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Masking or anonymizing a Web server involves removing identifying details
that intruders could use to detect your OS and Web server vendor and version.
This information, while providing little or no utility to legitimate users, is
often the starting place for crackers, blackhat hackers and "script
kiddies". This article explores some ways you can minimize the risk of such
detection. Most of the following examples focus on Microsoft’s Internet
Information Server (IIS), since it has been most widely lambasted for its
vulnerabilities, but some Apache detection countermeasures are also covered.
While IIS users probably have the most vested interest here, server
anonymization is relevant to anyone responsible for administering a Web server.
Crackers Start Here. Shouldn’t You?
Let’s look at it from the attacker's point of view: Security
vulnerabilities tend to be dependent on software vendor and version. Blind
probing might lead to further requests being denied or a system temporarily
taken off line. Knowing Web server details greatly increases the efficiency of
any attack. If an attacker can target exploits, the chances of successful
cracking prior to detection increase significantly. Script kiddies can leverage
canned, newly-discovered exploits to do more damage faster by targeting hosts
with recognizable signatures. A self-identifying system invites trouble.
Port80 Software has developed an IIS server module called ServerMask
to combat the majority of issues explored here for the Windows Web Server.
The Server Header Tells All
Most Web servers politely identify themselves and the OS to anyone who asks.
Using a network query tool like Sam Spade
or this Header Check,
you can discern the HTTP Server header. Just request a Web site's home page and
examine the resulting HTTP headers or "banners" sent back by the
server. Among them, you will likely find something like this:
There is not much mystery here. Apache's default settings make it no less
Server: Apache/2.0.41-dev (UNIX)
You can remove or obscure this HTTP Server header in a variety of ways,
depending on your platform. Apache users can use the module mod_headers
IIS users can install IISLockDown
and use the configuration option in URLScan's
INI file for removing or replacing the header. Be careful with URLScan if you
are using Cold Fusion application server- the way the current version replaces
the Server header wreaks havoc with CFM pages. In fact, removing the header is
the way to go when using URLScan, since if you try replacing the header it moves
to the bottom of the header order- which pretty much gives away that you are
running URLScan on IIS.
Unsightly File Extensions
Displaying file extensions like .asp or .aspx in a site is a clear indication
that you are running a Microsoft server and, in general, hiding file extensions
is a good practice to mask the technology generating dynamic pages. You can
change your application mappings (.asp becomes .htm or .foo, etc.), but such
one-to-one mapping can make mixing server-side technologies painful and does
nothing to alleviate headaches during site migrations. Doing without file
extensions altogether is an even better idea, not only for security but also for
ease-of-migration and content negotiation. Apache people will want to take a
look at mod_negotiation.
Watch out, though, for the Content-Location header in the server's response,
which can give away the file extension that is not shown in the URL. You might
have to suppress this header separately using mod_headers. In a similar vein,
Port80 is working on a solution to allow file extension hiding in IIS.
The ASP session ID cookie, used by the Session object to maintain client
state, is another dead giveaway:
You can disable ASP Session State
so that this cookie is not placed, but you lose the convenience of using the
Session object to maintain client state. You could also create an ISAPI filter
to change the names of any session ID cookie. On the other hand, ASP sessions
are resource intensive, and turning them off improves the performance and
scalability of your ASP application, while also helping to anonymize your
Send These to the Recycle Bin
WebDAV: Another way of identifying Microsoft servers is their implementation
(from Windows 2000 and IIS 5.0 on) of WebDAV - the HTTP Extensions for
Distributed Authoring and Versioning. WebDAV itself is not unique to Microsoft
or IIS; it is a proposed standard (RFC 2518)
with an IETF Working Group.
Microsoft's WebDAV support, however, adds a lot of information to the headers
sent back by the server, especially when an HTTP OPTIONS request is made. If you
are not using WebDAV (to support Outlook Web Access or Web Folders, etc.), you
can disable it entirely by editing the registry
or by using IISLockDown and URLScan.
Public Header: Certain Web servers betray their identity by displaying the
Public header in HTTP responses. Few popular Web Servers send this header in
response to OPTIONS requests (while almost all respond with the similar Allow
header). The presence of Public is a good indication you are connected to either
an IIS box or Netscape Enterprise 3.6. The Public header can be removed with a
custom ISAPI filter (IIS) or NSAPI plug-in (Netscape).
Integrated Windows Authentication: IIS users should not rely on
"Integrated Windows Authentication"- especially not as a way of hiding
anything on the server. This method betrays the very secret it would keep, since
a script or visual hacker can identify the Windows box by means of the
WWW-Authenticate headers sent by the server. When a file or directory is
protected by NT Challenge-Response authentication, one of the authentication
headers contains the string "NTLM" (NT LAN Manager)- a
Microsoft-specific form of HTTP authentication.
Get Your Headers Straight
The number and sequence of your HTTP headers and the presence or absence of
certain platform-specific headers provide handy ways for more sophisticated
hackers to fingerprint your Web server. A relatively unexplored area of server
profiling, this will become a more common exploit as administrators start to
implement countermeasures against obvious HTTP vulnerabilities like the Server
header. For IIS users, a custom ISAPI filter can alter the Microsoft-specific
header order or sequence to emulate, say, a default Apache installation. Apache
users can accomplish any header order emulation they wish by experimenting with
the location and order of Header directives in mod_headers.
Whose Default is That?
Default messages, pages and scripts of all kinds often contain clues to
server identity, and these should be removed or modified accordingly. Software
behind the Web server often bubbles error messages back through the HTTP
request/response cycle, and customized HTTP errors can mask application server,
database server, Web server and OS identity. For IIS, CustomError
makes it easy for developers to deploy custom 404 and other HTTP error pages.
This article shows how to implement custom HTTP errors in Apache.
Avoid this on a development server, since, when done properly, it prevents
database and server-side scripting errors from being seen- making it tough for
developers to debug their applications! Remove or hide any Web or application
server administration pages, scripts or documentation installed under your
server's Web root, and make sure to replace those default home pages.
We Don’t Need No Extra Services
Beyond the HTTP service itself, many computers used as Web servers host a
number of other network services. Perhaps the most common are FTP and SMTP. As a
general security rule, try to avoid running these services on your Web server.
In particular, avoid the default FTP and SMTP services in Microsoft IIS. Despite
the convenience of integrated services, there is no reason to have Web, FTP and
SMTP services interlinked. This is not an issue for Apache, since the Web server
is not associated with FTP and SMTP services through a common administrative
service. If you do use these services, be aware that they will advertise your
IIS server's identity.
When a connection is established with an SMTP service, the recipient server
sends a human-readable greeting to the client, the "SMTP banner". What
the SMTP banner displays has no effect on e-mail service, but, like the HTTP
Server header, it divulges details about the software running on the box. The
default Windows SMTP service exposes such information. To find out how to change
the SMTP banner, check here.
The default Microsoft IIS FTP server also presents a known banner. Since
modifying the FTP banner is a more involved process than modifying the SMTP
banner (plan on hacking several system DLLs), your best bet is an alternate FTP
server like RhinoSoft's Serv-U FTP server
that can display any text message in the FTP banner. As an added bonus,
third-party FTP servers like Serv-U are more configurable than the IIS FTP
service when it comes to security measures like assigning users their own login
Many platform-specific exploits use complex URL strings to gain access to a
shell or CGI program, from which a hacker can easily get a directory listing
revealing the OS’ default file structure. Once a shell or CGI program is
hijacked and the file system revealed, the door is wide open. The best defense
against this trial-and-error exploit is a user-input filter or
"sanitizer" that removes unacceptable characters (such as
meta-characters and their various possible encodings) from user-supplied data.
For IIS, the current standard is IISLockDown/URLScan. A new generation of application firewalls
extend this protection to the application layer behind the Web server. In the
Apache world, user input sanitizing is traditionally the responsibility of CGI
authors. Here is the classic CERT article
on the topic, with examples in Perl and C. If you are setting up a new box,
consider changing the default file structure as well. Input sanitizing and
rearranged file structures do double duty- helping to disguise the box and
neutralize common exploits simultaneously.
Combing Through the Stacks
Even when all telltale signs are removed from your Web server's application
layer, there remain detection weaknesses at lower network layers. Any server
with a network connection has a network protocol stack subject to being scanned
and identified. The best stack scanners (like NMAP from insecure.org)
can ID most operating systems by using a variety of techniques to fingerprint
the system's TCP stack. OS-specific IP stacks are also vulnerable to detection
via the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP), used by the popular Ping
utility. Good resources on ICMP vulnerabilities can be found here.
The first line of defense against these kinds of network scanning
vulnerabilities is a good, well-administered firewall. However, careful network
analysis can still identify a box by examining the packets a firewall must
permit a Web server to pass through in response to HTTP requests.
Netcraft is Watching
Take a look at the "What's that site running?" tool on Netcraft.
If you point the site profiling tool at your own Web site, it will probably
correctly report both your Web server and OS. Changing your HTTP Server header
will cause Netcraft to report a false value for your Web server- or just
"unknown" if the header is completely removed (the change is not
immediate, as Netcraft caches results for a time).
Still, your OS will probably be correctly identified- even behind a good
firewall. To get Netcraft to report your OS as "unknown", you will
have to tinker with some of your default TCP/IP settings, such as the receive
window size (RWIN), the maximum transmission units (MTU), the maximum segment
size (MSS), and/or the IP header time-to-live (TTL). Altering these settings
will affect your server's performance in diverse ways, depending on network
conditions, so considerable care should be taken when changing these defaults.
In the hands of a skilled network administrator, however, this strategy can be
an effective countermeasure to information leakage through stack scanning.
Let's Be Careful Out There
No combination of detection avoidance succeeds in completely anonymizing your
Web server- just as no combination of firewalls, IDS, and other security
countermeasures can completely defeat a skilled and determined cracker. Like
server hardening, server anonymization can help defeat the majority of would-be
attackers. And like all aspects of network security, it’s a never-ending
battle to stay ahead of the bad guys.