A packet sniffer, the network analyzer, is a wire-tap device that plugs into computer networks and eavesdrops on the network traffic. To capture the information going over the network is called sniffing. It is a "sniffing" program that lets someone listen in on computer conversations. However, computer conversations consist of apparently random binary data. Therefore, network wiretap programs also come with a feature known as "protocol analysis", which allow them to "decode" the computer traffic and make sense of it. These tools known as network sniffers are named after a product called the Sniffer Network Analyzer. Introduced in 1988 by Network General Corp. (now Network Associates Inc.), the Sniffer was one of the first devices that let managers sit at their desks and take the pulse of the larger network. The original sniffers read the message headers of data packets on the network, giving administrators details about the addresses of senders and receivers, file sizes and other low-level information about those packets, in addition to verifying transmission. Using graphs and text-based descriptions, sniffers helped network managers evaluate and diagnose performance problems with servers, the network wire, hubs and applications.
They help keep networks humming, but they can also be used by hackers to uncover user names and passwords from data packets traveling across public or private WANs. Encrypting the headers of data packets (using the Secure Sockets Layer standard in browser-based environments, for example) thwarts sniffer-assisted password thefts.
Sniffing also has one advantage over telephone wiretaps: many networks use "shared media". Sharing means that computers can receive information that was intended for other machines. This means that you don't need to break into a wiring closet to install your wiretap, you can do it from almost any network connection to eavesdrop on your neighbors. However, this "shared" technology is moving quickly toward "switched" technology where this will no longer be possible, which means you will have to actually tap into the wire.
A sniffer being used on a network to snoop passwords and anything else is considered to be a passive attack. A passive attack is one that doesn't directly intrude onto a foreign network or computer. On the other hand, an active attack directly interfaces with a remote machine. Remote buffer overflows, network floods and other similar attacks fall under the category of an active attack . By nature, passive attacks are not meant to be discovered by the person(s) being attacked. At no point should they have indication of your activity. This makes sniffers just as serious as any active attack
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