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Multi-User IP Address Detection


10 min read
Multi-User IP Address Detection

Cloudflare provides our customers with security tools that help them protect their Internet applications against malicious or undesired traffic. Malicious traffic can include scraping content from a website, spamming form submissions, and a variety of other cyberattacks. To protect themselves from these types of threats while minimizing the blocking of legitimate site visitors, Cloudflare’s customers need to be able to identify traffic that might be malicious.

We know some of our customers rely on IP addresses to distinguish between traffic from legitimate users and potentially malicious users. However, in many cases the IP address of a request does not correspond to a particular user or even device. Furthermore, Cloudflare believes that in the long term, the IP address will be an even more unreliable signal for identifying the origin of a request. We envision a day where IP will be completely unassociated with identity. With that vision in mind, multi-user IP address detection represents our first step: pointing out situations where the IP address of a request cannot be assumed to be a single user. This gives our customers the ability to make more judicious decisions when responding to traffic from an IP address, instead of indiscriminately treating that traffic as though it was coming from a single user.

Historically, companies commonly treated IP addresses like mobile phone numbers: each phone number in theory corresponds to a single person. If you get several spam calls within an hour from the same phone number, you might safely assume that phone number represents a single person and ignore future calls or even block that number. Similarly, many Internet security detection engines rely on IP addresses to discern which requests are legitimate and which are malicious.

However, this analogy is flawed and can present a problem for security. In practice, IP addresses are more like postal addresses because they can be shared by more than one person at a time (and because of NAT and CG-NAT the number of people sharing an IP can be very large!). Many existing Internet security tools accept IP addresses as a reliable way to distinguish between site visitors. However, if multiple visitors share the same IP address, security products cannot rely on the IP address as a unique identifying signal. Thousands of requests from thousands of different users need to be treated differently from thousands of requests from the same user. The former is likely normal traffic, while the latter is almost certainly automated, malicious traffic.

Multiple visitors share the same IP address.

For example, if several people in the same apartment building accessed the same site, it’s possible all of their requests would be routed through a middlebox operated by their Internet service provider that has only one IP address. But this sudden series of requests from the same IP address could closely resemble the behavior of a bot. In this case, IP addresses can’t be used by our customers to distinguish this activity from a real threat, leading them to mistakenly block or challenge their legitimate site visitors.

By adding multi-user IP address detection to Cloudflare products, we’re improving the quality of our detection techniques and reducing false positives for our customers.

Examples of Multi-User IP Addresses

Multi-user IP addresses take on many forms. When your company uses an enterprise VPN, for example, employees may share the same IP address when accessing external websites. Other types of VPNs and proxies also place multiple users behind a single IP address.

Another type of multi-user IP address originated from the core communications protocol of the Internet. IPv4 was developed in the 1980s. The protocol uses a 32-bit address space, allowing for over four billion unique addresses. Today, however, there are many times more devices than IPv4 addresses, meaning that not every device can have a unique IP address. Though IPv6 (IPv4’s successor protocol) solves the problem with 128-bit addresses (supporting 2128 unique addresses), IPv4 still routes the majority of Internet traffic (76% of human-only traffic is IPv4, as shown on Cloudflare Radar).

IPv4 traffic accounts for 76% of all traffic compared to 24% for IPv6.

To solve this issue, many devices in the same Local Area Network (LAN) can share a single Internet-addressable IP address to communicate with the public Internet, while using private Internet addresses to communicate within the LAN. Since private addresses are to be used only within a LAN, different LANs can number their hosts using the same private IP address space. The Internet gateway of the LAN does the Network Address Translation (NAT), namely takes messages which arrive on that single public IP and forwards them to the private IP of the appropriate device on their local network. In effect it’s similar to how everyone in an office building shares the same street address, and the front desk worker is responsible for sorting out what mail was meant for which person.

While NAT allows multiple devices behind the same Internet gateway to share the same public IP address, the explosive growth of the Internet population necessitated further reuse of the limited IPv4 address space. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) required users in different LANs to share the same IP address for their service to scale. Carrier-Grade Network Address Translation (CG-NAT) emerged as another solution for address space reuse. Network operators can use CG-NAT middleboxes to translate hundreds or thousands of private IPv4 addresses into a single (or pool of) public IPv4 address. However, this sharing is not without side-effects. CG-NAT results in IP addresses that cannot be tied to single devices, users, or broadband subscriptions, creating issues for security products that rely on the IP address as a way to distinguish between requests from different users.

What We Built

We built a tool to help our customers detect when a /24 IP prefix (set of IP addresses that have the same first 24 bits) is likely to contain multi-user IP addresses, so they can more finely tune the security rules that protect their websites. In order to identify multi-user IP prefixes, we leverage both internal data and public data sources. Within this data, we look at a few key parameters.

Example of a 4-tuple of network features that identifies a TCP connection
Each TCP connection between a source (client) and a destination (server) is identified by 4 identifiers (source IP, source port, destination IP, destination port)

When an Internet user visits a website, the underlying TCP stack opens a number of connections in order to send and receive data from remote servers. Each connection is identified by a 4-tuple (source IP, source port, destination IP, destination port). Repeating requests from the same web client will likely be mapped to the same source port, so the number of distinct source ports can serve as a good indication of the number of distinct client applications. By counting the number of open source ports for a given IP address, you can estimate whether this address is shared by multiple users.

User agents provide device-reported information about themselves such as browser and operating system versions. For multi-user IP detection, you can count the number of distinct user agents in requests from a given IP. To avoid overcounting web clients per device, you can exclude requests that are identified as triggered by bots and we only count requests from user agents that are used by web browsers. There are some tradeoffs to this approach: some users may use multiple web browsers and some other users may have exactly the same user agent. Nevertheless, past research has shown that the number of unique web browser user agents is the best tradeoff to most accurately determine CG-NAT usage.

Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:92.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/92.0

For our inferences, we group IP addresses to their corresponding /24 IP prefix. The figure below shows the distribution of browser User Agents per /24 IP prefix, based on data accumulated over the period of a day. About 35% of the prefixes have more than 100 different browser clients behind them.

The distribution of distinct (unique) User Agents per /24 IP prefix

Our service also uses other publicly available data sources to further refine the accuracy of our identification and to classify the type of multi-user IP address. For example, we collect data from PeeringDB, which is a database where network operators self-identify their network type, traffic levels, interconnection points, and peering policy. This data only covers a fraction of the Internet's autonomous systems (ASes). To overcome this limitation, we use this data and our own data (number of requests per AS, number of websites in each AS) to infer AS type. We also use external data sources such as IRR to identify requests from VPNs and proxy servers.

These details (especially AS type) can provide more information on the type of multi-user IP address. For instance, CG-NAT systems are almost exclusively deployed by broadband providers, so by inferring the AS type (ISP, CDN, Enterprise, etc.), we can more confidently infer the type of each multi-user IP address. A scheduled job periodically executes code to pull data from these sources, process it, and write the list of multi-user IP addresses to a database. That IP info data is then ingested by another system that deploys it to Cloudflare’s edge, enabling our security products to detect potential threats with minimal latency.

To validate our inferences for which IP addresses are multi-user, we created a dataset relying on separate data and measurements which we believe are more reliable indicators. One method we used was running traceroute queries through RIPE Atlas, from each RIPE Atlas probe to the probe’s public IP address. By examining the traceroute hops, we can determine if an IP is behind a CG-NAT or another middlebox. For example, if an IP is not behind a CG-NAT, the traceroute should terminate immediately or just have one hop (likely a home NAT). On the other hand, if a traceroute path includes addresses within the RFC 6598 CGNAT prefix or other hops in the private or shared address space, it is likely the corresponding probe is behind CG-NAT.

To further improve our validation datasets, we’re also reaching out to our ISP partners to confirm the known IP addresses of CG-NATs. As we refine our validation data, we can more accurately tune our multi-user IP address inference parameters and provide a better experience to ISP customers on sites protected by Cloudflare security products.

The multi-user IP detection service currently recognizes approximately 500,000 unique multi-user IP addresses and is being tuned to further improve detection accuracy. Be on the lookout for an upcoming technical blog post, where we will take a deeper look at the system we built and the metrics collected after running this service for a longer period of time.

How Will This Impact Bot Management and Rate Limiting Customers?

Our initial launch will integrate multi-user IP address detection into our Bot Management and Rate Limiting products.

The bot detection system consists of three building blocks: Machine Learning, Heuristics Engine and Behavioural Analysis.
The three modules that comprise the bot detection system. 

The Cloudflare Bot Management product has five detection mechanisms. The integration will improve three of the five: the machine learning (ML) detection mechanism, the heuristics engine, and the behavioral analysis models. Multi-user IP addresses and their types will serve as additional features to train our ML model. Furthermore, logic will be added to ensure multi-user IP addresses are treated differently in our other detection mechanisms. For instance, our behavioral analysis detection mechanism shouldn’t treat a series of requests from a multi-user IP the same as a series of requests from a single-user IP. There won’t be any new ways to see or interact with this feature, but you should expect to see a decrease in false positive bot detections involving multi-user IP addresses.

The integration with Rate Limiting will allow us to increase the set rate limiting threshold when receiving requests coming from multi-user IP addresses. The factor by which we increase the threshold will be conservative so as not to completely bypass the rate limit. However, the increased threshold should greatly reduce cases where legitimate users behind multi-user IP addresses are blocked or challenged.

Looking Forward

We plan to further integrate across all of Cloudflare’s products that rely upon IP addresses as a measure of uniqueness, including but not limited to DDoS Protection, Cloudflare One Intel, and Web Application Firewall.

We will also continue to make improvements to our multi-user IP address detection system to incorporate additional data sources and improve accuracy. One data source would allow us to get a fraction for the estimated number of subscribers over the total number of IPs advertised (owned) by an AS. ASes that have more estimated subscribers than available IPs would have to rely on CG-NAT to provide service to all subscribers.

As mentioned above, with the help of our ISP partners we hope to improve the validation datasets we use to test and refine the accuracy of our inferences. Additionally, our integration with Bot Management will also unlock an opportunity to create a feedback loop that further validates our datasets. The challenge solve rate (CSR) is a metric generated by Bot Management that indicates the proportion of requests that were challenged and solved (and thus assumed to be human). Examining requests with both high and low CSRs will allow us to check if the multi-user IP addresses we have initially identified indeed represent mostly legitimate human traffic that our customers should not block.

The continued adoption of IPv6 might someday make CG-NATs and other IPv4 sharing technologies irrelevant, as the address space will no longer be limited. This could reduce the prevalence of multi-user IP addresses. However, with the development of new networking technologies that obfuscate IP addresses for user privacy (for example, IPv6 randomized address assignment), it seems unlikely it will become any easier to tie an IP address to a single user. Cloudflare firmly believes that eventually, IP will be completely unassociated with identity.

Yet in the short term, we recognize that IP addresses still play a pivotal role for the security of our customers. By integrating this multi-user IP address detection capability into our products, we aim to deliver a more free and fluid experience for everyone using the Internet.

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Alex Chen|@alexchenhz

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