Monday, January 7, 2008

Firewall Torn Apart - Part I

I hope today's article will be able to meet most of your queries about firewall. Though it is a huge subject to discuss but i have tired to include at most i can for now. I hope you will enjoy. Please don't forget to add comment about the article or if you have any more interesting info that you wanna share with us.

What is a Firewall?
A firewall is a tool that monitors communication to and from your computer. It sits between your computer and the rest of the network, and according to some criteria, it decides which communication to allow, and which communication to block. It may also use some other criteria to decide about which communication or communication request to report to you (either by adding the information to a log file that you may browse whenever you wish, or in an alert message on the screen), and what not to report.

What Is It Good For?
Identifying and blocking remote access Trojans. Perhaps the most common way to break into a home computer and gain control, is by using a remote access Trojan (RAT). (sometimes it is called "backdoor Trojan" or "backdoor program". Many people simply call it a "Trojan horse" although the term "Trojan horse" is much more generic). A Trojan horse, is a program that claims to do something really innocent, but in fact does something much less innocent. This goes to the days where the Greek soldiers succeeded to enter through the gates of Troy by building a big wooden horse, and giving it as a present to the king of Troy. The soldiers allowed the sculpture to enter through their gates, and then at night, when the soldiers were busy guarding against an outside attack, many Greek soldiers who were hiding inside the horse went out and attacked Troy from the inside. This story, which may or may not be true, is an example of something which looks like something innocent and is used for some less innocent purpose. The same thing happens in computers. You may sometimes get some program, via ICQ, or via Usenet, or via IRC, and believe this program to be something good, while in fact running it will do something less nice to your computer. Such programs are called Trojan horses. It is accepted to say that the difference between a Trojan horse and a virus, is that a virus has the ability to self-replicate and to distribute itself, while a Trojan horse lacks this ability. A special type of Trojan horses, is RATs (Remote Access Trojans, some say "remote admin Trojans"). These Trojans once executed in the victim's computer, start to listen to incoming communication from a remote matching program that the attacker uses. When they get instructions from the remote program, they act accordingly, and thus let the user of the remote program to execute commands on the victim's computer. To name a few famous RATs, the most common are Netbus, Back-Orifice, and SubSeven (which is also known as Backdoor-G). In order for the attacker to use this method, your computer must first be infected by a RAT.
Prevention of infections by RATs is no different than prevention of infection by viruses. Antivirus programs can identify and remove most of the more common RATs. Personal firewalls can identify and block remote communication efforts to the more common RATs and by thus blocking the attacker, and identifying the RAT.

Blocking/Identifying Other Types of Trojans and WQorms?
There are many other types of Trojan horses which may try to communicate with the outside from your computer. Whether they are e-mail worms trying to distribute themselves using their own SMTP engine, or they might be password stealers, or anything else. Many of them can be identified and blocked by a personal firewall.

Identifying/Blocking Spyware's/Adbots?
The term "spyware" is a slang which is not well defined. It is commonly used mainly for various adware (and adware is a program that is supported by presenting advertisements to the user), and that during their installation process, they install an independent program which we shall call "adbot". The adbot runs independently even if the hosting adware is not running, and it maintains the advertisements, downloads them from the remote server, and provides information to the remote server. The adbot is usually hidden. There are many companies that offer adbots, and advertisements services to adware. The information that the adbots deliver to their servers from the computer where the adbot is installed, is "how much time each advertisement is shown, which was the hosting adware, and whether the user clicked on the advertisement. This is important so that the advertisements server will be able to know how much money to get from each of the advertised companies, and how much from it to deliver to each of the adware maintainers. Some of the adbots also collect other information in order to better choose the advertisements to the users. The term "spyware" is more generic, but most of the spyware fall into this category. Many types of adbots can be identified and blocked by personal firewalls.

Blocking Advertisements?
Some of the better personal firewalls can be set to block communication with specific sites. This can be used in order to prevent downloading of advertisements in web pages, and thus to accelerate the download process of the web sites. This is not a very common use of a personal firewall, though.

Preventing Communication to Tracking Sites?
Some web pages contain references to tracking sites. e.g. instruct the web browser to download a small picture (sometimes invisible) from tracking sites. Sometimes, the pictures are visible and provide some statistics about the site. Those tracking sites will try to save a small text either as a small file in a special directory, or as a line in a special file (depending on what is your browser), and your browser will usually allow the saving site to read the text that it saved on your computer. This is called "web cookies" or sometimes simply "cookies". Cookies allow a web site to keep information that it saved some time when you entered it, to be read whenever you enter the site again. This allow the web site to customize itself for you, and to keep track on everything that you did on that site. It does not have to keep that information on your computer. All it has to save on your computer is a unique identifying number, and then it can keep in the server's side information regarding what has been done by the browser that used that cookie. Yet, by this method, a web site can get only information regarding your visits in it. Some sites such as "doubleclick" or "hitbox" can collect information from various affiliated sites, by putting a small reference in the affiliated pages to some picture on their servers. When you enter one of the affiliated web pages, your browser will communicate with the tracking site, and this will allow the tracking site to put or to read a cookie that identifies your computer uniquely, and it can also know what was the web page that referred to it, and any other information that the affiliated web site wanted to deliver to the tracking site. This way tracking sites can correlate information from many affiliated sites, to build information that for example will allow them to better customize the advertisements that are put on those sites when you browse them.
Some personal firewalls can be set to block communication to tracking sites. It is not a common use of a personal firewall, though, and a personal firewall is not the best tool for that, but if you already have one, this is yet another possible use of it.

Blocking or Limiting the NetBIOS Communication? (as well as other default services)
The two common methods of intruders to break into home computers, are through a RAT (which was discussed in II.3a) and through the NetBIOS communication. The NetBIOS is a standard for naming computers in small networks, developed long ago by IBM and Microsoft. There are a few communication standards which are used in relation to the NetBIOS. The ones that are relevant for Microsoft Windows operating systems, are: NBT (NetBIOS over TCP/IP), IPX/SPX, and NetBEUI. The communication standard which is used over the Internet, is NBT. If it is enabled, and there is no firewall or something else in the middle, it means that your computer is listening for communications over the Internet via this standard, and will react according to the different NBT commands that it gets from the remote programs. It is thus that the NBT (which sometimes loosely called "NetBIOS") is acting as a server. So the next question should be "what remote NBT commands the NBT server will do on the local computer". The answer to this question depends on the specific setting on your computer. You may set your computer to allow file and print sharing. If also NBT is enabled, it means that you allow remote users to share your files or printers. This is a big problem. It is true that in principle the remote user has to know your password for that computer, but many users do not set a password for their user on Windows, or set a trivial password. Older versions of Win95 had file and print sharing over NetBIOS enabled by default. On Win98, and WinMe it was disabled by default, but many technicians, when they set a home network, they enable the file and print sharing, without being aware that it influences also the authorizations of a remote Internet user. There are even worms and viruses who use the File sharing option to spread in the Internet. Anyway, no matter whether you need it for some reason or just are not aware of it, a personal firewall can identify and block any external effort to communicate with the NetBIOS server on your computer. The more flexible personal firewalls can be set to restrict the authorization to communicate with the NetBIOS. Some Windows operating systems, especially those which are not meant for home uses, offer other public services by default, such as RPC. A firewall can identify communication efforts to them, and block them. Since such services listen to remote communications, there is a potential risk when there are efforts to exploit security holes in the programs that offer the services, if there are such security holes. A firewall may block or limit the communication to those services.

Hiding Your Computer on the Internet?
Without a firewall, on a typical computer, even if well maintained, a remote person will still be able to know that the communication effort has reached some computer, and perhaps some information about the operating system on that computer. If that computer is handled well, the remote user will not be able to get much more information from your computer, but might still be able to identify also who your ISP is, and might decide to invest further time in cracking into your computer.
With a firewall, you can set the firewall so that any communication effort from remote users (in the better firewalls you may define an exception list) will not be responded at all. This way the remote user will not be able to even know that it reached a live computer. This might discourage the remote attacker from investing further time in effort to crack into your computer.

The Non-Firewall Defenses

We've discussed a few situations where a personal firewall can provide defense. Yet, in many cases a computer maintainer can deal with those situations even without a firewall. Those "alternative" defenses, in many cases are recommended regardless of whether you use a firewall or not.

Remote Access Trojans?
The best way to defend against remote access Trojans (RATs) is to prevent them from being installed in the first place on your computer. A RAT should first infect your computer in order to start to listen to remote communication efforts. The infection techniques are very similar to the infection techniques that viruses use, and hence the defense against Trojan horses is similar to the defense against viruses. Trojan horses do not distribute themselves (although they might be companions of another Internet worm or virus that distributes them. Yet, because in most cases they do not distribute themselves, it is likely that you will get them from anonymous sources, such as instant messengers, Kazaa, IRC, or a newsgroup. adopting a suspicious policy regarding downloads from such places, will save you not only from viruses but also from getting infected with Trojan horses, including RATs. Because Trojan horses are similar in some ways to viruses, almost all antivirus programs can identify, block from being installed, and remove most of the Trojan horses, including all the common ones. There are also some programs (sometimes called antiTrojan programs) which specialize in the identification and removal of Trojan horses. For a list of those programs, and for comparison on how well different antivirus, and antiTrojan programs identify different Trojan horses, see Hackfix (http://www.hackfix.org), under "Software test results". Hackfix also has information on the more common RATS (such as the Netbus and the Subseven) and on how to remove them manually. There are some tools and web sites, such port scanners, and some ways with a use of more generic tools such as telnet, msconfig, and netstat, which may help you to identify a RAT.

Other types of Trojans and worms?
Also here your main interest should be to prevent them from infecting your computer in the first place, rather than blocking their communication. A good antivirus and a good policy regarding the prevention of virus infections, should be the first and most important defense.

Spyware and Adbots?
The term spyware is sometimes misleading. In my view, it is the responsibility of the adware developer to present the fact that the adware installation will install or use an independent adbots, and to provide the information on how this adbot communicates, and which information it delivers, in a fair place and manner before the adware is installed. It is also a responsibility to provide this information in their web sites, so that people will be aware of that before they even download the software. Yet, in general, those adbots do not pose any security threat, and in many cases also their privacy threat is negligible for many people (e.g. the computer with adbot number 1127533 has been exposed to advertisements a, b, c, such and such times, while using adware x, while on computer with adbot number 1127534 has been exposed to advertisements a,d, and e, such amount of time, with the use of adware y, and clicked on ads number d). It should be fully legitimate for software developers to offer an advertisement supported programs, and it is up to the user to decide whether the use of the program worth the ads and the adbot, or not. Preventing adbot from communicating is generally not a moral thing. If you decide to use an adware, you should pay the price of letting the adbot work. If you don't want it, please remove the adware, and only if for some reason the adbot continue to work even if no hosting adware that uses it is installed, you may remove the adbot. Anyway, there are some very useful tools to identify whether a program is a "spyware", or whether a "spyware" is installed on your computer, and you are certainly entitled to this information. Two useful programs are "AdAware" which identifies "spyware" components on your computer and allows you to remove them, and Ad-Search which allows you to provide a name of a program, and it tells you whether this program is a "spyware" and which adbot it uses. It is useful to assist you in choosing whether to install a program or not. You may find those programs in http://www.lavasoft.nu (or, if it doesn't work, you may try http://www.lavasoftusa.com). Those programs are useful, mainly because many adware developers are not fair enough to present this information in a fair manner. AdAware allows you to also remove those adbot components from your computer. This might, however, terminate your license to use the hosting adware programs, and might even cause them to stop functioning. A website which offers to check whether a specific program that you wish to install is "spyware" or not, is http://www.spychecker.com .





WISE WORDS:Faith is the continuation of reason.

7 comments:

erickia said...
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Anuj Talwar said...

Well I really liked this post !!!

A really good description of Firewall !!
Finally you ended my search , Thanks ! Thanks a lot !!!

You are really a knowledge Person !!!

Please keep it up !!!

Regards
Anuj Talwar

Computer Tricks

Pooja said...
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viveksingh said...
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Anup said...
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jennet brown said...

Most experienced computer users know about many assorted ways and tricks to optimize a system for the tasks at hand.
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Sajjan Parida said...

hey nice post.......