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Recent DDoS Attacks Leverage TCP Amplification
A recent report from Radware showed that attackers over the past month have been leveraging TCP amplification in launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
What Is TCP Amplification?
TCP amplification is one of the lesser-known ways attackers perform DDoS attacks. In a DDoS attack, multiple computers are operating together to attack a particular target, for instance, a website.
TCP is a set of rules that’s applied whenever computers connected to the internet try to communicate with one another, enabling them to transmit and receive data. With TCP, connection is only established with a three-way-handshake, also known as SYN, SYN-ACK, and ACK. During the three-way-handshake, the IP addresses of both communication parties are veriﬁed via random sequence numbers.
1. SYN (Synchronize)
This first handshake happens when computer X, for instance, sends a message containing a random sequence number to another computer, let’s call this computer Z.
2. SYN-ACK (Synchronize-Acknowledge)
This second handshake happens when computer Z responds via an acknowledgment number and a random sequence number.
3. ACK (Acknowledge)
This third handshake happens when computer X completes the connection setup by sending a ﬁnal acknowledgment to computer Z via a sequence number and acknowledgment number.
Ampliﬁcation DDoS attack, meanwhile, refers to an attack in which an attacker doesn’t directly send trafﬁc to the ultimate target but rather sends spoofed network packets to a large number of devices, also known as reflectors or ampliﬁers. Attackers often use ampliﬁers that send back responses that are significantly larger than the requests, resulting in an increased or ampliﬁed attack volume. TCP was initially thought to be immune from amplification attacks due to its three-way-handshake.
TCP’s vulnerability to amplification attacks was reported back in 2014. In the paper “Exit from Hell? Reducing the Impact of Ampliﬁcation DDoS Attacks”, researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum demonstrated that even with the three-way-handshake TCP is still vulnerable to ampliﬁcation DDoS attacks. According to the researchers, TCP is vulnerable to ampliﬁcation DDoS attacks as SYN/ACK segments are resent until connection is successfully established, connection times out, or connection is manually closed.
Resending of SYN/ACK segments, the researchers said, overloads the capacity of the victim’s network. “In face of ampliﬁcation attacks, this is problematic, as the client’s IP address is not validated until the handshake is complete,” the researchers said.
In this 2014 study, the researchers showed that hundreds of thousands of devices, mostly business and consumer routing devices, were vulnerable to be abused for ampliﬁcation DDoS attacks as these devices repeatedly sent up to 20 SYN/ACK packets in response.
In the follow-up paper "Hell of a Handshake: Abusing TCP for Reflective Amplification DDoS Attacks", researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum identified thousands of TCP-based protocols that allow amplification of factor 50 times and higher. In this follow-up paper, the researchers also identified more than 4.8 million devices vulnerable to an average ampliﬁcation factor of 112 times. They also identiﬁed thousands of devices that can be abused for ampliﬁcation up to a factor of almost 80,000 times, reﬂecting more than 5,000 packets within 60 seconds and causing a serious impact on a victim’s network.
From the viewpoint of the attackers, the researchers said, abusing TCP brings multiple beneﬁts as there are millions of potential TCP ampliﬁers out there and ﬁxing them is an “infeasible operation”. According to the researchers, the root cause of the ampliﬁcation DDoS attacks is IP address spooﬁng which "enables attackers to specify arbitrary targets that are ﬂooded with reﬂected trafﬁc”.
TCP Amplification Attacks + Carpet Bombing
Radware reported that last month, European sports gambling website Eurobet experienced TCP amplification attacks that lasted for nearly 30 days. Radware also reported that last month, Turkish financial services company Garanti experienced TCP amplification attacks.
In the case of TCP amplification attacks on Garanti, Radware said, "In a period of 24 hours, millions of TCP-SYN packets from nearly 7,000 distinct source IP addresses part of AS12903 (Garanti Bilisim Teknolojisi ve Ticaret TR.A.S.) were sensed globally and specifically targeting ports 22, 25, 53, 80 and 443.”
According to Radware, TCP amplification attacks are combined with a technique called “carpet bombing”. Carpet bombing attack is a type of DDoS attack where instead of focusing the attack on a single IP, random IP addresses of the victim’s network are attacked. Radware reported that over the last few months, carpet bombing has been used in a number of attacks against South African internet service providers (ISPs).
Impacts, Preventive and Mitigating Measures
By leveraging carpet bombing technique, attackers increase the attack surface; and by leveraging TCP amplification, attackers increase the hit rate onto the victim’s services. For now, however, carpet bombing has been predominantly used against ISPs.
While the recent TCP amplification attacks targeted large organizations, the victims of these attacks also include small organizations and homeowners who owned devices used for the TCP amplification attacks. As the main targets of TCP amplification attacks were overwhelmed by traffic and suffered outages as a consequence, the devices used in the TCP amplification attacks – those that processed the spoofed requests and legitimate replies from the main target of the DDoS – also experienced spikes in traffic, resulting in outages.
IP blacklisting is one of the options in preventing DDoS attacks. In the case of TCP amplification attacks that rely on IP address spooﬁng, IP blacklisting has some pros and cons.
One of the disadvantages of IP blacklisting in TCP amplification attacks is that legitimate users could be affected by this blacklisting as malicious actors could mimic their IP address.
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Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP