Forgive me for I have syn-ed

Is what a successful Denial of Service (DOS) or Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacker might say after taking advantage of syn-ack vulnerabilities in the TCP/IP handshake (the method used to set up the internet connection before you can start using your favorite website or gaming site). Not just one or two sy(i)ns but an entire flood of them. Enter the Syn Flood Denial of Service attack. When a client’s acknowledgment of the server’s response to a new connection request is never provided, open connections are left in its wake. The power to deny service to web resources is what the DOS attacker wields bringing many a powerful company to its knees. PayPal, Bank of America, and many more learned this truth the hard way in the past.

To say that the Internet is rife with vulnerabilities is clearly stating the embarrassingly obvious. Take the system of digital signatures and certificate authorities for example. Once a unit of software is digitally signed by a certificate issued by a well-known certificate authority, it is deemed completely trustworthy. But several stolen digital certificates later, malware signed with perfectly valid certificates has become a reality. Trust can only go so far.

As an aside, it is almost a miracle that so many of us readily flash our credit cards on websites resting assured in the confidence that the credit card provider will pick up the tab if cards get misused. If that confidence should turn out to be misplaced, I doubt any of us would proceed to shop online so freely. After all, there are several men-in-the-middle who would be happy to intercept public keys in transit and substitute them for their own, comfortably reading/modifying any and all traffic passing through them.

Today it has so easy to become an attacker/hacker really. Tools for launching attacks are readily available enabling anyone to get started on a path of online power. Willing and unwilling accomplices are in the plenty. When attackers are backed by the power of an entire nation state, the potential to inflict damage is simply gargantuan. Going from isolated websites and web servers to wide cross sections of the Internet and more.

Consider the latest DDOS attack on the DNS provider Dyn overwhelming its DNS servers with a flood of packets unleashed by an army of botnets formed from Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Network World reports that it was a TCP Syn Flood attack. An attack aimed at the Internet infrastructure provider, it literally brought a broad swath of the Internet to a standstill.

And this was aimed at just one Internet provider namely Dyn. Imagine a coordinated attack that targets a larger number of Internet infrastructure providers. That could perhaps push the brakes on the entire worldwide Internet, not just slowing down the US East Coast.

The DNS seems to have become one of the many significant weak links in the entire Internet system. After all, if the servers that resolve IP addresses to domain names become unavailable, it is not possible to go to the place you want to go to. Making the Internet unusable. With features that readily enable both attack reflection (using DNS servers to send responses to the spoofed IP address i.e. the victim) and attack amplification (inflating the size of the original request packet), the DNS appears to have become an unwitting accomplice in the DDoS attack. Add botnets to source the incoming DNS requests — with the Internet of Things as a ready supplier of vulnerable devices that lend themselves to botnets — and you have the makings of a truly exponential attack, a solid one-two punch. Sounds like a war of the worlds, Internet of Things vs. the classic Internet!

It may be useful to reflect on what this could potentially mean. With the overwhelming digital push and the all-around rush to the cloud, the dependence on the Internet has been skyrocketing. Per the website statistica: In 2015, retail e-commerce sales worldwide amounted to 1.55 trillion USD (approximately 9% of 2015 US GDP of 17.8 trillion USD) and e-retail revenues are projected to grow to 3.4 trillion USD in 2019. By 2017, 60% of all U.S. retail sales will involve the Internet in some way according to Forrester Research.

So taking the Internet out of commission in some form could bring much of commerce to a screeching halt. The impact on the global economy would, of course, be stupendous. Dare to say it could perhaps even trigger the next recession, which seems to be always waiting in the wings (but that is another story). This attack would indeed be the “sin of sins” that for many would be impossible to forget or forgive.


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