Snort frequently asked questions

Snort users are asking about its capabilities. These frequently asked questions about Snort discuss what the open source security tool can do and the right ways to use Snort.

Service provider takeaway: Snort isn't perfect. In this tip, service providers will learn the answers to frequently asked questions about Snort's usage and limitations.

In this edition of the Snort Report, I address some of the questions frequently asked by service providers who are users or potential users of Snort. I say "potential users" because some people hear about Snort and wonder if it can solve a particular problem. Here I hope to provide realistic expectations for service providers using Snort.

1. Can I use Snort to protect a network from denial-of-service attacks?

Before answering many of these questions it's important to define terms and reveal assumptions. A denial-of-service (DoS) attack consumes one or more computing resources (bandwidth, memory, CPU cycles, hard drive space or other information system components). Sometimes DoS attacks are initiated by a single party, while others are so-called distributed DoS or DDoS attacks.

DDoS attacks enlist more than one aggressor to assault a victim. The first popular DoS attacks were clever resource consumption attacks against memory (e.g., the SYN floods of the mid-1990s), but since the late 1990s DDoS attacks that consume bandwidth have been prevalent. Less popular, but still damaging, are application-centric DoS attacks, whereby regular activity (like retrieving a Web page) is repeated to the point that the victim's operation is impaired.

What can Snort do about DDoS attacks? Snort's Vulnerability Research Team publishes a set of rules named ddos.rules. This file contains a small set of signatures for detecting activity caused by older DoS tools like Tribe Flood Network, Shaft, Trinoo and Stacheldraht. Emerging Threats publishes bleeding-dos.rules, which contains a greater variety of rules. However, the question remains: What good are rules like these?

When users or potential users ask if Snort protects against DoS attacks, they usually want to know if Snort can deflect or mitigate bandwidth consumption attacks. The answer to this question is probably no. When deployed as an offline, passive device, there is little or nothing Snort can do to stop or reduce a bandwidth-consuming SYN flood, for example. Snort can potentially report seeing many SYN segments, but it won't improve the situation. The rules packaged in ddos.rules and bleeding-dos.rules are designed to either detect DoS agent command-and-control or possibly identify certain types of attacks that subvert but do not breach a target.

When deployed as an inline, active device, Snort acts as a so-called intrusion prevention system and can, in some cases, stop DoS attacks. For example, an intruder may use a malicious packet to cause a vulnerable Cisco router to reboot or freeze. An inline Snort deployment could identify and filter the malicious packet, thereby "protecting" the router. If the intruder switched to a SYN flood or other bandwidth consumption attack against the router, however, Snort would most likely not be able to counter the attack -- at least not on its own.

2. Can Snort decode encrypted traffic?

Let's assume that encrypted traffic means Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) as used by HTTPS, or Secure Shell protocol 2 as used by OpenSSH.

The short answer is no, Snort cannot decode encrypted traffic. An intruder who attacks a Web server in the clear on port 80 TCP might be detected by Snort. The same intruder who attacks the same Web server in an encrypted channel on port 443 TCP will not be detected by Snort. An intruder who displays the contents of a password file via a Telnet session on port 23 TCP might be detected by Snort. The same intruder who displays the same password file via a SSH session on port 22 TCP will not be detected by Snort.

Now, in some circumstances it's possible to decode HTTPS sessions. This is not done natively by vanilla Snort -- it must be handled by an external program. See my blog post on Wireshark Display Filters and SSL, especially the comments, for more details.

Generally speaking, a stand-alone Snort instance can inspect traffic in an encrypted channel if the traffic is subjected to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack. In other words, traffic is encrypted while traveling from the client to the MITM. Once the traffic reaches the MITM, it is unencrypted while Snort inspects it. Then, traffic is re-encrypted before traveling from the MITM to the server. (The reverse happens as well.) Such a setup must be intentionally designed and implemented by the network and security architects and accepted by management and users.

Also note that Snort cannot inspect Web pages that are Gzip-encoded. This bandwidth-consumption technique is perfectly legitimate, but it shields Web page contents from Snort's gaze. Uncompressing Gzip-encoded content on the fly would be prohibitively expensive, although not impossible.

3. Can Snort detect layer 2 attacks?

Generally speaking, Snort is a layer 3 and above detection system. This means Snort inspects and acts upon IP packet details, like source and destination IP addresses, time to live (TTL), IP ID and so on. This excludes MAC addresses, Ethertype, VLAN IDs and other details found before the start of the layer 3 header.

Snort does contain an "arpspoof" preprocessor, but the code has always been marked "experimental." I don't know of anyone who uses it in production. Most users who want to detect layer 2 network events use layer 2-specific tools like Arpwatch.

4. Can Snort log flows or sessions?

This question, like the others, indicates the hope that Snort can accomplish a goal best left to specialized tools. Let's assume the question indicates a desire to log details of TCP sessions. Snort's Stream4 preprocessor does include a "keepstats" option that records session statistics for TCP flows. An earlier version of Sguil relied on this data. Unfortunately, this capability is limited to TCP traffic. All other protocols are ignored.

Note that Stream4 is being deprecated in favor of Stream5. Stream5 does not offer a "keepstats" function, although Stream5 does track UDP "sessions" for Snort's own detection purposes.

To log flows or sessions, use a stand-alone tool like Argus. If you're already using Sguil, take a look at the Security Analyst Network Connection Profiler (SANCP), which logs session details for many protocols. A third option is to collect NetFlow or another flow format from a hardware probe, or less often, a software probe.

5. Can Snort rebuild content from traffic?

In order to perform its detection functions, Snort rebuilds several types of content. For example, it's impossible to match the password "hackerpassword" sent over Telnet without letting Snort rebuild the traffic. However, Snort is not designed to watch traffic and rebuild everything it sees. A review of the README.Stream5 document shipped with Snort 2.8.0 shows that the new preprocessor offers a "show_rebuilt_packets" option that will "Print/display packet after rebuilt (for debugging)." This option is off by default, but even if enabled it's not the sort of capability I recommend activating in Snort.

People who wish to rebuild content typically want to parse Libpcap trace files to rebuild TCP sessions. One of the best tools for this job is Tcpflow. Tcpflow can be run against a dead trace or a live interface. If given no parameters, Tcpflow will rebuild all TCP sessions it sees, putting the content from client to server in one file and the content from server to client in another file. Tcpflow repeats this process for every single TCP session it finds.

If you run this sort of operation on a large Libpcap trace, you might learn what it means to run out of inodes on a Unix machine. If you do the same against a live interface, you'll probably start dropping many packets. Tcpflow is best pointed against a trace after being told exactly what to rebuild. For example, "Rebuild this FTP session involving this source IP and this source port."

Do you have other questions you would like answered? Email them to me at taosecurity at gmail.com.

About the author
Richard Bejtlich is founder of TaoSecurity, author of several books on network security monitoring, including Extrusion Detection: Security Monitoring for Internal Intrusions, and operator of the TaoSecurity blog.

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