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Analysis: The forensics of Internet security


(IDG) -- If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an example is worth a thousand pictures. This article describes the actions taken to investigate an actual security breach. To truly understand the technical details of an incident, it is best to see the actual data. The tricky part is how to present the data in a way that is understandable while protecting the privacy of the parties involved.

As the purpose of this article is to discuss techniques, I am taking some license by combining the text of several emails in order to make them more readable. I am also sanitizing the information -- replacing actual user names, domain names, and IP addresses with pseudodata -- in order to maintain the privacy of the parties involved. Any similarity to actual names and addresses is purely coincidental.

Were this information being utilized in a legal case, the unadulterated and unabridged emails, addresses, and names would need to be preserved.

Houston, we have a problem


It all started when my friend Mac sent me an urgent email asking for help in tracking down a security incident. Mac was covering for the lead admin on the affected site and was in a bit over his head. The abuse contact for his site had received a complaint that someone from the site was harassing people in an Internet relay chat room. Apparently, BNC was being used to mask the real IP address of the offender.

BNC (BouNCe) is an IRC proxy daemon written by James Seter. With it, users can bounce IRC traffic to mask the traffic's originating IP address.

BNC isn't malicious code in and of itself. It can be used for quite legitimate purposes, such as protecting a PC by covering its real IP address with the address of a system better able to withstand an attack. While this is a form of security through obscurity, a little obscurity can be helpful, especially when facing DoS attacks.

Computer crackers might install BNC on a site they broke into in order to cover their tracks as they attack another site. They could also use it to masquerade as an employee of Company X in a chat room. It should be noted that the person using BNC must already have a way to get into the network in order to use it. BNC itself is not a back door, though its presence may indicate that there is an intruder in the network.

In this particular case, Mac suspected that BNC was being used because he could not see a user logged in at the time of the incident.

Initial recommendations

I usually find this type of forensic work pretty interesting, but I was stuck working at a client site at the time. Not only would it be inappropriate to scan Mac's site from my client's systems, but I had a full workload that I couldn't just drop. I sent Mac a reply with some suggestions and he proceeded to gather more information. One question that came up involved a strange-looking file in /etc:

      •  ?r--r--r-- 1 root root 0 May 6 1998 .name_service_door ?rw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 May 6 1998 .syslog_door

      •  On my Solaris 7 system, the file looks like this: br>
      •  Drw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 Mar 6 1999 /etc/.syslog_doorbr>

It looked to me as if the ? representation was there because the system was an older release; in the present version, D indicated a door. I could not confirm this in the manual pages, however, and later resorted to asking Casper Dik, the walking manual of Solaris, for clarification.

Casper confirmed that, in Solaris 2.5.*, doors weren't documented and file/ls didn't know about them. What's more, .name_service_door is used by the libraries to contact nscd and .syslog_door is used by syslog() to check whether syslogd is still up and running.

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A Puppy to the rescue

Rain Forest Puppy is best known for his exploits in the Microsoft world. However, he is quite proficient in Unix, though more familiar with Linux than Solaris. Because RFP is a mutual friend, I asked if he would be able to help Mac out.

RFP started his investigation by tracing the suspect IP addresses to their source ISP. From there, he picked up the technical contact for the site, Bailey Rabbit (not his real name). Because there was no email address listed for Mr. Rabbit, RFP looked him up by name in the Network Solutions database and identified the ISPs where the rogue connections originated. Further investigation required an account on the compromised system, which Mac was authorized to provide.

In his original mail, Mac noted a copy of httptunnel in the account of a user who had left. It was initially thought that this was the source of the compromise, though this turned out not to be the case. This illustrates that there are often anomalies found on a compromised system that have nothing to do with the event being traced.

A little help from proc

The /proc filesystem is handled differently on Solaris than on Linux, which brought up some questions for RFP. I recalled that Peter Galvin had written a great article about the tools available in /proc and pointed RFP in that direction.

Using the /proc tools, RFP proceeded to find the location of the BNC proxy. He also discovered that ls wasn't behaving properly, which suggested that a Trojan ls had been installed. I later confirmed with RFP that the ls -l command gave no output, when it should have at least given total 0 if there were no files to be listed in a directory. Because RFP had previously remarked that ps was not helpful, it looked like a rootkit was installed on the system.

Mac had a few questions about the methods that RFP used.


During and after this investigation, several people made some useful suggestions of things to try and tools to use.

Brian Martin (of the DSIC Security Group) and Jay Dyson (of OneSecure) suggested running the find command to look for SUID and SGID binaries:

      •  find / \( -perm -4000 -o -perm -2000 \) -exec ls -al {} \; > /tmp/suids

RFP noted that on Linux +6000 would report SUID, SGID, or SUID+SGID. On Solaris, looking for +6000 will only report binaries that are both SUID/SGID.

Jonathan Klein (of Wizard's Keys) suggested using lsof, a publicly available tool that lists open files. It is only useful for active processes, but it does provide a great deal of information. Of course, it is better to already have a copy of lsof on the system before you have an incident.

Jon also suggested having a copy of traceroute on the system, which Sun (at last!) included with Solaris 8.

Post mortem

It was unanimously agreed by all involved with this investigation that the systems should be reloaded from distribution and that the site needed a full security assessment and overhaul. Unfortunately, problems like this are rather typical in a university setting, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to get the resources and commitment to improve security. Computer crackers often mock a hacked site's administrator without knowing the situation the administrator has to deal with. I've personally been in a position where professors and research scientists insist on an open system and are shocked when someone vandalizes their precious research. The admin still gets blamed. It's no wonder that university systems were used in the DDoS attacks.

For now, the systems have been patched, though, as Jay Dyson pointed out, "Patching an already-compromised box is like slapping on band-aids to stop a cerebral hemorrhage. It won't work. Take the box offline, reinstall the OS, and lock it down. Anything else is a waste of time and effort."

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July 17, 2000
Cyber-crime laws emerge, but slowly
July 5, 2000
How to protect your network
July 4, 2000

Domain name hijacking: Easier than you think
Security, the way it should be
Overcoming insecurity
Reporting hackers seen as best deterrent
How it works: Personal firewalls
(PC World)
Who're you calling a terrorist?
Linux security classes
Service-based security

"The Power of /proc," Peter Baer Galvin

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