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Security

This page collects information about the secure usage of Ethereal.

TableOfContents

Introduction

In the recent months (years?), Ethereal was often mentioned in security bulletins about having several security related bugs fixed. This is caused by code reviews of individuals and interested parties and by the effort of the Ethereal team to automatically find bugs. It is expected that this will continue - at least in the near future.

While there is currently no known exploit out there to attack Ethereal, this may change one day ...

Because of this, special care should be taken to avoid security related problems while running Ethereal or at least to reduce the possible impact.

Wether this is a problem for yourself will depend on the situation: A small SoHo network will probably be less critical compared to a companies 24/7 mission critical web server.

It's not the intention of this page to discuss the usage of Ethereal regarded by certain persons as being "insecure", because you can see network data like transported passwords. BTW: Security through obscurity just don't work.

Why is Ethereal different?

In most programs, small sections of code work directly with "outside" data (e.g. from a file or network). By focusing on these small sections during code reviews, developers can eliminate most security problems.

Ethereal is different. The vast majority of its code base deals directly with data from the "outside", so a code review on the relevant parts would cover most if not all of the complete Ethereal code. Running "wc -l epan/dissectors/*.[ch]" returns about 1,000,000 lines of code that's expected to handle fresh-off-the-wire data! Auditing all of this would be a huge effort, and may not guarantee success.

Ethereal is implemented in ANSI C, which is vulnerable to security problems like buffer overflows (compared to more securely designed languages like Java or C#). ANSI C is used for several reasons; the main reason is performance, as Ethereal is often used to work with huge amounts of data. Another reason is that implementations of other languages might not be as commonly available on all the platforms Ethereal supports.

To make things worse, the Ethereal development is done in an "experimental character" as new protocols are added all the time and existing ones are largely improved, the main reason that Ethereal has gained such a wide support of protocols. The developers providing code to Ethereal (literally hundreds) have very divergent programming experience, from advanced networking specialists to novice programmers, making it more likely that new bugs get in.

As a result, Ethereal is more vulnerable to attacks than most other programs.

Which actions are critical?

Having a bug in the GUI code can be quite annoying, e.g. a crash while printing a capture file. However, these bugs are usually not security related as they cannot be triggered from the outside.

The most critical action is analyzing packets when they are read in. The following actions will call into the myriad lines of dissector code with data coming from the "outside":

Administrator/root account usually not required!

Many Ethereal users think that Ethereal requires a Administrator/root account to work with.

That's not a good idea, as using a root account makes any exploit far more dangerous: a successful exploit will have immediate control of the whole system, compromising it completely.

First of all, most Ethereal functions can always be used with a (probably very limited) user account. Especially the protocol dissectors which are showing most of the security related bugs doesn't need a root account!

Only capturing (and gathering capture interface information) may require a root account, but even that can usually be "circumvented", see ["CaptureSetup/CapturePrivileges"] for details how to do so.

Protect Yourself!

There are some things you can do:

Help is on the way!

The Ethereal developers agree that the current situation isn't actually satisfying.

Current effort is spend in several ways to improve Ethereal in that regard:

You'll find more information about that effort at the Development/Security page.

As it's a lot of effort involved in the above tasks, it's unpredictable when they'll be finished (if ever).