Maestro attack: a new link flooding attack (LFA) that leverages plane traffic control engineering techniques

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Researchers at the University of Tennessee have recently identified the Maestro attack, a new link flooding attack (LFA) that leverages plane traffic control engineering techniques to concentrate botnet-sourced distributed denial of service (DDos) flows on transit links.

In their paper, recently published on arXiv, the researchers outlined this type attack, tried to understand its scope and presented effective mitigations for network operators who wish to insulate themselves from it.

Distributed denial of service (DDos) attacks work by directing traffic from different sources on the internet to overwhelm the capacity of a targeted system.

Although researchers have introduced numerous mitigation and defense techniques to protect users against these attacks, they are still proliferating.

Link flooding attacks (LFA) are a specific type of DDoS attacks that target infrastructure links, which are typically launched from botnets.

“While investigating how well an ISP could singlehandedly defend against massive denial of service attacks, we realized the same technique we were using to defend against attacks could be used by an adversary to take down our own defense,” Jared Smith, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told TechXplore.

“This led to us exploring how well this technique, BGP poisoning, could be used to carry out such an attack.”

As they were trying to develop defenses against DDoS attacks, Smith and his colleagues Tyler McDaniel and Max Schuchard explored how an adversary’s ability to influence routing decisions (i.e. his/her access to a compromised boarder gateway protocol or BGP speaker) can shape remote networks’ path selection processes to their advantage.

During their investigation, they identified a new type of LFA attack, which they called the Maestro attack.

“We are researching DDoS attacks against Internet infrastructure links,” McDaniel told TechXolore.

“These attacks are limited by internet routing characteristics, because DDoS sources do not always have a destination for their traffic that crosses a target link.

The Maestro attack exploits vulnerabilities in the language Internet routers use to communicate (i.e. BGP) to overcome this limitation.”


  1. Border Gateway Protocol

The Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is the de facto routing protocol of the Internet.

BGP enables over 60,000 Autonomous Systems (ASes) to exchange routing information and connect disparate parts of the Internet’s infrastructure.

Routes in BGP are defined by a destination IP prefix and a collection of attributes, including the AS PATH or AS-level hops to reach the destination.

ASes originate routes to hosted IP prefixes via BGP advertisements to neighboring ASes.

An AS’s routers store received paths and make decisions about which paths to use for each destination prefix.

Each AS chooses paths per prefix based on attributes of stored paths, most notably AS PATH length and LOCAL PREF. LOCAL PREF represents the AS operator’s local policy choices regarding path qualities.

LOCAL PREF holds precedence over AS PATH length in the decision process.

Of all available paths, the longest prefix matching rule dictates that the stored path with the longest (most specific) IP prefix match is used to forward packets when received.

Because the BGP decision process draws on path and policy attributes in route selection, BGP is a path-vector algorithm with policies.

These policies often manifest themselves as a result of the unique business relationships on the Internet.

ASes can have peers, customers, and providers.

Peers exchange traffic for free, customers pay to exchange traffic through a provider, and providers gain economic incentives for traffic exchange provided to customers.

Due to this economic aspect, the Internet topology is shaped by behaviors dictated by the valley-free routing model and shown in Figure 14 in the appendix.

In simple terms, the model states that BGP routes will not transit from a customer to a provider after transiting from a provider to a customer, which ensures ASes do not incur monetary costs whenever possible.

Figure 14: Valley free routing: ASes inform customers of all paths, but do not transit traffi c for providers

BGP Poisoning

The BGP decision process gives local operators control over out-bound paths.

Unfortunately, operators have relatively little influence on inbound traffic paths.

Techniques do exist for next-hop inbound path control, including the MULTI EXIT DISC (exit dis- criminator) attribute and BGP communities , but both are subject to the source AS’s policies.

This means inbound path control cannot be exerted by a destination AS arbitrarily on the broader Internet.

Fortunately, BGP poisoning, a traffic engineering technique growing in use in academic and operator communities, allows for the manipulation of an AS’s inbound traffic routes without coordination from other ASes.

BGP poisoning relies on two characteristics of BGP: loop detec- tion and longest-prefix matching. Longest-prefix matching was discussed earlier, but loop detection is a specified BGP behavior where an AS will drop paths which already contain its own AS num- ber (ASN).

This prevents loops, but it also allows BGP poisoning. An illustration of BGP poisoning is shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1: BGP poisoning. AS 1 advertises a specific prefix (thicker arrow). AS 4’s traffi c to AS 1 (blue) is moved to the more specific route. AS 2 is said to have been poisoned.

The advertising or poisoning AS advertises a more specific (longer) prefix for the traffic it wishes to move.

Longest prefix matching means that ASes directing traffic to included IPs will switch on to the new route (see AS 2).

However, some set of ASes are included in the AS PATH for the advertisement, sandwitched between copies of the originator’s ASN.

Because they are notionally “on” the AS PATH, these ASes are poisoned; that is, they will detect a loop and drop the advertisement.

While these poisoned ASes still have connectivity to the advertising AS’s other prefixes, their traffic flows are unchanged by the advertisement.

The poisoning AS has adjusted inbound traffic paths without reliance on remote AS policies. Notably, poisoning functions on a per-prefix basis.


The Maestro attack works by distributing fraudulent (i.e. poisoned) BGP messages from an internet router to channel inbound traffic (i.e. traffic flowing into the router) onto a target link.

Simultaneously, it directs a DDoS attack against the same router using a botnet, which ultimately funnels DDoS traffic onto the target link.

In other words, Maestro orchestrates path selection of remote Autonomous Systems (ASes) and bot traffic destinations, in order to steer malicious flows onto links that would otherwise be inaccessible to botnets.

To carry out this attack, a user would need to have two key tools: an edge router in some compromised AS and a botnet.

“For one of our major botnet models, Mirai, a well-positioned Maestro attacker can expect to bring a million additional infected hosts onto the target link vs. a traditional link DDoS,” McDaniel said.

“This number represents fully a third of the entire botnet.”

According to the researchers, in order to insulate themselves from this attack, or at least mitigate the risk of becoming a target, network operators should filter out poisoned BGP messages.

Interestingly, however, studies carried out in their lab revealed that most routers do not currently filter these messages out.

“An adversary who can compromise or buy an Internet router can disseminate fraudulent messages to intensify attacks on the Internet’s infrastructure,” McDaniel said.

“This is troubling, because prior work has raised the specter of large-scale link DDoS being weaponized to isolate installations or entire geographic regions from the internet.”

In addition to introducing the Maestro attack, the study carried out by Smith, McDaniel and Schuchard provides further evidence that BGP, as it stands, is no longer an ideal, scalable and secure routing protocol.

Demonstration of the Maestro Attack: utilizing BGP Poisoning to collapse botnet traffic onto a single link. Credit: McDaniel et al.

This was already suggested by previous studies, as well as by recent incidents, such as the 3ve fraud operation and the China Telecom hijack.

According to the researchers, although upgrades such as peer locking could help to prevent this specific attack, replacing BGP with an entirely new, next-generation system (e.g. SCION) would be the most effective solution.

“Going forward, we’re primarily exploring two directions,” Smith said. “First, while talking to ISP operators about Maestro, we found differing opinions of how vulnerable the Internet actually is.

Our lab has a history of actively measuring the Internet’s behavior and we’re working on measuring human operator intuition against the actual behavior of the Internet.

Second, we’re already seeing strong results for extending Maestro to work even when you don’t have a massive botnet available.”

More information: The Maestro Attack: Orchestrating malicious flows with BGP. arXiv:1905.07673 [cs.CR]. arxiv.org/abs/1905.07673

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