Massive Man-in-the-Middle Attacks Have Been Hijacking Huge Amounts Of Internet Traffic And Almost No One Noticed

from the this-is-a-problem dept

Recently, at the debate between former NSA (and CIA) boss Michael Hayden and reporter Barton Gellman, one of the statements Hayden made has stuck with me. He talked about this “wonderful” “accident of history and technology that put most of the world’s web traffic inside the United States.” He used this to suggest that it was our right and duty to therefore use that traffic to spy on everyone possible. I’m thinking about that statement, because (1) it was no “accident” of history or technology that resulted in that, but rather a concerted effort based on where the internet was first built and (2) because there’s no reason why it needs to remain that way. And that second point is extra important when you realize that with a little effort, it’s not that hard for determined individuals, organizations or governments to divert that traffic through other countries.

And, it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening. Someone (or a group of someones) has been running a number of giant man-in-the-middle attacks, effectively routing a lot of traffic through Belarus and Iceland, as described in great detail by Renesys (and again in slightly more laymen’s terms by Arik Hesseldahl).

Whoever is doing it, is almost certainly up to no good. It seems likely that the attacks are for criminal purposes, rather than government espionage, but it certainly could be done either way. Renesys gives a few examples of the hijackings, starting with a brief one in February of this year, in which global traffic was redirected to an ISP in Belarus, where the traffic had no reason to be. Renesys gives a single example of a trace showing a packet supposedly going from Guadalajara, Mexico to Washington, DC… but with quite the detour:

Here’s an example of a trace from Guadalajara, Mexico to Washington, DC that goes through Moscow and Minsk. Mexican provider Alestra hands it to PCCW for transit in Laredo, Texas. PCCW takes it to the Washington, DC metro area, where they would normally hand it to Qwest/Centurylink for delivery.

Instead, however, PCCW gives it to Level3 (previously Global Crossing), who is advertising a false Belarus route, having heard it from Russia’s TransTelecom, who heard it from their customer, Belarus Telecom. Level3 carries the traffic to London, where it delivers it to Transtelecom, who takes it to Moscow and on to Belarus. Beltelecom has a chance to examine the traffic, and then sends it back out on the “clean path” through Russian provider ReTN. ReTN delivers it to Frankfurt and hands it to NTT, who takes it to New York. Finally, NTT hands it off to Qwest/Centurylink in Washington DC, and the traffic is delivered.

Here’s that same traceroute in graphic form from Renesys:

<img src=”” width=560 “/>
This is hardly the only example. I highly recommend reading the entire Renesys report. It notes how this happens, and how this had been a “theoretical concern,” but is now happening “fairly regularly.” It also notes that these attacks leave a very visible footprint — and lots of large providers should be monitoring this, but aren’t.

This is absolutely true, but it again brings me back around to Hayden’s glee at this “accident of history.” A reasonable person, actually concerned with basic online security would have (or should have) looked at that same claimed “accident of history” and realized that this was a clear threat that needed to be dealt with, rather than an opportunity. But that’s not what happened. So, despite the NSA claiming over and over again that it’s focused on protecting Americans and American businesses, its desire to spy on everyone also means that they’ve done little to nothing to prevent this kind of attack from happening now. Yes, it’s great for the NSA when tons of traffic goes through the US to be spied on — but it’s also great for criminals, terrorists and enemies of the US when that traffic can be easily made to travel through other countries as well — and that’s now apparently being done on a regular basis.

It seems like a reasonable question to ask — as current NSA boss Keith Alexander keeps talking up the need for better “cybersecurity” — why he hasn’t actually been focused on better securing and encrypting the entire internet. Of course, we all know the answer for that: doing so would make his other job (spying on everyone) much harder. It’s yet another reason why it’s dangerous to have Alexander in charge of both the NSA and US Cyber Command, when the two are clearly at cross purposes.

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Comments on “Massive Man-in-the-Middle Attacks Have Been Hijacking Huge Amounts Of Internet Traffic And Almost No One Noticed”

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beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Re: You know...

you should do a tcptraceroute (or tracetcp for windows). regular traceroute uses ICMP which is a completely different protocol than what HTTP uses (TCP). I don’t think BGP tables can be written to differentiate by the protocol that is layered on top of IP, but many firewall setups do treat ICMP and TCP differently. This will help determine if there’s a bad firewall/gateway somewhere in your path.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: You know...

Insufficient in cases where the return traffic is the only traffic interfered with. However, if you were to get a fairly solid grasp on your Round Trip Time (RTT) and set the Time To Live (TTL) on your outbound packet to about 1/3 the RTT, you could use the presence or lack of response as a pretty solid indicator that return traffic has been tampered with.

Doing this will of course require a fair amount of technical expertise.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Adding insult to injury

You also have to wonder how much such hacking/redirects were facilitated by the actions of the NSA and other spy agencies intentionally weakening internet security and encryption, just to make their jobs easier.

So it’s quite likely that the NSA, who is supposedly in the business of protecting people, pretty much directly aided what appears to be fairly large scale MitM attacks against the very people they were supposed to be protecting.

Thanks guys, really. /s

out_of_the_blue says:

Was NOT "hi-jacked"! They still have their data!

You’re stepping on your piratey notion that data can be taken yet the owner of it isn’t harmed.

Anyway, rest of Mike’s text just blames NSA for spying while omitting corporate spying. — “it’s also great for criminals, terrorists and enemies of the US’ — You can actually condense that to “mega-corporations”, but I suppose it’d be okay if just added on the major bad actors.

Just because a lot of people have gotten a lot of easy money off teh internets doesn’t make it a plus overall: at the very least, the Internet enables spying on scale and in detail as never before.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Was NOT "hi-jacked"! They still have their data!

If I hi-jack a plane the passengers have not lost their flights but they are going somewhere unintended. The exact same is happening here, no theft but a change of route by a seemingly unauthorized party. So yeah, hi-jack is the correct word.

To the second half of your drivel: No corporations do not have the monopoly on evil or the intent to do harm. The list given was again correct.

6/10 would rage again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Was NOT "hi-jacked"! They still have their data!

If anything I’d call it copying because that is what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong I hate seeing our rights thrown to the wayside on a daily basis like they’re nonexistent. It’s sickening to even think of it because we’re supposed to be the greatest nation in the world and the first line of defense when it comes to freedom, rights, and privacy.

Now we’re just this screwed up shadow powered by greed and corruption. I don’t even know what to call it because it’s sad and honestly it makes me ashamed to be an American. I love my country and my government is destroying it and from where I’m sitting I feel helpless when it comes to what could I do to help end this abuse.
I cannot just walk away from life to fight the good fight. Well I could, but then I’d lose my house, car, and most likely my wife as well. That’s why I feel helpless when it comes to the subject. 🙁

I wish I knew what we could do, but I haven’t the slightest clue which is pretty depressing as well. I almost wish I did not care because it would be far less painful than watching everything you believe in being ripped apart.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Was NOT "hi-jacked"! They still have their data!

1) Copying data is different than re-routing packets and thereby generating additional delays in traffic.

2) There is a massive difference in data that defines a work of art and data that describes the activities of a person. The first is intended to be publicly available and the question is one of cost. The second is not intended to publicly available.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Level 3

Given the technical requirements for such a large diversion*, I’d pin this as virtually requiring the deliberate cooperation of Level 3. Level 3 is also more or less confirmed as cooperating with the NSA to tap Google’s datalinks. Since the router shouldn’t know that the packets are coming from Mexico, it is likely that this redirection is happening also to packets sent from within the US.

In other words, there is a distinct probability that, on order from the NSA, Level 3 is deliberately generating international paths for domestic packets, allowing the NSA to skirt restrictions on domestic monitoring. With current data the probability is low and additional data is unlikely to be easy to acquire, but keep that in mind regarding the monitoring of only international traffic.

*Technical requirements: The problem here is the ease of generating a loop if NTT ever receives advertisements from Level 3. In order to avoid that, at least one of the two companies has to be clued in on the deal. In practice, it is much easier to isolate the irregular portion of the route than the regular one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Level 3

Not quite. You can reroute traffic without the provider’s knowledge. Bell did something similar a year or so back by allowing a multihomed session to falsely advertise AS. The routes propagated to other providers and soon most of the regionwas routed to that bad AS. They weren’t sending traffic back out so we noticed right away. Still took over an hour for Tata, Bell, L3, Cogent, etc to clear their tables and get things back up. You can look these ip on MARC.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Instead, however, PCCW gives it to Level3 (previously Global Crossing), who is advertising a false Belarus route”

Is it just me who sees this as not coincidental that the big “mistake” happens at Level3? Is there any connection between “Level 3 Communications” and “L-3 Communications” in terms of history or parent ownership?
It just says… not to be confused with:

Both have had huge US Defense or Intelligence agency contracts.

Causal Observer says:

Same in Santa Monica

The notorious chinese hackers utilizing hn.kd.ny.adsl ( a fake TLD) been doing it for years and are routing traffic in Santa Monica, CA ( City Wifi open to the public) . I’ve contacted the management and the tech reps of the service provider on 3 occasions pointing this out and they don’t care , nothing has been done in months since .

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