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ISTS4 wrapup

This year's ISTS security competition has come and gone. My team was robbed of victory.

Our defensive strategy this year was some trivial security through obscurity combined with some very clever hardening. Using FreeBSD on all of our machines, we ran all of our services on one machine leaving the remaining 3 machines for attacking and forensics.

All services ran inside a single jail. The creation of the jail was done mostly with rsync to copy the freebsd base system. Inside this jail, we ran sshd, ftpd (via inetd), sendmail, popd, and apache. The jail had several mechanisms to limit malicious user activity. These include pseudo-quotas, login.conf user limits, etc.

The Plan

Run all services inside a jail. Use arpd to spoof unallocated addresses in our /24 network. Use a firewall to redirect all connections to any spoofed addresses on any ports to the real SSH server. That means we'll have almost 13 million ssh "servers" that appear to be running. One of these "servers" is the real one you can actually get a login shell for. The plan was wrapped around the assumption that the latest versions of apache, popd, and sendmail are not going to be exploitable. Generally this is a safe assumption especially in a small-scale competition like this one. So, the tools/software we used here were as follows:
  • FreeBSD 6.0
  • Sendmail 8.13.4 (freebsd 6 default)
  • popd 2.2.2a
  • default ftpd run from inetd
  • default sshd (openssh 4.2p1)
  • Apache 1.3.34

The Firewall

I am most familiar with PF, so that's the firewall we used. The pf config was pretty short.

# Redirect real-service ports first
rdr inet proto tcp to $web_ip port 80 -> port 80
rdr inet proto tcp to $mail_ip port 25 -> port 25
rdr inet proto tcp to $mail_ip port 110 -> port 110
rdr inet proto tcp to $ftp_ip port 21 -> port 21
rdr inet proto tcp to $ftp_ip port 20 -> port 20

# The REAL ssh "server"
rdr inet proto tcp to $ssh_ip port 31975 -> port 29

# Pretend everything else is ssh
rdr inet proto tcp port 1:49152 -> port 22

# Make everything pingable, too
rdr inet proto icmp ->
You'll notice the "real ssh server" is directed to port 29. We'll cover sshd next and why this is important.

The SSH Server (inside the jail)

There's nothing *too* special about our ssh config. I set it to listen in port 22 and port 29. Port 29 will be used to verify if you are connecting to the "real" server.

Network Configuration

The actual machine only had 2 IPs assigned to it. The host address,, and the private address that the jail ran from, The rest of the network was spoofed using arpd:
arpd -d
So now anyone who tries to touch our network will get a response from any ip they hit. This is similar to a honeyd or labrea approach, but better. Labrea can successfully tarpit people who don't know how to tell real hosts from fake ones, but you can almost always easily determine labrea tarpitted (faked) hosts from real ones. Another solution might have involed honeyd, but I wanted a real, usable service. Since the only damage I felt anyone could incur would be from the shell, I wanted to keep users busy by baiting them with working ssh services that they simply didn't have real shells on.

Now, SPARSA's rules stated that no arp poisoning was allowed. I don't consider this arp poisoning because I could easily accomplish the same thing arpd supplied with this one-liner, and without true spoofing:

jot 253 1 | xapply -fv 'ifconfig em0 alias 10.102.1.%1 netmask 0xffffffff' -
It's not spoofing if I actually have all of the IPs on the network, now is it?

The Shell

PORT=`echo "$SSH_CONNECTION"|awk '{print $4}'`
trap - INT

if [ "$PORT" -eq 22 ]; then
        sl -laF
        cat /root/mario
        sleep 3
        /bin/tcsh -l

This script was called 'happyshell' and each team's account had this shell. The script looks at SSH_CONNECTION for the port they sshed into the machine with. If it's 22 (the "fake" server), then they get some useless output printed to their screen, and it quits. If they hit the real server, it gives them tcsh. Very simple. If you want to know what '/root/mario' contained, check it out here: mario ascii picture

If you attempted to login via ssh to any IP:PORT other than you would get a message that would annoy you instead of a shell. Perfect, but you could still write a script to attempt to login and find the real ssh server, so we needed something else to slow you down.

Enter pam_captcha

pam_captcha was an idea Rusty, Dan, and I came up as a solution to prevent scripts from attempting logins aswell as to annoy and deter users who wanted to login and be naughty. We needed it to be difficult-to-impossible to script logins to find our real ssh server.

We initially thought a 10 second sleep delay would be sufficient, but as we discussed it further we realized we could ask the authenticating user questions to verify that they were human. The technical term for this kind of challenge-response authenticator is "captcha" - read about captchas on wikipedia.

I spent a few hours the weekend before the competition (last weekend) to write pam_captcha. There are currently 3 kinds of captchas. The first is a identifying a random string that's been run through figlet, turning it into text-ascii art. The second captcha is a simple math problem also run through figlet; users must solve this math problem to continue. The third captcha has no real practical uses, but for the context of the competition would be both annoying to users and hilarious for me. It involves users performing physical activities, such as stealing a competitor's hat, or singing a song. Verification was done by a human who then alerts the computer that this person is a human. I called this 3rd captcha "Dance Dance Authentication" or DDA.

I had to turn off DDA after the first 2 hours due to complaints. This was fine becuase I only wrote it for humor's sake. The other two captchas stayed enabled throughout the competition.

Outside of this competition, pam_captcha will prevent or atleast deter script kiddies from bruteforcing login attempts via ssh. So if you're interested in preventing this, then go ahead and use it. It works in Linux and FreeBSD.


I say 'pseudo' becuase they aren't actual quotas. I used FreeBSD's mdconfig to create several vnode-backed (file-backed) disks. One for each user's home directory. The script I wrote to do this automatically can be viewed here. It created a 30 meg filesystem backed by a file for each team, initialized the file system, and unmounted it for later use. Another script let me mount a user's homedirectory. Quick and simple, this separated every user's home directory from everyone else's aswell as the rest of the file systems on the computer. This means if a user fills his/her homedir, the other file systems don't care.

The Competition: Defense

At this point, we had millions of potentially valid ssh servers and a means by which to prevent competitors from using brute force scripts to find the real server. Perfect.

During the 5-hour setup period of the competition, I installed the primary services on our system and finished some last minute testing before the attack-and-defend section began. 15 minutes before the end of the setup period, we were ready to go. 3 machines left to perform attacks and forensics, 1 to do services. So far so good, right?

Yep. Several teams attempted to find our ssh server and gave up after about 10 login attempts and moved on to easier targets (other teams). No one bothered attacking via web, ftp, or mail. Our series of tricks tied to our SSH server worked extremely well until around 6pm (1 hour left in the competition) everyone got their collective panties in a bunch and demanded that I stop being so tricksy. The rules for the competition did not cover what ports you had to run your services on, so naturally I protested. Finally, after about 20 minutes of hearing people bitch and moan, I updated the firewall rules to direct port 22 on the "real" ssh server to the actual ssh server (, remember?). Only 3 (out of 6) teams attempted to login after that. Two teams attempted to fill fill the file system and failed. Another team attempted to starve CPU, but every team's default nice level was 19, making it only run when nothing else needed to do so.

The Competition: Attack

The only attacks I did were resource starvation: fork bombs, memory hogging, cpu hogging, file system filling, inode exhaustion, etc. My teammates attempted exploits and other attacks, sometimes these were successful.

The inode exhaustion attempts had a somewhat funny side-effect. The one-liner I used to do this was this:

while :; do 
  touch $a $a$a $RANDOM $RANDOM$RANDOM $RANDOM$a; 
I just wanted to create lots and lots of files. I did this typically in my homedir or /tmp on another team's ssh server. After running for a significant amount of time, running ls in the directory became quite sluggish as it read all of the files. At one point, I had created well over 300000 files in /tmp. The team affected finally noticed this and tried to do "rm *" which inevitably failed with an error of "Too many arguments" - even attempting to do "rm 1*" failed due to too many arguments. Wonderful! Eventually they figured it out and ran 'find /tmp | xargs rm' - but this machine was also running X11 which had sockets in /tmp. They got blown away and X crashed. Whoops ;)

Beyond that, I ran multiple resource starvation attacks (that can be easily prevented) on several teams multiple times.

The Problems

Some of the SPARSA members who were running the event were on the majority very, very stupid and arrogant. I say this in a mean way becuase they've well-earned that label.
  • I made several mentions of teams not providing usable services which were almost all ignored. One particular service a team was running was a 15 line perl script that "served" web pages. It did not conform to any part of the HTTP standard. It responded with a default page, no matter what you requested, immediately after sending the 'GET' request line. Thusly, it ignored headers and the path. I argued that this was not a webserver, and a SPARSA alumni (the fool listed later) asserted that "Well it works for him to serve a webpage, therefore it is a valid webserver." I mentioned that even simple requests like POST and HEAD were reported as invalid, and the path of the request did not change the page served. I was ignored.
  • One SPARSA guy was arguing with me about how ssh is ONLY a "user and password authenticating protocol" and that my "hacked server" was illegal for the competition. He further argued that having users enter any information other than a username and a password was illegal. None of this was in the rules for the competition.
  • Another SPARSA guy, who is an RIT Alumni, began arguing with me that we should follow DNS standards and provide services on the PORTS dns was supposedly advertising for our service. I tried briefly to reeducate him that DNS only provided name-to-address mappings and not port information, but he insisted. Eventually, I said, "Look. It's obvious you have no clue what you're talking about. DNS does not serve ports. Do not argue with me about this, you will lose. Thanks." Another competitor there assisted by asserting that it could indeed not serve port information, and asked SPARSA to provide proof. No proof manifested itself. (Yes, SRV queries serve port information, but no ssh clients use it)
  • Much later in the competition, eventually everyone started complaining that they could not login successfully to our SSH server. This caused a split in the SPARSA group. I asked some of them to confirm that they could indeed login. Half confirmed, the other half said they couldn't login. I replied, "You are attempting to login on the wrong port and/or ip if you do not get a shell after authenticating." Many of the SPARSA guys went crazy with rage insisting that I was breaking rules (that weren't written anywhere?) and that I had to run ssh on the standard port. Others kept quite or commented positively on the strategy. After much arguing, one of the SPARSA folks wrote the port number that the real ssh server could be accessed through. A few minutes later I switched it to port 22, the standard port. The argument obviously enraged many of the SPARSA folks and put me in a bad light with them, I guess.
There were many more incidents that I may document later, but the overal point is that we came for a fun competition and while it was fun I did not expect to have to correct fallacies or arrogance on behalf of the SPARSA group. I do not claim to know everything, but it is ignorance to deny the truth when presented it. Cluelessness is not a fault, becuase you can always learn. Arrogance becomes a problem when I have to deal with it.

The Scoring Conspiracy

The rules stated you had a 2 minute grace period for any downtime before it would be counted against you. Our service machine was only taken down once - by a forkbomb from one of the SPARSA members (a limitation I forgot to place on the sparsa account). A quick reboot and all services came back online within 60 seconds of the down. However, something was strange with the network and Nagios only showed that our web server was online. I tested it, my teammates tested it. All of our services were online, available, and working. One SPARSA member attempted to verify this, and said that our services were down. Another SPARSA member also attempted to verify this, and said that our services were UP. Conflicting answers? Neat. I didn't touch anything, and 5-10 minutes after the first downtime, nagios magically decided our services were back online.

We insisted we be given back points for Nagios' false positives on our downtime, but we were turned away. Other teams complained about Nagios falsely reporting downtime and were awarded points back for false downtime. That's nice. It's good that the judges were fair to all teams.

No other teams were able to take down our services. Nagios, at random times, would determine that one (usually random) of our services were offline. Every time this happened, we verified all of our services and they were indeed online. Thusly, there was only about 60 seconds where any of our services were down during the entire competition. Other teams had critical failures during the competition and were also attacked and taken offline by other teams. Therefore, we had almost 100% availability, other teams were not so lucky. The only point in the competition where you can lose points is for downtime beyond 2 minutes, or so the rules state. You gain points by attacking others and partaking in the SPARSA challenge and the forensics challenge.

Long story short, we did OK with the forensics and OK on the sparsa challenge, but not great.

I'm not angry that we didn't win (or place, for that matter). I'm angry with the behavior of the members of SPARSA who made up random, unsubstantiated rules on the spot for no reason and applied them to some teams and not others. Many of them were entirely unprofessional and down-right rude and arrogant.

Dan, a friend of mine on another team, overheard several of the judges talking about my team and how they should just dock an arbitrary amount of points from us. What kind of crap is that? We paid $40 to attend this competition to get treated like this? I'm considering lobbying for a refund. We'll see. I'm extremely annoyed that there are student organizations seemingly bent around supporting their own arrogant members. If you're at RIT and are looking to join SPARSA, don't. Join CSH instead. We suck less.

At any rate, the competition itself was pretty fun if nothing else than for demonstrating pam_captcha and the better-than-labrea tarpitting-with-real-services tricks. I feel that we should've been given style points for unique solutions so hiding services and for pam_captcha. Style points weren't in the rules, but style should certainly not cause anger. Instead, The SPARSA judges just got angry. Feature? Hate the game, not the player.

Oh well... I'm done with student organizations in May (graduation!).