Flux Research Group / School of Computing

Where The Wild Things Are: Brute-Force SSH Attacks In The Wild And How To Stop Them

Sachin Kumar Singh, Shreeman Gautam, Cameron Cartier, Sameer Patil, and Robert Ricci

Proceedings of the Twenty First USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (NSDI) 2024.

Networking, Security, Testbeds, Cloud


 SSH (Secure Shell) is widely used for remote access to systems and cloud services. This access comes with the persistent threat of SSH password-guessing brute-force attacks (BFAs) directed at sshd-enabled devices connected to the Internet. In this work, we present a comprehensive study of such attacks on a production facility (CloudLab), offering previously unreported insight. Our study provides a detailed analysis of SSH BFAs occurring on the Internet today through an in-depth analysis of sshd logs collected over a period of four years from over 500 servers. We report several patterns in attacker behavior, present insight on the targets of the attacks, and devise a method for tracking individual attacks over time across sources. Leveraging our insight, we develop a defense mechanism against SSH BFAs that blocks 99.5% of such attacks, significantly outperforming the 66.1% coverage of current state-of-the-art rate-based blocking while also cutting false positives by 83%. We have deployed our defense in production on CloudLab, where it catches four-fifths of SSH BFAs missed by other defense strategies.