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System Security

Another very important aspect of system administration in a network environment is protecting your system and users from intruders. Carelessly managed systems offer malicious people many targets: attacks range from password guessing to Ethernet snooping, and the damage caused may range from faked mail messages to data loss or violation of your users' privacy. We will mention some particular problems when discussing the context they may occur in, and some common defenses against them.

This section will discuss a few examples and basic techniques in dealing with system security. Of course, the topics covered can not treat all security issues you may be faced with exhaustively; they merely serve to illustrate the problems that may arise. Therefore, reading a good book on security is an absolute must, especially in a networked system. Simon Garfinkel's ``Practical UNIX Security'' (see []) is highly recommendable.

System security starts with good system administration. This includes checking the ownership and permissions of all vital files and directories, monitoring use of privileged accounts, etc. The COPS program, for instance, will check your file system and common configuration files for unusual permissions or other anomalies. It is also wise to use a password suite that enforces certain rules on the users' passwords that make them hard to guess. The shadow password suite, for instance, requires a password to have at least five letters, and contain both upper and lower case numbers and digits.

When making a service accessible to the network, make sure to give it ``least privilege,'' meaning that you don't permit it to do things that aren't required for it to work as designed. For example, you should make programs setuid to root or some other privileged account only when they really need this. Also, if you want to use a service for only a very limited application, don't hesitate to configure it as restrictively as your special application allows. For instance, if you want to allow diskless hosts to boot from your machine, you must provide the TFTP (trivial file transfer service) so that they can download basic configuration files from the /boot directory. However, when used unrestricted, TFTP allows any user anywhere in the world to download any world-readable file from your system. If this is not what you want, why not restrict TFTP service to the /boot directory?gif

Along the same line of thought, you might want to restrict certain services to users from certain hosts, say from your local network. In chapter-gif, we introduce tcpd which does this for a variety of network applications.

Another important point is to avoid ``dangerous'' software. Of course, any software you use can be dangerous, because software may have bugs that clever people might exploit to gain access to your system. Things like these happen, and there's no complete protection against this. This problem affects free software and commercial products alike.gif However, programs that require special privilege are inherently more dangerous than others, because any loophole can have drastic consequences.gif If you install a setuid program for network purposes be doubly careful that you don't miss anything from the documentation, so that you don't create a security breach by accident.

You can never rule out that your precautions might fail, regardless how careful you have been. You should therefore make sure you detect intruders early. Checking the system log files is a good starting point, but the intruder is probably as clever, and will delete any obvious traces he or she left. However, there are tools like tripwiregif that allow you to check vital system files to see if their contents or permissions have been changed. tripwire computes various strong checksums over these files and stores them in a database. During subsequent runs, the checksums are re-computed and compared to the stored ones to detect any modifications.

Next: Outlook on the Following Up: Maintaining Your System Previous: Maintaining Your System

Andrew Anderson
Thu Mar 7 23:22:06 EST 1996