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14.2. Using Router Access Lists

Network routers transfer packets from one network to another, look into network packets, and make decisions about packet flow. Routers also create and update routing tables, and they can use more than four dozen different network protocols, such as RIP (router information protocol) and OSPF (open shortest path first). Even though this definition says nothing about security, network routers represent your network's first line of defense.

Routers are often described as firewalls, but I will discuss firewall protection and distinguish routers from specific firewall solutions in the next section. This is because routers are primarily responsible for directing the network flow, and as the result of rules, they implement a policy. Firewalls, on the other hand, are primarily responsible for securing network access by definition. Nevertheless, many modern routers implement stateful packet filtering, such as Cisco routers with the CBAC (context-based access control) feature, as well as several similar features, so they can indeed be called firewalls.

A typical router is a diskless system with some communication ports that let you hook up a workstation to program the device. The boot process of a router is very similar to a PC, but it loads the OS from flash memory, such as Cisco IOS (internetwork operating system).

During this process, the router also loads the configuration file, which can include statements to an access list or a set of access lists. The configuration file is managed by the router's administrator. Access lists are used to control the flow of the packets on some of the router's network interfaces, such as an Ethernet interface. An access list is a simple text file with a set of statements that permit or deny packets to flow on a network interface if a statement matches the characteristics of the packet. There are standard and extended access lists in Cisco routers.

For example, consider the following statement of an access list:

access-list 1 permit host

This access list would allow a packet coming from host to flow through your router to your network. Access lists have statements like this in a top-down order. For example, if you prefer to deny traffic from one specific host but allow any other traffic, you would do the following:

access-list 1 deny host
access-list 1 permit any

Extended access lists also allow you to specify ports and the type of traffic, such as TCP, UDP, or ICMP. For example, if you wanted to allow traffic to your Web server only on port 80, you would use the following statement:

access-list 101 permit tcp any host eq 80

You might want to disable any ICMP echo messages from getting to your network. This is a good idea because many worms use ICMP echo messages to check whether the target is available before they hit it. Furthermore, DoS attacks can be performed simply by pinging a target ceaselessly. When this is performed by a computer worm, the attack can be very effective against your systems, so you would certainly want to deny this possibility. You could use the following statement to stop such unwanted traffic:

access-list 101 deny icmp any any eq 8

ICMP type 8 is an echo request, but there are a dozen other ICMP types, and you should definitely consider blocking ICMP type 13 (timestamp requests) and ICMP type 17 (address mask requests).

To stop some popular DoS attacks such as a SYN flood, modern IOS versions support a module called TCP intercept, which can be used to deal with such attacks in two modes: watch mode and intercept mode. The default is intercept mode, which blocks attack attempts. You can enable TCP intercept with the following commands. (Note that the interception is related to an access list, so the first line is a definition of that.)

access-list 101 permit tcp any host eq 80
ip tcp intercept list 101

If you have the rules set, what can go wrong? A number of attacks target Internet routers. For example, an attacker might decide to use packet fragmentation, so when the router looks at the incoming packet, the header information is fragmented among packets, which could result in a failure in applying the access rules. It is extremely important to disable packet fragmentation at places with top security. Because fragmentation can occur on a network under normal circumstances, such a rule might result in some conflict by accidentally filtering out important traffic on the networkso be sure to use it with care. The following command will disable any noninitial fragments:

access-list 111 deny ip any any fragments

Another important attack against routers is source spoofing. This kind of attack works with packets that appear to come from a trusted zone, such as from the internal network. This allows an attacker or a worm to send a UDP packet, for example, and specify a source address from your network to get in. So you need to think about implementing rules against such attacks, and your perimeter protection is the best place for these. Also remember that a router will not stop a CodeRed worm from getting to your Web server if it is vulnerable to an attack. After you open up a port, the malicious traffic can hit your vulnerable host and exploit the vulnerability.

Similarly, DoS attacks that are based on regular GET requests going to a Web server will also hit your server, so you also need to take care of this kind of attack. Don't forget about the patch level of your routers, either, such as the exact IOS version, because the router itself might become a target of computer worm attacks in the futurewith devastating effects.

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