DNS servers do hackers' dirty work

New twist on denial-of-service attacks could intensify cybercriminals' threat to online business.

In a twist on distributed denial-of-service attacks, cybercriminals are using DNS servers--the phonebooks of the Internet--to amplify their assaults and disrupt online business.

Earlier this year, VeriSign experienced attacks on its systems that were larger than anything it had ever seen before, it said last week. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which helps companies do business on the Web, discovered that the assaults weren't coming from commandeered "bot" computers, as is common. Instead, its machines were under attack by DNS (domain name system) servers.

"DNS is now a major vector for DDOS," Dan Kaminsky, a security researcher said, referring to distributed denial-of-service attacks. "The bar has been lowered. People with fewer resources can now launch potentially crippling attacks."

Just as in any DDOS attack, the target system--which could be a victim's Web server, name server or mail server--is inundated with a multitude of data coming from multiple systems on the Internet. The goal is to make the target unreachable online by flooding the data connection or by crashing it as it tries to handle the incoming data.

Such attacks were once the tool of bored teenagers who got a kick out of seeing Web sites crumble. But these days, DDOS attacks are sometimes used by criminals looking to extort money from online businesses--especially those on the margins, such as gambling sites and the adult-entertainment industry.

"We're past the era where denial of service simply happens because kids are looking for a good time," Kaminsky said.

Unlike a commandeered PC, a DNS server is a valid and good citizen of the Internet. The systems play a critical role in connecting Web users, mapping text-based domain names such as www.cnet.com to the numerical IP addresses used by computers.

In this new kind of attack, an assailant would typically use a botnet to send a large number of queries to open DNS servers. These queries will be "spoofed" to look like they come from the target of the flooding, and the DNS server will reply to that network address.

Using DNS servers to do their dirty work offers key benefits to attackers. It hides their systems, making it harder for the victim to find the original source of the attack. But more important, reflecting an attack through a DNS server also allows the assault to be amplified, delivering a larger amount of malicious traffic to the target.

Amplified response
A single DNS query could trigger a response that is as much as 73 times larger than the request, according to a recent paper by Randal Vaughn, a professor of information systems at Baylor University, and Gadi Evron, the manager of the Computer Emergency Response Team at Israel's ministry of finance.

Once upon a time, everybody just trusted everybody, and you would say, "Fine, use my server." Now you have to be more careful about that.
--Paul Mockapetris, chief scientist, Nominum

"Relatively small DNS requests can be employed to cause significantly larger replies from a name server to the spoofed IP address," Vaughn and Evron wrote.

What happens during a DNS reflector and amplification attack could be compared with trying to jam up somebody's mailbox, said Paul Mockapetris, the inventor of DNS and chief scientist at secure DNS provider Nominum. A basic way to do that would be to write and mail a lot of letters. However, those letters would be traceable, and you would also have to spend a lot of time writing.

"A better way to do it would be to send in response-request cards--the kind you find in magazines--circle everything and fill in the target's address," Mockapetris said. "That would make more junk show up in the mailbox and eliminate the obvious link to you." And that's what is happening with this type of DDOS attack, he said.

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