Detecting Malicious Packet Losses

Alper Mizrak, Keith Marzullo and Stefan Savage
April 18, 2007

In this paper we consider the problem of detecting whether a compromised router is maliciously manipulating its stream of packets. In particular, we are concerned with a simple yet effective attack in which a router selectively drops packets destined for some victim. Unfortunately, it is quite challenging to attribute a missing packet to a malicious action because normal network congestion can produce the same effect. Modern networks routinely drop packets when the load temporarily exceeds a router's buffering capacity. Previous detection protocols have tried to address this problem using a user-defined threshold: too many dropped packets implies malicious intent. However this heuristic is fundamentally unsound; setting this threshold is, at best, an art and will necessarily create unnecessary false positives or mask highly-focused attacks. We have designed, developed and implemented a compromised router detection protocol that dynamically infers, based on measured traffic rates and buffer sizes, the number of congestive packet losses that will occur. Once the ambiguity from congestion is removed, subsequent packet losses can be attributed to malicious actions. We have tested our protocol in Emulab and have studied its effectiveness in differentiating attacks from legitimate network behavior.

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