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Security

This page should collect information about security topics.

General

In most programs, only parts of a program are directly working with "outside" data (from a file or network), so to avoid security problems, the developers are doing code reviews about that parts which (hopefully) will eliminate most security problems.

Ethereal is a bit different here, as almost the complete code will work with data from the "outside" (whether it's from a live capture or loaded from a file), so a code review on the relevant parts would be a code review of most if not all of the complete Ethereal code which would be a huge effort, and not all problems might be found after all. This makes Ethereal more vulnerable to attacks than most other programs.

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, and another reason is that implementations of other languages might not be as commonly available on all the platforms Ethereal support. Some of this might be solved, at least for some dissectors, by having higher-level languages used to describe protocols, with translators to C for those languages; if the translators have been reviewed to make sure they generate "safe" code, and the code they call has been reviewed to make sure it's safe, then dissectors written in those higher-level languages will be safe. For example, some dissectors for protocols using ASN.1 are generated from an ASN.1 description of the protocol.

A further security problem is that the Ethereal development process includes patches from many different developers (with different levels of programming skills) all around the world, and only a few developers are doing the job of reviewing the patches before they are checked in the main source tree.

Conclusion: The current development model won't change for several reasons, so if there are concerns about the mentioned security problems, different approaches avoiding the drawbacks of these problems should be taken.

The best way might be to run Ethereal in a user account which can't do any real harm. As on some platforms live capturing from the network needs administration privileges, additional steps have to be taken; see below.

BSD (including Mac OS X)

In order to capture packets, you must have read access to the BPF devices in /dev/bpf*.

On BSDs without a devfs, the special files for those devices are on your root file system, and changes to them will persist across reboots. In order to allow yourself, or yourself and others, to capture traffic without running Ethereal as root, either make them owned by you, or make them owned by a group to which you and others to whom you want to give capture permission belong and give that group read access, or, if your BSD supports ACLs on special files, add the users who should have permission to capture to the ACL, with the ACL entry giving them read permission. You will probably need super-user permission to do this.

On BSDs with a devfs (this includes Mac OS X), this might involve more than just having somebody with super-user access setting the ownership and/or permissions on the BPF devices - it might involve configuring devfs to set the ownership or permissions every time the system is booted, if the system supports that; FreeBSD 5.x's devfs does. If the system doesn't support that - Mac OS X's devfs doesn't, you might have to find some other way to make that happen at boot time, such as a command in one of the system rc files, or a startup item in OS X; see the ChmodBPF directory in the current CVS version of libpcap for such a startup item.

Digital/Tru64 UNIX

Any user can, in principle, capture network traffic. However, no user (not even the super-user) can capture in promiscuous mode on an interface unless the super-user has enabled promiscuous-mode peration on that interface using pfconfig(8), and no user (not even the super-user) can capture unicast traffic received by or sent by the machine on an interface unless the super-user has enabled copy-all-mode operation on that interface using pfconfig, so useful packet capture on an interface probably requires that either promiscuous-mode or copy-all-mode operation, or both modes of operation, be enabled on that interface. You might be able to limit the set of users allowed to capture traffic by changing the ownership and/or permissions of the /dev/pfilt* devices.

Windows

The WinPcap (NPF) driver is loaded by Ethereal when it starts to capture live data.

This loading requires administrator privileges. Once the driver is loaded, every local user can capture from it until it's stopped again.

To be secure (at least in a way), it is recommended that the administrator should always running in a user account, and only start processes that really need the administrator privileges.

So using Ethereal running in a user account could look like:

Start the NPF driver:

runas /u:administrator "net start npf"

Start Ethereal and work with it, including capturing, until the specific job is finished.

Stop the NPF driver again:

runas /u:administrator "net stop npf"

This way, it's a lot more secure than running with the administrator account. However, while doing this, any local user can also capture from the network. This might not be desireable, but this can't be currently circumvented. Please note that this is not a limitation of the Ethereal implementation, but of the underlying WinPcap driver; see [http://winpcap.polito.it/misc/faq.htm#Q-7 this note in the WinPcap FAQ].