Performance Matters | Active Scanning Technology

During a scan, the goal of the scanner is to get as complete and accurate a scan as possible. However, the performance and behavior of that scan is also important to the vulnerability manager. Ideally, we would like to scan as much as possible during an allotted time window and get complete results. However, we also want to avoid affecting production operations. First, let’s look at the potential negative impacts to production and how we might avoid them. Then, we can look at ways to optimize scans.
In most cases, there are four ways in which a scan can adversely affect a production environment:
  • By consuming bandwidth, preventing other applications from meeting service levels.
  • By consuming target CPU resources in an already-busy target. Again, this can cause service levels to be missed.
  • By breaking a target application or OS, causing a DoS and requiring the target to be repaired.
  • By breaking a component that is facilitating the scan but is not a target. Various network components could be adversely affected by the scan process even though they are not the subject of a scan.
Bandwidth is consumed by network activity. During the scan process, parameters provided by the vulnerability manager are used to size the footprint on the network. Not only is bandwidth a factor, the number of simultaneous connections can affect intermediate devices as well. Since TCP is so commonly used, a connection is established with each target. In some cases, a connection is only attempted, leaving potentially half-open connections. Devices that track the state of connections such as firewalls, IPSs, and possibly routers, can be affected by these connections. The total number of simultaneous connections, and the rate at which these connections are made, may have an effect. Limits on both will go a long way towards maintaining good relations with network management staff.
The most efficient location in the scanner to impose these limits is the IP protocol stack and interface drivers. Bandwidth limitations are best performed at the interface driver, whereas the connections limits are better applied at the packet-creation phase where the outgoing connections table is maintained. Exceptions must be made to accommodate the critical command and control functions of the scanner. Therefore, the location of the scanner management system should be exempt from such limits.
Bandwidth consumption has the biggest impact on the network when scanning is performed outside of the local segment to which the scanner is connected. In particular, WAN links can be impacted significantly. Using today’s most cost-effective technology, most scanners are not able to produce more than 10 Mbps of bandwidth in a typical scan. However, when a T1 is the only connection from a remote office back to the corporate WAN where the scanner resides, it is easy to saturate the link event with a small scan. In most companies, it is often necessary to perform such a scan during work hours when desktop and laptop computers are powered on and connected to the network. So, the impact to business operations is significant.
To determine the appropriate amount of bandwidth to allow for a given target network, I recommend the following strategy:
  1. Determine the peak utilization of the WAN link over a two-month period to coincide with the time in the business cycle during which you plan on running the scan. Alternatively, plan to run the scan during a time in the business cycle when bandwidth consumption is relatively low but the targets are still available for scanning.
  2. Agree with the local business manager and network operations manager on how much of the remaining bandwidth you will be permitted to use. Set expectations when making this agreement.
  3. Perform a test scan of the target network for five or more typical target hosts to gauge how much bandwidth is required. This number will have to be scaled up to derive a more accurate number. One caveat: the accuracy of this estimate will increase when the test scan can more closely reach a maximum number of connections. Sometimes, limiting the number of connections will reduce the maximum bandwidth consumed, and in other cases, it will not. It will all depend on the configuration of each target. Given the highly dynamic nature of a scan, the amount of testing should be commensurate with complexity and variability of the environment and level of criticality of the WAN link to business operations. This is both art and science.
  4. Always position the scanning activity as a critical security function that will ultimately provide reports and analysis to the IT and network managers at the site. They should want this as much as you do. In a site with critical hosts, it may be worth purchasing a small amount of additional bandwidth that is dedicated to performing the scans.
Simultaneous connections, on the other hand, are fairly straightforward to manage. As previously mentioned, this parameter may affect bandwidth. The primary goal is not to overwhelm the target or the intervening network and security infrastructure. Even at low bandwidth, small packet sizes and half-open connections can generate a sizable number of simultaneous connections. Since a firewall maintains a state table for each connection, it must perform a little more CPU work for each connection. Large commercial firewalls that typically front a public Web site generally have sufficient resources to handle huge numbers of connections. However, this is not always the case. Firewalls are complex devices running many simultaneous processes. Furthermore, they are mostly single-threaded applications, which limits their performance scalability. Just as DoS attacks are performed on routers by exploiting the reliance of certain features on notoriously limited CPU resources, a scanner can do the same to a firewall. Most of these scenarios can be addressed with the following guidelines:
  • Test the impact on a firewall under load for a variety of targets. Different targets can generate different connection rates. Monitor the firewall CPU reaction closely. The reaction is not linear. In some cases, packet forwarding latency may result. In other cases, it just takes longer to set up and tear down connections. Manufacturer performance specifications do not apply to traffic generated by vulnerability scanners.
  • Test scanning against targets where the firewall applies additional distributed DoS and intrusion prevention capabilities. Since firewalls typically interact with the environment at OSI layer 3 and above to provide these services, the firewall may interpret a scan as a threat. It could be blocked or the results of the scan clouded. This is because the firewall features can act like a proxy for a given application. TCP connection attempts will be terminated by the firewall and then re-established from the firewall to the target only after the handshake is completed with a sanitized upper-OSI-layer result. Any probing performed with a SYN-SYN/ACK-ACK that is not fully completed by the scanner may appear to be an active host where none exists. A solution to this is to configure the firewall to allow the scanner source traffic to bypass all of the firewall inspection filters.
  • Routers can also be affected. Some routers use their limited processor power to handle invalid TCP flag combinations. This is a common probing or discovery technique used by vulnerability scanners to fingerprint the OS or application. It is also a method for performing a DoS attack against a router. Although it is unlikely that a scanner will generate enough malformed traffic to have a major impact on network devices, you should be mindful of the possibility.
  • Simulate the typical latency on a WAN circuit in the lab during a scan. This will help gauge scan performance as well as impact to production systems. Some vendors provide tools that can use a packet capture from a network segment and a performance profile, and then re-create the user experience with the scan traffic and any given application injected. For example, an accounting system could be placed on one side of such a device while the scanner is on the other side. The device simulates the traffic conditions at a peak time for a particular office using a previously gathered profile.
  • Limit the number of TCP and UDP ports that are scanned during discovery and scanning. The tendency is to be as comprehensive as possible because you are not sure what will be found. This may work for an initial scan of a limited number of hosts. But later, you should settle on an acceptable number of ports to minimize the impact on the environment and maximize effectiveness. This is an area with diminishing returns on port numbers scanned at a logarithmic rate. You may also find that reducing the number of ports scanned will substantially lighten the bandwidth load. This is because packets can be large and numerous.

Web Application Testing

With so many competitive pressures, it was inevitable that organizations would have to find a way to distinguish themselves in the online world. So, millions of custom applications have been built to deliver customer service and application services that add value beyond original core competencies. It naturally follows that hackers would find common ways to exploit these applications, especially because they are more closely linked to valuable data. What has made these applications even more exploitable is their dependence on standard technologies and infrastructure. This is not intended as a criticism, only an observation. For example, most databases in use today are based on the SQL language. Also, many Web applications use JavaScript. Both of these technologies are exploitable, depending on their method of implementation. No inherent security controls can be configured to prevent their exploitation at the application level.
An even greater concern is the exploitability of the open-source PHP language. It is commonly used to build Web applications and yet has many critical vulnerabilities around which the programmer must code. Since this powerful scripting language is closely integrated with the Web page and user interaction, and since it has so many powerful commands with great flexibility, exploitation is very possible.
Naturally, this Web application phenomenon presents another area of vulnerability testing. These checks have become increasingly important, as customer applications have become the primary focus of the serious hacker. There are simple methods to exploit vulnerabilities by simply manipulating the content of the URL in the Web browser. It is also quite easy to manipulate inputs on fields on the screen. So, vulnerability checks must do the same thing in many combinations using many common techniques to replicate possible attack vectors. Following is a list of some of the most common vectors:
  • Input field manipulation: This involves modifying the input of one or more fields on the screen beyond what is expected by the software in normal operation. Many programmers fail to validate these inputs for size and value boundaries as well as validity. Hackers exploit this by entering characters that will cause the application to process them in a way not originally intended.
  • SQL injection: This very popular attack vector is used to manipulate the database query language of the back-end database programming to reveal information or even modify the database contents. The process is started by entering the partial SQL string (‘ or 1=1—) in an input field without the parentheses will extend an underlying SQL statement to detect the presence of an unfiltered field and the fact that the SQL language is in use and accessible. This works because the first tick mark (‘) ends the current input string expected by the SQL code and then adds the logic “or 1=1.” The remaining portion tells the SQL server to ignore the remainder of the SQL statement. This is a harmless modification of the SQL query that will determine whether SQL injection is even possible. Vulnerability scanners will perform more in-depth penetration acts to reveal more details about the flaws in handling this input, including what can be discovered about the database configuration.
  • Cross-site scripting (XSS): This extension of input field manipulation is used to inject JavaScript into a Web site that will appear on other users’ browsers and perform actions against other users of the system. These actions include but are not limited to directing user input to another site, capturing user data, and presenting false information. The script information can be combined with a SQL injection attack to store malicious script code in the database of the target system. When this information is retrieved by the Web application for a user, then the script is loaded into that user’s Web browser and executed to fulfill the purposes of the attacker.
So Web application checks are available in many VM systems to detect the presence of these vulnerabilities in the code of a Web site. There are other products that analyze the actual programming code, but they are no substitute for the hacker-mimicking process of attacking the application from the outside. By their very nature, these checks are brute force but usually non-destructive. The application checks are run against every field, every hyperlink, and every possible URL of a Web site. The following are more types of checks that can be performed against applications:
  • Boundary check: This is a test of a range of values that are accepted by an application. It is applied to every field that is found and applies values that can be below, above, and within the range of permitted values, as well as trivial values that are outside of the expected data types. For example, an 8-bit ASCII numeric field may have 16-bit Unicode data entered. This is also called stress testing.
  • Branch test: This program is used to check all of the links and possible paths to be taken in an application. The goal is to achieve as close as possible to 100 percent branch coverage, meaning that every possible program pathway is exercised. This is partly a discovery process and partly a vulnerability identification process. Some vulnerabilities in this area are the result of branches of code that are so obscure they are seldom accessed. Because of this, it is possible that some code is vulnerable because it was never tested.
  • Brute force: This type of check is typically used against user ID and password fields. It differs from a boundary check in that there is a large practical range limit for what can be entered. A password field that is eight alphanumeric characters long, for example, has 8**36 possible combinations.
  • Buffer overflow: This type of check is designed to challenge the target software for scale factors; that is, those inputs whose range affects the allocate memory space. Two types of scale factors can be tested: buffer definition and buffer usage. For example, if a program is designed to accept a certain size of input and store it in a memory buffer, a larger input can cause a buffer overflow. This is an example of a buffer usage scale factor, which occurs when an entered parameter directly or indirectly determines the allocated buffer space. If the parameter causes the creation of buffer smaller than the input size, then the buffer can overflow on the corresponding input.
  • Code injection: In many scripting languages, it is possible to accept code as a parameter passed from one process to another. Programmers use this technique to efficiently reuse code or pass advanced parameters from one program to another. Some faults in a program can allow the inadvertent introduction of code by accepting instruction-terminating characters to be entered into a field. This is similar to SQL injection attacks.
  • Session hijacking: HTTP is a stateless protocol. That means that it receives transactions over the network but does not know that the transaction is part of a particular user’s session. To keep track of this session or “state,” a file called a session cookie is implemented. There are various checks that can be performed to determine whether the session cookie can be manipulated to become a different user, and therefore gain access to that user’s data.
All of these tests, however, are typically used alone when run automatically. This is a key distinguishing factor between vulnerability testing and penetration testing. A person conducts basic reconnaissance testing using these application-vulnerability scanning tools, and then combines the results to form augmented attacks with more revealing results. For example, an SQL injection attack can be used to insert malicious code to obtain another user’s session cookie. Then, the session cookie, encrypted or not, can be used to obtain that user’s information or change his password to gain his privileges.

Application Fingerprinting: Banners | Active Scanning Technology

An important activity in a scan is to determine what applications make themselves known on the network. Similar to OS fingerprinting and IP stack fingerprinting, a vulnerability scanner can attempt to connect to a variety of possible applications on known or unknown ports, a process known as featureprinting. Among the best-known featureprinting methods is banner checking.
Some common applications on systems produce a banner whenever you attempt to connect. The contents of this banner can provide valuable information in determining the version of the OS and the software running on the host. This type of fingerprinting can often be performed by an individual using a simple program available on almost all OS platforms: Netcat.
Let’s take the example of a Web server. Figure 1 shows a typical Netcat session. When using Netcat, you can specify the TCP port to which you wish to connect. So, in the command line, we type “nc 80.” This will run the Telnet application and establish a connection to the server listening for connections on port 80.
$ nc 80                  Apache Example 

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Tue, 06 May 2008 23:32:00 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.8 (Unix)
Last-Modified: Tue, 29 Apr 2008 21:52:29 GMT
ETag: "ea9d61-48f6-44c0a0c71a140"
Accept-Ranges: bytes
Content-Length: 18678
Cache-Control: max-age=86400
Expires: Wed, 07 May 2008 23:32:00 GMT
Vary: Accept-Encoding
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html
$ nc 80                    IIS Example 

HTTP/1.1 302 Found
Cache-Control: private
Content-Length: 142
Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
Location: /en/us/default.aspx
Server: Microsoft-IIS/7.0
X-AspNet-Version: 2.0.50727
X-Powered-By: ASP.NET
Date: Tue, 06 May 2008 23:58:41 GMT
Connection: keep-alive

Figure 1: A typical Netcat session.
From here, we are able to issue a command to the remote server. Since this is port 80, it is likely a Web server; so we issue the command: “HEAD/HTTP/1.0” (Figure 1a). The server responds with some detailed header information, which tells the type of Web server software and OS. In this case, it is Apache® running on a UNIX® system. This eliminates the possibility of any version of Windows and makes searching for vulnerabilities much easier.
For security reasons, however, server administrators should conceal this header information, particularly that information which is in the “Server” section. But, that will not deter a good vulnerability scanner. The scanner may also be able to check for the type of Web server by making an invalid request. By using an invalid version type in the HEAD command, we can see different responses from the various Web server makers. Notice that the Apache Web server comes out with a “400 Bad Request” message (Figure 1b). The connection also gets closed; however, on IIS 7.0, the connection is not closed but the same “400 Bad Request” message is received. But, you will also notice that more server information is provided that was not found in the valid request. In earlier versions of IIS, you could distinguish it from a reaction of providing a message of “200 OK.” Similar methods are used where valid and invalid responses are captured and analyzed. In some cases, these are reported as vulnerabilities or simply information exposures.

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