Securing BGP: A Case Study (2)

In part 1 of this series, I pointed out that there are three interesting questions we can ask about BGP security. The third question I outlined there was this: What is it we can actually prove in a packet switched network? This is the first question I want dive in too—this is a deep dive, so be prepared for a long series. 🙂 This question feels like it is actually asking three different things, what we might call “subquestions,” or perhaps “supporting points.” These three questions are:

  • If I send a packet to the peer I received this update from, will it actually reach the advertised destination?
  • If I send this information to this destination, will it actually reach the intended recipient?
  • If I send a packet to the peer I received this update from, will it pass through an adversary who is redirecting the traffic so they can observe it?

These are the things I can try to prove, or would like to know, in a packet switched network. Note that I want to intentionally focus on the data plane and then transfer these questions to the control plane (BGP). This is the crucial point to remember: If I start with the technical or engineering problem, I’m going to end up asking, and answering, the wrong questions.

This is typically what happens in engineering. For instance, in the world of BGP, the traditional path is to ask, “how can I secure the way BGP operates?” Another example might be, “this application needs these two servers connected via layer 2,” and then we deep dive into every potential way of providing this layer 2 connectivity, tying ourselves into knots with DCI, overlays, complex control planes, and all the rest. We never back off and say, “is this really the right question to ask?” But there is always more than one way to ask the question, and it’s important to try and find the question that draws our your thinking outside the protocol.

Creative questioning is at least half of solving any problem.

Let’s process these three questions so we can take them out of the data plane and into the control plane. The first question, in BGP terms, seems to be asking something like: Is the path this peer is advertising a valid route to the destination? What do we mean by “valid?” We mean a path that will take this traffic to the destination I’m trying to reach.

The second question, in BGP terms, seems to be asking something like: How can I be certain the destination address hasn’t been hijacked, so the peer is advertising a route to a destination that isn’t the one I’m trying to reach (even though it has the same address)? This relates directly to the origin authentication problem in BGP; can I know that the actual owner of the route is the final destination of this route?

The third question, in BGP terms, seems to be asking something like: Is the path through this peer going to pass through someone I don’t want it to pass through? This third one is actually impossible to prove in real terms. We can go some way towards ensuring traffic doesn’t go through a “man in the middle,” but there’s no way, in a packet switched network, to actually be certain of this.

In my next post on this series, I want to continue looking at this line of thinking, making certain we really understand what we can prove in a packet switched network.

This post is the second series on what I consider to be a current and difficult design problem at Internet scale that involves just about every piece of the networking puzzle you can get in to—BGP security. This is designed to be a sort of case study around approaching design problems, not just at the protocol level, but at an engineering level. I will probably intersperse this series with other posts over the coming months.


  1. Timothy on 1 February 2016 at 9:35 am

    “How cam I”, it should be “can” right? 🙂

    • Russ on 2 February 2016 at 3:01 pm

      Ooops… — fixed. 🙂 Thanks for catching this.