Building Internet Firewalls

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10. Authentication and Inbound Services

Risks of Using Inbound Services
What Is Authentication?
Authentication Mechanisms
Complete Authentication Systems
Network-Level Encryption
Terminal Servers and Modem Pools

This book concentrates primarily on how to safely let your users go out to the Internet, but there's also another side to Internet security: how do you safely allow users to come in from the Internet?

For anonymous services, such as accessing an anonymous FTP server, HTTP server, or Gopher server that you provide, the solution is clear: you protect the servers as best you can to allow outsiders to access the information you want to provide and to prevent them from accessing anything else. In these anonymous services, all the information you release is intended to be readable by anybody. (See the discussion of these services in Chapter 8, Configuring Internet Services.)

For nonanonymous services, however, the situation is much more complex. For nonanonymous services (or "authenticated" services, as they're commonly called), the user who is attempting to access the service first needs to prove his identity to your server so that your server can decide whether the user is authorized to do what he is requesting. Examples of authenticated services you might want to provide include:

Authentication is basically verified, proven identification. How do users prove to a system that they're really who they say they are? Don't confuse authentication (figuring out who somebody is) and authorization (figuring out what they're allowed to do). Authentication is a prerequisite for authorization (unless everybody is authorized to do something, such as anonymous FTP), but they are separate and distinct concepts.

This chapter focuses on inbound services and how authentication can reduce the risks associated with using these services. It also touches on a few additional encryption and authentication issues that apply to both inbound and outbound services, such as network-level encryption and where to place modem pools.

NOTE: Although this chapter mentions aspects of cryptography - cryptography is the basis for many of the authentication mechanisms described in this book - we do not attempt to discuss cryptography itself here in any depth. There are many excellent books on this broad and complex topic, and we can't hope to do justice to the topic in a few pages here, where our focus is practical, rather than theoretical. You will be better served by referring to a book such as Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography for a definitive treatment. (See Appendix A for information.)

10.1 Risks of Using Inbound Services

Inbound services pose a number of security risks. In this section, we focus on Telnet as an example, but the same problems, principles, and solutions apply to other authenticated services (such as nonanonymous FTP) as well.

There are three principal risks associated with allowing inbound services:


Having someone steal a connection after the user has authenticated himself or herself to your system.

Packet sniffing

Having someone read confidential data as it passes across the network, without interfering with the connection itself.

False authentication

Having someone who is not a valid user convince your system he or she is a valid user.

10.1.1 Hijacking

Hijacking attacks allow an attacker to take over an open terminal or login session from a user who has been authenticated by the system. Hijacking attacks generally take place on a remote computer, although it is sometimes possible to hijack a connection from a computer on the route between the remote computer and your local computer.

How can you protect yourself from hijacking attacks on the remote computer? The only way is to allow connections only from remote computers whose security you trust; ideally, these computers should be at least as secure as your own. You can apply this kind of restriction by using either packet filters or modified servers. Packet filters are easier to apply to a collection of systems, but modified servers on individual systems allow you more flexibility. For example, a modified FTP server might allow anonymous FTP from any host, but authenticated FTP only from specified hosts. You can't get this kind of control from packet filtering. Connection control at the host level is available from wrappers in the TIS FWTK (the netacl program) or Wietse Venema's TCP Wrapper; these may be easier to configure than packet filters, but provide the same level of discrimination - by host only.

Hijacking by intermediate sites can be avoided using end-to-end encryption. (See the discussion of network-level encryption later in this chapter.) If you use end-to-end encryption, intermediate sites won't be able to encrypt the data stream properly (because they don't know the appropriate key), and therefore won't be able to hijack sessions traversing them.

Hijacking is a fairly technical attack. The overall risk to an organization from hijacking attacks is probably pretty small. Most sites choose to accept this small risk and allow some accounts to access systems from anywhere on the Internet. You may decide that hijacking is an acceptable risk for your own organization, particularly if you are able to minimize the number of accounts that have full access and the time they spend logged in remotely. However, you probably do not want to allow hundreds of people to log in from anywhere on the Internet. Similarly, you do not want to allow users to log in consistently from particular remote sites without taking special precautions.

10.1.2 Packet Sniffing

Attackers may not need to hijack a connection in order to get the information you want to keep secret. By simply watching packets pass - anywhere between the remote site and your site - they can see any information that is being transferred. Packet sniffing programs automate this watching of packets.

Sniffers may go after passwords or data. There are different risks associated with each type of attack. Protecting your passwords against sniffing is easy: use one of the several mechanisms described later in this chapter to use nonreusable passwords. With nonreusable passwords, it doesn't matter if the password is captured by a sniffer; it's of no use to them, because it cannot be reused.

Protecting your data against sniffers is more difficult. You could encrypt the data at your site if you always knew in advance which data to encrypt, and if you could rely on the remote site to have the appropriate decryption programs. It isn't safe for a user to ask for data to be encrypted while the user is logged in across the network; the sniffer will see the commands issued by the user (perhaps even the key used for encryption), and may be able to use that information to decrypt the data. If the user doesn't provide a key directly, the system has to somehow use a stored key, which might be compromised in other ways (such as a break-in to the system doing the encryption).

Unfortunately, encryption in advance is not practical. It may serve if you need to transfer files occasionally, but it isn't going to provide any kind of meaningful connection. In order to preserve data confidentiality for real interactive access, you'll need end-to-end encryption. Most end-to-end encryption systems require advance coordination between the two ends in order to set the system up. If you have ongoing sensitive interactions with particular sites, however, it may be worth the effort.

As we've described for hijacking, if only a small number of people from a site are doing occasional work from random hosts over the Internet, most organizations are willing to accept the relatively small risk associated with the sniffing of data. However, you need to make sure that nobody at your site purposefully accesses confidential information across the Internet without taking precautions. Moreover, you certainly do not want to set up situations in which confidential information consistently crosses the Internet unencrypted. For example, you would not want a human resources person to work from home on your unencrypted personnel files across the Internet.

10.1.3 False Authentication

The third main risk to inbound services is false authentication: the subversion of the authentication that you require of your users, so that an attacker can successfully masquerade as one of your users.

In most cases, if you have a secret you want to pass across the network, you can encrypt the secret and pass it that way. There is one case in which the encryption solution does not work, and that is the case in which information does not have to be understood to be used. For instance, encrypting passwords will not work, because an attacker who is using packet sniffing can simply intercept and resend the encrypted password without having to decrypt it. (This is called a playback attack, because the attacker records an interaction and plays it back later.) Therefore, dealing with authentication across the Internet requires something more complex than encrypting passwords. What you need is an authentication method where the data that passes across the network is nonreusable, so an attacker can't capture it and play it back.

The next section describes authentication and how it works. As we explain there, there are many types of authentication methods, some more secure than others.

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