No one ever said using torrent services was safe. Downloaders may run afoul of law enforcement, spyware or malware and in many cases don’t end up with the file they wanted in the first place. And at the recent USENIX Workshop on Offensive Technologies, a team of researchers rolled out a new risk: multiple BitTorrent-based distributed reflective denial-of-service (DRDoS) attacks, some of which can’t be defeated using standard defenses.
Most users are familiar with DDoS attacks. Malicious actors flood network connections with traffic in hopes of overwhelming bandwidth allowances and causing websites to crash. But companies are getting better at defending against these attacks since they often come with familiar precursors that allow IT admins to take proactive action.
DRDoS, meanwhile, is a subtler animal. It works like this: Attackers spoof source IP addresses and then send small packets of data to known amplifiers. These amplifiers expand received packets and send them back; large enough volumes can overwhelm even high-performance systems. As noted by SecurityWeek, reflective attacks have been clocked at 400 gigabytes per second.
Using amplifiers lets attackers do less work for a greater payoff, do it all from a single machine and lower the chance they’ll be caught in the act since most of the heavy lifting is done by the amplifier itself. What’s more, these amplifiers aren’t hard to find; as more cybercriminals use them, they become easier to access online.
Torrent Troubles and DRDoS
So how does this tie in with BitTorrent streaming? Most torrent systems use UDP protocols, which aren’t designed to prevent IP spoofing. And with so many connections providing data simultaneously to user devices, the attack surface is huge — multiple reflective attacks could overwhelm even the most resilient systems. According to ExtremeTech, torrent clients such as BitTorrent Sync (BYSync) and µTorrent are vulnerable, along with popular services Vuse and Mainline. Amplification factors of up to 50 have been observed in BitTorrent official clients and 120 for BTSync.
The research team identified three risky protocols: Micro Transport Protocol (µTP), Distributed Hash Table (DHT) and Message Stream Encryption (MSE). DHT attacks that leverage DNS spoofing or network time protocol (NTP) for reflection are the easiest to defeat using a stateful packet inspection (SPI) firewall since these attack vectors leverage known ports.
As noted by Threatpost, however, handling µTP DRDoS attacks is more difficult because “TP establishes a connection with a two-way handshake. This allows an attacker to establish a connection with an amplifier using a spoofed IP address, as the receiver does not check whether the initiator has received the acknowledgment.” Normal firewalls won’t detect this kind of attack, meaning users will need to implement deep packet inspection (DPI). And when it comes to MSE, things get even more difficult since the protocol relies on a random handshake. Right now, there’s no working countermeasure to MSE-based DRDoS attacks.
The simple answer here? Don’t torrent. But the aggregate model has merit when it comes to download speed and reliability. Users need to decide if the risk of amplified attacks is worth the benefit of BitTorrent.