1.4. Security Threats
1.4.1. Threats to Network Security
Bad practices when configuring the following aspects of a network can increase the risk of an attack.
A misconfigured network is a primary entry point for unauthorized users. Leaving a trust-based, open local network vulnerable to the highly-insecure Internet is much like leaving a door ajar in a crime-ridden neighborhood — nothing may happen for an arbitrary amount of time, but someone exploits the opportunity eventually.
System administrators often fail to realize the importance of networking hardware in their security schemes. Simple hardware, such as hubs and routers, relies on the broadcast or non-switched principle; that is, whenever a node transmits data across the network to a recipient node, the hub or router sends a broadcast of the data packets until the recipient node receives and processes the data. This method is the most vulnerable to address resolution protocol (ARP) or media access control (MAC) address spoofing by both outside intruders and unauthorized users on local hosts.
Another potential networking pitfall is the use of centralized computing. A common cost-cutting measure for many businesses is to consolidate all services to a single powerful machine. This can be convenient as it is easier to manage and costs considerably less than multiple-server configurations. However, a centralized server introduces a single point of failure on the network. If the central server is compromised, it may render the network completely useless or worse, prone to data manipulation or theft. In these situations, a central server becomes an open door that allows access to the entire network.
1.4.2. Threats to Server Security
Server security is as important as network security because servers often hold a great deal of an organization's vital information. If a server is compromised, all of its contents may become available for the cracker to steal or manipulate at will. The following sections detail some of the main issues.
Unused Services and Open Ports
A full installation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 contains more than 1000 application and library packages. However, most server administrators do not opt to install every single package in the distribution, preferring instead to install a base installation of packages, including several server applications. See Section 2.3, “Installing the Minimum Amount of Packages Required” for an explanation of the reasons to limit the number of installed packages and for additional resources.
A common occurrence among system administrators is to install the operating system without paying attention to what programs are actually being installed. This can be problematic because unneeded services may be installed, configured with the default settings, and possibly turned on. This can cause unwanted services, such as Telnet, DHCP, or DNS, to run on a server or workstation without the administrator realizing it, which in turn can cause unwanted traffic to the server or even a potential pathway into the system for crackers. See Section 4.3, “Securing Services” for information on closing ports and disabling unused services.
Most server applications that are included in a default installation are solid, thoroughly tested pieces of software. Having been in use in production environments for many years, their code has been thoroughly refined and many of the bugs have been found and fixed.
However, there is no such thing as perfect software and there is always room for further refinement. Moreover, newer software is often not as rigorously tested as one might expect, because of its recent arrival to production environments or because it may not be as popular as other server software.
Developers and system administrators often find exploitable bugs in server applications and publish the information on bug tracking and security-related websites such as the Bugtraq mailing list (http://www.securityfocus.com) or the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) website (http://www.cert.org). Although these mechanisms are an effective way of alerting the community to security vulnerabilities, it is up to system administrators to patch their systems promptly. This is particularly true because crackers have access to these same vulnerability tracking services and will use the information to crack unpatched systems whenever they can. Good system administration requires vigilance, constant bug tracking, and proper system maintenance to ensure a more secure computing environment.
See Chapter 3, Keeping Your System Up-to-Date for more information about keeping a system up-to-date.
Administrators who fail to patch their systems are one of the greatest threats to server security. According to the SysAdmin, Audit, Network, Security Institute (SANS), the primary cause of computer security vulnerability is "assigning untrained people to maintain security and providing neither the training nor the time to make it possible to learn and do the job." This applies as much to inexperienced administrators as it does to overconfident or amotivated administrators.
Some administrators fail to patch their servers and workstations, while others fail to watch log messages from the system kernel or network traffic. Another common error is when default passwords or keys to services are left unchanged. For example, some databases have default administration passwords because the database developers assume that the system administrator changes these passwords immediately after installation. If a database administrator fails to change this password, even an inexperienced cracker can use a widely-known default password to gain administrative privileges to the database. These are only a few examples of how inattentive administration can lead to compromised servers.
Inherently Insecure Services
Even the most vigilant organization can fall victim to vulnerabilities if the network services they choose are inherently insecure. For instance, there are many services developed under the assumption that they are used over trusted networks; however, this assumption fails as soon as the service becomes available over the Internet — which is itself inherently untrusted.
One category of insecure network services are those that require unencrypted usernames and passwords for authentication. Telnet and FTP are two such services. If packet sniffing software is monitoring traffic between the remote user and such a service usernames and passwords can be easily intercepted.
Inherently, such services can also more easily fall prey to what the security industry terms the man-in-the-middle attack. In this type of attack, a cracker redirects network traffic by tricking a cracked name server on the network to point to his machine instead of the intended server. Once someone opens a remote session to the server, the attacker's machine acts as an invisible conduit, sitting quietly between the remote service and the unsuspecting user capturing information. In this way a cracker can gather administrative passwords and raw data without the server or the user realizing it.
Another category of insecure services include network file systems and information services such as NFS or NIS, which are developed explicitly for LAN usage but are, unfortunately, extended to include WANs (for remote users). NFS does not, by default, have any authentication or security mechanisms configured to prevent a cracker from mounting the NFS share and accessing anything contained therein. NIS, as well, has vital information that must be known by every computer on a network, including passwords and file permissions, within a plain text ASCII or DBM (ASCII-derived) database. A cracker who gains access to this database can then access every user account on a network, including the administrator's account.
By default, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 is released with all such services turned off. However, since administrators often find themselves forced to use these services, careful configuration is critical. See Section 4.3, “Securing Services” for more information about setting up services in a safe manner.
1.4.3. Threats to Workstation and Home PC Security
Workstations and home PCs may not be as prone to attack as networks or servers, but since they often contain sensitive data, such as credit card information, they are targeted by system crackers. Workstations can also be co-opted without the user's knowledge and used by attackers as "slave" machines in coordinated attacks. For these reasons, knowing the vulnerabilities of a workstation can save users the headache of reinstalling the operating system, or worse, recovering from data theft.
Bad passwords are one of the easiest ways for an attacker to gain access to a system. For more on how to avoid common pitfalls when creating a password, see Section 4.1.1, “Password Security”.
Vulnerable Client Applications
Although an administrator may have a fully secure and patched server, that does not mean remote users are secure when accessing it. For instance, if the server offers Telnet or FTP services over a public network, an attacker can capture the plain text usernames and passwords as they pass over the network, and then use the account information to access the remote user's workstation.
Even when using secure protocols, such as SSH, a remote user may be vulnerable to certain attacks if they do not keep their client applications updated. For instance, v.1 SSH clients are vulnerable to an X-forwarding attack from malicious SSH servers. Once connected to the server, the attacker can quietly capture any keystrokes and mouse clicks made by the client over the network. This problem was fixed in the v.2 SSH protocol, but it is up to the user to keep track of what applications have such vulnerabilities and update them as necessary.
Section 4.1, “Desktop Security” discusses in more detail what steps administrators and home users should take to limit the vulnerability of computer workstations.