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Challenges in the Security Operations Center (SOC)

Chapter Description

In this sample chapter from Cisco CyberOps Associate CBROPS 200-201 Official Cert Guide, you will learn how attackers obtain stealth access and the tricks used to negatively impact detection and forensic technologies.

Additional Evasion and Obfuscation Techniques

Attackers can use SSH to hide traffic, such as creating a reverse SSH tunnel from a breached system back to an external SSH server, hiding sensitive data as the traffic leaves the network. Figure 12-5 provides an example of how a typical SSH session functions.

You can use SSH tunnels over other tunnels such as VPNs, DNS tunnels, and so on. For instance, you can create a DNS tunnel and then have an SSH tunnel over it.

There are many use cases where an attacker breaches a network and launches some form of a VPN session. An example is using Hak5’s LAN Turtle USB adapter, which can be configured to auto-launch a reverse SSH tunnel to a cloud storage server, essentially creating a cloud-accessible backdoor to a victim’s network.

It is challenging for an administrator to identify the LAN Turtle because it sits on a trusted system and does not require an IP address of its own to provide the reverse-encrypted tunnel out of the network.

Figure 12-6 shows an example of a LAN Turtle plugged into a server, providing an encrypted tunnel to an attacker’s remote server. This would represent a physical attack that leads to a backdoor for external malicious parties to access.

The LAN Turtle is just one example of the many tools available that can be planted on a network to create an unauthorized backdoor. The Packet Squirrel is another device that can be deployed to give an attacker remote access to a target network. All of these tools are available to the public on websites like hak5.org.

Another encryption concept is hiding the actual data. There are many techniques for doing this, such as enterprise file encryption technologies that encrypt files and control access to opening them. An example is having a software agent installed on a server that specifies which files should be encrypted. When a file is removed that should be encrypted, it is tagged and encrypted, with access provided only to people within a specific authentication group. People within that group can use a host-based agent that auto-logs them in to the file, or they could be sent to an online portal to authenticate to gain access to the file.

The term data at rest means data that is placed on a storage medium. Data-at-rest security requirements typically refer to the ability to deny all access to stored data that is deemed sensitive and at risk of being exposed. Typically, this is done by encrypting data and later removing all methods to unencrypt the data. Examples include hard disk encryption where a hard drive is encrypted, making it impossible to clone. The same concept can be applied to file encryption technology, where the data owner can expire access to the file, meaning all users won’t be able to unencrypt it.

Many attackers abuse encryption concepts such as file and protocol encryption to hide malicious code. An example would be an attack happening from a web server over SSL encryption to hide the attack from network intrusion detection technologies. This works because a network intrusion detection tool uses signatures to identify a threat, which is useless if the traffic being evaluated is encrypted. Another example would be encoding a malicious file with a bunch of pointless text, with the goal of confusing an antivirus application. Antivirus applications also use signatures to detect threats, so adding additional text to malicious code could possibly change the code enough to not be tied to a known attack when evaluated by a security tool.

The following list highlights several key encryption and tunneling concepts:

  • ▪ A VPN is used to hide or encode something so the content is protected from unwanted parties.

  • ▪ Encryption traffic can be used to bypass detection, such as by an intrusion prevention system (IPS).

  • ▪ The two forms of remote-access VPNs are client based and clientless.

  • ▪ A site-to-site VPN connects two or more networks.

  • ▪ SSH connects a host to an SSH server and uses public-key cryptography to authenticate the remote computer and permit it to authenticate the user.

  • ▪ File encryption technology protects files from unauthorized users.

Next, we look at exhausting resources to bypass detection and gain unauthorized access to systems and networks.

Resource Exhaustion

Resource exhaustion is a type of denial-of-service attack; however, it can also be used to evade detection by security defenses. A simple definition of resource exhaustion is “consuming the resources necessary to perform an action.” An example of a denial-of-service attack tool that can exhaust the available resources of web applications and other systems is called Slowloris, which can be found at https://github.com/gkbrk/slowloris. This tool holds connections by sending partial HTTP requests to the website. The tool continues sending several hundred subsequent headers at regular intervals to keep sockets from closing, thus overwhelming the target’s resources. This causes the website to be caught up with existing requests, thus delaying responses to legitimate traffic. Figure 12-7 shows the Slowloris tool being used against the h4cker.org website.

When it comes to bypassing access-control security, resource exhaustion attacks can consume all processes to force a system to fail open, meaning to permit access to unauthorized systems and networks. This attack can be effective against access-control technologies that administrators typically configure to fail open if a service failure is detected. The same approach could be used to exhaust systems that have tracking capabilities, such as intrusion detection tools or other network sensors, causing a blackout period for an attacker to abuse without being recorded. Attackers will use resource exhaustion attacks against logging systems they identify during an attack, knowing many administrators do not have the skills or understanding to defend against resource exhaustion attacks and therefore will be unable to prevent the monitoring blackouts from occurring. This also prevents the evidence required for a forensic investigation from being collected, thus legally protecting the attacker from being incriminated by a future post-breach investigation. The most common example of a resource exhaustion attack involves sending a bunch of traffic directly at the IPS.

Defensive strategies should be implemented to prevent resource exhaustion attacks. The first defense layer, which involves having checks for unusual or unauthorized methods of requesting resources, is usually built in by the vendor. The idea is to recognize when an attack is being attempted and to deny the attacker further access for a specific amount of time so that the system resources can sustain the traffic without impacting service. One simple method to enforce this effect involves using throttling, which is limiting the amount of service a specific user or group can consume, thus enforcing an acceptable amount of resource consumption. Sometimes these features need to be enabled before they can be enforced, so best practice is to validate whether resource exhaustion defenses exist within a security solution.

The list that follows highlights the key resource exhaustion concepts:

  • ▪ Resource exhaustion refers to consuming the resources necessary to perform an action.

  • ▪ Attackers use resource exhaustion to bypass access control and security detection capabilities. A common example is sending a ton of traffic at an IPS.

  • ▪ Resource exhaustion can be used to render logging unusable.

  • ▪ Throttling is a method to prevent resource exhaustion by limiting the number of processes that can be consumed at one time.

Now let’s look at dicing up and modifying the traffic to bypass detection. This is known as traffic fragmentation.

Traffic Fragmentation

Network technologies expect traffic to move in a certain way. This is known as the TCP/IP suite. Understanding how this works can help you identify when something is operating in an unusual manner. Fragmenting traffic is a method of avoiding detection by breaking up a single Internet Protocol (IP) datagram into multiple, smaller-size packets. The goal is to abuse the fragmentation protocol within IP by creating a situation where the attacker’s intended traffic is ignored or let through as trusted traffic. The good news is that most modern intrusion detection systems (IDSs) and intrusion prevention systems (IPSs) are aware of this attack and can prevent it. Best practice is to verify that your version of IDS/IPS has traffic fragmentation detection capabilities.

IPS products should be able to properly reassemble packets to evaluate whether there is malicious intent. This includes understanding the proper order of the packets. Unfortunately, attackers have various techniques they can use to confuse an IPS solution during its reassembly process. An example of this involves using a TCP segmentation and reordering attack that is designed to confuse the detection tool by sending traffic in an uninspected method with the hope it can’t properly reassemble the traffic and identify it as being malicious. Security devices that can’t perform traffic reassembly will automatically fail to prevent this attack. Some security devices will fail when the attacker reorders or fragments the traffic with enough tweaks to accomplish the bypass.

Another example of a fragmentation attack involves using overlapping fragments. This attack works by setting the offset values in the IP header so that they do not match up, thus causing one fragment to overlap another. The confusion could cause the detection tool to ignore some traffic, letting malicious traffic slip through.

Best practice for avoiding traffic fragmentation attacks is verifying with your security solution provider that the solution is capable of detecting traffic fragmentation. Solutions that operate in full proxy type modes are not susceptible to this type of attack (for example, content filters and inline security devices).

The following list highlights the key traffic fragmentation concepts:

  • ▪ Traffic fragmentation attacks modify the TCP/IP traffic in a way that is unexpected by security detection devices; the goal is to confuse the detection functions.

  • ▪ Using TCP segmentation and reordering attacks is one way to modify traffic to bypass detection.

  • ▪ Causing fragments to overlap by modifying IP headers is another type of traffic fragmentation attack.

  • ▪ Proxies and inline security devices can help prevent traffic fragmentation attacks.

Like with TCP/IP traffic, protocols can also be modified to bypass security devices. Let’s look at how this works.

Protocol-Level Misinterpretation

A protocol is a set of rules or data structures that governs how computers or other network devices exchange information over a network. Protocols can be manipulated to confuse security devices from properly evaluating traffic since many devices and applications expect network communication to follow the industry-defined rules when a protocol is used. The key is understanding how the protocol should work and attempting to see if the developer of the receiving system defined defenses such as limitations on what is accepted, a method to validate what is received, and so on. The second key piece is identifying what happens when a receiving system encounters something it doesn’t understand (meaning seeing the outcome of a failure). A security device misinterpreting the end-to-end meaning of network protocols could cause traffic to be ignored, dropped, or delayed, all of which could be used to an attacker’s advantage.

Another example of a protocol-level misinterpretation is abusing the “time to live” (TTL) of traffic. TTL is a protocol within a packet that limits the lifespan of data in a computer network. This prevents a data packet from circulating indefinitely. Abusing TTL works by first sending a short TTL value with the goal of passing the security receiver, assuming it will be dropped by a router later. This dropping occurs after the security device (meaning between the target and the security device) due to the TTL equaling a value of zero before the packet can reach its intended target. The attacker follows up the first packet with a TTL that has too high a value, with the goal of looking like duplicate traffic to the security device so that the security device will ignore it. By having the longer TTL, the packet will make it all the way to the host because now it has a high enough TTL value while being ignored by the network security solutions. Figure 12-8 shows an example of how this attack works. The first packet has a TTL value of 1, meaning it will hop past the security device but be dropped by the router due to having a value equal to 0. The second packet has a large enough TTL to make it to the host, yet if it’s the same data, the security device will assume it’s a duplicate, thus giving the attacker the ability to sneak in data.

Like with IP fragmentation attacks, the good news is that many security solutions are aware of this form of attack and have methods to validate and handle protocol manipulation. Best practice is to verify with your security solution providers whether their products are aware of protocol-level misinterpretation attacks.

The following list highlights the key protocol misinterpretation concepts:

  • ▪ Protocols can be manipulated to confuse security devices from properly evaluating traffic.

  • ▪ TCP checksum and time-to-live protocols can be manipulated to first look like one thing and later to look like something else, with the goal of tricking the security defenses.

Now let’s look at another evasion technique that takes a different approach to modifying network traffic.

Traffic Timing, Substitution, and Insertion

In a traffic timing attack, the attacker evades detection by performing his or her actions more slowly than normal while not exceeding thresholds inside the time windows the detection signatures use to correlate different packets together. A traffic timing attack can be mounted against any correlating engine that uses a fixed time window and a threshold to classify multiple packets into a composite event. An example of this attack would be sending packets at a slower rate than the detection system would be tuned to alarm to via sampling, making the attack unacceptably long in the eyes of the detection system.

A traffic substitution and insertion attack involves substituting the payload data with data in a different format but that has the same meaning, with the goal of it being ignored due to not being recognized by the security device. Some methods for changing the format include exchanging spaces with tabs, using Unicode instead of ASCII strings or characters in HTTP requests, modifying legitimate shell code with exploit code, and abusing case-sensitive communication. Most security devices can decode traffic; however, this attack is successful when a flaw is found in the decoding process. An example of a traffic substitution and insertion attack would be hiding malicious code by using Latin characters, knowing that the receiver will translate the code into ASCII. If this vulnerability exists, the security device will translate the text without verifying whether it is a threat, thus permitting the attack into the environment.

Defending against traffic timing attacks as well as substitution and insertion attacks once again requires features typically found in many security products offered by leading security vendors. Security features need to include the ability to adapt to changes in the timing of traffic patterns as well as changes in the format, to properly process extended characters, and to perform Unicode de-obfuscation. Unicode decoding examples include identifying ambiguous bits, double-encoding detection, and multidirectory delimiters. It is recommended that you verify with your trusted security solution provider whether your security solution has these detection capabilities.

The following list highlights the key traffic substitution and insertion concepts:

  • ▪ Traffic timing attacks occur when the attacker evades detection by performing his or her actions more slowly than normal while not exceeding thresholds inside the time windows the detection signatures use to correlate different packets together.

  • ▪ A traffic substitution and insertion attack substitutes the payload with data that is in a different format but has the same meaning.

  • ▪ Some methods to accomplish a traffic substitution and insertion attack include exchanging spaces with tabs, using Unicode instead of ASCII, and abusing case-sensitive communication.

  • ▪ Security products can stop this type of attack by being able to adapt to format changes, properly processing extended characters, and providing Unicode de-obfuscation.

One final evasion technique to cover is pivoting inside a network.


Although cyber attacks can vary in nature, one common step in the attack process, according to the cyber kill chain model first introduced by Lockheed Martin, is the idea of establishing a foothold in the target network and attempting to pivot to a more trusted area of the network. Establishing a foothold means breaching the network through exploiting a vulnerability and creating access points into the compromised network. The challenge for the attacker is the level of access granted with the exploit. For example, breaching a guest system on a network would typically mean gaining access to a guest network that is granted very limited access to network resources. An attacker would want to pivot from the guest network to another network with more access rights, such as the employee network. In regard to the kill chain, a pivot would be an action taken to start the sequence over once the attacker reached the “action” point. As illustrated in Figure 12-9, the attacker would first perform reconnaissance on other systems on the same network as the compromised system, weaponize an attack, and eventually move through the attack kill chain with the goal of gaining command and control abilities on other systems with greater network access rights.

Usually, privileges and available resources on a network are grouped together into silos; this is known as network segmentation. Access to each network segment is typically enforced through some means of network access control. Figure 12-10 demonstrates the concept of segmentation and access control, where printers, guests, and a trusted network are on different network segments.

Pivoting, also known as island hopping, means to attack other systems on the same network. The idea is to identify a system with higher-level access rights, such as administrator. This is also known as a form of privilege escalation. Other systems with different levels of network access privileges can also be identified to provide more doorways into the network in the event the original breach is closed, to identify systems to leverage for another form or attack, to hide data by using multiple systems as exit points from the network, and so on. It is also important to understand that privilege escalation can occur within a system. This involves breaching a server with a guest account and then later obtaining root access to provide more resource rights on that system. Figure 12-11 shows an attacker pivoting through a vulnerable system sitting on a trusted network. This could be accomplished by identifying a vulnerability on the employee’s laptop, placing a remote-access tool (RAT) on it, and then remotely connecting to the system to use it to surf inside the trusted network. The pivot occurs when the threat actor first gains access to the employee computer and “pivots” from that system to another system on the same network to gain further access to the target network.

There are different methods for pivoting across a network. The first involves using the existing network connections and ports available on the compromised system, essentially turning that system into a proxy pivot point. Although this provides some access, the attacker would be limited to the available TCP and UDP ports on the compromised system. A second approach that provides full access is setting up a VPN connection from the compromised system to the trusted network, giving the attacker full access by having all ports available from the attacker’s system to the point of VPN termination.

Figure 12-12 shows an example of using a system connected to two networks as a pivot point for a remote attack.

Defending against pivoting can be addressed a few ways. The first method is to enforce proper network access control and segmentation by limiting what can access specific network segments and filtering access to only what is required to operate the business within those segments. This approach limits the available systems an attacker can pivot to as well as what new network services would become available by breaching other systems on the same network. For example, if all printers are limited to a specific network segment and one printer is breached, the attacker could only attack other printers and access printer-related traffic. We find pivoting occurs when a poor security architecture is implemented, such as putting all devices on the same network segment and not validating what can plug into a network. There are many penetration-testing stories about organizations that forgot about an older, vulnerable system sitting on the same network as the administrators and critical servers.

Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE) is the Cisco flagship identity management and policy enforcement solution designed for address pivoting risks. An example is providing an employee named Hannah limited access to specific resources due to her device being an iPhone, which doesn’t require the same access as her laptop. Figure 12-13 represents how ISE would identify user Hannah and limit her access to only specific resources. Different access would be provisioned to her printer, laptop, and desk phone, depending on each device’s posture status and how the administrators configured the ISE solution. This is just one of the many ways ISE dramatically simplifies enforcing segmentation through a centralized policy.

Another defense strategy is to provide proper endpoint security practices such as patch management, antivirus, breach detection technologies, and so on. Typically, systems are breached though a vulnerability, where a payload such as a remote-access tool is delivered to give access to an unwanted remote party. Preventing the breach stops the attacker from having access to the network.

NetFlow security products such as Cisco Stealthwatch can be used to identify unusual traffic, giving you a “canary in the coal mine” defense. An example of this concept in regard to Stealthwatch would be an attacker compromising an employee’s system and using it to pivot into the network. If Hannah is in the sales department and she starts scanning the network and accessing critical systems for the first time, it probably means something bad is happening, regardless of whether she is authorized to do so. Although NetFlow might not be able to tell you why the situation is bad at first, it can quickly alarm you that something bad is happening so that you can start to investigate the situation—just like miners would do when they noticed the canary had died in the coal mine.

NetFlow security doesn’t require a lot of storage, is supported by most vendors, and can be enabled on most device types (routers, switches, wireless apps, virtual switching traffic, data center traffic, and so on). It essentially turns the entire network into a security sensor grid. Figure 12-14 shows the Cisco Stealthwatch host status for the system with the IP address

The following list highlights the key pivot concepts:

  • ▪ Pivoting in terms of cyber attacks (also known as island hopping) means to attack other systems on the same network with the goal of gaining accessing to that system.

  • ▪ Best practice is to have networks segmented and to control access between each segment.

  • ▪ A common goal for a pivot attack is to escalate the attacker’s privileges. This is commonly accomplished by jumping from one system to another system with greater network privileges.

  • ▪ Defending against pivoting can be accomplished by providing proper access control, network segmentation, DNS security, reputation security, and proper patch management.

  • ▪ NetFlow is a great sensor-based tool for detecting unauthorized pivoting occurring within the network.

Exam Preparation Tasks

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