LFCA – Useful Tips for Securing Data and Linux – Part 18

Since its release in the early nineties, Linux has won the admiration of the technology community thanks to its stability, versatility, customizability, and a large community of open-source developers who work round-the-clock to provide bug fixes and improvements to the operating system. By and large, Linux is the operating system of choice for public cloud, servers, and supercomputers, and close to 75% of internet-facing production servers run on Linux.

Aside from powering the internet, Linux has found its way to the digital world and hasn’t abated since then. It powers a vast array of smart gadgets including Android smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, smart displays and so many more.

Is Linux that Secure?

Linux is renowned for its top-level security and it’s one of the reasons why it makes for a favorite choice in enterprise environments. But here’s a fact, no operating system is 100% secure. Many users believe that Linux is a foolproof operating system, which is a false assumption. In fact, any operating system with an internet connection is susceptible to potential breaches and malware attacks.

During its early years, Linux had a much smaller tech-centric demographic and the risk of suffering from malware attacks was remote. Nowadays Linux powers a huge chunk of the internet, and this has propelled the growth of the threat landscape. The threat of malware attacks is more real than ever.

A perfect example of a malware attack on Linux systems is the Erebus ransomware, a file-encrypting malware that affected close to 153 Linux servers of NAYANA, a South Korean web hosting company.

For this reason, it’s prudent to further harden the operating system to give it the much-desired security to safeguard your data.

Linux Server Hardening Tips

Securing your Linux server is not as complicated as you might think. We have compiled a list of the best security policies that you need to implement to fortify the security of your system and maintain data integrity.

1. Update Software Packages Regularly

In the initial stages of the Equifax breach, hackers leveraged a widely known vulnerability – Apache Struts – on Equifax’s customer complaint web portal.

Apache Struts is an open-source framework for creating modern and elegant Java web applications developed by the Apache Foundation. The Foundation released a patch to fix the vulnerability on March 7, 2017, and issued a statement to that effect.

Equifax were notified of the vulnerability and advised to patch their application, but sadly, the vulnerability remained unpatched until July of the same year at which point it was too late. The attackers were able to gain access to the company’s network and exfiltrate millions of confidential customer records from the databases. By the time Equifax got wind of what was happening, two months had already passed.

So, what can we learn from this?

Malicious users or hackers will always probe your server for possible software vulnerabilities which they can then leverage to breach your system. To be on the safe side, always update your software to its current versions to apply patches to any existing vulnerabilities.

If you are running Ubuntu or Debian-based systems, the first step is usually to update your package lists or repositories as shown.

$ sudo apt update

To check for all the packages with available updates, run the command:

$ sudo apt list --upgradable

The upgrade your software applications to their current versions as shown:

$ sudo apt upgrade

You can concatenate these two in one command as shown.

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

For RHEL & CentOS upgrade your applications by running the command:

$ sudo dnf update ( CentOS 8 / RHEL 8 )
$ sudo yum update ( Earlier versions of RHEL & CentOS )

Another viable option is to enable automatic security updates for Ubuntu and also setup automatic updates for CentOS / RHEL.

2. Remove Legacy Communication Services/Protocols

Despite its support for a myriad of remote protocols, legacy services such as rlogin, telnet, TFTP and FTP can pose huge security issues for your system. These are old, outdated, and insecure protocols where data is sent in plain text. If these are existing, consider removing them as shown.

For Ubuntu / Debian-based systems, execute:

$ sudo apt purge telnetd tftpd tftpd-hpa xinetd rsh-server rsh-redone-server

For RHEL / CentOS-based systems, execute:

$ sudo yum erase xinetd tftp-server telnet-server rsh-server ypserv

3. Close Unused Ports on the Firewall

Once you have removed all the insecure services it’s important to scan your server for open ports and close any unused ports which can potentially be used an entry point by hackers.

Suppose you want to block port 7070 on the UFW firewall. The command for this will be:

$ sudo ufw deny 7070/tcp

Then reload the firewall for the changes to take effect.

$ sudo ufw reload

For Firewalld, run the command:

$ sudo firewall-cmd --remove-port=7070/tcp  --permanent

And remember to reload the firewall.

$ sudo firewall-cmd --reload

Then cross-check the firewall rules as shown:

$ sudo firewall-cmd --list-all

4. Secure SSH Protocol

The SSH protocol is a remote protocol that allows you to securely connect to devices on a network. While it’s considered secure, the default settings are not enough and some extra tweaks are required to further deter malicious users from breaching your system.

We have a comprehensive guide on how to harden the SSH protocol. Here are the main highlights.

  • Configure passwordless SSH login & enable private/public key authentication.
  • Disable SSH remote root login.
  • Disable SSH logins from users with empty passwords.
  • Disable password authentication altogether and stick to SSH private/public key authentication.
  • Limit access to specific SSH users.
  • Configure a limit for password attempts.

5. Install and Enable Fail2ban

Fail2ban is an open-source intrusion prevention system that safeguards your server from bruteforce attacks. It protects your Linux system by banning IPs that indicate malicious activity such as too many login attempts. Out of the box, it ships with filters for popular services such as Apache webserver, vsftpd and SSH.

We have a guide on how to configure Fail2ban to further fortify the SSH protocol.

6. Enforce Password Strength using PAM Module

Reusing passwords or using weak and simple passwords greatly undermines the security of your system. You enforce a password policy, use the pam_cracklib to set or configure the password strength requirements.

Using the PAM module, you can define the password strength by editing the /etc/pam.d/system-auth file. For example, you can set password complexity and prevent the reuse of passwords.

7. Install an SSL/TLS Certificate

If you are running a website, always ensure to secure your domain using an SSL/ TLS certificate to encrypt data exchanged between the users’ browser and the webserver.

8. Disable Weak Encryption Protocols & Cipher Keys

Once you encrypt your site, consider also disabling weak encryption protocols. At the time of writing this guide, the latest protocol is TLS 1.3, which is the most common and widely used protocol. Earlier versions such as TLS 1.0, TLS 1.2, and SSLv1 to SSLv3 have been associated with known vulnerabilities.

[ You might also like: How to Enable TLS 1.3 in Apache and Nginx ]

Wrapping Up

That was a summary of some of the steps you can take to ensure data security and privacy for your Linux system.

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James Kiarie
This is James, a certified Linux administrator and a tech enthusiast who loves keeping in touch with emerging trends in the tech world. When I'm not running commands on the terminal, I'm taking listening to some cool music. taking a casual stroll or watching a nice movie.

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1 Comment

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  1. “So, what can we learn from this (Equifax and other breaches)?”

    That corporations are typically slow to react, or that they are arrogant in that they think a breach will not happen to THEM.

    “legacy services such as rlogin, telnet, TFTP and FTP can pose huge security issues for your system. ……… consider removing them”

    It is great to recommend the removal of insecure services but what do we use as their replacements?


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