29. IP Routing: BGP

29.1. Cheat sheet

  • Layer: 3 (inter-network)

  • Purpose: Send messages globally by connecting lots of local networks

  • Vulnerability: Malicious local networks can read messages in intermediate transit and forward them to the wrong place

  • Defense: Accept as a fact of life and rely on higher layers

29.2. Networking background: Subnets

Recall that IP addresses uniquely identify a single machine on the global network. (With NAT, the address could correspond to multiple machines, but this can be abstracted away when discussing IP.) When sending packets to a remote IP on a different local network, the packet must make many hops across many local networks before finally reaching its destination.

IP routes by “subnets”, groups of addresses with a common prefix. A subnet is usually written as a prefix followed by the number of bits in the prefix. For example, 128.32/16 is an IPv4 subnet with all addresses beginning with the 16-bit prefix 128.32. There are \(2^{16}\) addresses on this prefix, because there are 32 - 16 = 16 bits not in the prefix. Sanity check: how many addresses are in the 128.32.131/24 subnet?1 Routing generally proceeds on a subnet rather than individual IP basis.

There are some special reserved IP addresses and network blocks that do not represent machines and subnets. 127.0.0/24 and ::1 are “localhost”, used to create ‘network’ connections to your own system. Also, is the IPv4 broadcast address, sending to all computers within the local network.

When a client gets its configuration from DHCP, it is told its own IP address, the address of the gateway, and the size of the subnet it is on. To send a packet to another computer on the same local network, the client first verifies that the computer is on the same local network by checking that its IP address is in the same subnet (same IP prefix). Then, the client uses ARP to translate the IP address to a MAC address and directly sends the packet to that MAC address.

To send a packet to another computer on a different local network, the client sends the packet to the gateway, whose responsibility is to forward the packet towards the destination.

Past the gateway, the packet passes onto the general Internet, which is composed of many ASs (Autonomous Systems), identified by unique ASNs (Autonomous System Numbers). Each AS consists of one or more local networks managed by an organization, such as an Internet service provider (ISP), university, or business. Within each AS, packets can be routed by any mechanism the AS desires, usually involving a complicated set of preferences designed to minimize the AS’s own cost.

When an AS receives a packet, it first checks if that packet’s final destination is located within the AS. If the final destination is within the AS, it routes the packet directly to the final destination. Otherwise, it must forward the packet to another AS that is closer to the final destination.

29.3. Protocol: BGP

Routing between ASs on the Internet is determined by BGP (the Border Gateway Protocol). BGP operates by having each AS advertise which networks it is responsible for to its neighboring ASs. Then each neighbor advertises that they can process packets to that network and provides information about the AS path that the packets would follow. The process continues until the entire Internet is connected into a graph with many paths between ASs. If an AS has a choice between two advertisements, it will generally select the shortest path. Actual BGP path selection is a fair bit more complicated than described here, but is out of scope for this class (take CS 168 to learn more).

29.4. Attack: Malicious ASs

The biggest problem with BGP is that it operates on trust, assuming that all ASs are effectively honest. Thus an AS can lie and say that it is responsible for a network it isn’t, resulting in all traffic being redirected to the lying AS. There are further enhancements that allow a lying AS to act as a full man-in-the-middle, routing all traffic for a destination through the rogue AS.

Recall that IP operates on “best effort”. Packets are delivered whole, but can be delivered in any order and may be corrupted or not sent at all. IPv4 and lower layers usually include checksums or CRC checks designed to detect corrupted packets. Sanity check: Why do the checksums not prevent a malicious AS from modifying packets?2

29.5. Defenses

In practice, there’s not much anyone can do to defend against a malicious AS, since each AS operates relatively independently. Instead, we rely on protocols such as TCP at higher layers to guarantee that messages are sent. TCP will resend packets that are lost or corrupted because of malicious ASs. Also, cryptographic protocols at higher layers such as TLS can defend against malicious attackers, by guaranteeing confidentiality (attacker can’t read the packets) and integrity (attacker can’t modify the packets without detection) on packets. Both TCP and TLS are covered in later sections.

  1. \(2^8\). The prefix is 24 bits, so there are 32 - 24 = 8 bits not in the prefix. 

  2. Checksums are not cryptographic. The malicious AS could modify the packet and create a new checksum for the modified packet.