DNS software hole allows Web attacks

A vulnerability recently discovered in the software used in most DNS (Domain Name System) servers may be the most serious security threat yet found on the Internet, allowing hackers effectively to shut down ISPs (Internet service providers) and corporate Web servers as well as steal confidential data.

The flaw in two widely used versions of BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain), distributed free by the Internet Software Consortium (ISC), could be exploited immediately by unscrupulous programmers if they can write a program to take advantage of it, said Jim Magdych, security research manager at the Computer Vulnerability Emergency Response Team (COVERT) at PGP Security, a Network Associates Inc. business. Developing this might take only a few days, he said.

COVERT and ISC, along with Carnegie-Mellon University’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center, will announce on Monday a fix for the vulnerability and plan by that time to have the fix available on ISC’s Web page, http://www.isc.org/. The flaw was discovered a few weeks ago, Magdych said in a telephone interview Sunday.

“If this just showed up in the wild, it could have a pretty serious impact on the Internet at large,” Magdych said.

The vulnerability exists in versions 4 and 8 of BIND, the software used in “the vast majority” of DNS servers, though not in the recently released version 9, Magdych said.

DNS servers translate the commands used to access Internet resources, such as Web URLs (Universal Resource Locators) and e-mail addresses, into numbered IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. The TSig (Transaction Signatures) vulnerability lets hackers take control of DNS servers and command them to redirect or block Internet requests sent to them.

A TSig attack could have effects similar to those of the denial-of-service attacks that kept users from reaching Microsoft Corp. Web sites last week, or even more serious effects, Magdych said. For example, hackers could take over a financial Web site, recreate the site’s login screen, and direct user names and passwords to a server where they could be stolen.

Skilled hackers who break in to corporate DNS servers could block or redirect e-mail and even sabotage access to corporate databases over Internet-based company intranets.

“This is probably the most significant vulnerability to date in BIND,” he said. “It’s really important that everyone who’s affected by this either applies the patch or upgrades to BIND 9.”

All hackers will need to do is write a program that sends certain messages as requests to DNS servers. The messages would be interpreted as commands that would open up the server to exploitation.

Although the vulnerability is a subtle one, there are hackers who could act on it quickly if made aware of it, Magdych said.

“When a new vulnerability is discovered, it’s just a matter of time before someone develops a program to exploit that vulnerability. Those exploits are then distributed by the community of crackers,” or unscrupulous hackers, Magdych said.

“It’s certainly not going to be something that takes months. Among our adversaries there are some very talented individuals,” he said.

Installing the patch to BIND versions 4 and 8 probably would require a few hours or more, depending on the number of DNS servers in the network, Magdych said. He advised that ISPs and corporations not jump the gun and shut their DNS servers down cold unless an exploitation program is found in the wild, he added.

Although Web intrusions such as denial-of-service attacks so far have been more common in the United States, hacking activity in Asia is increasing, a computer security consultant in Hong Kong said.

The lower incidence of such attacks in the region doesn’t guarantee the safety of any one company, said K.L. To, general manager of Skynet Consultants Co. Ltd., in Hong Kong.

Smart information systems (IS) managers “don’t trust statistics,” To said. Still, he added, IS managers who are serious about security still are in a minority in Hong Kong.

Once a hacker finds this type of vulnerability, it can become common knowledge “overnight,” he said.

“Children with HK$38 (US$4.87) in their pockets can go out to the bookstore and buy a hacker’s guide with a print manual and a CD-ROM attached…. It’s that level of seriousness,” To said.

Network Associates, in Santa Clara, Calif., can be reached at http://www.nai.com/. ISC, in Redwood City, Calif., can be reached at http://www.isc.org/. CERT, in Pittsburgh, can be reached at http://www.cert.org/.