction to this reality has already occurred. In particular, devices are no longer sold to foreigners within the country regularly, as they were in 2013/14 – with a couple exceptions where a limited software release (without the protections imposed on locals) and on older hardware can be obtained.

The only remaining risk then is the fear of retribution against the individual who brought the device out of the country. The CCC presenters were worried that the device they have may have a serial number tied to an individual. This has not been my experience, and I believe it is highly unlikely. Cellphones with connectivity do need to be attached to a passport at the point of sale, but tablet, as of spring 2015 continue to be sold without registration. The serial numbers observed by the CCC presenters are version numbers common to the image placed on all of the tablets of that generation released.

Thoughts on IPv6 Measurement

About five years ago two projects, Zmap and Masscan, helped to shift the way that many researchers thought about the Internet. The tools both provide a relatively optimized code path for sending packets and collecting replies, and allow a researcher with moderate resources to attempt connections to every computer on the IPv4 Internet in about an hour.

These techniques are widely applied to monitor the Internet-scale security of services, with prominent examples of censys.io, scans.io, and shodan.io. For the security community, they have become a first-step for reconnaissance, allowing hackers to find origin IPs masked by CDNs, unadvertised points of presence, and vulnerable hosts within an organization.

While the core of the Internet and the services we actively choose to connect with remain staunchly IPv4, the networks that many end hosts are connected to are more rapidly adopting IPv6, responding to the exhaustion and density of the IPv4 address space.

This fall, a new round of research has focused on what is possible for the enumeration and exploration of the IPv6 address space. ‘You can -J reject but you can’t hide’ was presented at CCC, focusing on spidering DNS records to learn of active IPv6 addresses which are registered within the DNS system. Earlier in the fall, there were several sessions at IMC thinking about IPv6. Most notably, “Entropy/IP – uncovering entropy in IPv6″, which looks at how addresses are allocated in practice as seen by Akamai at the core of the network. In addition, IPv6 was the focus of a couple WIP sessions, expressing thoughts on discovering hosts through progressive ICMP probing, as well the continued exploration of what’s actually happening in the core as seen by Akamai.

Where does this growing understanding of wide-scale IPv6 usage take us?

  • Enumeration of candidate addresses is a new first step that will be needed for anything beyond a single prefix. Even then, scanning within a single organizational prefix can be considered an active brute-force attack, rather than the relatively ‘harmless’ reconnaissance of IPv4 scanning.
  • There are many potential sources to interact with for enumeration, including DNS records, observed network traffic, and default ::1 addresses. The Entropy/IP paper points out that shodan.io has already been observed adding itself as a member of the NTP pool to harvest candidate IPv6 addresses for scanning.
  • Address generation for many hosts is not fully random, embedding a mac address, IPv4 address, or other non-random information. This can be used to discover a subset of hosts more efficiently, though still not at Internet scale. (for example, 2^32 attempts to look for hosts of a specific brand within a 2^64 network address space.) This would still sends several gigabytes of traffic to an individual network in the process of scanning. Non-random addresses tend to be more often associated with servers and routers than with end-clients.
  • Discovery of network topology is possible by enumerating where error responses to guessed addresses come back from. This doesn’t allow for discovery of individual machines either.

What do we do about it?

There will probably not be a shodan.io for ipv6 in the same way there is for ipv4. Instead, much of the wide-scale scanning on the IPv6 network will be performed through reflection from hosts discovered through their participation in other active services, for instance bit torrent, NTP, or DNS.

Conversely, the number of vulnerable IPv6 hosts will keep growing, because they can exist for much longer before anyone will find them. This will likewise increase the value that can be obtained through scanning – both to hackers, and to academics looking at Internet dynamics. We can expect to see a marketplace for addresses observed passively by ISPs, the network core, and passive services.

It’s worth also watching the watchers here: which providers are “selling me out” so to speak? It would be worth building the honey-pots to observe which services and servers leak client information and lead top probing and the potential for compromise of end hosts.

Internet Censorship 2016

We have reached the end of 2016, as well as the annual CCC congress in Germany. I had the exciting chance to speak together with Philipp Winter on the shifting landscape of Internet censorship in 2016. The talk followed mostly the same format as last year’s, calling out the continuing normalization and ubiquity of censorship around the world.

I left congress once again energized to work on system infrastructure advancing the Internet community in the face of these existential threats.

Slides from the talk are on this site.
A writeup (in german) is on Netzpolitik blog.

First-party Google Analytics

Third party analytics services are suffering from the growing prevalence of ad blocking, tracking protection, and the trend of minimizing connections and requests. However, from a site owner perspective, receiving usage information remains important for measuring site growth.

My expectation is that we are already on the curve where ads and tracking software will be more tightly integrated into websites and make it significantly more difficult for clients to disambiguate
“good” and “bad” scripts, which are mostly done today from the URL.

Google already provides the tools needed to relay analytics communication through a third party server, and it took under an hour to put together a proof of concept that removes the final third-party requests that are required when viewing this page. In essence, my server proxies all the requests that would normally go to Google, and adds on a couple extra parameters to track who the real client is.

The modified loading script for google analytics, and the corresponding nginx configuration to make my server a relay are here.