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Deauthentication Attack

Our implementation of this attack promiscuously monitors all network activity, including non-data 802.11 frames, and matches the source and destination MAC address against a list of attack targets. If a data or association response frame is received from a target, we issue a spoofed deauthentication frame to the access point on behalf of the client. To avoid buffer overflow in congested networks on the attacking machine, deauthentication frames are rate limited to 10 frames per second per client. This limit is reset when an access point acknowledges receipt of a deauthentication frame.

We tested this implementation in a small 802.11 network composed of 7 machines: 1 attacker, 1 access point, 1 monitoring station, and 4 legitimate clients. The access point was built using the Linux HostAP driver, which provides an in-kernel software-based access point. Each of the clients attempted to transfer, via ftp, a large file through the access point machine - a transfer which exceeded the testing period. We mounted two attacks on the network. The first, illustrated by the thin rectangle in Figure 5, was directed against a single client running MacOS X. This client's transfer was immediately halted, and even though the attack lasted less than ten seconds, the client did not resume transmitting at its previous rate for more than a minute. This amplification was due to a combination of an extended delay while the client probed for other access points and the exponential backoff being employed by the ftp server's TCP implementation.

Figure 5: Packets sent by each of the 4 client nodes during the deauthentication attack. The first attack, against the MacOS client, started at second 15 and lasted 8 seconds. The second attack against all the clients started at 101 and lasted for 26 seconds. The attacking node consumes a negligible amount of bandwidth due to the rate limiting.

The second attack, delineated by the wider rectangle in the same figure, was directed against all four clients. Service is virtually halted during this period, although the Windows XP client is able to send a number of packets successfully. This anomaly has two sources. First, these are not data packets from the ftp session but rather UDP packets used by Window's DCE RPC service and not subject to TCP's congestion control procedure. Second, there is a small race condition in our attack implementation between the time a client receives the successful association response and the time the attacker sends the deauthentication frame. The WinXP client used this small window to send approximately ten UDP packets before the attacking node shut them down. Modifying the implementation to send the deauthentication packets after both authentication and association would mitigate this effect.

A number of smaller, directed attacks were performed in addition to those in Figure 5. The small tests were done using the extended 802.11 infrastructure found at UCSD with varied victims. Recent versions of Windows, Linux, and the MacOS all gave up on the targeted access point and kept trying to find others. Slightly older versions of the same systems never attempted to switch access points and were completely disconnected using the less sophisticated version of the attack. The attack even caused one device, an HP Jornada Pocket PC, to consistently crash.

The deauthentication vulnerability can be solved directly by explicitly authenticating management frames and dropping invalid requests. However, the standardization of such capabilities is still some ways off and it is clear that legacy MAC designs do not have sufficient CPU capacity to implement this functionality as a software upgrade. Therefore, system-level defenses with low-overhead can still offer significant value. In particular, by delaying the effects of deauthentication or disassociation requests (e.g., by queuing such requests for 5-10 seconds) an AP has the opportunity to observe subsequent packets from the client. If a data packet arrives after a deauthentication or disassociation request is queued, that request is discarded - since a legitimate client would never generate packets in that order. The same approach can be used in reverse to mitigate forged deauthentication packets sent to the client on behalf of the AP. This approach has the advantage that it can be implemented with a simple firmware modification to existing NICs and access points, without requiring a new management structure.

To test this defense we modified the access point used in our experiments as described above, using a timeout value of 10 seconds for each management request. We then executed the previous experiment again using the ``hardened'' access point. The equivalent results can be seen in Figure 6. From this graph it is difficult to tell that the attack is active, and the client nodes continue their activity oblivious to the misdirection being sent to the access point.

However, our proposed solution is not without drawbacks. In particular, it opens up a new vulnerability at the moment in which mobile clients roam between access points. The association message is used to determine which AP should receive packets destined for the mobile client. In certain circumstances leaving the old association established for an additional period of time may prevent the routing updates necessary to deliver packets through the new access point. Or, in the case of an adversary, the association could be kept open indefinitely by spoofing packets from the mobile client to the spoofed AP - keeping the association current. While both these situations are possible, we will argue that they are unlikely to represent a new threat in practice.

Figure 6: Packets sent by each of the 4 client nodes during the deauthentication attack with an access point modified to defend against this attack. The first attack, against the MacOS client, started at second 10 and lasted 12 seconds. The second attack against all the clients started at 30 and lasted through the end of the trace. The attacking node consumes a negligible amount of bandwidth due to the rate limiting.

There are two main infrastructure configurations that support roaming. For lack of a better name we refer to these as ``intelligent'' and ``dumb''. In the ``intelligent'' configuration the access points have an explicit means of coordination. This coordination can be used to, among other things, update routes for and transfer buffered packets between access points when a mobile node changes associations. Since there is not currently a standard for this coordination function, AP's offering such capabilities typically use proprietary protocols that work only between homogenous devices. In contrast ``dumb'' access points have no explicit means of coordination and instead rely on the underlying layer-two distribution network (typically Ethernet) to reroute packets as a mobile client's MAC address appears at a new AP (and hence a new Ethernet switch port).

Intelligent infrastructures, due to their preexisting coordination, are easily modified to avoid the aforementioned problems caused by the deassociation timeout. Since the mobile node must associate with the new access point before it can transmit data, and since the access points are coordinated (either directly or through a third party), the old access point can be informed when the mobile node makes a new association. Based on this information the old access point can immediately honor the clients deauthentication request. While an attacker can spoof packets from the mobile host to create confusion, this vulnerability exists without the addition of the deferred deassociation mechanisms we have described.

Dumb infrastructures are slightly more problematic because of their lack of coordination and reliance on the underlying network topology. If that underlying topology is a broadcast medium, which is a rarity these days, there is no problem because all packets are already delivered to all access points. If the underlying topology is switched, then a protocol is used (typically a spanning tree distribution protocol) to distribute which MAC addresses are served by which ports. Existing switches already gracefully support moving a MAC address from one port to another, but have problems when one MAC address is present across multiple ports. In the non-adversarial case the mobile node will switch access points, proceed to send data using the new access point, and cease sending data through the old access point. From the switches perspective this is equivalent to a MAC switching ports. The mobile node may not receive data packets until it has sent one - allowing the switch to learn its new port - but that limitation applies regardless of the deauthentication timeout. In the adversarial case the attacking node could generate spoofed traffic designed to confuse the switch. However, this does not represent a significant new vulnerability - even without the delay on deauthentication/disassociation an attacker can spoof a packet from an mobile client in order to create this conflict (including a WEP protected packet after key recovery).

Figure 7: Excerpt from a typical virtual carrer-sense attack trace using CTS frames. MAC address 00:03:93:ea:e7:0f is the access point, and fc:1d:e7:00:15:01 is an unallocated MAC address. is the uploading client, and is the receiving machine. The first TCP data frame is sent 1.1 ms after a CTS that reserved the medium for > 32 ms. In the second CTS sequence the data frame is sent after 3.4 ms.
TimeSourceDestinationDuration (ms)Type
1.294020 fc:1d:e7:00:15:0132767802.11 CTS
1.29519210. Data
1.29654000:03:93:ea:e7:0f0802.11 Ack
1.29786910. Data
1.29908400:03:93:ea:e7:0f0802.11 Ack
1.30027510. Data
1.30043900:03:93:ea:e7:0f0802.11 Ack
1.302538fc:1d:e7:00:15:0132767802.11 CTS
1.306110fc:1d:e7:00:15:0132767802.11 CTS
1.30954310. Ack
1.30981000:03:93:ea:e7:0f0802.11 Ack
1.31223710. Data
1.31345200:03:93:ea:e7:0f0802.11 Ack

next up previous
Next: Virtual carrier-sense attack Up: Practical Attacks and Defenses Previous: 802.11 Attack Infrastructure
Whole Paper:Single Page Version

John Bellado 2003-05-16
In Proceedings of the USENIX Security Symposium, Aug 2003