The Case for Wire Data: GONE in 60….”err”…8 seconds! (Counter-punching DNS jackassery)

A few days ago SANS wrote an article about the importance of tracking DNS Query length stating emphatically “Size Does Matter”. It’s an excellent article and certainly worth a read, you can find it here

The article demonstrates how easy it is to exfiltrate a file using the DNS Channel. They ran a script that encoded the /etc/passwd file into base32 chunks and exfiltrated the file to an external DNS Server. Since the subdomain limit is 63 characters or less they used all 63 characters to append an encoded text string onto the subdomains allowing them to push the data externally using the internal corporate DNS server as the mule in the process.

Just before showing us the Splunk Histograms they did something VERY unique, they showed you the following command:

# tcpdump -vvv -s 0 -i eth0 -l -n port 53 | egrep “A\? .*\.data\.rootshell\.be”

As you are aware, tcpdump is a wire analysis sniffing tool that shows you packets as they are being observed on the wire. If ONLY there were a way to take action against this behavior as it was being observed on the wire. What if I told you there was one? And you probably didn’t even know you could leverage it in your security practice!

Enter Wire Data:
In a way, the SANS article provided a Segway for me to demonstrate the power of wire data. The ExtraHop platform provides full, in flight stream analysis and has the capability to interact with external APIs that may be able to actually STOP DNS exfiltration instead of telling you that it had already happened.

So to do a similar test, I ran something similar attempting to use base64 to exfiltrate a much larger filer called blockedIPs.txt using the following script named I then used an online stopwatch to count the time from when I executed the script to when it finished. The entire text file was exfiltrated in 8.01 seconds. Basically by the time it is rendered in Splunk, the data has already been exfiltrated. That doesn’t mean that the splunk scenario isn’t valuable but leveraging wire data we can do A LOT more than just tell your SOC that they have been breached.

Below you see that the script was able to exfiltrate the entire file in 8.01 seconds.


So in looking at the time it took to exfiltrate the entire BlockedIPs.txt file, 8.01 seconds isn’t really a lot to work with as your SOC does not have a crystal ball.  BUT, in the world of wire data analytics where you deal in microseconds, seconds are hours! Below is a diagram of how we have set up the ExtraHop appliance to alert us when DNS exfiltration takes place. Since I don’t have an active OpenDNS account I am using the Slack API to demonstrate how the ExtraHop platform can integrate with intelligent services. For this test we set the following criteria using ExtraHop’s Application Inspection Triggers.

  • DNS length of greater 63 or greater
  • Not part of B2B partners’, or Internal Namespace
  • Not a common CDN like Akamai or

There will always be SOME white listing that will need to occur to avoid digital collateral damage. If the site is a .ru, .cn or in this case, a .be and I am a hospital in Minneapolis than I doubt that I have an abundance of business with those name spaces and I feel pretty comfortable bit-bucketing them via OpenDNS or another next generation DNS product.


So upon executing the script we begin to see results populating our Slack channel within a few milliseconds. This could just as easily be an API call to your DNS service to “black hole” the suspect domain.

Transaction speed: In the two images below, you can note the performance of the slack transactions. You can see an average round trip time of 41ms with an average processing time of 58ms. I would expect an API call to OpenDNS to be similarly fast basically meaning that you have plenty of time to stop a file from being fully transferred using DNS exfiltration. The point here is, unlike many SIEM based solutions, you are well positioned to counter-punch using ExtraHop and Wire Data Analytics.

Slack Performance Metrics: Taken from the ExtraHop Appliance

The article also made a point to suggest that you also monitor the subdomain counts (they are one of the few to do that, tip of the hat to ya!). Using the ExtraHop platform, we also keep track of the number of subdomains by Client/Domain combo. If you look below, you see the number of lookups for a specific domain from a single IP. Unless it is a NATed address with a few hundred users behind it, it is pretty safe that a large number of the metrics below are NOT human metrics but some sort of program doing the lookups. Even the fastest internet users cannot perform more than a few DNS queries in a 30 second period.

Also noted in the SANS article was the need to pay attention to query lengths. Here we have written a trigger to give you the average query length by root domain. This can, as well as the subdomain count, metrics can be leveraged with an API to actually orchestrate a response via OpenDNS or another product.

There is a big push to add automation and orchestration to most security practices. This is more difficult than it reads/sounds. In the case of DNS Exfiltration, many SIEM based products, while still quite valuable, lack the shutter-speed to successfully observe and react to DNS based exfiltration. However, when you leverage the power of ExtraHop’s Wire Data Analytics and the Open Data Stream (ODS) technology allowing you to orchestrate responses the job becomes almost trivial. As I stated, in our world, seconds are hours and minutes are days. The number of orchestration products hitting the cyber security market are going to make show floors look like a middle-school science fair where practitioners are going to feel like they are looking at a myriad of baking-soda volcanos! Orchestration is only as good as the visibility integrated into it, good visibility starts with wire data, good visibility starts with the ExtraHop platform.

*PS anyone running OpenDNS and familiar with the API, I’d LOVE to try counter punching using the techniques described here!!

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