IPv6 Part 13: Topology hiding

In the last post we looked at alternatives to the conventional SLAAC IID, which leaks information about host identity and network interface hardware. However, there’s another problem. With end-to-end IPv6 addressing, the naked subnet ID is also exposed to the outside world. This reveals network identity (you can see which hosts are on the same subnet) and potentially network topology. After all, one of the benefits of IPv6 is that it enables efficient route summarisation in the global Internet, and enterprises are naturally going to want to do that internally on their own networks as well, by structuring their subnets hierarchically (Tom Coffeen’s IPv6 Address Planning recommends that you do it that way, as does RFC 5375). As a consequence, you are advertising information about your internal subnet topology to the outside world, information useful to an attacker.

RFC 4864 attempts to address concern about this in several ways. The first is, well, not to use hierarchical subnetting, and assign subnet IDs from a flat address space. In practice this means running a routeing protocol. Large enterprises will do this anyway, but even so hierarchical addressing simplifies administration and troubleshooting. Many small and medium enterprises have a network topology that’s simple enough not to need an internal routeing protocol at all, especially if subnetting is structured hierarchically. It seems to me that using flat unstructured subnetting exacts a heavy cost.

RFC 4864 proposes a few other solutions. One is to use explicit host routes: individual hosts would be allocated an address from a logical subnet dedicated to the purpose, and those hosts would inject host routes into the interior gateway protocol (IGP) indicating themselves as the gateway to those logical hosts. This requires:

  • An IGP
  • All hosts to run the IGP
  • A lot of routes

As RFC 4864 points out, this isn’t very scalable, as the IGP is likely to have a limit on the maximum number of routes (and the system would get unmanageable well before that). The other main approach that RFC 4864 recommends is the use of a tunnelling mechanism like Mobile IPv6. This requires:

  • A Mobile IPv6 Home Agent
  • Mobile IPv6 support on every host
  • Mobile IPv6 support on the network to allow hosts to find the Home Agent

In short, a very clunky solution. RFC 4864 also suggests a Layer 2 solution, although it acknowledges that this isn’t very practical either.

Despite all these limitations, RFC 4864 considers these solutions good enough for those sites that require topology hiding. I disagree: they place too much burden on the internal hosts and create significant manageability problems. I would like to suggest an alternative: network address encryption (NAE). Let’s suppose we have a site with a /48 IPv6 allocation that wants to hide its internal topology, and a symmetrical cipher with a suitable-length key that can securely encrypt individual 64-bit blocks of data. An NAE gateway located at an enterprise’s boundary could encrypt Bits 48 to 111 (counting from Bit 0) of the source address of any datagram with a destination on the global Internet (outside of the NAE domain). Any datagram coming back from the global Internet via the NAE gateway would have the same bits of its destination address decrypted using the same cipher and key. Such a system would have the following properties:

  • It would hide subnet topology, as Bits 48 to 63 would be encrypted.
  • It would hide subnet identity (so that you couldn’t tell if two hosts were on the same subnet), as Bits 48 to 63 would be encrypted as a block with Bits 64 to 111 of the IID.
  • By design it would not hide host identity, so as not to frustrate lawful intercept. However it could be combined with temporary addresses if a site required that.
  • It would hide the interface OID (if the IID is a conventional SLAAC address based on the MAC address of the interface).
  • It is a form of one-to-one NAT, so it would not need to modify transport-level ports. It would function purely at Layer 3.
  • It would be stateless: any NAE gateway configured with the same cipher and the same key would produce the same encrypted addresses.

It would have the following limitations (among others):

  • It would require the recalculation of TCP/UDP/ICMP checksums (and would therefore break IPsec ESP transport mode).
  • An Application-Level Gateway would be required for certain applications (see my post on NAT and applications).
  • A change of key would break open connections.
  • It would require a form of split-brain DNS.
  • Internal address assignments would need to be sparse, so that there weren’t long stretches of zeros in the internal address to make attacking the encryption easier.
  • Care would still need to be taken to avoid leaking internal addresses within the application data, for example through SMTP headers.

If required the encryption could take place at a deeper offset in the IPv6 address (say, Bits 56 to 119) so that some parts of a site could lie outside the NAE domain. For example a sales department might prioritise agility (the freedom to adopt innovative application architectures) whereas a finance department might prioritise security. To improve performance, the results of encryption could be cached on the NAE gateway.

This back-of-an-envelope idea indicates the way I think topology hiding should be implemented: at the boundary of the enterprise. NAE could be implemented on a perimeter firewall, and hosts within the enterprise would not be burdened with any additional overhead such as running a routeing protocol. NAE would also be less draconian than an alternative like proxying; proxying is practical for proxy-aware applications like HTTP and SMTP, but much less so for others. Like any form of NAT, NAE could cause application problems, but less than NAPT. Above all, enterprises would be free to implement an efficient hierarchical subnet structure.

My next post will look at provider-independent IPv6 addressing.

IPv6 Part 11: “NAT is not a security feature”

It’s often commented by critics of NAT that it isn’t a security feature. By this they generally mean one of two things. They may mean that “NAT is no substitute for a firewall”. There’s a simple answer to that: it isn’t. It’s true that a connection inbound from the Internet can’t initiate a port-to-internal-address mapping on a NAPT device. Connections can only be initiated in one direction, from the private domain to the global domain, so that a NAPT device acts as a kind of crude one-way filter. However, once the mapping is set up, in principle any datagram with the right destination port will be forwarded to the relevant internal address and port (what happens to it when it reaches that host is another matter).

In reality, at the enterprise perimeter NAPT is typically combined with a (stateful-inspection) firewall, which enforces traffic policy and can check if any datagram is part of a permitted connection. It is however possible that other NAPT devices (like some cheap home routers) may rely upon NAPT’s filtering effect for security. As we increasingly adopt end-to-end IPv6 addressing that will no longer work.

The other thing that NAT’s critics may refer to is the way that NAPT masks our internal network structure:

  • Host identity: because NAPT hides all internal hosts behind one address, it’s impossible to identify how many (active) hosts there are behind that address, or if any two connections are from the same host (there may be higher-level markers such as cookies that make this possible).
  • Network identity: NAPT will conceal which hosts lie on the same internal subnet.
  • Network topology: if you have structured your internal subnet addresses hierarchically to optimise routing then NAPT will conceal that hierarchical structure from the outside world.

IPv6’s end-to-end addressing reveals all that information [UPDATE: if conventional SLAAC addressing is used then it will also reveal the manufacture of the interface hardware]. The critics of NAT assure us that this is irrelevant, as “obscurity is no security” (for example, see Tom Coffeen’s IPv6 Address Planning, chapter 2). This refers to the fundamental principle that the security of your system should not rely upon its design remaining secret: it should remain secure even if the design becomes known. It goes back to the work of the cryptographer Auguste Kerckhoffs, who argued that a cipher should remain secure even if the algorithm became known to the enemy. If it fell into the enemy’s hands then it should only be necessary to issue new keys.

Nevertheless the details of our internal network structure is information that is useful to an attacker. System designers often put considerable effort into preventing the leakage of such information, and I don’t think that it’s wasted. The point is that you should not rely upon the concealment of your internal network structure for security: you certainly should have a firewall and other such measures to protect your systems. However, concealing your internal structure slows down the sophisticated attacker and may confound the naïve (or automated) attacker. As Daniel Miessler puts it, obscurity is a valid security layer. It has a rôle provided that it doesn’t cost you too many operational problems: there’s a pragmatic trade-off here between obscurity and practicality.

Now you can legitimately argue that the advantages of end-to-end addressing outweigh any consequent information leakage, but to simply dismiss concerns about such leakage as “obscurity through security” (one prominent IPv6 consultant refuses to even discuss the matter) is to misunderstand the principle.

In future posts, I’ll look at some of the ways that the drawbacks of IPv6’s end-to-end addressing have been mitigated.

IPv6 Part 10: “NAT breaks IPsec”

It’s often commented that NAT (any form of NAT) breaks IPsec. In the case of Authentication Headers (AH) this is by design. The integrity check value (ICV) included in each AH packet covers every immutable field of the IP header; the ICV excludes only the fields such as TTL which are modified or can be modified in transit. So if either the source or destination IP address is modified by a NAT device then the ICV will be invalidated and the datagram discarded. However because AH doesn’t provide encryption, its use cases are pretty limited: for example, you might have to use it in countries where encryption is tightly regulated.

In some ways things are simpler with Encapsulated Security Payload (ESP): ESP ICVs don’t cover the addresses in the IP header. ESP in tunnel mode isn’t affected by the checksum problem. ESP in transport mode is more problematic: a NAT device will be unable to update the transport-level checksums which lie within the encrypted payload (if it is applying a checksum-neutral NAT such as NPTv6 then it won’t need to).

As I mentioned in my previous post, in either mode, tunnel or transport, if the encrypted ESP application data includes IP addresses then this will be opaque to any ALG on the NAT device. RFC 3715 specifies other problems that are more specifically related to NAPT:

  • Rather than ports, IPsec packets are identified by the Security Parameters Index (SPI) of the destination Security Association (SA). There is a separate IPsec SA for each direction, and the IKE exchange that defines the SA pair is encrypted. How then is a NAT device to know that an inbound IPsec packet with SPI x relates to the outbound SPI y and should be routed back to the relevant host?
  • Endpoints have problems in selecting correct entries in the Security Policy or Security Assocation databases, if multiple peers are hidden behind the same IP address.

NAT also causes problems for Internet Key Exchange (IKE):

  • Where IP addresses are used as peer identifiers, then NAT will cause a mismatch between the ID and the address in the datagram header, and the recipient should discard the datagram.
  • By default IKE uses UDP port 500 for both source and destination, but NAPT will typically modify the source port to overload multiple clients onto one external address.

In order to deal with these problems, NAT Traversal for IKE (NAT-T) was developed. NAT Discovery takes place during the Phase 1 IKE exchange: as soon as NAT is detected, then the IKE responder should switch to UDP port 4500. The IPsec packets are also encapsulated in UDP port 4500, so that NAPT devices can use the UDP source port to distinguish between IPsec conversations. NAT-T can also fix the checksum problem for IPsec transport mode, by transmitting the original IP addresses that were used to generate the checksums in the first place.

As RFC 3947 points out, with NAT in the picture, authentication based on IP address is no longer valid. Certificates form a much more secure method of authentication.

IPsec works at Layer 3 and NAPT depends on hacking around with Layer 4, so it’s not surprising that the two can clash. NAT-T is a widely-implemented work-around; moreover, given the almost-universal use of NAPT, secure (encrypted) communications have generally been implemented at a higher level in the protocol stack (specifically SSL/TLS). IPsec was originally developed for IPv6, with the vision of secure communication as a standard feature. However, as we move to an Internet where all communication is encrypted, it’s more likely to be implemented through TLS than it is through IPsec’s transport mode.

In the next post, I’ll look at whether NAT is a security feature.

IPv6 Part 9: “NAT breaks applications”

One of the biggest objections to NAPT (or in fact to any form of NAT) is that it can break certain applications. This is usually because source or destination IP addresses are referenced within the application data. In order to avoid breaking these applications, a NAT device has to be able to recognise them, reach into their data and modify it to be consistent with NAT; it does this using an Application Layer Gateway (ALG).

The best known example of an application that requires this treatment is File Transfer Protocol (FTP): the FTP control protocol transmits IP addresses as ASCII text. In conventional (active) FTP, the client opens a control connection to the server, and then commands the server to connect back to its own IP address to open a data transfer connection. In fact the data transfer connection doesn’t have to be back to the client: FTP originally supported direct transfers between two remote systems without the data having to go via the client, but this File eXchange Protocol (FXP) functionality is nearly always disabled now for security reasons.

Another well-known application protocol that can have problems with NAT is Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). A SIP user agent runs both a client and a server, to initiate and receive data connections. The SIP protocol itself only handles call initiation and close: separate protocols handle the data in either direction. All this sounds complex, and it is, so a SIP ALG has to be pretty intelligent to identify which connections are related and translate all the traffic correctly.

As I pointed out in my last post, most NAT devices at the enterprise perimeter are also firewalls, and modern next-generation firewalls are reaching deeper into the application data anyway, in order to enforce enterprise policies. Such firewalls will already have intelligent ALGs for such applications. Things get trickier when application encrypt their traffic; if the application is proxy-aware, then it may be possible to insert an ALG into the architecture, but otherwise the application traffic will be opaque to the ALG on the NAT device/firewall.

What these problematic applications usually have in common is that they are not conventional client-server applications. For example FTP needed to include IP addresses within its protocol, because the FTP “client” could be managing a connection between two remote systems, so who in that case was the client? In general, with client-server applications, it’s clear which is the client and which is the server, and the application shouldn’t need to include IP addresses within its data. Moreover, most enterprises have up to now used a pretty simple network architecture in relation to the Internet: clients are allowed to make outbound connections from the corporate network, and inbound connections are usually only permitted to a DMZ. It may be that peer-to-peer Internet applications will become more important in the enterprise world in the future, in which case such architectures may have to change, but at the moment peer-to-peer applications seem to me more relevant to home or mobile networks. Client-server applications fit the centralised enterprise model better.

Tom Coffeen (see IPv6 Address Planning, chapter 2) argues that NAT emphasises the perimeter model of security, and that in a world of pervasive malware that model is no longer relevant anyway. I would argue that although there’s no longer an absolute distinction between untrusted and trusted networks, the enterprise perimeter hasn’t disappeared, it’s just that there are now different levels of trust. We need perimeters within perimeters; defence in depth is all the more necessary.

Once you start to unpick the question of NAT’s impact on applications, it’s clear that much wider issues are at stake than NAT alone, although that’s rarely spelt out by the critics of NAT. It opens up the whole question of what is a relevant secure architecture today. What is clear is that with the current level of external threat enterprises will need a compelling reason (a killer app?) to move away from their conventional application and network architectures.

In the next post I will look at NAT’s impact on IPsec.

IPv6 Part 7: No more NAT

One of the biggest culture shocks for me as a security professional is the assumption that IPv6 addressing is end-to-end; in other words, no more network address translation (NAT). Untranslated addresses expose both the host identity and the topology of the local network to the outside world. If an auto-configured IPv6 address is based on the interface MAC address (see IPv6 Part 3: Address auto-configuration) then the hardware vendor of the interface is exposed too (there are alternatives to this as we shall see). However, what I find even more shocking is the level of hostility to NAT within the IPv6 world: it seems to be an article of IPv6 faith that NAT is bad, often without giving any real case against it. I want here to take a good look at NAT and the arguments for and against, without prejudice.

One of the sources of confusion and ignorance there is about NAT comes from confusion of terminology, so I’ll start off by trying to cut through that in this post. It’s important to understand that there are two main different types of NAT. The first is usually referred to as one-to-one NAT (bi-directional NAT according to RFC 2663, Static NAT in the Check Point world). As the name suggests, there is a one-to-one mapping between addresses in the public domain and the private domain. As datagrams pass through the NAT gateway that lies between the two, the source or destination address is rewritten accordingly, and for TCP, UDP and ICMP (and IPv4 datagrams) the header checksum is recalculated. IPv6 will simplify this slightly because there is no longer a datagram checksum to recalculate. One-to-one NAT was first used in the early days of the Internet to handle cases where end-users had changed providers and hadn’t completed the process of readdressing all their hosts using the new (provider-assigned) prefix. An experimental form of prefix translation has now been defined for IPv6 (RFC 6296).

If the NAT gateway uses static rules to map between private and global addresses then the process is stateless: the gateway simply translates addresses packet by packet. However RFC 3022 defines a method called Basic NAT, where bindings between private and global addresses are set up dynamically, from a pool of global addresses; this means that the NAT gateway has to manage the state of these bindings.

The other type of NAT is what RFC 3022 refers to as Network Address Port Translation (NAPT; known as overloading or Port Address Translation in the Cisco world, Hide NAT in the Check Point world). This allows multiple hosts on a private network to connect to the Internet using one global address: very attractive in the IPv4 world with the increasing shortage of globally routable addresses. A private network using NAPT will typically use RFC 1918 addresses internally, which are not globally routable.When a host on the private network initiates a connection to the Internet, the NAPT gateway will typically translate the source address of the initial datagram to the global address of the gateway. It then dynamically translates the source TCP or UDP port of the initial datagram to an available port on the gateway itself. TCP and UDP ports are 16-bit numbers, and outbound source ports are generally allocated in the range above 1023, so this will scale up to a a maximum of about 64,000 simultaneous connections. ICMP datagrams have to be modified in an analogous way.

To take an example, say the NAPT gateway has a global address of, and there are two hosts with RFC 1918 addresses, and, on the private side. Host initiates a TCP connection to port 80 on with a randomly selected source port of 7680. As the first datagram of the connection passes through the NAT gateway, the gateway translates the source address to, and the TCP port to a spare port on itself, let’s say 20231. Then host makes a TCP connection to another destination, port 80 on, with the source port set to 1818. The gateway will translate port 1818 to another spare port, in this case 10434. The gateway needs to maintain the state of these mappings, so that when a datagram comes in on the global interface with destination of and TCP port 20231, it knows that this needs to be translated to and port 7680 in order to reach its destination.

NAPT gateways have even more work to do than one-to-one NAT gateways. Not only must their checksum recalculations include the modified port numbers, but they must also now maintain the state of every connection that passes through, and clean this up when the connection is closed. If there are multiple NAPT gateways for redundancy, then this state will need to be replicated between them to keep connections up after a gateway failure.

NAPT has the magical property of allowing a private network to be much larger than it appears from the Internet: a bit like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, which is much larger than it appears to be from the outside. It has come to be almost synonymous with NAT, as it’s by far the most prevalent form of NAT today. However it’s important to remember that the different types of NAT have different properties, and different goals. In the following posts I’ll be keeping this in mind as I go through the objections to NAT and assess their validity.