Design and Implementation of an Active Warden Addressing Protocol Switching Covert Channels

Abstract
Network covert channels enable a policy-breaking network communication (e.g. within botnets). Within the last years, new covert channel techniques occurred which are based on the capability of protocol switching. There are currently no means available to counter these new techniques. In this paper we present the first approach to effectively limit the bandwidth of such covert channels by introducing a new active warden. We present a calculation method for the bandwidth of these channels in case the active warden is used. Additionally, we discuss implementation details and we evaluate the practical usefulness of our technique.
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Design and Implementation of an Active Warden Addressing
Protocol Switching Covert Channels
Steffen Wendzel1,2, J¨
org Keller1
1Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Hagen, Germany
2Department of Computer Science, Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany
steffen.wendzel1@hs-augsburg.de, joerg.keller@fernuni-hagen.de
Abstract—Network covert channels enable a policy-breaking
network communication (e.g., within botnets). Within the last
years, new covert channel techniques occurred which are based
on the capability of protocol switching. There are currently no
means available to counter these new techniques. In this paper
we present the first approach to effectively limit the bandwidth
of such covert channels by introducing a new active warden.
We present a calculation method for the bandwidth of these
channels in case the active warden is used. Additionally, we
discuss implementation details and we evaluate the practical
usefulness of our technique.
Keywords-Protocol Switching Covert Channel; Protocol
Channel, Active Warden
I. INTRODUCTION
The term covert channel refers to a type of communication
channel defined as not intended for information transfer
by Lampson [1]. While covert channels can occur on local
systems, we focus on covert channels within networks. The
goal of using covert channels is to transfer information
without rising attention while breaking a security policy [2].
Covert channels have been a focus of research for decades.
A number of publications (e.g., [3], [4], [5]) describe how
to implement covert channels in network packet data and
packet timings. Techniques were developed to deal with the
problem of covert channels, like the pump [6], which is a
device that limits the number of acknowledgement messages
from a higher to a lower security level and thus affects
covert timing channels based on ACKs. Other well-known
techniques are for instance covert flow trees [7], the shared
resource matrix (SRM) methodology [8] the extended SRM
[9], and steganalysis of covert channels in VoIP traffic [10].
A well-known technology to counter covert channels is
the active warden, i.e. a system counteracting a covert
channel communication. While passive wardens monitor and
report events (e.g., for intrusion detection), active wardens
(e.g., traffic normalizers [11]) are capable of modifying
network traffic [12] to prevent steganographic information
transfer.
Recently, the capability to keep a low profile resulted in
a rising importance of network covert channels because of
their use cases. For instance, covert channels can be used
to control botnets in a hidden way [13]. Covert channel
techniques can also be used by journalists to transfer illicit
information, i.e., they can generally contribute to the free
expression of opinions [14].
A covert channel able to switch a network protocol
based on a user’s command called LOKI2 was presented
in 1997 [15]. Within the last decade, different new covert
channel techniques occurred and not all of them are already
addressed by protection means. However, these new tech-
niques enable covert channels to switch their communication
protocol automatically and transparently, as well as they
were enabled to cooperate in overlay networks by using
internal control protocols as presented in [16].
In this paper, we focus on two new covert channel
techniques, protocol switching covert storage channels (also
known as protocol hopping covert channels, PHCC) as well
as so called protocol channels (PCs). PHCC were presented
in [17] and were improved in [16]. These channels transfer
hidden information using different network protocols to
raise as little attention as possible due to peculiar protocol
behaviour. For instance, a simple PHCC could use the “User-
Agent” field in HTTP as well as the message number in
POP3 “RETR” requests to transfer hidden information.
PCs were introduced in [18] and signal information solely
by transferring network protocols of a pre-defined set in
an order that represents hidden information. Protocols are
therefore linked to secret values, e.g., a HTTP packet could
represent the value “1” and a POP3 packet could represent
the value “0”. To transfer the message “110” via this PC,
the sender is required to send two HTTP packets followed
by a POP3 packet. The bandwidth of a PC is usually limited
to a few hundred bit/s, however, for an attacker this is fast
enough to transfer passwords, selected records or tweets.
A first detection algorithm for PC (but not for PHCC) was
implemented in [19], but there is no work done to limit the
bandwidth of PC and PHCC or to prevent them.
We present the first concept as well as an implemen-
tation of an active warden able to significantly reduce
the bandwidth of both, PHCC and PC. While we do not
present a universal solution countering all covert channels,
this is the first work discussing means against PHCC and
PC. The limitation of these advanced covert channels is
more challenging in comparison to single-protocol covert
1Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
channels. We evaluate our results by simulation experiments.
We demonstrate that our approach is useful for the practical
operation in organizations and that the active warden de-
creases the attractiveness of both channel types for attackers.
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. Sec-
tion II introduces the idea and implementation of our active
warden, while Section III discusses results and Section IV
focuses on the practical aspects of the presented approach.
Section V concludes.
II. DE SI GN A ND IMPLEMENTATION
The idea of an active warden addressing PHCC and PC
focuses on one aspect both covert channel types share: the
protocol switches. For both channel types, it is a necessity
to ensure that network packets using different network
protocols reach their destination in the same order as they
were sent. Our approach of an active warden for countering
PHCC and PC monitors the protocol switching behaviour of
network hosts and introduces delays in network packets if a
protocol switch occurs.
Like the network pump, we have no explicit detection ca-
pabilities in our active warden but aim on limiting the chan-
nel’s bandwidth nevertheless. In comparison to the pump, we
do not limit ACK messages but alter protocol occurrences.
Using the presented technique, we can prevent performance
decreases for downloads and uploads and minimize practical
implications (cf. Section IV) between (autonomous) systems.
The system only affects those network packets which change
the last occurring network protocol.
Figure 1. Location of the Anti-PC/PHCC active warden
The active warden must be located between a sender
and a receiver (Figure 1). To prevent PC/PHCC-based data
leakage for enterprises, a suitable location would be the
company’s uplink to the internet. The active warden’s delay
is configurable and thus makes our approach adjustable, i.e.
an administrator can choose the individual optimum between
maximized protection and maximized throughput. Formally,
this creates a multi-criterion optimization problem. For a
given delay d, data leakage can occur at a maximum rate
R(d), that is decreasing with increasing d. On the other
hand, the side-effects for legitimate users will increase with
increasing d, i.e. can be modeled by a function S(d). Ideally,
one would like to minimize both, Rand S, which is however
not possible. One can combine the two in a target function
penalty(d) = ·R(d) + (1 )·S(d),
which is then to be minimized, i.e. after fixing a suitable
[0; 1] the minimization results in an optimal dwhich
represents the administrator’s priorities. As both Rand Sare
assumed to be monotonous, a Pareto optimum can be found
in the sense that a further reduction of Rby increasing d
cannot be achieved without increasing S. Typically, instead
of using Rand Sdirectly, they are normalized to a certain
range such as interval [0; 1], and they might be adapted by
linear or non-linear functions that reflect e.g. the severeness
of an increased leakage.
Imagine a PC using ICMP (1 bit) and UDP (0 bit) and
the goal to transfer the message “0110001”. In this case, the
sender would need to send UDP, ICMP, ICMP, UDP, UDP,
UDP, ICMP. If our active warden is located on a gateway
between both hosts and can delay packets which probably
belong to a PC or PHCC, the successful information transfer
will be corrupted. At the beginning, the sender sends a UDP
packet which is forwarded by the active warden. Afterwards,
the sender sends the ICMP packet, which is delayed for
a time dbecause a protocol switch happened. The next
packet is an ICMP packet again and therefore not delayed
but forwarded. Afterwards a UDP packet occurs which is
delayed for a time d, too. The next two UDP packets do
not change the last protocol and are therefore forwarded.
The last ICMP packet results in an additional packet switch
and is therefore delayed for time dagain. If dis 1 second,
then all delayed packets will arrive after the non-delayed
packets if the sender did not introduce synthetic delays itself.
The resulting packet order at the receiver’s side will be
UDP, ICMP, UDP, UDP, ICMP, UDP, ICMP, or “0100101”
(containing two incorrect bit values).
The situation is similar for PHCC where the hidden
information is not represented through the protocol itself but
through alternations of a protocol’s attributes (such as the
IPv4 TTL or the HTTP “User-Agent”). If the active warden
modifies PHCC transmissions sent via different protocols,
the reassembled payload will be jumbled.
In order to prevent the covert channel users to take
advantage of learning about the value of d, it might also
be randomized, cf. Section III.
A. Bandwidth Calculation
Tsai and Gligor introduced the formula B=b·(TR+TS+
2·TCS )1for calculating the bandwidth of covert channels
using the values TR(time to receive a covert message), TS
(time to send a message), TCS (time required for the context
switch between processes), and b(amount of transferred
information per message) [20]. While the formula addresses
local covert storage channels, all parameters are adaptable
to a network covert channel as well.
We use a modification of this formula (cf. formula 1) to
calculate the bandwidth of a PC in case our active warden
is located between sender and receiver. We introduce the
active warden’s delay dmultiplied with the probability pof
2Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
a protocol switch per packet. Instead of TR,TSand TCS
we use Tto represent the transmission time (i.e., the time
difference between receiving and sending a packet including
the processing time required by the active warden).
The amount of transferred data per packet (b) is 1
bit/packet in case two protocols are used for a PC since
b= log2n, where nis the number of protocols used. Thus,
pas well as nwill rise if more than two protocols are
used (more information can be transferred per packet but
the switching rate will also increase). In case of a PHCC, b
depends on the amount of storage data per packet and not
on the amount of protocols used. Therefore, pwill rise if
more protocols are used but since the amount of protocols
is not linked to the amount of information transferred per
packet, bwill not rise if more protocols are used.
B=b·(p·d+T)1(1)
Theoretically, pis 0.5if randomized input, a uniform
coding and a set of two protocols is used since the next
packet is either using the same protocol as the last (no
protocol switch) or the other protocol (a protocol switch
is taking place). In our experiments, the average protocol
switching value for a typical protocol switching covert
channel using only two protocols was p= 0.4738806. Thus,
to transfer information without risking a corruption through
a delay, a PC/PHCC user is forced to send packets with
protocol switches in a way that the delay dcannot corrupt
the packet order.
As mentioned earlier, the value pdepends on the amount
of protocols used as well as on the channel’s coding. If
a uniform coding was used (as with optimized channels)
and if two protocols are used pis approx. 0.5. In case
four protocols are used, pis approx. 0.75. In general, for
nprotocols used pis (1 1/n). Thus, formula 1 can be
modified to the following version:
B=b·((1 1/n)·d+T)1(2)
Protocol Channel: As also already discussed, B=
log2n·((1 1/n)·d+T)1in case of a PC. Taking d
as well Tinto account using formula 1, we calculated the
maximum useful bandwidths for an uncorrupted PC transfer
using a set of two protocols (Figure 2). According to our
calculations, a PC’s bandwidth can be reduced to less than
1 bit/s if the active warden introduces a delay of 2.0 sec for
protocol switches using realistic values for T.
Protocol Hopping Covert Channel: For a PHCC, the
parameter bvaries more than parameter T(T is, as in the
case of a PC, usually very low). Therefore, we created a
different plot where we set Tto the static value 0.005 which
we measured in experiments. Figure 3 shows the bandwidth
of a PHCC dependent on the delay das well as the amount
of transferred bits per packet b. Obviously, the result of the
PHCC is equal to the result of a PC if b= 1. However,
Figure 2. A PC’s bandwidth (B) using a set of two protocols dependent
on the delay and the transfer value.
PHCCs can carry more information and are therefore harder
to limit, i.e., they require higher delays.
Figure 3. A PHCC’s bandwidth using two protocols, T= 0.005 and
delays between 0.5 and 2s as well as the capability to transfer between 1
and 10 bits per packet.
As shown in Figure 4, the bandwidth of a PHCC decreases
if the number of protocols used increases, since more pro-
tocol switches (p= 1 1/4) occur, i.e., the active warden’s
efficiency for PHCCs is positively correlated with p.
Figure 4. A PHCC’s bandwidth using four protocols, T= 0.005 and
delays between 0.5 and 2 as well as the capability to transfer between 1
and 10 bits per packet.
B. Implementation
For our test implementation, we set up a virtual network
between two virtualized Linux 3.0 systems (a covert channel
sender as well as a receiver with a local active warden
3Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
instance) using VirtualBox (www.virtualbox.org). Both hosts
were connected using a virtual Ethernet interface and IPv4.
Our proof of concept code focused on layer 4 protocols
identifiable by the IPv4 “protocol” field only. Therefore we
modified the protocol channel tool (pct) [21] that used ARP
and ICMP to use UDP and ICMP instead. Additionally, we
implemented the functionality to generate randomized input
and to adjust the channel’s bitrate.
To implement the network delays on the receiver system
that is acting as both the active warden gateway and the
protocol switching covert channel receiver at the same time,
we made use of the firewall system netfilter/iptables. Netfil-
ter/iptables provides a “QUEUE” feature which can be used
to redirect data packets to a userspace program. Berrange
implemented the Perl-based program delay-net [22] that
enforces configurable network delays using the IPQueue
module [23] which is based on the iptables QUEUE feature.
We modified delay-net in a way that it only delays packets
after a protocol switch happened. We also implemented a
third program to evaluate the correct transmission at the
receiver’s side to verify formula 1 (cf. Section III).
Since this test focuses on the protocol switching capability
of both the PC and the PHCC at the same time, the testing
method is valid for both covert channel types.
III. RES ULTS
In our test configuration, the value Tis quite small (we
measured 0.005 in average) in comparison to the delay time
d. As mentioned in the previous section, we were able to
determine p= 0.4738806 through observing the behaviour
of the modified pct in our virtual test network. However,
pturned out to be slightly higher (0.53) in a real network
environment, where protocols occur which do not belong
to the PC, and therefore result in few additional protocol
switches.
In our test setting we sent PC data using different bitrates
and monitored the correctness of the received packet order at
the receiver’s side. Using this method, we were able to find
out the maximum bitrate able to work error-free dependent
on the delay introduced by the active warden. Figure 5 shows
the results in comparison to our calculation of B(formula
1). The differences between Band our recorded values are
small. An active warden with a delay value d= 2.1s(T=
0.005) reduces the bandwidth limit required for a successful
transmission of data to 1bit/s. If d= 1.0s, the bandwidth
limit is reduced to a maximum of 2.088bit/s.
PC with improved coding: If a PC uses a coding that
requires to send new packets only if a value unequal to the
current value is required to be transferred, it can overcome
the active warden, if sender and receiver are synchronized.
This is possible if the sender only transfers a network
packet if a protocol switch occurs, i.e. two packets of the
same protocol are never transferred after another. The timing
intervals between the protocol switches represent the amount
Figure 5. Measured maximal bandwidth of the modified pct dependent
on the active warden’s delay. In comparison, we show formula 1 using the
estimated protocol switching value.
of bits to transfer. Thus, such a covert channel would be a
hybrid version of a timing channel and a PC.
Example: The sender sends a packet of protocol P1. The
active warden delays it for time dand forwards it. Three
more bits as represented by P1shall be transferred. There-
fore, the sender waits for three time slots. Afterwards, a bit
represented by P2shall be transferred and the sender sends
one such a packet. The active warden delays the packet for
dand forwards it. If the sender sends P1again, it will also
be delayed for d. The receiver will receive P1, three waiting
slots, P2,P1, i.e. the same input as was sent by the sender.
The only disadvantage introduced by the active warden is the
delay of dfor all packets but this is a minor consequence.
To overcome this problem, an improved version of the
active warden can be developed. In our previous experi-
ments, we focused on an active warden with a constant delay
d. If dvaries from packet to packet, or in other words,
dis randomized (e.g., d[0.1; 2] sec), previous packets
are likely to overrun newer ones if the timing interval of
the sender is too small. Thus, the sender is forced to use
big waiting times and thus, will be forced to decrease its
bandwidth.
Besides the previously mentioned coding, a PC could also
use other codings to improve the amount of bits transferred
per protocol switch (b/p). For the default PC coding and
two protocols, p= 0.5but when a run length limited (RLL)
coding (as used for hard disks [24]) is implemented, pcan
be decreased.
In case of geometrically distributed symbols, an optimized
coding (Huffman coding) can help the covert channel’s users
to minimize the amount of packets to transfer, but – as usual
for covert channel research – we focus on an optimized
coding using a uniform distribution (e.g., the covert channel
is used to transfer encrypted input).
PHCC: A drawback of our approach is linked to a feature
only available for PHCCs but not for PCs. PHCCs provide
usually enough covert space to contain sequence numbers in
4Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
their payload [16]. Using these sequence numbers, the re-
ceiver can reassemble network packets even if their ordering
was disturbed [17]. While the active warden is not able to
completely solve this problem, it forces a PHCC user to use a
sequence number. Such a storage channel-internal sequence
number usually consists of only 2-3 bits and thus, the active
warden can break the receiver-side sorting nevertheless, if d
is large enough. Additionally, since these channels do only
provide a few bits per packet, the active warden decreases the
available space per packet in this way. Thus, a user is forced
to send more packets to transfer the same amount of data
than in the case where no active warden would be located
on the path between PHCC sender and PHCC receiver.
Receiver-side re-calculation attack for PCs: In case
a constant delay is used, it is possible for the attacker
recalculate the original sequence of received packets of a
PC. However, due to the jitter, it is possible that the attacker
is forced to use error-correcting codes. The active warden
can implement the previously mentioned randomized dto
overcome this problem.
IV. DISCUSSION OF PRACTICAL ASPECTS
A goal of the presented active warden approach is to
design the system for a practical use. The requirement for
only small delays is – even if a user’s initial request to
a website will be delayed – an acceptable limitation for
legitimate traffic in high-security environments since delays
of only around 2s can reduce the useful bandwidth of PCs
to a maximum of 1 bit/s. For PHCC, the value can differ if
the channel provides high values for b. However, to achieve
the goal of practical usefulness, it is necessary to implement
additional functionality because of the following reasons:
DNS requests: Typically, a user sends DNS requests to
a DNS server and, after receiving a response, connects to a
system using another protocol. It is required to take care of
this typical effect (and similar effects such as using HTTPS
right after a user clicked on a link of a HTTP-based website).
Protocol switches occur in both cases (DNSHTTP respec-
tively HTTPHTTPS). The DNS server and the system a
user connects to (usually a web server) will in almost all
cases have different addresses, thus it is easy to address this
problem if the active warden distinguishes destination hosts.
Different protocols on a single host: However, situations
are thinkable in which a user is connected to one host using
two different protocols, e.g. to an SMTP server and an IMAP
server on the same system. In such cases, whitelisting (e.g.,
defining trusted hosts) can reduce this problem.
Multiple senders: In an enterprise network, there are
usually a number of different computers with Internet access.
If the active warden is located on the uplink, it will notice
many protocol switches since different systems use different
protocols to achieve different tasks. The active warden
should distinguish source addresses to solve this problem.
However, some companies run a network address trans-
lation (NAT) service within their network. These systems
would appear as a single system to the active warden
although the systems as well as the active warden are located
inside the company network. Thus, the NAT’ed systems
would face delays. A whitelisting is no sufficient solution
since these address translated systems are required to be
protected from data leakage too. A thinkable limitation
for that problem would be to use remote physical device
fingerprinting [25] to count the number of NAT’ed systems
and apply fewer delays per packet switch if the number of
hosts behind NAT increases (and vice versa).
Multiple Receivers: If one host sends PC packets to
different receivers and each receiver is associated with
only a single protocol, no protocol switches occur and no
bandwidth is limited on a direct way but in an indirect
way: If the receiver is forced to be a distributed system,
it has to implement a distributed coordination mechanism
(sorting packets and extracting all hidden information on
a single system that finally computes the whole hidden
message). If the receiver-side network is monitored as well,
the coordination itself must be covered too, and thus can
probably be detected or at least raise attention. Also, the
bandwidth is limited since multiple receivers can receive
messages via different performing network access points and
the network packets for the coordination can differ in their
timings, too. Therefore, the sender must introduce pause
intervals (which limit the bandwidth) between new packets
to prevent a scrambled result at the receiver.
Redundancy: As all normalizer and firewall-like systems,
our prototype of an active warden can result in a single
point of failure if not operated on a redundant installation.
Modifications of existing redundancy protocols (e.g., CARP)
are thinkable to solve this problem. However, as any firewall-
like system, the active warden introduces side-effects, i.e.,
delays, into network traffic.
End-User Limitation: As explained, the effect for end-
users is low if the active warden is used. While an extensive
end-user study was not part of this work, we measured
different HTTP request-response times for 10MByte down-
loads over the active warden. The standard download time
in our network was 0.41-0.57s. After we installed the active
warden, we ran a HTTP download as well as a 0.25 bit/s
PC to simulate a number of protocol switches as they occur
for modern websites (multiple DNS requests for a whole
site are normal since they can include script sources from
other domains). Our simulation increased the download-
time to 0.43-3s. We observed that the basic limitation for
connections in the establishment phase where a new protocol
(HTTP over TCP) occurred. In the context of the 4s-rule
for website rendering [26], we can assume that our active
warden is valuable for practical use-cases.
To summarize, all mentioned problems (excepting the
network address translation) are solvable by adding the men-
5Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
tioned simple features. The configurable delay parameter d
provides administrators a way to adjust the efficiency of
the active warden to their requirements. Since only protocol
switching packets are affected by the active warden, most of
a network’s traffic is not affected, i.e., download rates and
upload rates will not decrease notably.
V. CONCLUSION
In this paper, we present the first active warden designed
to counter both types of protocol switching covert channels:
PC as well as PHCC. We limit the useful bandwidth of these
covert channels by disturbing the protocol switches through
synthetically introduced delays. Therefore, we implemented
an active warden and verified its practical usefulness.
Future work will include to find solutions for the problem
of network address translation inside a protected network
as well as to find solutions for effects of large network
environments where load balancing and redundancy proto-
cols are required; the presented prototype was not designed
for such environments. Additionally, research must be done
to provide an exact bitrate controlling for PHCC using
internal sequence numbers since we do only provide a loose
bandwidth reduction for this channel type.
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6Copyright (c) IARIA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-61208-201-1
ICIMP 2012 : The Seventh International Conference on Internet Monitoring and Protection
  • Conference Paper
    Advanced developments in intrusion detection systems (IDS) and computer network technology encourage hackers to find new ways to leak confidential information without being detected. When the interpretation of a security model adopted by a system is violated by a communication between two users, or processes operating on their behalf, it is said that the two users are communicating indirectly or covertly. A network covert channel refers to any communication channel that can be exploited by a process to transfer information in a manner that violates a system's security policy. Loopholes in network protocols attract covert channel exploitation. This paper sheds light on network covert channel countermeasures and the most recent detection and prevention methods of such channels. The achievements and limitations of these countermeasures are discussed. The paper further introduces the concept of network covert channel triangle (DSM-Development, Switching, and Micro-protocol); three elements that have the most direct positive impact in a network covert channel environment. In addition, the paper reflects on the challenges such covert channels impose.
  • Conference Paper
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    Due to the rapid growth in number of different protocols over the internet, internet protocols have become an ideal vehicle for covert communications. They represent a high bandwidth for such communications. Moreover, new high-speed network technology has significantly amplified the network's covert channel capacity. Certainly, a covert channel bandwidth of only one bit size can easily allow transmission of a system bin code which can lead to tremendous risk. This paper presents a brief overview of network protocols-based covert channels, and surveys some recent and relevant work on covert channels detection and elimination techniques along with their achievements and limitations. In sum, the covert channel countermeasures-detection, elimination, mitigation, and capacity reduction-are still real challenges and lag behind an acceptable level of network security. Therefore, the research door is wide open for more contributions in this field.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    Due to the rapid growth in number of different protocols over the internet, internet protocols have become an ideal vehicle for covert communications. They represent a high bandwidth for such communications. Moreover, new highspeed network technology has significantly amplified the network’s covert channel capacity. Certainly, a covert channel bandwidth of only one bit size can easily allow transmission of a system bin code which can lead to tremendous risk. This paper presents a brief overview of network protocols-based covert channels, and surveys some recent and relevant work on covert channels detection and elimination techniques along with their achievements and limitations. In sum, the covert channel countermeasures—detection, elimination, mitigation, and capacity reduction—are still real challenges and lag behind an acceptable level of network security. Therefore, the research door is wide open for more contributions in this field
  • Conference Paper
    Full-text available
    Cloud environments are more and more used by cyber criminals to perform their malicious activities. With the help of covert channels they hide their data transmissions and message exchange. Whereas different techniques of covert channels in common networks are well-known, the existence of covert channels in cloud environments networks is a new topic in information hiding. The virtual environments provide new ways to hide the transmission of information. These environments use virtual networks in the cloud, which separate and isolate logical networks of the different customers. In this paper we present an examination of information hiding in virtual networks. We analyzed VXLAN, STT, GENEVE and NVGRE as the most notable so-called overlay protocols and examined different ways to create covert storage channels. Furthermore, we describe a covert timing channel based on the movement of virtual machines. As a result we propose possible countermeasures of the described covert channels.
  • Conference Paper
    Frequently, it is believed that the adoption of encryp- tion is adequate to ensure the safety of the message. However, encryption only restricts unapproved individuals from decoding the message. Whereas in many circumstances, the mere presence of communication or variations in communication patterns, such as an increase in message rate, is sufficient to raise doubt and initiate alerts. One of the best ways to bypass that is by using covert channels. In this paper, we create innovative protocols that use multiple covert channels working in parallel to exfiltrate data from a remote-controlled machine to our server. The provided protocols guarantee the completeness and unforgeability of the exfiltrated data. We analyze the difference in performance be- tween the created protocols and provide mathematical equations to evaluate them.
  • In this paper, spatial adaptive strategy for End-hopping system is proposed, based on the study of attack-defense model. It is a combination of adaptive technology and End-hopping technology. Modules such as attack detection, feedback transmission and adaptive control are added to the original hopping system. Then, guidance is put forward for next hop with the help of the real-time evaluation on each hopping node. Furthermore, investigations are provided on how to adjust related parameters automatically, according to the situations of network communication and the degree to which the nodes are attacked. New system can maintain good service efficiency as well as high security. And this technique is applied to the End-hopping prototype system. By different experiments attacking the prototype system, the feasibility and effectiveness of End-hopping technique are proven.
  • Article
    Full-text available
    Network covert channels enable a policy-breaking network communication (e.g., within botnets). Within the last years, new covert channel techniques arose which are based on the capability of protocol switching. Such protocol switching covert channels operate within overlay networks and can contain their own internal control protocols. We present the first approach to effectively limit the bitrate of such covert channels by introducing a new active warden. We present a calculation method for the maximum usable bitrate of these channels in case the active warden is used. We discuss implementation details of the active warden and discuss results from experiments that indicate the usability in practice. Additionally, we present means to enhance the practical application of our active warden by applying a formal grammar-based white-listing and by proposing the combination of a previously developed detection technique in combination with our presented approach.
  • Conference Paper
    Security in building automation systems (BAS) recently became a topic in the security community. BAS form a part of enterprise networks and can be utilized to gain access to a company network or to violate a security policy. Up to now, the threat of covert channels in BAS protocols was not discovered. While a first available solution can limit ``high level'' covert channels in BAS, there is no solution available to prevent covert channels on the lower level (i.e., in BAS protocols). In this paper, we present network covert storage and network covert timing channels in the network and application layer of the BACnet protocol stack to show that protocol-level covert channels in BAS are feasible. Additionally, we introduce the first means enabling a BAS to become multi-level secure on the network and application layer to prevent covert channels. We built a prototype based on the BACnet firewall router (BFR) to implement multi-level security in BACnet environments.
  • Conference Paper
    Network covert channels enable hidden communication and can be used to break security policies. Within the last years, new techniques for such covert channels arose, including protocol switching covert channels (PSCCs). PSCCs transfer hidden information by sending network packets with different selected network protocols. In this paper we present the first detection methods for PSCCs. We show that the number of packets between network protocol switches and the time between switches can be monitored to detect PSCCs with 98-99% accuracy for bit rates of 4 bits/second or higher.
  • Article
    In 1985, we outlined an information flow tool for the Gypsy language that could be used to support covert chan- nel analysis. The proposed tool offered substantial advan- tages over existing tools in flexibility and promised to be useful for a variety of analyses. Two versions of the tool were subsequently built and used for a variety of MLS and other projects. This paper draws on the original, adding motivational and explanatory material and adds descrip- tions of the subsequent tools. It also illustrates a novel use of one of the tools in developing an architecture for a MLS windowing system.
  • Article
    The use of malicious communication channels is becoming an integral part of malicious software agents and tools including those employed for remote access tools and distributed denial of service tools. These malicious software agents use the unused fields of ICMP and TCP/IP packets to establish malicious communication channels. Since TCP/IP comprises 96% of the traffic, the paper identifies the idle fields in TCP/IP and ICMP messages and proposes the use of a stateless model to protect against the misuse of these unused fields. This paper also presents the advantages of using a stateless model over firewalls and IDS. The proposed modifications are recommended highly for the end hosts and it has been shown that the proposed modifications are computationally inexpensive.
  • Article
    Most practical policies for handling covert storage channels are based on bandwidth-limitation techniques. In this paper we present a Markov model for bandwidth computation and its application to Secure Xenix. The model can be used for computing the bandwidth of both individual channels ad aggregated channels (i.e., serial and parallel aggregation). Based on this model, a tool has been built and experiments conducted to determine the factors that effect the bandwidth of covert storage channels (i.e., noise, scheduling delays, load, "think times" ). The tool can be used to compute the minimum delays for each channel under various loads and program behavior. Thus, it enables the placement dynamically-adjustable delays in multi-programmed systems, which guarantees minimum performance impact.
  • Conference Paper
    Full-text available
    A network covert channel is a mechanism that can be used to leak information across a network in violation of a security policy and in a manner that can be difficult to detect. In this paper, we describe our implementation of a covert network timing channel, discuss the subtle issues that arose in its design, and present performance data for the channel. We then use our implementation as the basis for our experiments in its detection. We show that the regularity of a timing channel can be used to differentiate it from other traffic and present two methods of doing so and measures of their efficiency. We also investigate mechanisms that attackers might use to disrupt the regularity of the timing channel, and demonstrate methods of detection that are effective against them.
  • Conference Paper
    Full-text available
    Botnets are now the key platform for many Internet attacks, such as spam, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), identity theft, and phishing. Most of the current botnet detection approaches work only on specific botnet command and control (C&C) protocols (e.g., IRC) and structures (e.g., centralized), and can become ineffective as botnets change their C&C techniques. In this paper, we present a general detection framework that is independent of botnet C&C protocol and structure, and requires no a priori knowledge of botnets (such as captured bot binaries and hence the botnet signatures, and C&C server names/addresses). We start from the definition and essential properties of botnets. We define a botnet as a coordinated group of malware instances that are controlled via C&C communication channels. The essential properties of a botnet are that the bots communicate with some C&C servers/peers, perform malicious activities, and do so in a similar or correlated way. Accordingly, our detection framework clusters similar communication traffic and similar malicious traffic, and performs cross cluster correlation to identify the hosts that share both similar communication patterns and similar malicious activity patterns. These hosts are thus bots in the monitored network. We have implemented our BotMiner prototype system and evaluated it using many real network traces. The results show that it can detect real-world botnets (IRC-based, HTTP-based, and P2P botnets including Nugache and Storm worm), and has a very low false positive rate.
  • Conference Paper
    Full-text available
    Abstract A fundamental,problem,for network,intrusion detection systems is the ability of a skilled attacker to evade detection by exploiting ambiguities in the traffic stream as seen by the mo,nitor. We discuss the viability of addressing this problem,by introducing a new network forwarding element called a traffi c normalizer. The normalizer sits directly in the path of traffic into a site and patches up the packet stream to eliminate potential ambiguities before the traffic is seen by the monitor, removing evasion opportunities. We examine a number of tradeoffs in designing a normalizer, emphasizing the important question of the degree to which normalizations undermine end-to-end protocol semantics. We discuss the key practical issues of “cold start” and attacks on the normalizer, and develop a methodology,for systematically examining,the ambiguities present in a protocol based on walking the protocol’ s header. We then present norm, a publicly available user-level implementation,of a normalizer that can normalize a TCP traffic stream at 100,000 pkts/sec in memory-to-memory copies, suggesting that a kernel implementation,using PC hardware could keep pace with a bidirectional 100 Mbps link with sufficient headroom,to weather a high-speed flooding attack of small packets.
  • Conference Paper
    Rather than searching for the holy grail of steganography, this paper presents the basis for development of a tool kit for creating and exploiting hidden channels within the standard design of network communications protocols. The Alice and Bob analogy, derived from cryptology, is used to present network protocols in a way that more clearly defines the problem. Descriptions of typical hidden channel design for each layer of the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) network model are given. Methods of hiding and detection probabilities are summarized. Denying Bob and Alice the ability to communicate electronically may be the only absolute solution.
  • Conference Paper
    A technique for detecting covert storage channels using a tree structure called a covert flow tree (CFT) is introduced. By traversing the paths of a CFT a comprehensive list of scenarios that potentially support covert communication via particular resource attributes can be automatically constructed. CFTs graphically illustrate the process through which information regarding the state of one attribute is relayed to another attribute, and how in turn that information is relayed to a listening process. Algorithms for automating the construction of CFT and potential covert channel operation sequences are presented. Two example systems are analyzed and their results are compared to two other analysis techniques performed on identical systems. The CFT approach not only identified all covert storage channels found by the other techniques, but discovered a channel not detected by the other techniques