7.8 Network Layer Security: IPsec

Having examined case studies of the use of various security mechanisms at the application, socket, and transport layers, our final case study naturally takes us down to the network layer. Here, we'll examine the the IP Security protocol, more commonly known as IPsec – a suite of protocols that provides security at the network layer. IPsec is a rather complex animal, and different parts of it are described in more than a dozen RFCs. In this section, we'll discuss IPsec in a specific context, namely, in the context that all hosts in the Internet support IPsec. Although this context is many years away, the context will simplify the discussion and help us understand the key features of IPsec. Two key RFCs are [RFC 2401], which describes the overall IP security architecture and [RFC 2411], which provides an overview of the IPsec protocol suite and the documents describing it. A nice introduction to IPsec is given in [Kessler].

Before getting into the specifics of IPsec, let's step back and consider what it means to provide security at the network layer. Consider first what it means to provide network layer secrecy. The network layer would provide secrecy if all data carried by all IP datagrams were encrypted. This means that whenever a host wants to send a datagram, it encrypts the data field of the datagram before shipping it out into the network. In principle, the encryption could be done with symmetric key encryption, public key encryption or with session keys that have are negotiated using public key encryption. The data field could be a TCP segment, a UDP segment, an ICMP message, etc. If such a network layer service were in place, all data sent by hosts -- including e-mail, Web pages, control and management messages (such as ICMP and SNMP) -- would be hidden from any third party that is "wire tapping" the network. (However, the unencrypted data could be snooped at points in the source or destination hosts.) Thus, such a service would provide a certain "blanket coverage" for all Internet traffic, thereby giving all of us a certain sense of security.

In addition to secrecy, one might want the network layer to also provide source authentication. When a destination host receives an IP datagram with a particular IP source address, it might authenticate the source by making sure that the IP datagram was indeed generated by the host with that IP source address. Such a service prevents attackers from spoofing IP addresses.

In the IPsec protocol suite there are two principal protocols: the Authentication Header (AH) protocol and the Encapsulation Security Payload (ESP) protocol. When a source host sends secure datagrams to a destination host, it does so with either the AH protocol or with the ESP protocol.The AH protocol provides source authentication and data integrity but does not provide secrecy. The ESP protocol provides data integrity and secrecy. Providing more services, the ESP protocol is naturally more complicated and requires more processing than the AH protocol. We'll discuss both of these protocols below.

For both the AH and the ESP protocols, before sending secured datagrams from a source host to a destination host, the source and network hosts handshake and create a network layer logical connection. This logical channel is called a security agreement (SA). Thus, IPsec transforms the traditional connectionless network layer of the Internet to a layer with logical connections! The logical connection defined by a SA is a simplex connection, that is, it is unidirectional. If both hosts want to send secure datagrams to each other, then two SAs (i.e., logical connections) need to be established, one in each direction. A SA is uniquely identified by a 3-tuple consisting of:

For a given SA (that is, a given logical connection from source host to destination host), each IPsec datagram will have a special field for the SPI. All of the datagrams in the SA will use the same SPI value in this field.

Authentication Header (AH) Protocol

As mentioned above, the AH protocol provides source host identification and data integrity but not secrecy. When a particular source host wants to send one or more datagrams to a particular destination, it first establishes an SA with the destination. After having established the SA, the source can send secured datagrams to the destination host. The secured datagrams include the AH header, which is inserted between the original IP datagram data (e.g., a TCP or UDP segment) and the IP header, as shown in Figure 7.8-1. Thus the AH header augments the original data field, and this augmented data field is encapsulated as a standard IP datagram. For the protocol field in the IP header, the value 51 is used to indicate that the datagram includes an AH header. When the destination host recieves the IP datagram, it takes note of the 51 in the protocol field, and processes the datagram using the AH protocol. (Recall that the protocol field in the IP datagram is traditionally used to distinguish between UDP, TCP, ICMP, etc.) Intermediate routers process the datagrams just as they always have -- they examine the destination IP address and route the datagrams accordingly.

Position of the AH header in the IP datagram
Figure 7.8-1: Position of the AH header in the IP datagram.

The AH header includes several fields, including:

When the destination host receives an IP datagram with an AH header, it determines the SA for the packet and then authenticates the integrity of the datagram by processing the authentication data field. The IPsec authentication scheme (for both the AH and ESP protocols) uses a scheme called HMAC, which is an encrypted message digest described in [RFC 2104]. HMAC uses a shared secret key between two parties rather than public key methods for message authentication. Further details about the AH protocol can be found in [RFC 2402].

The ESP Protocol

The ESP protocol provides network layer secrecy as well as source host authentication. Once again, it all begins with a source host establishing a SA with a destination host. Then the source host can send secured datagrams to the destination host. As shown in Figure 7.8-2, a secured datagram is created by surrounding the original IP datagram data with header and trailer fields, and then inserting this encapsulated data into the data field of an IP datagram. For the protocol field in the header of the IP datagram, the value 50 is used to indicate that the datagram includes an ESP header and trailer. When the destination host recieves the IP datagram, it takes note of the 50 in the protocol field, and processes the datagram using the ESP protocol. As shown in Figure 7.8-2, the original IP datagram data along with the ESP Trailer field are encrypted. Secrecy is provided with DES-CBC encryption [RFC 2405]. The ESP header consists of a 32-bit field for the SPI and 32-bit field for the sequence number, which have exactly the same role as in the AH protocol. The trailer includes the Next Header field, which also has exactly the same role. Note that because the Next Header field is encrypted along with the original data, an intruder will not be able to determine the transport protocol that is being used. Following the trailer there is the Authentication Data field, which again serves the same role as in the AH protocol. Further details about the AH protocol can be found in [RFC 2406].

The ESP fields in the IP diagram
Figure 7.8-2: The ESP fields in the IP datagram.

SA and Key Management

For sucessful deployment of IPsec, a scalable and automated SA and key management scheme is necessary. Several protocols have been defined for these tasks, including:

This wraps up our summary of IPsec. We have discussed IPsec in the context of IPv4 and the "transport mode". IPsec also defines a "tunnel mode," in which routers introduce the security functionality rather than the hosts. Finally, IPsec describes encryption procedures for IPv6 as well as IPv4.

References



Copyright 1999–2000. Keith W. Ross and Jim Kurose. All rights reserved.