Security

DDoS strike on Spamhaus highlights need to close DNS open resolvers

Patrick Lambert breaks down the Spamhaus DDoS attack and some of the controversies that have ensued. What isn't up for debate -- fixing the open resolver flaw on DNS servers.

Last week, news went around the world about one of the biggest Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in history, launched against a site called Spamhaus, in which attackers not only went after the organization's website itself, but also its providers and some Tier 1 Internet exchanges as well, causing potential collateral damage. Since then however, the situation has only become more complex, with rumors flying around that the attack was not as bad as reported, and hints on who might be behind it, along with what could be done to prevent future attacks.

Why Spamhaus?

Most people have no idea what the Spamhaus Project is. This group of security researchers and IT pros work in the background, alongside many Internet providers and network administrators, in an effort to cut down on email spam. According to its mission statements, Spamhaus was founded in 1998 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting spam. It is run by volunteers and works alongside law enforcement agencies like the FBI, email providers, and networks around the world. In reality, the way they fight spam is by maintaining large blacklists. These are lists of source addresses such as mail servers and websites, where they believe spam is coming from. These blacklists use DNS to block access from these sources, and are updated in real time. Because so many networks and providers use those blacklists, over 1.4 billion people are affected by them. This means that if an IP address is added to a Spamhaus blacklist, a large percentage of the Internet users will instantly be unable to receive anything from that source address. Needless to say, this has huge consequences.

Spamhaus is loved by many, since they have succeeded in bringing down the levels of spam that travel through the Internet. However, it also has a lot of enemies, and is the center of many controversies. The reason is that they have final say on which sites appear in their database. If they decide one particular business is sending spam, and they add their server to the blacklist, that will greatly affect the company's ability to do business. The site does offer ways to get a case reviewed and potentially get removed from the list, but many still feel that Spamhaus is acting as judge, jury and executioner. So as a result, Spamhaus is often the victim of attacks.

How the attack happened

Spamhaus already has a strong infrastructure that allows them to deal with normal attacks, but on March 18th they started to see a very large attack that they could not handle. So they contacted CloudFlare, a content delivery network that specializes in these types of attacks - since then, CloudFlare has published an account of events. Basically, they used their worldwide Anycast network to spread the DDoS attack over a large number of data centers. Even though the total bandwidth from the attack reached close to 300 Gbps, which is massive and would bring down any normal network, they still managed to cope because of their redundancies. However, the attackers did not stop there.

Seeing that they could not bring down Spamhaus or CloudFlare, they decided to attack their providers, and then the nodes upstream. However, because CloudFlare is so big, those upstream nodes are actual Tier 1 Internet backbones, so in essence the attackers ended up flooding crucial Internet exchange points such as the London Internet Exchange, Amsterdam Internet Exchange, and Hong Kong Internet Exchange. These are the core exchange points of the Internet where all of the large networks peer with each other, and while those have enough bandwidth to cope with such an attack, if all of the traffic comes in through a single port, it can easily slow down access for customers, in this case millions of people.

Controversy about the impacts felt

After the attack and CloudFlare's post, Gizmodo posted a fairly controversial post titled "That Internet War Apocalypse Is a Lie." Basically, they claimed that CloudFlare was greatly exaggerating their claims that this attack was seriously impacting the Internet backbone. They say the account of events was overly dramatic, perhaps made to sell CloudFlare's DDoS protection services. They say that Internet charts do not show services being slow on that day, and talk about how Internet backbones can support Tbps of bandwidth, an order of magnitude higher than what was felt. Since then there have been backs and forths, with CloudFlare countering saying that because some Internet exchange IPs can be publicly known, such an attack could actually disrupt crucial switches, and so on.

The problem of open resolvers

Regardless of whether part of the Internet was disrupted, or this was just affecting a couple of companies, the fact remains that a 300 Gbps attack is really big, much bigger than what most companies can cope with. The reason that bad guys can create such massive attacks is because of a specific flaw in how many DNS servers are configured. By default, DNS can make use of something called a resolver, which will reply with information about a particular address, domain name or site name, and send that information back. Unfortunately, the Internet is filled with open resolvers, DNS servers that will return this information to anyone who asks. Add to that the fact that spoofing an IP address is trivial, and you have a massive issue.

The way the attack goes is that the attacker spoofs his or her originating IP to be the website they want to hit. Then, they ask many of these open resolvers for a lot of information. These servers will then return the information, but not to the attacker, instead to the site being attacked. In essence, you end up directing between ten times to a hundred times as much data as you are sending out. So to create a 300 Gbps attack you would only need 3 Gbps of bandwidth. The DNS servers across the Internet would do the rest, and your real IP would never be seen by the target, which is another plus for the bad guys. The Open Resolver Project is attempting to bring light to this issue, and tracked over 27 million open resolvers across the Internet. The only real fix is for the administrators of all these servers to correctly secure them. There are tips and recommendations on the project's website to help secure those servers.

Who did this

It is still unknown who is behind the SpamHaus attack, however the hosting provider Cyberpunker is suspected of having sponsored the attack after it was added to the blacklist. As for who did the actual flooding, the New York Times posted about a potential suspect, Sven Olaf Kamphuis from Denmark, who has recently talked about his wish to bring SpamHaus down and describes himself as an Internet freedom fighter. He is described as the prince of spam, someone who hates authority, and former partners of his said he does not care about collateral damage at all. Since then, he has appeared on TV claiming that he is not behind the attack.

Bottom line

The authorities are now investigating the Spamhaus attack, but regardless of whether they manage to find the guilty party or not, there is no doubt that future attacks of this scale - or even bigger -- will keep happening. The only true solution is for all of those DNS resolvers to be fixed, but in the meantime, redundant Internet connections, DDoS protection services, and content delivery networks are just some of the elements that can help a network cope with such an attack.

About

Patrick Lambert has been working in the tech industry for over 15 years, both as an online freelancer and in companies around Montreal, Canada. A fan of Star Wars, gaming, technology, and art, he writes for several sites including the art news commun...

10 comments
JesusChristSuperStar
JesusChristSuperStar

First of all, let me say that I am no fan of blacklists. The judge, jury and executioner metaphor sums it up exactly, and I have had incoming and outgoing mail being snagged by some blacklist or another on far too many occasions. But I was not responsible for the attack. Whoever could launch an attack on this scale (remember the attack on BlueFrog a few years back?) must have some really big-time grudge. So who, besides the vendors using junkmail to peddle their wares, benefits from all the junkmail? Well, one hint: most all Internet sales and purchases are done by credit card, and the credit card companies/banks make a profit from those sales. I reached that conclusion when BlueFrog was destroyed by the backlash when their campaign to fight junk email started having an effect. Just my opinion.

SimonHobson
SimonHobson

What is actually required is for all ISPs to do egress filtering. It's only because ISPs allow faked source addresses that these reflection/amplification attacks work. Stop the faked source address, stop the attacks.

davidgillam
davidgillam

The issue is hinted at on http://openresolverproject.org/: "If you operate a DNS server, please check the settings. Authoritative servers should not offer recursion, but can still be used in an attack. Consider Configuring Rate Limiting in your software. Recursive servers should be restricted to your enterprise or customer IP ranges to prevent abuse." Configure only secured resolvers as recursive, all others should be forwarding/cache-only resolvers. Additionally, all resolvers should employ rate-limiting: rate-limit { responses-per-second 5; window 5; }; Gillam Data Services www.davegillam.com

Gisabun
Gisabun

Just loved how the dumb mainstream media thought that this DDos would shut down part of the Internet. Made me laugh. Even hitting Spamhaus probably did little except maybe some companies didn't get the latest spam definitions.

joetron2030
joetron2030

It's "CyberBunker" not "Cyperpunker", correct? I'd read it as CyberBunker elsewhere.

khuongduybui
khuongduybui

From what you described, this looked like a reflected, distributed DOS attack. Open Resolvers are ideal targets, but they are not the only ones. What we really need to do is to improve the general "IT healthcare" of the Internet-connecting devices. Without a network of zombie devices, the attacks will be much easier to cope, direct or reflected.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

I believe Spamhaus is based on real time lookups. Basically you get an email in and you immediately query them. Kind of like DNS. Bill

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