NTP based DDoS attack – understanding NTP reflection

Behind a reflection attack

A reflection attack works when an attacker can send a packet with a forged source IP address. The attacker sends a packet apparently from the intended victim to some server on the Internet that will reply immediately. Because the source IP address is forged, the remote Internet server replies and sends data to the victim.

That has two effects: the actual source of the attack is hidden and is very hard to trace, and, if many Internet servers are used, an attack can consist of an overwhelming number of packets hitting a victim from all over the world.

But what makes reflection attacks really powerful is when they are also amplified: when a small forged packet elicits a large reply from the server (or servers). In that case, an attacker can send a small packet “from” a forged source IP address and have the server (or servers) send large replies to the victim.

Amplification attacks like that result in an attacker turning a small amount of bandwidth coming from a small number of machines into a massive traffic load hitting a victim from around the Internet. Until recently the most popular protocol for amplification attacks was DNS: a small DNS query looking up the IP address of a domain name would result in a large reply.

NTP DDoS Amplification Attack
NTP DDoS Amplification Attack

For DNS the amplification factor (how much larger a reply is than a request) is 8x. So an attacker can generate an attack 8x larger than the bandwidth they themselves have access to. For example, an attacker controlling 10 machines with 1Gbps could generate an 80Gbps DNS amplification attack.

In the past, we’ve seen one attack that used SNMP for amplification: it has a factor of 650x! Luckily, there are few open SNMP servers on the Internet and SNMP usually requires authentication (although many are poorly secured). That makes SNMP attacks relatively rare.

The new kid on the block today is NTP. Continue reading “NTP based DDoS attack – understanding NTP reflection”