Linux Has a TCP Flaw, Researchers Find

August 15, 2016 @ 8:15 AM
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2 min read

Threatpost reported that a Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) flaw has resided in the Linux implementation since 2012, or since v3.6 of the kernel. The flaw affects all internet users and puts them at risk — not just the ones directly on Linux systems.

At least that’s what security experts are saying. Researchers from the University of California, Riverside and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory delivered a paper at the USENIX Security Symposium, “Off-Path TCP Exploits: Global Rate Limit Considered Dangerous,” that outlined the problem and suggested some mitigation strategies.

A Subtle TCP Flaw

UCR said in a press statement that it had discovered a subtle flaw in the Linux software in the form of side channels. Attackers can exploit the flaw to infer the TCP sequence numbers associated with a particular connection. The only information cybercriminals need to carry out this type of attack is the IP address of the communicating parties.

Encrypted connections, the researchers said, are immune to data injection. However, those encrypted connections can still be forcefully terminated by the attacker. According to UCR, the attack can be executed in less than a minute and has a 90 percent success rate.

No user action is necessary to carry out this attack. In fact, users could become victims without doing anything wrong from a security standpoint, such as inadvertently downloading malware or clicking on a link in a phishing email.

The researchers created a short video showing how the attacks works.

A Simple Remedy

The researchers alerted Linux about the vulnerability. There are now patches that can be applied to the latest Linux version.

Until those Linux patches are applied across the board, however, one UCR researcher recommended a temporary patch that can be applied to both client and server hosts. The patch simply raises the challenge ACK limit to a very large value, which makes it “practically impossible” to exploit the side channel, the press statement noted.

Performing the change to that parameter can be as simple as adding one line to the sysctl.conf file and then updating. It’s rare that such a major vulnerability can be so simply remedied — and as such leaves no room for excuses when it comes to patching.

Larry Loeb
Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE mag...
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