ISPs' Dirty Little Secret: Security Gaps

Network managers, already queasy over high-profile security issues, such as stolen credit-card numbers and denial-of-service attacks, may be in for another case of the network willies.

A report called Frame Relay and ATM: Are They Really Secure just out from The Yankee Group suggests there are major security vulnerabilities in Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) networks and frame-relay systems that could leave them open to attackers sufficiently motivated to attack the actual cables making up the network.

Matthew Kovar, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group and author of the study, said most of the vulnerabilities come from the physical network infrastructures and weaknesses in network management systems.

Moreover, according to Kovar, public data service providers, such as the large telecommunications companies, don't provide security service-level guarantees because they know these networks are vulnerable.

This is the "dirty little secret" that's known but not addressed by service providers, Kovar said.

Security can be compromised at the physical level through what Kovar calls "manhole manipulation" - direct access to network cables and connections that are typically located in underground parking garages and elevator shafts and other readily accessible places.

Kovar said it's even possible to tap into fiber-optic cables by physically bending the cable and using a device to look into the fiber or by putting a tap into an unused redundant fiber cable. Once the tap is installed, a perpetrator then cuts the main cable. When the network automatically fails over the redundant cable, the culprit has instant access to the data stream.

Kovar said he doesn't know of any instance in which security was breached in this way. His point is that too much of the physical infrastructure is simply "available" without adequate safeguards in place. Knowing where to tap a line would be problematic, but those pursuing such physical network hacks could just tap one optical line after another until they found one that was useful.

"Even if facilities are secured to passersby, access is provided to numerous third parties, including competing carriers, cleaning crews, construction personnel and network integrators," the report said.

Network management systems for ATM and frame relay provide other security loopholes, according to the Yankee report.

Today's monitoring systems, for example, often use a browser interface, making access to network management information all too easy. With the right management information, an unauthorized user can alter the network.

Theoretically, hackers could target the network management group's LAN, in the network operating center.

"These systems can be penetrated through traditional Internet attacks on corporate networks to first find the management interface and then gain access to the frame-relay or ATM network. This access will allow both monitoring of communications through (Remote Monitoring protocol) probe interface and potential denial of service attacks," the report said.

According to Kovar, both corporations and service provides need to rethink how they will secure these otherwise insecure connections. That involves strong authentication, hardening physical access and limiting command line access to network switches, Kovar said.

Sprint, whose ION system is based on an ATM platform and MCI WorldCom, a major provider of frame-relay services, weren't immediately available for comment.

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