david wong

Hey! I'm David, a security consultant at Cryptography Services, the crypto team of NCC Group . This is my blog about cryptography and security and other related topics that I find interesting.

Problems that UDP and only UDP has

posted August 2018

You sometimes don't want or can't use TCP, and you thus have to deal with UDP.

To Simplify, TCP is just a collection of algorithms that extend UDP to make it support in-order delivery of streams. UDP on the other hand does not care about such streams and instead sends blocks of messages (called datagrams) in whatever-order and provides no guarantee what-so-ever that you will ever receive them.

TCP also provides some security guarantees on top of IP by starting a session with a TCP handshake it allows both endpoints of a communication to provide a proof of IP ownership, or at least that they can read whatever is sent to their claimed IPs. This means that to mess up with TCP, you need to be an on-path attacker man-in-the-middle'ing the connection between the two endpoints. UDP has none of that, it has no notion of sessions. Whatever packets are received from an IP, it'll just accept them. This means that an off-the-path attacker can trivially send packets that look like they are coming from any IP, effectively spoofing the IP of either one of the endpoint or anyone on the network. If the protocol built on top of UDP does not do anything to detect and prevent this, then bad things might happen (from complex attacks to simple denial of services).

This is not the only bad thing that can happen though. Sometimes (meaning for some protocols) a well-crafted message to an endpoint will trigger a large and disproportionate response. Malicious actors on the internet can use this to perform amplification attacks, which are denial-of-service attacks. To do that, the actor can send these special type of messages pretending to be a victim IP and then observe the endpoint respond with a large amount of data to the victim IP.

Intuitively, it sounds like both of these issues can be tackled by doing some sort of TCP handshake, but in practice it is rarely the case as the very first message of your protocol (which hasn't been able to provide a proof of IP ownership yet) can still trigger large messages. This is why in QUIC, the very first message from a client needs to be padded with 0s in order to make it as large as the server's response. Meaning that an attacker would have to at least spend as much resources that is provided by the attack, nullifying its benefits.

Looking at another protocol built on top of UDP, DTLS (TLS for UDP) has a notion of "cookie" which is really some kind of bearer token that the client will have to keep providing to the server in relevant messages, this in order to prove that it is indeed the same endpoint talking to the server.

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