TCP Portals: The Handshake’s a Lie!

A friend of mine recently demonstrated during a lunch break (two cheeseburgers I think) a tool sending only a SYN as a response to another SYN to initialize a reverse TCP connection. I really hate protocols, I prefer application stuff, exploits or subverting kernel always look like a magic to me, but there is a protocol that I really love, TCP. Whenever I read a real practical hack that can work I stick with it for days. Anywayz I dont know who discovered it first this guy from BreakingPoint Labs or my buddy. I will reference only BreakingPoint Labs because the other guy actually is working on it so it is a closed work for now.

Posted by Tod Beardsley (2009/11/11)

If you’ve spent any reasonable amount of time around network protocols, you’re probably familiar with some version of this diagram:

3 way handshake

Here, we see the client on the left starting up a conversation with the server on the right. All pretty normal and familar, right? Well, when I was reviewing the RFC again, I noticed something very, very, odd. Disturbing, even. Allow me to quote at some length:

  The synchronization requires each side to send its own initial
  sequence number and to receive a confirmation of it in acknowledgment
  from the other side.  Each side must also receive the other side's
  initial sequence number and send a confirming acknowledgment.

    1) A --> B  SYN my sequence number is X
    2) A <-- B  ACK your sequence number is X
    3) A <-- B  SYN my sequence number is Y
    4) A --> B  ACK your sequence number is Y

  Because steps 2 and 3 can be combined in a single message this is
  called the three-way (or three message) handshake.

Do you see what I see? Because I’m thinking, “this is not a three-way handshake. This is a four-way handshake.” The handshake is a lie, born of coalescing steps 2 and 3.

Now, surely, if I just decided to ACK a SYN, then send my own SYN, that couldn’t possibly work, right? Enter PacketFu, my little Ruby library for crafting packets. Turns out, 28 years or so after this RFC was written, clients behave rather strangely when you decide to actually honor ol’ RFC 793. After some experimentation, I have a pretty decent proof-of-concept stack that behaves like so:

4 way handshake

This is the point where things get a little weird. What’s happening here is:

    1) A --> B  SYN my sequence number is X
    2) That's nice. I'm not going to bother to ack that, because...
    3) A <-- B  SYN my sequence number is Y.
    4) A --> B  ACK your sequence number is Y, and my sequence number is X.
    5) A <-- B ACK your sequence number is X

Does this work? You betcha! Take a look at the packet captures, collected from Linux (stock Ubuntu), Apple (stock OSX), and Microsoft (stock Windows XP). These three desktop operating systems are all totally cool with this crazy backwards TCP portal.

But what does it mean? Is this simply a parlor trick, where you can reverse the roles of client and server? How does this affect stateful firewalls? How about inspection devices like IPSes, which often need to have an idea of who the “real” client and server are? How about NAT devices, where the idea of “relatedness” is absolutely tied up with where SYN packets come from.

Clearly, there is a ton of testing work to be done here. Lucky for me, I happen to work at a really advanced testing equipment manufacturer, so I’ve dropped this nugget in the next StrikePack. Now, strikes can employ the “SneakAckHandshake” TCP override option, and all servers simulated will behave in accordance with this crazy backwards handshake. We’ll see how well network inspection gear detects clientside attacks when the client is tricked into behaving like a server.


2 Responses to “TCP Portals: The Handshake’s a Lie!”

  1. Hi fotaros — as far as I know, I was indeed the first person to publish the effects of the 4-way handshake. Also, the BreakingPoint hardware is certainly the first commercial test gear to implement it.

    I wonder what your friend is up to with it, and I’d be happy to help if I can.

    Thanks for the convenient PacketFu tag, by the way — made it easy to spot your blog via my Google news search.

    • Hi, maybe it’s a coincidence don’t know exactly, there was a discussion we had where he said to me about SYN only reply and that it actually works.
      Don’t know enough details, but I will ask and let you know for sure, I will clarify it as soon as possible. Thanks for visiting and pointing me out the fact 🙂

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