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Top 3 Asterisk Security Tips for 2014: WhiteLists, WhiteLists, and WhiteLists

We’ve devoted a lot of energy to Asterisk security over the years with our Primer on Avoiding the $100,000 Phone Bill and our 20 Failsafe Tips and our SIP Navigation Guide plus numerous tutorials on deployment of Virtual Private Networks to secure your servers and phones including NeoRouter, PPTP, and Easy OpenVPN among others. But, when it comes to ease of installation and use with rock-solid security, nothing comes close to deployment of WhiteLists with the IPtables Linux firewall that’s included at no cost with every major Linux distribution and with all of the Asterisk® aggregations including PBX in a Flash™ and Incredible PBX™. So we’re kicking off the summer with a careful look at the methodology behind IPtables and the Travelin’ Man™ tools developed to reduce the learning curve for new users.

Security, of course, is all about the "bundle of sticks." As we learned from Aesop’s Fables, the more sticks you bundle together, the more difficult it is to break the stick. We are by no means advocating that you drop all of the other tools at your disposal to improve the security of your Asterisk security. So, before we dive into WhiteLists, let’s spend a little time covering some of the other tools that are available and why those tools should not be relied upon exclusively.

1. Hardware-based Firewall. The PBX in a Flash project has cautioned users for years not to run Asterisk-based servers connected to the Internet without a hardware-based firewall between your server and the public Internet. Is it failsafe? No. Some hardware-based firewalls have been compromised either by the bad guys or by the NSA. Pardon the redundancy. The other problem with hardware-based firewalls is that they’re generally not available with cloud-based solutions. As the price of cloud computing has dropped and the cost and headaches of maintaining your own hardware has increased, more and more folks are considering cloud-based alternatives. Yes. Hardware-based firewalls should be deployed whenever possible. No. They won’t resolve all security concerns.

2. Fail2Ban. Once upon a time, a number of us thought that Fail2Ban was the answer to all security issues with Asterisk-based servers. In a nutshell, Fail2Ban scans your logs searching for failed attempts to log in to either SSH, FTP, Apache, SIP, or an email account. After a small number of failed attempts, Fail2Ban blocks further access from the IP address initiating the requests. There are two problems with Fail2Ban. First, software developers of the affected services continue to "improve" things with new and different error messages when login failures occur. Since Fail2Ban is searching for specific word matches to identify unsuccessful logins, the whole security mechanism fails when the "magic words" change unless everyone is extremely vigilant in maintaining the "magic word" lists AND updating the Fail2Ban rules on all of your servers. Our experience suggests that the bad guys find the new "magic words" long before everyone else which means there are gaping holes in Fail2Ban regularly. The other problem is supercomputers such as Amazon EC2 which makes enormous computing resources available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. We’re mostly worried about the Dick that can hammer your little server every second with hundreds of thousands of attempts to crack your SIP or SSH passwords. The problem this poses is that most Linux servers never allocate a sufficient time slice to Fail2Ban to scan your Asterisk, Apache, and SendMail logs. Instead of blocking a bad guy after 3 failed login attempts, a bad guy using EC2 may be able to perform several hundred thousand login attempts before Fail2Ban ever detects a problem. Yes. Fail2Ban helps against the bad guy manually keying in passwords. No. Fail2Ban is all but worthless against a sophisticated denial of service attack on your server.

3. Virtual Private Networks. The beauty of virtual private networks (VPNs) is that all of your Internet traffic is encrypted and tunneled through private IP addresses that others can’t intercept. That was the theory until Edward Snowden came along and spoiled the NSA’s party. Yes. We’ve known that PPTP VPNs were vulnerable for a good long while. No. We didn’t know that the NSA (and presumably others) may have had the keys to your castle much longer… regardless of the VPN topology you may be using. The other problem with VPNs is that you need VPN connections for every device connecting to your server. Unfortunately, VPN technology is only available on a small number of SIP telephones, and the supported OpenVPN topology is one of the more difficult VPNs to deploy on a Linux server. Are VPNs better than nothing? Absolutely. Does a VPN provide failsafe communications security over the open Internet? Probably not.

4. Nothing Beats Secure Passwords. Amen. There was a time when some Asterisk-based servers were routinely set up with extension passwords of 1234 or the extension number itself. And outbound SIP trunks were deployed with no dialing rules. And administrators opened accounts with SIP providers with automatic credit card replenishment whenever the accounts ran out of money to cover calls. And no safeguards were put in place to restrict international calling. Little did these folks know that registering to a SIP extension on an Asterisk server provided a blank check for making unlimited calls to anywhere on the planet. Thus was born the $100,000 phone bill. Yes. Nothing Beats Secure Passwords for root, for SIP accounts, and for SIP and IAX trunks connected to commercial providers. But you also need to implement dialing rules for outbound calls that allow your callers to reach only the destinations desired, not the world. And your accounts with providers should always include limits and restrictions on international calls and should never include automatic credit card replenishment.

5. BlackLists. There was a time when blacklisting IP addresses was believed to be the ultimate solution to Internet security problems. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just set up a database with the IP addresses of all the bad guys in the world, and all our problems will be solved. Problem #1: A new bad guy is born every minute. Problem #2: The bad guys learned how to use VPNs and other random IP address masquerading sites to disguise their true identity. Problem #3: Security vulnerabilities in many Windows-based machines allowed the bad guys to take control of these computers and do their dirty work from there. Problem #4: There are actually some good guys that live in Russia and China. Problem #5: The bad guys learned to poison the "bad guy list" to block essential services such as DNS, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Pandora, and your favorite bank and credit card companies. Yes. The theory of blacklists sounded great. No. Blacklists not only don’t work. They’re downright dangerous.

WhiteLists with IPtables: The Knight in Shining Armor

For the past few years, our Internet security focus has turned toward defining a methodology that works with all PBX in a Flash and Incredible PBX servers, whether they’re dedicated servers behind a hardware-based firewall or public on a cloud-based shared host. And the conclusion we’ve reached is that nothing beats the IPtables Linux firewall for rock-solid Internet security. The reason is its deep integration into the Linux kernel itself through Netfilter, "a set of hooks inside the Linux kernel that allows kernel modules to register callback functions with the network stack." Wikipedia provides an excellent overview for those with an interest. For our purposes, suffice it to say that IPtables examines inbound and outbound packets before any further processing occurs on your server. With our default setup, we typically allow all outbound traffic from your server. For inbound traffic, if the iptables rules permit access, the packet comes in for processing. If not, the packet dies at the door with no acknowledgement that it was even received. In laymen’s terms, if someone attempts to scan your server to determine whether web or SIP services are available, there will be no response at all unless packets from the scanning server’s IP address are permitted in the iptables rules configured on your server. You can determine which rules are in force with this command: iptables -nL.

The basic configuration and syntax of iptables rules can be daunting to those unfamiliar with the territory. And thus was born Travelin’ Man 3, our open source tool to simplify configuration of IPtables by allowing administrators to define WhiteList entries describing the types of services that were allowed access to a server from specified external IP addresses. The basic rules of the Travelin’ Man 3 setup for iptables are these: (1) outbound packets are unrestricted, (2) forwarded, established, and related packets are permitted, (3) inbound packets from the private LAN are unrestricted, but (4) inbound packets from the public Internet are dropped unless permitted by a specific iptables rule. Those rules include certain basic services such as time synchronization (TCP 123) as well as WhiteListed IP address entries for specific or generic services.

Installation is easy. Log into your PBX in a Flash as root and issue the following commands. NOTE: Travelin’ Man 3 is optionally available as part of Incredible PBX installs on the CentOS, Scientific Linux, and PIAF OS platforms. It is preinstalled on the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black platforms with RasPBX. You can determine if it’s already installed on your server with this command: ls /root/secure-iptables. If the script exists, you’ve already got Travelin’ Man installed, but it may not be running so keep reading…

cd /root
wget http://incrediblepbx.com/travelinman3.tar.gz
tar zxvf travelinman3.tar.gz
yum -y install bind-utils

Because PBX in a Flash and Incredible PBX servers are primarily designed to support telephony, Travelin’ Man 3 further simplifies the iptables setup by whitelisting the IP addresses of a number of the leading VoIP providers. These include Vitelity (outbound1.vitelity.net and inbound1.vitelity.net), Google Voice (talk.google.com), VoIP.ms (city.voip.ms), DIDforsale (, CallCentric (callcentric.com), and also VoIPStreet.com (chi-out.voipstreet.com plus chi-in.voipstreet.com), Les.net (did.voip.les.net), Future-Nine, AxVoice (magnum.axvoice.com), SIP2SIP (proxy.sipthor.net), VoIPMyWay (sip.voipwelcome.com), Obivoice/Vestalink (sms.intelafone.com), Teliax, and IPkall. For the complete list: cat /etc/sysconfig/iptables (CentOS) or cat /etc/network/iptables (RasPBX).

The real beauty of Travelin’ Man 3 is you aren’t limited to our WhiteList. You can add your own entries easily using the TM3 scripts that are included in the /root directory. secure-iptables initializes your iptables setup and also lets you define a primary IP address or fully-qualified domain name (FQDN) that will always have access to your server. You must run this script at least once to activate IPtables on all platforms!

Once you have run secure-iptables, you can whitelist additional IP addresses by running add-ip. You can whitelist additional FQDNs by running add-fqdn. You can delete either IP addresses or FQDNs by running del-acct. As noted previously, you can check what’s authorized with the command: iptables -nL.

We’ve also included a custom script to restart IPtables gracefully: iptables-restart. The reason is because using the traditional restarting mechanism in IPtables will leave your server vulnerable (and IPtables inoperative) if a particular FQDN cannot be resolved. The iptables-restart script takes another approach and removes the offending rule from your whitelist, alerts you to the problem, and then restarts iptables without the offending entry. So all existing rules are put back in place and function as you would expect.

Finally, Travelin’ Man 3 includes a script that allows you to utilize FQDNs for users that may have ever-changing dynamic IP addresses. Steps #4, #5, and #6 in the original Travelin’ Man 3 tutorial will walk you through the Administrator set up which only takes a minute or two and never has to be touched again. Basically, a cron job script is employed to check for changes in the dynamic IP addresses you have identified with FQDNs. If changes are found, IPtables is restarted which updates the IP addresses accordingly.

Unfortunately, there was one group of end-users that weren’t covered by the Travelin’ Man 3 setup. This group included traveling salespeople or vacationing individuals that may land in a different city every night. Rather than relying upon an administrator to provide access to home base, these frequent travelers needed their own tool to manage their IP address as it changed. While this was supported through a web interface in Travelin’ Man 2, that setup exposed your web server to the public Internet and was burdensome for administrators to initially configure. Most importantly, it didn’t manage remote IP address access using IPtables which made coexistence with TM3 difficult. Thus was born Travelin’ Man 4.

Introducing Travelin’ Man 4: Managing WhiteList Access by Telephone

Travelin’ Man 4 is a new add-on for an existing Travelin’ Man 3 setup. It’s for those that wish to allow traveling individuals to manage their own whitelist access to PBX in a Flash or Incredible PBX using a telephone. An Administrator preconfigures accounts and passwords for the travelers together with the services to which they will have access on the server. Using any cellphone or hotel phone, the traveler simply dials a preconfigured number to access an IVR that will prompt the user for an account number and PIN. Unless you have a spare DID, you can grab a free one from IPkall.com to use with your Travelin’ Man 4 IVR. Once a user is successfully logged in, the IVR will prompt for the user’s IP address to be whitelisted on the server. Enter it using this format: 12*34*56*78.

Within a couple minutes, the new IP address will be properly formatted and then whitelisted in IPtables, and the traveler will be sent an email acknowledging that the account has been activated. Once the account is activated, the traveler can use a SIP softphone application such as Zoiper on any iPhone or Android phone or a softphone on any desktop computer to place and receive calls as well as to check voicemail on the remote PBX in a Flash server. For anyone that doesn’t know their current IP address, a quick visit to WhatIsMyIP.com will tell you. Travelin’ Man 4 is licensed under GPL2 so download a free copy. Then read the tutorial and give it a whirl. Enjoy!

Originally published: Wednesday, May 21, 2014

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  1. I really appreciate the effort but this is a solution that will never pass girlfriend/wife test. I am happy my girlfriend has learned how to use VoIP on her phone to call from a hotel using WiFi or from anywhere over 3G. Asking her to whitelist her IP address each time she wants to call is a bit too much I’m afraid (:

    [WM: The Bad Guys love Good News. 🙂 Sounds as if Vitelity’s vMobile will be a perfect fit for your girlfriend. Sleep well.]

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