Welcome!

Cloud Expo Authors: Scott Bampton, Anne Buff, Gilad Parann-Nissany, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski

Related Topics: Security, Java, Linux, Virtualization, Web 2.0, Cloud Expo

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.

@CloudExpo Stories
When an enterprise builds a hybrid IaaS cloud connecting its data center to one or more public clouds, security is often a major topic along with the other challenges involved. Security is closely intertwined with the networking choices made for the hybrid cloud. Traditional networking approaches for building a hybrid cloud try to kludge together the enterprise infrastructure with the public cloud. Consequently this approach requires risky, deep "surgery" including changes to firewalls, subnets...
Ixia develops amazing products so its customers can connect the world. Ixia helps its customers provide an always-on user experience through fast, secure delivery of dynamic connected technologies and services. Through actionable insights that accelerate and secure application and service delivery, Ixia's customers benefit from faster time to market, optimized application performance and higher-quality deployments.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Stratogent will exhibit at SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Stratogent is a custom managed services organization based in San Mateo, California. We design, implement, and support mission critical infrastructure 24x7 on premises, in datacenters and in the Cloud. Since 2005, we have acted as an extension of internal IT teams, achieving a customer reten...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Harbinger Systems will exhibit at SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Harbinger Systems is a global company providing software technology services. Since 1990, Harbinger has developed a strong customer base worldwide. Its customers include software product companies ranging from hi-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley to leading product companies in the US a...
SYS-CON Events announces a new pavilion on the Cloud Expo floor where WebRTC converges with the Internet of Things. Pavilion will showcase WebRTC and the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devices--computers, smartphones, tablets, and sensors – connected to the Internet by 2020. This number will con...
The only place to be June 9-11 is Cloud Expo & @ThingsExpo 2015 East at the Javits Center in New York City. Join us there as delegates from all over the world come to listen to and engage with speakers & sponsors from the leading Cloud Computing, IoT & Big Data companies. Cloud Expo & @ThingsExpo are the leading events covering the booming market of Cloud Computing, IoT & Big Data for the enterprise. Speakers from all over the world will be hand-picked for their ability to explore the economic...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cloudian, Inc., the leading provider of hybrid cloud storage solutions, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Cloudian is a Foster City, Calif.-based software company specializing in cloud storage. Cloudian HyperStore® is an S3-compatible cloud object storage platform that enables service providers and enterprises to bui...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Gridstore™, the leader in software-defined storage (SDS) purpose-built for Windows Servers and Hyper-V, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Gridstore™ is the leader in software-defined storage purpose built for virtualization that is designed to accelerate applications in virtualized environments. Using its patented Server-Side Virtual C...
As the Internet of Things unfolds, mobile and wearable devices are blurring the line between physical and digital, integrating ever more closely with our interests, our routines, our daily lives. Contextual computing and smart, sensor-equipped spaces bring the potential to walk through a world that recognizes us and responds accordingly. We become continuous transmitters and receivers of data. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Andrew Bolwell, Director of Innovation for HP’s Printing a...
SAP is delivering break-through innovation combined with fantastic user experience powered by the market-leading in-memory technology, SAP HANA. In his General Session at 15th Cloud Expo, Thorsten Leiduck, VP ISVs & Digital Commerce, SAP, will discuss how SAP and partners provide cloud and hybrid cloud solutions as well as real-time Big Data offerings that help companies of all sizes and industries run better. SAP launched an application challenge to award the most innovative SAP HANA and SAP ...
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to evolve the way the world does business; however, understanding how to apply it to your company can be a mystery. Most people struggle with understanding the potential business uses or tend to get caught up in the technology, resulting in solutions that fail to meet even minimum business goals. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Jesse Shiah, CEO / President / Co-Founder of AgilePoint Inc., will show what is needed to leverage the IoT to transform...
SYS-CON Events announced today that AIC, a leading provider of OEM/ODM server and storage solutions, 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. AIC is a leading provider of both standard OTS, off-the-shelf, and OEM/ODM server and storage solutions. With expert in-house design capabilities, validation, manufacturing and production, AIC's broad selection of products are highly flexible and are conf...
We are all here because we are sold on the transformative promise of The Cloud. But what good is all of this ephemeral, on-demand infrastructure if your usage doesn't actually improve the agility and speed of your business? How must Operations adapt in order to avoid stifling your Cloud initiative? In his session at DevOps Summit, Damon Edwards, co-founder and managing partner of the DTO Solutions, will highlight the successful organizational, process, and tooling patterns of high-performing c...
SYS-CON Events announced today that O'Reilly Media has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. O'Reilly Media spreads the knowledge of innovators through its books, online services, magazines, and conferences. Since 1978, O'Reilly Media has been a chronicler and catalyst of cutting-edge development, homing in on the technology trends that really matter and spurri...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Aria Systems, the recurring revenue expert, has been named "Bronze Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Aria Systems helps leading businesses connect their customers with the products and services they love. Industry leaders like Pitney Bowes, Experian, AAA NCNU, VMware, HootSuite and many others choose Aria to power their recurring revenue bu...
The Transparent Cloud-computing Consortium (abbreviation: T-Cloud Consortium) will conduct research activities into changes in the computing model as a result of collaboration between "device" and "cloud" and the creation of new value and markets through organic data processing High speed and high quality networks, and dramatic improvements in computer processing capabilities, have greatly changed the nature of applications and made the storing and processing of data on the network commonplace. ...
Seagate has a strong track record of collaborating with others to develop better cloud solutions. The Seagate Cloud Builder Alliance program, for example, leverages the company’s knowledge of storage and cloud-optimized solutions to give cloud service providers the customized, flexible and scalable server and storage solutions to meet the high levels of service their customers demand. Seagate also is a member of the OpenStack Foundation and Open Compute Project to help define and promote open-so...
The Internet of Things (IoT) is going to require a new way of thinking and of developing software for speed, security and innovation. This requires IT leaders to balance business as usual while anticipating for the next market and technology trends. Cloud provides the right IT asset portfolio to help today’s IT leaders manage the old and prepare for the new. Today the cloud conversation is evolving from private and public to hybrid. This session will provide use cases and insights to reinforce t...
What process has your provider undertaken to ensure that the cloud tenant will receive predictable performance and service? What was involved in the planning? Who owns and operates the data center? What technology is being used? How is it being supported? In his session at 14th Cloud Expo, Dave Weisbrot, Cloud Business Manager for QTS, will provide the attendees a look into what it takes to stand up and stand behind a highly available certified cloud IaaS.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Gigaom Research has been named "Media Sponsor" of SYS-CON's 15th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Ashar Baig, Research Director, Cloud, at Gigaom Research, will also lead a Power Panel on the topic "Choosing the Right Cloud Option." Gigaom Research provides timely, in-depth analysis of emerging technologies for individual and corporate subscribers. Gigaom Research'...