Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Apache Authors: Don MacVittie, AppDynamics Blog, Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White

Related Topics: Cloud Security, Java IoT, Linux Containers, @ContainersExpo, Agile Computing, @CloudExpo Blog

Cloud Security: Blog Feed Post

Facebook Exploit Is Not Unique

Facebook isn't unique in the ability to use it to attack a third party, it's just more effective

This week's "bad news" with respect to information security centers on Facebook and the exploitation of HTTP caches to affect a DDoS attack. Reported as a 'vulnerability', this exploit takes advantage of the way the application protocol is designed to work. In fact, the same author who reports the Facebook 'vulnerability' has also shown you can use Google to do the same thing. Just about any site that enables you to submit content containing links and then retrieves those links for you (for caching purposes) could be used in this way. It's not unique to Facebook or Google, for that matter, they just have the perfect environment to make such an exploit highly effective.

The exploit works by using a site (in this case Facebook) to load content and takes advantage of the general principle of amplification to effectively DDoS a third-party site. This is a flood-based like attack, meaning it's attempting to overwhelm a server by flooding it with requests that voraciously consume server-side resources and slow everyone down - to the point of forcing it to appear "down" to legitimate users.

The requests brokered by Facebook are themselves 110% legitimate requests. The requests for an image (or PDF or large video file) are well-formed, and nothing about the requests on an individual basis could be detected as being an attack. This is, in part, why the exploit works: because the individual requests are wholly legitimate requests.

How it Works
The trigger for the "attack" is the caching service. Caches are generally excellent at, well, caching static objects with well-defined URIs. A cache doesn't have a problem finding /myimage.png. It's either there, or it's not and the cache has to go to origin to retrieve it. Where things get more difficult is when requests for content are dynamic; that is, they send parameters that the origin server interprets to determine which image to send, e.g. /myimage?id=30. This is much like an old developer trick to force the reload of dynamic content when browser or server caches indicate a match on the URL. By tacking on a random query parameter, you can "trick" the browser and the server into believing it's a brand new object, and it will go to origin to retrieve it - even though the query parameter is never used. That's where the exploit comes in.

HTTP servers accept as part of the definition of a URI any number of variable query parameters. Those parameters can be ignored or used at the discretion of the application. But when the HTTP server is looking to see if that content has been served already, it does look at those parameters. The reference for a given object is its URL, and thus tacking on a query parameter forces (or tricks if you prefer) the HTTP server to believe the object has never been served before and thus can't be retrieved from a cache.

Caches act on the same principles as an HTTP server because when you get down to brass tacks, a cache is a very specialized HTTP server, focused on mirroring content so it's closer to the user.

<img src=http://target.com/file?r=1>
<img src=http://target.com/file?r=2>
<img src=http://target.com/file?r=3>
...
<img src=http://target.com/file?r=1000>

Many, many, many, many (repeat as necessary) web applications are built using such models. Whether to retrieve text-based content or images is irrelevant to the cache. The cache looks at the request and, if it can't match it somehow, it's going to go to origin.

Which is what's possible with Facebook Notes and Google. By taking advantage of (exploiting) this design principle, if a note crafted with multiple image objects retrieved via a dynamic query is viewed by enough users at the same time, the origin can become overwhelmed or its network oversubscribed.

This is what makes it an exploit, not a vulnerability. There's nothing wrong with the behavior of these caches - they are working exactly as they were designed to act with respect to HTTP. The problem is that when the protocol and caching behavior was defined, such abusive behavior was not considered.

In other words, this is a protocol exploit not specific to Facebook (or Google). In fact, similar exploits have been used to launch attacks in the past. For example, consider some noise raised around WordPress in March 2014 that indicated it was being used to attack other sites by bypassing the cache and forcing a full reload from the origin server:

If you notice, all queries had a random value (like “?4137049=643182″) that bypassed their cache and force a full page reload every single time. It was killing their server pretty quickly.

 

But the most interesting part is that all the requests were coming from valid and legitimate WordPress sites. Yes, other WordPress sites were sending that random requests at a very large scale and bringing the site down.

The WordPress exploit was taking advantage of the way "pingbacks" work. Attackers were using sites to add pingbacks to amplify an attack on a third party site (also, ironically, a WordPress site).

It's not just Facebook, or Google - it's inherent in the way caching is designed to work.

Not Just HTTP
This isn't just an issue with HTTP. We can see similar behavior in a DNS exploit that renders DNS caching ineffective as protection against certain attack types. In the DNS case, querying a cache with a random host name results in a query to the authoritative (origin) DNS service. If you send enough random host names at the cache, eventually the DNS service is going to feel the impact and possibly choke.

In general, these types of exploits are based on protocol and well-defined system behavior. A cache is, by design, required to either return a matching object if found or go to the origin server if it is not. In both the HTTP and DNS case, the caching services are acting properly and as one would expect.

The problem is that this proper behavior can be exploited to affect a DDoS attack - against third-parties in the case of Facebook/Google and against the domain owner in the case of DNS.

These are not vulnerabilities, they are protocol exploits. This same "vulnerability" is probably present in most architectures that include caching. The difference is that Facebook's ginormous base of users allows for what is expected behavior to quickly turn into what looks like an attack.

Mitigating
The general consensus right now is the best way to mitigate this potential "attack" is to identify and either rate limit or disallow requests coming from Facebook's crawlers by IP address. In essence, the suggestion is to blacklist Facebook (and perhaps Google) to keep it from potentially overwhelming your site.

The author noted in his post regarding this exploit that:

Facebook crawler shows itself as facebookexternalhit. Right now it seems there is no other choice than to block it in order to avoid this nuisance.

The post was later updated to note that blocking by agent may not be enough, hence the consensus on IP-based blacklisting.

The problem is that attackers could simply find another site with a large user base (there are quite a few of them out there with the users to support a successful attack) and find the right mix of queries to bypass the cache (cause caches are a pretty standard part of a web-scale infrastructure) and voila! Instant attack.

Blocking Facebook isn't going to stop other potential attacks and it might seriously impede revenue generating strategies that rely on Facebook as a channel. Rate limiting based on inbound query volume for specific content will help mitigate the impact (and ensure legitimate requests continue to be served) but this requires some service to intermediate and monitor inbound requests and, upon seeing behavior indicative of a potential attack, the ability to intercede or apply the appropriate rate limiting policy. Such a policy could go further and blacklist IP addresses showing sudden increases in requests or simply blocking requests for the specified URI in question - returning instead some other content.

Another option would be to use a caching solution capable of managing dynamic content. For example, F5 Dynamic Caching includes the ability to designate parameters as either indicative of new content or not. That is, the caching service can be configured to ignore some (or all) parameters and serve content out of cache instead of hammering on the origin server.

Let's say the URI for an image was: /directory/images/dog.gif?ver=1;sz=728X90 where valid query parameters are "ver" (version) and "sz" (size). A policy can be configured to recognize "ver" as indicative of different content while all other query parameters indicate the same content and can be served out of cache. With this kind of policy an attacker could send any combination of the following and the same image would be served from cache, even though "sz" is different and there are random additional query parameters.

/directory/images/dog.gif?ver=1;sz=728X90; id=1234
/directory/images/dog.gif?ver=1;sz=728X900; id=123456
/directory/images/dog.gif?ver=1;sz=728X90; cid=1234 

By placing an application fluent cache service in front of your origin servers, when Facebook (or Google) comes knocking, you're able to handle the load.

Action Items
There have been no reports of an attack stemming from this exploitable condition in Facebook Notes or Google, so blacklisting crawlers from either Facebook or Google seems premature. Given that this condition is based on protocol behavior and system design and not a vulnerability unique to Facebook (or Google), though, it would be a good idea to have a plan in place to address, should such an attack actually occur - from there or some other site.

You should review your own architecture and evaluate its ability to withstand a sudden influx of dynamic requests for content like this, and put into place an operational plan for dealing with it should such an event occur.

For more information on protecting against all types of DDoS attacks, check out a new infographic we’ve put together here.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

@ThingsExpo Stories
"We have a tagline - "Power in the API Economy." What that means is everything that is built in applications and connected applications is done through APIs," explained Roberto Medrano, Executive Vice President at Akana, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 16th Cloud Expo, held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City.
The Internet of Things is not only adding billions of sensors and billions of terabytes to the Internet. It is also forcing a fundamental change in the way we envision Information Technology. For the first time, more data is being created by devices at the edge of the Internet rather than from centralized systems. What does this mean for today's IT professional? In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists addressed this very serious issue of profound change in the industry.
Explosive growth in connected devices. Enormous amounts of data for collection and analysis. Critical use of data for split-second decision making and actionable information. All three are factors in making the Internet of Things a reality. Yet, any one factor would have an IT organization pondering its infrastructure strategy. How should your organization enhance its IT framework to enable an Internet of Things implementation? In his session at @ThingsExpo, James Kirkland, Red Hat's Chief Architect for the Internet of Things and Intelligent Systems, described how to revolutionize your archit...
It is one thing to build single industrial IoT applications, but what will it take to build the Smart Cities and truly society-changing applications of the future? The technology won’t be the problem, it will be the number of parties that need to work together and be aligned in their motivation to succeed. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jason Mondanaro, Director, Product Management at Metanga, discussed how you can plan to cooperate, partner, and form lasting all-star teams to change the world and it starts with business models and monetization strategies.
To many people, IoT is a buzzword whose value is not understood. Many people think IoT is all about wearables and home automation. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mike Kavis, Vice President & Principal Cloud Architect at Cloud Technology Partners, discussed some incredible game-changing use cases and how they are transforming industries like agriculture, manufacturing, health care, and smart cities. He will discuss cool technologies like smart dust, robotics, smart labels, and much more. Prepare to be blown away with a glimpse of the future.
Internet of Things is moving from being a hype to a reality. Experts estimate that internet connected cars will grow to 152 million, while over 100 million internet connected wireless light bulbs and lamps will be operational by 2020. These and many other intriguing statistics highlight the importance of Internet powered devices and how market penetration is going to multiply many times over in the next few years.
Internet of Things (IoT) will be a hybrid ecosystem of diverse devices and sensors collaborating with operational and enterprise systems to create the next big application. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Bramh Gupta, founder and CEO of robomq.io, and Fred Yatzeck, principal architect leading product development at robomq.io, discussed how choosing the right middleware and integration strategy from the get-go will enable IoT solution developers to adapt and grow with the industry, while at the same time reduce Time to Market (TTM) by using plug and play capabilities offered by a robust IoT ...
Today air travel is a minefield of delays, hassles and customer disappointment. Airlines struggle to revitalize the experience. GE and M2Mi will demonstrate practical examples of how IoT solutions are helping airlines bring back personalization, reduce trip time and improve reliability. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Shyam Varan Nath, Principal Architect with GE, and Dr. Sarah Cooper, M2Mi’s VP Business Development and Engineering, will explore the IoT cloud-based platform technologies driving this change including privacy controls, data transparency and integration of real time context wi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that BMC will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. BMC delivers software solutions that help IT transform digital enterprises for the ultimate competitive business advantage. BMC has worked with thousands of leading companies to create and deliver powerful IT management services. From mainframe to cloud to mobile, BMC pairs high-speed digital innovation with robust IT industrialization – allowing customers to provide amazing user experiences with optimized IT per...
There will be 150 billion connected devices by 2020. New digital businesses have already disrupted value chains across every industry. APIs are at the center of the digital business. You need to understand what assets you have that can be exposed digitally, what their digital value chain is, and how to create an effective business model around that value chain to compete in this economy. No enterprise can be complacent and not engage in the digital economy. Learn how to be the disruptor and not the disruptee.
The Internet of Things is not only adding billions of sensors and billions of terabytes to the Internet. It is also forcing a fundamental change in the way we envision Information Technology. For the first time, more data is being created by devices at the edge of the Internet rather than from centralized systems. What does this mean for today's IT professional? In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists will addresses this very serious issue of profound change in the industry.
Business as usual for IT is evolving into a "Make or Buy" decision on a service-by-service conversation with input from the LOBs. How does your organization move forward with cloud? In his general session at 16th Cloud Expo, Paul Maravei, Regional Sales Manager, Hybrid Cloud and Managed Services at Cisco, discusses how Cisco and its partners offer a market-leading portfolio and ecosystem of cloud infrastructure and application services that allow you to uniquely and securely combine cloud business applications and services across multiple cloud delivery models.
In his General Session at 16th Cloud Expo, David Shacochis, host of The Hybrid IT Files podcast and Vice President at CenturyLink, investigated three key trends of the “gigabit economy" though the story of a Fortune 500 communications company in transformation. Narrating how multi-modal hybrid IT, service automation, and agile delivery all intersect, he will cover the role of storytelling and empathy in achieving strategic alignment between the enterprise and its information technology.
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? In this Power Panel at DevOps Summit, moderated by Jason Bloomberg, the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise and president of Intellyx, panelists peeled away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud environment, and we must architect and code accordingly. At the very least, you'll have no problem fillin...
Growth hacking is common for startups to make unheard-of progress in building their business. Career Hacks can help Geek Girls and those who support them (yes, that's you too, Dad!) to excel in this typically male-dominated world. Get ready to learn the facts: Is there a bias against women in the tech / developer communities? Why are women 50% of the workforce, but hold only 24% of the STEM or IT positions? Some beginnings of what to do about it! In her Opening Keynote at 16th Cloud Expo, Sandy Carter, IBM General Manager Cloud Ecosystem and Developers, and a Social Business Evangelist, d...
Converging digital disruptions is creating a major sea change - Cisco calls this the Internet of Everything (IoE). IoE is the network connection of People, Process, Data and Things, fueled by Cloud, Mobile, Social, Analytics and Security, and it represents a $19Trillion value-at-stake over the next 10 years. In her keynote at @ThingsExpo, Manjula Talreja, VP of Cisco Consulting Services, discussed IoE and the enormous opportunities it provides to public and private firms alike. She will share what businesses must do to thrive in the IoE economy, citing examples from several industry sectors.
In his keynote at 16th Cloud Expo, Rodney Rogers, CEO of Virtustream, discussed the evolution of the company from inception to its recent acquisition by EMC – including personal insights, lessons learned (and some WTF moments) along the way. Learn how Virtustream’s unique approach of combining the economics and elasticity of the consumer cloud model with proper performance, application automation and security into a platform became a breakout success with enterprise customers and a natural fit for the EMC Federation.
SYS-CON Events announced today that the "Second Containers & Microservices Conference" will take place November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara, CA, and the “Third Containers & Microservices Conference” will take place June 7-9, 2016, at Javits Center in New York City. Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities.
SYS-CON Events announced today that the "First Containers & Microservices Conference" will take place June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City. The “Second Containers & Microservices Conference” will take place November 3-5, 2015, at Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara, CA. Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities.
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo in Silicon Valley. Learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is as "IoT-Ready" as it can be! Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place Nov 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 17th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal an...