oreilly.comSafari Books Online.Conferences.


Saving Our Bacon: Snort Security Holes and Strategies for Safe Network Monitoring
Pages: 1, 2

The good news is that our knowledge of these vulnerabilities and subsequent fixes are the result of security audits, and Snort is an even more valuable tool if it is ironclad. The modular design of preprocessors encourages incorporation of new code, which is an important advantage for Snort, but the latest flaws demonstrate the need for ongoing security audits, especially for any preprocessors that are enabled by default for production use.

The most obvious defensive strategy for system administrators is to keep your Snort installation up to date, and to monitor security advisories so you can apply patches for any newly discovered holes. Most system administrators are already doing this for external network services -- the key here is recognize that tools like Snort are also vulnerable, and hence need attention too.

Next, don't run Snort as root! The CERT advisory says ...

"Both vulnerabilities allow remote attackers to execute arbitrary code with the privileges of the user running Snort, typically root."

... but there is no reason to accept this risk. Although Snort (like all network-sniffing programs) requires superuser access to put interfaces into promiscuous mode (so they will act as wiretaps), Snort can and should run as an alternate user (and group, if appropriate) after initialization is complete. Use Snort's -u and -g options to specify an unprivileged user and group, chosen to minimize risk by ensuring that only Snort's own log files are writable.

An even better strategy is to run Snort in a chroot jail. Create a directory with all of the files that Snort needs, remembering shared libraries and so on. (Some experimentation will probably be necessary, but it is worth the effort.) Then specify the directory with Snort's -t option. A chroot jail works best when Snort runs as an unprivileged user -- this isn't an excuse to continue running Snort as root!

Finally, run Snort on a dedicated, untrusted machine. This will help to contain the damage if Snort is ever compromised, especially if the machine contains little or no state, and can be easily rebuilt.

Vulnerability of Security Monitoring Tools

Buffer-overflow vulnerabilities are, unfortunately, still common, as shown by even a casual examination of recent CERT advisories, and the techniques used against Snort aren't especially original or innovative. We often speak loosely of network sniffing programs (like Snort) as "listening" to traffic, so it's easy to conclude that Snort's recently discovered security holes are just another case of an attack on a network service. We've seen it all before, right?

Wrong. In contrast to network servers like sendmail, BIND, and so forth, Snort does not accept connections or receive datagrams from client programs. Instead, Snort passively observes and analyzes network traffic, and from a security standpoint it is actually similar to other monitoring tools like logwatch or web log analyzers. The network traffic plays the same role as a log file.

The easiest way to see this is to separate the packet-capture and traffic-analysis functions that are built into Snort. Although Snort is often run in a configuration that does both, this is not the only way to use the program, nor is it necessarily the most secure mode of operation.

Packet capture can be performed by a variety of network-sniffing programs other than Snort, including tcpdump and Ethereal. This is relatively safe, as long as the network data is not really analyzed, but is simply dumped in "raw" form to trace files, for example, using the command:

tcpdump -w tracefile ...

These tools all use the libpcap library (provided with tcpdump), and hence the trace files share a common format, which is very convenient.

Traffic analysis can be done later, possibly using a different program, or on a different machine. For example, the tracefile saved previously could be analyzed by Snort using the command:

snort -r tracefile ...

Traffic analysis is considerably more dangerous than simple packet capture, because (as demonstrated by the Snort buffer-overflow vulnerabilities), malformed network data can cause program operations to go awry.

Network-sniffing programs like Snort are often run on machines with unconfigured interfaces, and some system administrators even use modified network cables with severed transmit lines to ensure that only passive observation can occur. While these stealth techniques undoubtedly offer some degree of protection to the monitoring system as a whole, the CERT advisory for Snort warns that:

"... it is not necessary for the attacker[s] to know the IP address of the Snort device they wish to attack; merely sending malicious traffic where it can be observed by an affected Snort sensor is sufficient to exploit these vulnerabilities."

This is somewhat misleading, however -- the danger arises not from the observation but rather from the subsequent analysis of the traffic, and that could happen elsewhere.

The portability of network trace files amplifies the risks. Traffic analysis is often performed on trusted machines, deep within the perimeter protected by external firewalls. Trace files can be sent by email, and public collections are available on web sites such as the Honeynet Project, which offers periodic challenges for study of attacks observed in the wild, or the Internet Traffic Archive, which is more generic, and unfortunately, hasn't been updated recently.

Although Snort performs more complex traffic analysis than most other network-monitoring tools, and hence offers more opportunities for attack, it's important to recognize that the other tools are also vulnerable. Ethereal, for example, can perform TCP stream reassembly, and even tcpdump's simpler packet printing code is aware of many protocols. Are buffer overflow bugs lurking in this code?

Furthermore, other programs that analyze derived network data indirectly could also be vulnerable. The earlier analogy between network traffic and log files offers a clue about how this could happen. Could an attacker induce a network server like sendmail or BIND to emit a syslog message that would be crafted to compromise logwatch when it later analyzed the system log? Similarly, could a web server be tricked into recording an entry in its log file that would subsequently confuse a web-log analyzer? These kinds of attacks would be difficult because they involve multiple interacting programs, but they are certainly not impossible, and they are conceptually similar to the recently discovered Snort security holes.

Defensive Strategies for Secure Monitoring

When we recognize the threat of attacks on network monitoring tools, and indeed any other tool that analyzes network data (even indirectly), it is clear that we need to pay more attention to writing and using these tools securely, as we do for network servers. Snort's buffer overflow security holes were discovered during security audits -- similar audits for other network-sniffing programs like tcpdump and Ethereal would be welcome news, even (or especially) if they lead to the discovery of other vulnerabilities.

Data from untrusted sources (that is, the network) must be viewed with suspicion by security tools, and subjected to sanity checks before use. Programs need to verify the assumptions (known as invariants) that are critical for correct operation, that is, packet headers don't lie about sizes, integers won't overflow, URLs aren't malformed, printf-style format strings contain no stray "%" characters, etc. These invariants are different for each program, so derived data that is considered sanitized by one program must still be checked by other programs to be safe. Perl provides a wonderful facility for tracking untrusted data: taint mode. Scripts like logwatch, which is written almost entirely in Perl, would benefit from use of Perl's -T option to track tainted data read from log files. The individual logwatch filter scripts are analogous to Snort's preprocessor modules, and they deserve a similar defensive posture.

Users of security tools and system administrators can protect themselves first by recognizing vulnerable applications. As we have seen, the most important principle is: follow the data. If it can be traced back to an untrusted source, take steps to mitigate the risk.

The best way to minimize the potential impact of decisions based on maliciously crafted data is to analyze the data in a restricted environment. This can be a dedicated, untrusted machine, or a chroot jail. At the very least, avoid running security tools as root -- choose an unprivileged user (and group, if appropriate) that is only allowed minimal access to the data being analyzed, and nothing else. The data often contains sensitive information and requires protection from the general population anyway. Separating the collection of data from subsequent analysis steps can make it easier to set up these safety nets.

Finally, be wary of automated processes that are triggered by decisions based on untrusted network data, especially if the actions require privileged access. For example, Snort provides experimental "flexible response" features (fortunately disabled by default) for killing connections, and a Perl script for dynamically modifying firewall rules, both based on traffic analysis. Imagine the havoc that could ensue if an attacker managed to subvert or gain control of these actions!


Monitoring can be done securely, if proper attention is devoted to the safe use of our available security tools. By recognizing the vulnerabilities and taking steps to run applications in a restricted environment, we can derive the maximum benefit and enhance security, without worrying (too much) that our tools will be hijacked and used against us.

Robert G. Byrnes is a software engineer at Curl Corporation, and has worked in the fields of networking, telecommunications, distributed computing, financial technology, and condensed matter physics.

O'Reilly & Associates will soon release (June 2003) Linux Security Cookbook.

Return to the Linux DevCenter.

Linux Online Certification

Linux/Unix System Administration Certificate Series
Linux/Unix System Administration Certificate Series — This course series targets both beginning and intermediate Linux/Unix users who want to acquire advanced system administration skills, and to back those skills up with a Certificate from the University of Illinois Office of Continuing Education.

Enroll today!

Linux Resources
  • Linux Online
  • The Linux FAQ
  • Linux Kernel Archives
  • Kernel Traffic

  • Sponsored by: