For years, on security forums and mailing lists, if you ever dared to suggest changing SSH’s default port (TCP 22) the “security by obscurity” crowd would come out of the woodwork and nail your ass to the Cross of Righteousness for having the unmitigated gall to even dare utter such heretical nonsense.
Unfortunately for these dogmatic True Believers, changing the ssh daemon’s default listening port is such an incredibly effective method for avoiding ssh scans and brute force password attacks that it’s starting to show up in HOWTO security articles as a method for hardening your system.
For example, see this article at Linux Magazine.
But the Port 22 Crowd will not leave well enough alone. Although they haven’t abandoned the “security by obscurity” mantra completely, they’re now using the following argument with increasing frequency:
NEVER CHANGE YOUR SSH PORT! If an exploit comes out that can crash SSH locally, a local unprivileged user on your system could crash SSH and start their own daemon on the SSH port > 1024 and capture your usernames and passwords. If you want SSH on a different port, do this with firewall rules.
Note that ALL CAPS is required when raising this alarm.
Also note that if you require users to connect with SSH in the first place, it’s not going to do them a helluva lot of good to crash SSH. If you have users who actually sit down at the keyboard of the physical system, that’s another problem entirely. Why bother with crashing SSH when they can slip a bootable CD into the tray and bounce the box?
And of course if you choose a port other than 22 but less than 1024 you can avoid this issue completely.
However, “changing the port with firewall rules” struck me as a novel idea (maybe I’m just stupid but it never occurred to me before) and set me to wondering how you would do such a thing, since I’ve always taking the easy way out by changing or adding ports in sshd_config.
So I sat down with iptables and experimented a bit. I came up with the following method. If everything you have is behind NAT, the problem can be reduced to simple port forwarding. If not, there are a few hoops you need to jump through. Be advised the iptables rules presented below assume you have a blank set of rules. Just copying and running them against an existing set of rules probably won’t work.
First, set SSHD back to the default port 22. Next, figure out what port or ports you want to do SSH over. We’re going to use 99, 88, and 8888 here.
Now we take care of the Hypothetical Evil Unprivileged User by not accepting anything over those ports in the first place. This is only effective for port 8888 but we’ll do all three ports for the sake of completeness:
#~iptables -t filter -A INPUT -p tcp -m multiport –dports 99,88,8888 -j REJECT –reject-with tcp-reset
Then, pick a number between 1 and 4294967295. This will be the value of the iptables “mark” we use for ssh. I’ll use 0×29A (666), just because it’s my lucky number, but any positive integer in that range will do. We’re going to tell iptables to reject anything without this mark coming into port 22.
#~iptables -t filter -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –dport 22 -m connmark ! –mark 0×29A -j REJECT –reject-with tcp-reset
I would prefer to DROP these packets rather than REJECT them, but more on that later.
Now we’ll tell iptables what ports we will accept for ssh.
#~iptables -t filter -A FORWARD -p tcp -m multiport –dports 99,88,8888 -j ACCEPT
In the “mangle” table we slap our mark on these packets.
#~iptables -t mangle -A PREROUTING -p tcp -m multiport –dports 99,88,8888 -j CONNMARK –set-mark 0×29A
Finally, in the “nat” table we tell iptables to send the marked packets back to port 22.
#~iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -p tcp -m multiport –dports 99,88,8888 -j REDIRECT –to-ports 22
The packets go back to the INPUT rule and, since they’re marked correctly, are sent to the SSHD process listening on port 22.
We have done exactly what was recommended, i.e. we have indeed changed the default ssh port with firewall rules alone (and without NAT). And yet, ssh still listens on port 22!
I must admit this appeals to me on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it has all the hallmarks of a slick little hack. Secondly, it definitely takes a load off of the ssh daemon since it’s listening on one port instead of three (in reality I have ssh listening on seven ports).
However, this is done at the expense of complexity, which has yet another group of True Believers who are fond of chanting “COMPLEXITY IS THE ENEMY OF SECURITY” at the slightest provocation. This is another religion I have never bought into (it may be the same group since increasing complexity generally tends to increase obscurity).
Well, fuck them, you can’t please everyone.
Besides, I use the most bizarre, complex combination of port forwarding and routing you’d ever want to see. Most days I have a hard time understanding it myself. It keeps me sharp.
I am almost 100% certain this wouldn’t please a “real” firewall administrator. They’re mostly overpaid Certified Cisco Clowns anyway. It would never even occur to them to actually use iptables.
But what we have done in essence is put all our trust in iptables working “just right”. And we’re betting the next time there’s an update to the netfilter core code (or the kernel) everything will still work.
I’ve been around iptables/netfilter far too long to ever bet on that. Sorry, fellas, “once bitten, twice shy” and all that.
Then there’s the TCP reset thing. Can it be bypassed? Web filtering appliances that use span ports and two-way TCP resets work fine when everyone “plays by the rules of TCP/IP” (actual statement from Web filter appliance vendor Sophos), but the Bad Guys don’t usually play by the rules.
The alternative, DROP-ing the packet, lets anyone scanning our system with tools like nmap know with absolute certainty that SSHD is listening on port 22 since it will show up as “filtered”. This makes TCP resets the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil.
In the end analysis, isn’t sending a reset from an “open” port just another instance of “security by obscurity”?
Not that I care, that was a purely rhetorical question.
And what about attacks against iptables connection marking (CONNMARK) itself? Do they even exist? Am I opening myself up to an unknown exploit vector? Do I have to take additional measures to avoid spoofing or brute forcing or some other method (fragmented/crafted packets, maybe) to get around my firewall rules?
Even though we followed this fellow’s advice, there are too many open questions and it appears that just changing the port in sshd_config is still a simple and effective countermeasure. It’s worked for me for over ten years. I have escaped all 0day SSHD vulnerabilities for over a decade and no one ever tries to brute force passwords on my box. It doesn’t happen because port 22 isn’t open.