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Next: 3.2.5 Comments Up: 3.2 Access Security: Firewalls Previous: 3.2.3 Levels of threat

3.2.4 Firewalls and their components

* Overview

In discussing firewalls there is often confusion of terminology since firewalls all differ slightly in implementation if not in purpose. Various discussions on Usenet indicate that the term ``firewall'' is used to describe just about any inter-network security scheme. For the sake of simplifying discussion, some terminology is proposed, to provide a common ground:

* Screening Router (see 3.2.4)

A screening router is a basic component of most firewalls. A screening router can be a commercial router or a host-based router with some kind of packet filtering capability. Typical screening routers have the ability to block traffic between networks or specific hosts, on an IP port level. Some firewalls consist of nothing more than a screening router between a private network and the Internet.

* Bastion Host (see 3.2.4)

Bastions are the highly fortified parts of a medieval castle; points that overlook critical areas of defense, usually having stronger walls, room for extra troops, and the occasional useful tub of boiling hot oil for discouraging attackers. A bastion host is a system identified by the firewall administrator as a critical strong point in the network's security. Generally, bastion hosts will have some degree of extra attention paid to their security, may undergo regular audits, and may have modified software.

* Dual Homed Gateway (see 3.2.4)

Some firewalls are implemented without a screening router, by placing a system on both the private network and the Internet, and disabling TCP/IP forwarding. Hosts on the private network can communicate with the gateway, as can hosts on the Internet, but direct traffic between the networks is blocked. A dual homed gateway is, by definition, a bastion host.

Figure 3.1: A typical Dual Homed Gateway
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* Screened Host Gateway (see 3.2.4)

Possibly the most common firewall configuration is a screened host gateway. This is implemented using a screening router and a bastion host. Usually, the bastion host is on the private network, and the screening router is configured such that the bastion host is the only system on the private network that is reachable from the Internet. Often the screening router is configured to block traffic to the bastion host on specific ports, permitting only a small number of services to communicate with it.

Figure 3.2: A typical Screened Host Gateway
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* Screened Subnet (see 3.2.4)

In some firewall configurations, an isolated subnet is created, situated between the Internet and the private network. Typically, this network is isolated using screening routers, which may implement varying levels of filtering. Generally, a screened subnet is configured such that both the Internet and the private network have access to hosts on the screened subnet, but traffic across the screened subnet is blocked. Some configurations of screened subnets will have a bastion host on the screened network, either to support interactive terminal sessions or application level gateways.

Figure 3.3: A typical Screened Subnet
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* Application Level Gateway (or ``Proxy Gateway'')

Much of the software on the Internet works in a store-and-forward mode; mailers and Usenet news collect input, examine it, and forward it. Application level gateways are service-specific forwarders or reflectors, which usually operate in user mode rather than at a protocol level. Generally, these forwarding services, when running on a firewall, are important to the security of the whole. The famous sendmail hole that was exploited by the Morris Internet worm is one example of the kinds of security problems an application level gateway can present. Other application level gateways are interactive, such as the FTP and telnet gateways run on the Digital Equipment Corporation firewalls. In general, the term ``application level gateway'' will be used to describe some kind of forwarding service that runs across a firewall, and is a potential security concern. In general, crucial application level gateways are run on some kind of bastion host.

* Hybrid Gateways (see 3.2.4)

Hybrid gateways are the ``something else'' category in this list. Examples of such systems might be hosts connected to the Internet, but accessible only through serial lines connected to an ethernet terminal server on the private network. Such gateways might take advantage of multiple protocols, or tunneling one protocol over another. Routers might maintain and monitor the complete state of all TCP/IP connections, or somehow examine traffic to try to detect and prevent an attack. The AT&T corporate firewall is a hybrid gateway combined with a bastion host.

Taking the components described above, we can accurately describe most of the forms that firewalls take, and can make some general statements about the kinds of security problems each approach presents. Assuming that a firewall fulfills its basic purpose of helping protect the network, it is still important to examine each type of firewall with respect to:

Damage control -- If the firewall is compromised or destroyed, to what kinds of threats does it leave the private network open?

Zones of risk -- How large is the zone of risk during normal operation? A measure of this is the number of hosts or routers that can be probed from the outside network.

Failure mode -- If the firewall is broken into or destroyed, how easy is this to detect? In a post mortem, how much information is retained that can be used to diagnose the attack?

Ease of use -- How much of an inconvenience is the firewall?

Stance -- Is the basic design philosophy of the firewall ``That which is not expressly permitted is prohibited'' or is it ``That which is not expressly prohibited is permitted''?

* Firewalls using screening routers
  Many networks are firewalled using only a screening router between the private network and the Internet. This type of firewall is different from a screened host gateway in that usually there is direct communication permitted between multiple hosts on the private network, and multiple hosts on the Internet. The zone of risk is equal to the number of hosts on the private networks, and the number and type of services to which the screening router permits traffic. For each service provided via peer-to-peer connection the size of the zone of risk increases sharply. Eventually it is impossible to quantify. Damage control is difficult as well since the network administrator would need to regularly examine every host for traces of a break-in. If there is no regular audit one must hope to stumble on a clue such as a mismatched system accounting record.

In the case of total destruction of the firewall, it tends to be very hard to trace or even to discover. If a commercial router (which does not maintain logging records) is used, and the router's administrative password is compromised, the entire private network can be laid open to attack very easily. Cases are known where commercial routers have been configured with erroneous screening rules, or have come up in some pass-through mode because of hardware or operator error. Generally, this configuration is a case of ``That which is not expressly prohibited is permitted'' as the ingenious user can fairly easily piggyback protocols to achieve a higher level of access than the administrator expects or wants.

Screening routers are not the most secure solution, but they are popular since they permit fairly free Internet access from any point within the private network. Many consultants and network service providers offer screening routers in a ``firewall'' configuration. It is uncertain if the various trade-offs involved are clear to the customer; thus the use of a screening router to protect sensitive information or trade secrets would not be recommended, since screening routers are very permeable from the inside.

* Dual homed gateways
  An often used and easy to implement firewall is the dual homed gateway. Since it doesn't forward TCP/IP traffic, it acts as a complete block between the Internet and the private network. Its ease of use is determined by how the systems manager chooses to set up access; either by providing application gateways such as telnet forwarders or by giving users logins on the gateway host. If the former approach is taken, the stance of the firewall is clearly ``That which is not expressly permitted is prohibited''; users can only access Internet services for which there is an application gateway. If users are permitted logins, the firewall's security is then seriously weakened. During normal operation, the only zone of risk is the gateway host itself, since it is the only host that is reachable from the Internet. If there are user logins on the gateway host, and one of the users chooses a weak password or has their account otherwise compromised, the zone of risk expands to encompass the entire private network. From a standpoint of damage control, the administrator may be able to track the progress of an intruder, based on the access patterns of the compromised login, but a skillful vandal can make this quite difficult. If a dual homed gateway is configured without direct user access, damage control can be somewhat easier, since the very fact that someone has logged in to the gateway host becomes a noteworthy security event. Dual homed gateways have an advantage over screening routers from the standpoint that their system software is often easier to adapt to maintain system logs, hard copy logs, or remote logs. This can make a post-mortem easier for the gateway host itself, but may or may not help the network administrator identify what other hosts on the private network may have been compromised in an island-hopping attack.

Attacking a dual homed gateway leaves the attacker a fairly large array of options. Since the attacker has what amounts to local network access if a login can be obtained, all the usual attacks that can be made over a local network are available. NFS-mounted file systems, weaknesses in .rhosts files, automatic software distribution systems, network backup programs and administrative shell scripts - all may provide a toehold on systems on the internal network. Once a toehold is secured, it then provides a base from which to launch attacks back at the gateway itself. The weakest aspect of the dual homed gateway is its failure mode. If the firewalll is destroyed it is possible that a skillful attacker might re-enable routing and throw the entire private network open to attack. In the usual Unix-based dual homed gateway, TCP/IP routing is often disabled by modifying a kernel variable named ipforwarding; if systems privileges can be obtained or stolen on the gateway, this variable can be changed. Perhaps this seems far-fetched, but unless great care is paid to monitoring the software revision levels and configuration on the gateway host, it is not improbable that a vandal with a copy of the release notes for the operating system version and a login can compromise the system.

* Screened host gateways
  Several articles have described screened host gateways, and how to construct them. Generally, the screened host gateway is very secure, while remaining fairly easy to implement. Typically, a bastion host is configured on the private network, with a screening router between the Internet and the private network, which only permits Internet access to the bastion host. Since the bastion host is on the private network, connectivity for local users is very good, and problems presented by exotic routing configurations do not present themselves. If the private network is, as many are, a virtual extended local area network (e.g.: no subnets or routing) the screened host gateway will work without requiring any changes to the local network, as long as the local network is using a legitimately assigned set of network addresses. The zone of risk of a screened host gateway is restricted to the bastion host, and the screening router, and the security stance of the screened host gateway is determined by the software running on that system. If an attacker gains login access to the bastion host, there is a fairly wide range of options for attacking the rest of the private network. In many ways, this approach is similar to the dual homed gateway, sharing similar failure modes and design considerations with respect to the software running on the bastion host.

* Screened subnets
  A screened subnet is usually configured with a bastion host as the sole point of access on the subnet. The zone of risk is small, consisting of that bastion host or hosts, and any screening routers that make up the connections between the screened subnet, the Internet, and the private network. The ease of use and basic stance of the screened subnet will vary, but generally a screened subnet is appealing only for firewalls that are taking advantage of routing to reinforce the existing screening. This approach forces all services through the firewall to be provided by application gateways, and places the stance strongly in the ``That which is not expressly permitted is prohibited'' category.

If a screened subnet based firewall with inter-network routing blocked is attacked with an intent to destroy it, the attacker must reconfigure the routing on three networks, without disconnecting or locking himself out, and without the routing changes being noticed. No doubt this is possible, but it can be made very difficult by disabling network access to the screening routers, or by configuring the screening routers to only permit access from specific hosts on the private network. In this case, an attacker would need to break into the bastion host, then into one of the hosts on the private network, and then back out to the screening router -- and would have to do it without setting off any alarms.

Another advantage of screened subnets is that they can be put in place in such a way that they hide any accidents of history that may linger on the private network. Many sites that would like to connect to the Internet are daunted by the prospect of re-addressing and re-subnetting existing networks. With a screened subnet with blocked inter-network routing, a private network can be connected to the Internet and changed gradually to new subnet and network addresses. In fact, this approach has been observed to significantly accelerate the adoption of new network addresses on loosely controlled private networks. Users will be more receptive to changing their host addresses if they can realize the benefits of Internet connectivity thereby, since hosts that are not correctly addressed cannot use the firewall properly. In most other respects, the screened subnet is very much dependent on the suite of software running on the bastion host. Screening a whole subnet provides functionality similar to the dual homed gateway or screened host gateway; it differs primarily in the extra level of complexity in routing and configuration of the screening routers.

* Hybrid gateways
  ``Security through obscurity'' is not sufficient in and of itself, but there is no question that an unusual configuration, or one that is hard to understand, is likely to give an attacker pause, or to make them more likely to reveal themselves in the process of trying to figure out what they are facing. On the other hand there is a real advantage to having a security configuration that is easy to understand, and therefore easier to evaluate and maintain. Since the hybrid gateway is mentioned here in the category of ``something else'' no attempt will be made to describe the indescribable. Some hypothetical hybrids may serve to show how hybrid gateways might differ from and be similar to the other types.

Let us postulate a hybrid gateway that consists of a box sitting on the Internet, which is capable of routing traffic, but also maintains a complete notion of the state of every TCP connection, how much data has gone across it, where it originated, and its destination. Presumably, connections can be filtered based on arbitrarily precise rules, such as: ``permit traffic between host A on the private network and all hosts on network B on the Internet via the telnet service if and only if the connection originated from host A between the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm and log the traffic.'' This sounds terrific, providing arbitrary control with great ease of use, but some problems simply refuse to go away. Consider that someone wishing to circumvent the firewall, who broke into the private network via an unguarded modem, might very easily set up a service engine that was piggybacked over the telnet port. This is actually a fairly easy firewall to destroy.

Another hybrid gateway might take advantage of various forms of protocol tunneling. Suppose the requirement is to connect to the Internet with very tight restrictions, but that a high degree of connectivity is required between the private network and an external network that is somewhat trusted (for example, a corporate R&D department needs to be able to run X-windows applications on a supercomputer at another facility). The usual archetypal gateways discussed here could provide general purpose e-mail connectivity, but for secure point-to-point communications, an encrypted point-to-point virtual TCP/IP connection might be set up with the remote system, after users had authenticated themselves with a cryptographic smart card. This would be extremely secure, and might be made fairly easy to use, but has the disadvantage that the protocol driver needs to be added to every system that wants to share communication. It is hard to make any guesses about the failure mode of such a system, but the zone of risk is neatly limited to all the hosts which are running the tunneling protocol driver, and to which the individual user has smart card access. Some of this might be implemented in hardware or in the routers themselves. In the future, it is likely that the rapid growth of the Internet will fuel more development in this area, and we will see various hybrid gateways arise. The basic issues surrounding configuring a firewall will probably remain the same as the ones discussed here.

* Other firewall-related tools

There is active research and development on tools to aggressively seek out and identify weaknesses in an entire network, or to detect the patterns that might indicate when an attack is in progress. These tools range from the simple checklist to complex ``expert systems'' with inference engines and elaborate rule bases. Many firewalls today run software that is designed to go forth and gather information relating to possible attacks and their origins, often using and abusing tools like finger and SNMP. Unless true artificial intelligence is developed, however, these tools cannot guard against an unknown form of attack, since they cannot possibly match the creativity of a network vandal. While often billed as being ``proactive'' they are in fact reactive, and generally will serve only to catch systems crackers armed with last year's bag of tricks. Catching the small fry is still worth doing, but it is likely that they are less of a threat than the fellow who is so eager to break into your network that he is doing research and development in new system cracking techniques.

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Next: 3.2.5 Comments Up: 3.2 Access Security: Firewalls Previous: 3.2.3 Levels of threat
Denis Arnaud