Why Ping is no Security Flaw! (But your Friend)

One core topic when designing firewall policies is the following question: Is ping a security attack? Should ICMP echo-request messages be blocked in almost any directions?

My short answer: Ping is your friend. :) You won’t block hackers if you block ping. Instead, ping is quite useful for network administrators checking basic network connectivity. That is: I suggest to allow ping anywhere around, accept incoming connections from the Internet to the trusted networks.

Here comes a discussion:

Ping or not to Ping

It is basically the “Security vs. Usability” question: Do I want the highest security regardless of cost or do I want a useful way between usability and security?

The Big Advantage

Ping (and traceroute) allows the network administrator to check whether the network is working as expected, e.g., routing, site-to-site VPNs, etc.. It further allows any person to check whether the system on the other side is alive or not. If ping is allowed through any internal networks, you are quite fast in deciding whether you have an availability problem at the network/host, or if you have a blocking firewall (for the upper-layer ports) or a crashed application in between.

The Disadvantages

If ping is allowed, anyone is able to check which systems are present and alive on the network. This might reveal several hosts that should be hidden from the public. It can be used by hackers to find vulnerable hosts (reconnaissance phase).

But only from Untrust!

But this is only true for pings from the untrust/guest networks, because:

  • Inside the own Networks: Internal networks can be considered to be secure. If you have multiple user and server networks, there might be so many different applications allowed that ping won’t bring any more security concerns. E.g.,  almost everyone has layer-2 connectivity to the network from which much more security attacks are possible such as Man-in-the-Middle attacks, etc. Compared to that, ping is nothing. If you don’t trust your users at all, you have a general problem.
  • From Trust to Untrust (Internet): Your users are allowed to browse to the Internet but you won’t allow ping? Even if your users are not allowed to browse, ping provides a basic troubleshooting tool for every application that a user might use. Your FTP connection is not working? Try ping first. You cannot email from your servers? Try ping first. But what is about covert channels in which malicious users can transfer data to the Internet with ping? My answer: If someone really wants to upload data, he will find a way – with or without ping (USB sticks, printed paged, tunnels, encrypted zip files, …).
  • From Untrust (Internet) to DMZ: Now it’s getting interesting. What’s about incoming connections to the DMZ? Simple answer: Ping does not bring any security concern! Any server inside the DMZ has at least one port opened for accesses from “any” from the Internet. (Otherwise that host should not be on the DMZ.) That is: A hacker already knows about the HTTP server in the DMZ, even without ping. If he wants to know the status of your server, he will do a TCP SYN ping on port 80 and not only an icmp echo-request. (Try  httping <server>  or traceroute -T -p 80 <host-address> from a Linux machine and you will even get the path inside the internal network!) Nowadays, a ping of death does not work anymore (patched systems, next-generation firewalls, …), so there is no consideration about ping other than the “is the system alive” check.
  • From Untrust (Internet) to Trust: Finally, that’s the direction in which ping should be blocked. Of course, you don’t want that anyone on the Internet is able to list your active systems on the end user subnets, etc. (In IPv4 networks, this won’t be needed due to NAT castrations. But this deny rule should be in place for IPv6 with global-unicast addresses, at least if the privacy extensions are not used.)

And keep in mind: Your “normal” users don’t even know what ping is. Something like “I don’t want my users to know which servers exists” is simply not true because they don’t even know how to search for them.

Standard policy

In conclusion, this is my default ping policy on a firewall:

  1. Ping from the Internet into the DMZ is allowed,
  2. followed by a deny statement for pings from the Internet to any other zone.
  3. Finally, all other pings are globally permitted:

 

Source
Zone
Source
Address
Destination
Zone
Destination
Address
Action
UntrustanyDMZanypermit
Untrustanyanyanydeny
anyanyanyanypermit

Featured image: “Group Hug” by Peter Harrison is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

4 thoughts on “Why Ping is no Security Flaw! (But your Friend)

  1. Good post in general, but I have to disagree to a certain degree about “From Untrust (Internet) to DMZ”. While it is true that anyone can still find open ports even if ping is disallowed, it is a much greater effort.

    I implemented a echo request blocking policy on my Firewall years ago, and as a result SPAM dropped by more than 40%. Why? Because SPAMmers check for mailservers they can try to deliver SPAM to directly, and the first step for them is always a ping to see if the IP is up at all. So by blocking ping they stopped trying port 25 because they think that the P is not in use anyway :-)

    I don’t see any advantage of allowing general pings from the internet to my DMZ. I know they’re up because I have a monitoring system that is specifically allowed to check them (and does that by way more sophisticated checks than just pings). Nobody else needs to do this. So ping stays blocked for my servers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *