One afternoon, not so long ago, I received a phone call from one of our clients asking LightCube to investigate why a web application hosted on an internal Linux server was so unresponsive. After a little bit of poking around it became apparent what was happening: someone had managed to break into the system and create a rogue account for themselves and was using this account to continually attack other machines! How had this intruder gained access? One word: VNC.
Before I explain further how this happened, let’s step back for a second. Our client is a fairly large company, with skilled IT professionals managing their network infrastructure and services, mostly hailing from the Windows world. When they set about developing an internal web application, however, the low cost of Linux and Open Source was too attractive to ignore. So they grabbed a distro, set it up on a machine and got to work. Coming from a Windows world, the technicians incorrectly (but perhaps understandably) expected an item labeled “Remote Administration” would configure a service that behave like Windows Remote Desktop Connection. Instead, what they configured was a very insecure VNC service on a publicly available machine.
(As a sidenote, to me this well illustrates a very important point. The known stability, reliability and low-to-nil licensing cost of Open Source software means that a lot of people are looking to use it, and these days, basic services can be implemented fairly easily. However, getting secure, reliable, optimized use out of your Open Source still requires someone who knows what they’re doing.)
Back to the story, here’s what happened: One of their administrators logged in remotely to the machine through the VNC connection. As root. (That’s the first mistake, but I won’t really address that too much here. Keep in mind they’re coming from Windows, eh?) Then, when the administrator was done doing what he was doing, he simply closed the VNC window. In the Windows world, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. When connecting again, the Windows server would require that you authenticate. With VNC, not so much. Unless you log out of the remote system, whoever next comes and tries a VNC connection on the default ’0′ session – they get whatever you left open. If you were logged in as root, as was the case here, a full root desktop is what you get. “Come right inside, make yourself at home! Here’s the keys, change anything you like.”
Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t a case of “Windows has better security than Linux”. I think someone would have a hard time arguing that point. This is a case of someone enabling an insecure protocol on a Linux system without really investigating how it works. To be fair, this particular distro did make it seem like this was a pretty standard way of remotely administering the machine. A little note from the distro about VNC being unencrypted and using poor session handling methods would have been more helpful, though.
We closed up the security holes on their system and ran a full audit. Fortunately, the damage was minimal. Afterwards, we needed to find an alternative for remote desktop management. What we found was NoMachine NX. All the communication takes place over an encrypted SSH connection, so it is secure (well, as secure as your password or public key, but that’s another article). But it’s also fast. NoMachine has taken a different approach to data transmission, such that it outperforms VNC any day. The server currently only runs on Linux or Solaris, but they have clients for all major desktops. If you absolutely must have a GUI running on your remote Linux server, I highly recommend NoMachine NX as a better way to achieve it.