We’ve been reminded yet again, of how vulnerable the Internet architecture is, to malicious attacks and simple mis-configuration (oversight?) from the service provider side. A week ago, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority released an order instructing the country’s 70 odd ISPs to block Youtube.com until further notice. The ISPs acting on this directive could have installed access-control lists (ACLs) on all their router interfaces dropping packets bound to this website, but they instead, chose a more convoluted way of blocking traffic bound to this site – they created a more specific route pointing to a NULL (or a discard) interface, thereby black-holing all traffic bound to this address. Fair enough, this is also a way to drop traffic since the former would entail augmenting all existing ACL filtering policies on all router interfaces. Whats intriguing is how this route “accidentally” leaked into BGP and got advertised to PCCW (AS 3491), the upstream provider providing services to Pakistan Telecom (AS 17557), from where it propagated further to other parts of the Internet.
Youtube advertises 18.104.22.168/22 and Pakistan Telecom advertised a more specific route, 22.214.171.124/24, to its provider PCCW . PCCW, like most ISPs, without validating the prefix announcements based on Regional Internet Registry (RIR) allocations or even Internet Routing Registry (IRR) objects, further propagated this BGP UPDATE to its peers. Within no time, the erroneous BGP announcement permeated across large parts of the internet, resulting in all traffic bound to Youtube, to go towards Pakistan, where it would end up getting blackholed. Youtube was thus successfully “hijacked” by Pakistan Telecom .
I dont intend to discuss, whether this was done maliciously or whether it was an error on part of the PT, but the whole saga raises uncomfortable questions on the security and frailty of the Internet as it works today. Currently, the larger ISPs tend to trust the network providers that they are connected to and work on the tenuous assumption that the smaller providers would not illegitimately “hijack” someone else’s IP address and will behave decorously and only announce the IPs that they own. Patently, this doesn’t seem to be working out.
An attacker can masquerade as a big financial website by “hijacking” all traffic bound towards the legitimate website, thereby wreaking havoc on the gullible users. It should be noted that this sort of attack is more potent and dangerous than the spam mails that we often receive in our mailboxes, asking us to update and enter our bank details. In the latter cases, an alert user can always detect, that the server on which the page is loaded does not belong to the bank or the financial institution that the mail purports to be. However when the IP address block is “hijacked”, there are no such defenses.
Internet connectivity is vital in todays age, with a lot of emergency services being routed over the Internet. Imagine a natural disaster or a terrorist attack followed by an IP address block “hijack”. The full repercussions of what all can be achieved with this kind of an attack makes your mind spin and wobble.
A timeline created by Renesys, which provides real-time monitoring services, says that it took about 15 seconds for large Pacific-rim providers to direct YouTube.com traffic to the Pakistan ISP, and about 45 seconds for the central routers on which most of the Internet traffic relies, to misroute the traffic.
So, what happened to Pakistan’s Internet Connectivity as it attracted zillions of bytes of data intended for Youtube.com? It probably went down as PT could not have handled that massive amount of data, rendering millions inside Pakistan without any Internet connectivity.
Also read about AboveNet hijacking Africa Online here.