What Is Your VA Scanner Really Doing?

It’s clear from social media and first hand reports, that the awareness of what VA (Vulnerability Assessment) scanners are really doing in testing scenarios is quite low. So I setup up a test box with Ubuntu 18 and exposed some services which are well known to the hacker community and also still popular in production business use cases: Secure Shell (SSH) and an Apache web service.

This post isn’t an attack on VA products at all. It’s aimed at setting a more healthy expectation, and I will cover a test scenario with a packet sniffer (Wireshark), Nessus Professional, and OpenVAS, that illustrates the point.

I became aware 20 years ago, from validating VA scanner output, that a lot of what VA scanners barf out is alarmist (red flags, CRITICAL [fix NOW!]) and also based purely on guesswork – when the scanner “sees” a service, it grabs a service banner (e.g. “OpenSSH 7.6p1 Ubuntu 4ubuntu0.3”), looks in its database for public disclosed vulnerability with that version, and flags vulnerability if there are any associated CVEs. Contrary to popular belief, there is no actual interaction in the way of further investigating or validating vulnerability. All vulnerability reporting is based on the service banner. So if i change my banner to “hi OpenVAS”, nothing will be reported. And in security, we like to advise hiding product names and versions – this helps with drive-by style automated attacks, in a much more effective way than for example, changing default service ports.

This article then demonstrates the VA scanner behaviour described above and covers developments over the past 20 years (did things improve?) with the two most commonly found scanners: Nessus and OpenVAS, which even if are not used directly, are used indirectly (vendors in this space do not recreate the wheel, they take existing IP – all legal I’m sure – and create their own UI for it). It was fairly well-known that Nessus was the basis of most commercial VAs in the 00s, and it seems unlikely that scenario has changed a great deal.

Test Setup

So if I look at my test box setup I see from port scan results (nmap):

PORT STATE SERVICE VERSION
22/tcp open ssh OpenSSH 7.6p1 Ubuntu 4ubuntu0.3 (Ubuntu Linux; protocol 2.0)
25/tcp open smtp Postfix smtpd
80/tcp open http Apache httpd 2.4.29 ((Ubuntu))
139/tcp open netbios-ssn Samba smbd 3.X - 4.X (workgroup: WORKGROUP)
445/tcp open netbios-ssn Samba smbd 3.X - 4.X (workgroup: WORKGROUP)
3000/tcp open http Apache httpd 2.4.29 ((Ubuntu))
5000/tcp open http Docker Registry (API: 2.0)
8000/tcp open http Apache httpd 2.4.29

So…naughty, naughty. Apache is not so old but still I’d expect to see some CVEs flagged, and I can say the same for the SSH service. Samba is there too in a default format. Samba is Linux’s implementation of MS Windows SMB (Server Message Block) and is full of holes. The Postfix mail service is also quite old, and there’s a Docker API exposed! All this would get an attacker quite excited, and indeed there’s plenty of automated attack scenarios which would work here.

There was also an EOL Phpmyadmin and EOL jQuery wrapped up in the web service.

Developments in Two Decades

So there has been some changes. For want of a better word, there’s now more honesty. In the case of OpenVAS, for vulnerability that involves grabbing a banner and assuming vulnerability based on this, there is a Quality of Detection (QoD) rating, which is set as default at around 70%. This is a kind of probability rating for a finding not being a false positive. Interestingly those findings that involve a banner grab are way down there under 50, and most are no longer flagged as “critical”.

Nessus, for its banner-grabbed vulnerabilities, is more explicit and it is report will state “Note that Nessus has not tested for this issue but has instead relied only on the application’s self-reported version number.”

Even 7 years ago, there would be lots of issues reported for an outdated Apache or SSH service, many of which would be flagged wrongly as CRITICAL, but not necessarily exploitable, and the existance of the vulnerability was based only on a text banner. So these more recent VA versions are an improvement, but its clear the awareness out there of these issues is still quite low. The problem is now – we do want to see if services are downlevel, so please $VENDOR, don’t hide them (more on this later).

First Scan – Banners On Display

So using Wireshark, sniffing HTTP on port 80 (plain text) we have the following…

Wireshark window showing the OpenVAS interaction with the text box target

The packets highlighted in black are the only two of any interest, wherein OpenVAS has used the HTTP GET method to request for “/”, and receives a response where the header shows the product (Apache) and version (2.4.29).

Note the Wireshark filter used (tcp.port == 80 and http). Other than the initial exchange where a banner was grabbed, there was no further interaction. This was the same for Nessus.

What was reported? Well, for OpenVAS, a handful of potential CVEs were reported but I had to lower the QoD to see them! Which is interesting. If anything this is moving the bar too far in the opposite direction. I mean as an owner of this system, I do want to know if i am running old warez!

For Nessus, 6 Apache CVEs were reported with either critical or “high” severity. Overall, I had a similar experience with that of OpenVAS except to even see the Apache issues reported I had to beg the scanner with the following scan configuration setup:

  • Settings –> Assessment –> Override normal accuracy and show potential false alarms
  • Settings –> Assessment –> perform thorough tests
  • Settings –> Advanced –> enable safe checks on (and i also tried the “off” option)
  • Settings –> Advanced –> plugins –> web servers –> enabled. This is the Apache vulnerability section

For the SSH service, OpenVAS reported 3 medium issues which is roughly what i was expecting. Nessus did not report any at all! Answers on a postcard for that one.

Banners Concealed

What was interesting was that the Secure Shell service doesn’t present an option to hide the banner any more, and on investigation, the majority-held community-version of this story is that the banner is needed in some cases.

Apache however did present a banner obfuscation option. For Ubuntu 18 and Apache 2.4.29, this involved:

  • apt install libapache2-mod-security2
  • a2enmod security2
  • edit /etc/apache2/conf-available/security.conf
  • ServerTokens set to “Prod”
  • systemctl restart apache2

This setup results in the following banner for Apache: Apache httpd – so no version number.

The outcome? As expected, all mention of Apache has now ended. Neither OpenVAS or Nessus reported anything to do with Apache of any note.

What DID The Scanners Find?

Just to summarise the findings when the banners were fully on display…it wasn’t a blank slate. There were some findings. Here are the highlights – for OpenVAS:

  • All Critical issues detected were related to PHPMyAdmin, plus one related to jQuery being EOL, but not stating any particular vulnerability. These version numbers are remotely queriable and this is the basis on which these issues were reported.
  • The SSH and Apache issues.
  • Other lower criticality issues were around certificate ciphers.
  • Some CVSS 6, medium issues with Samba – again these are banner-grabbed guesswork findings.

Nessus didn’t report anything outside of what OpenVAS flagged. OpenVAS reported significantly more issues.

It should be said that both scanners did a lot of querying for HTTP application layer issues that could be seen in the packet sniffer output. For example, queries were made for Python/Django settings.py (database password), and other HTTP gotchas.

Unauthenticated Versus Credentialed Testing

With VA Scanners, the picture hasn’t really changed in 20 years. If anything the picture is worse now because the balance with banner-grabbing guesswork has swung too far the other way, and we have to plead with the scanners to tell us about downlevel software versions. This is presumably an effort to reduce the number of false positives, but its not an advisable strategy. It’s perfectly ok to let us know we are running old wares and if we want, we should be able to see the CVEs associated with our listening services, even if many of them are false positives (and I can say from 20 years of network penetration testing, there will be plenty).

With this type of unauthenticated VA scanning though, the real problem has always been false negatives (to the extent that an open Docker API wasn’t flagged as a problem by either scanner), but none of the other commercial tools out there (I have tried a few in recent years) will be in a better position, because there is hard-limit that can be achieved non-locally with no adminstrative authentication credentials.

Both Nessus and OpenVAS allow use of credentialled based testing but its clear this aspect was never a part of the core design. Nessus has expanded its portfolio of credentialed tests but in the time allocated I could not get it to work with SSH public key authentication. In any case, a CIS benchmark approach will always be not-so-great, for reasons outside the scope of this article. We also have to be careful about where authentication credentials are stored. In the case of SSH keys, this means storing a private key, and with some vendors the key will be stored in their cloud somewhere out there.

Conclusion

This post focusses on one major aspect of VA scanning that is grabbing banners and reporting on vulnerability based on the findings from the banner. This is better than nothing but its futility is hopefully illustrated here, and this approach is core to most of what VA scanners do for us.

The market priority has always been towards unauthenticated scanning. Little focus was ever given to credentialed scanning. This has to change because the unauthenticated approach is like trying to diagnose a problem with your car without ever lifting the bonnet/hood, and moreover we could be moving into an era where accreditation bodies mandate credentialed scanning.

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Fintechs and Security – Part Three

  • Prologue – covers the overall challenge at a high level
  • Part One – Recruiting and Interviews
  • Part Two – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Application Security
  • Part Three – Threat and Vulnerability Management – Other Layers
  • Part Four – Logging
  • Part Five – Cryptography and Key Management, and Identity Management
  • Part Six – Trust (network controls, such as firewalls and proxies), and Resilience
Threat and Vulnerability Management (TVM) – Other Layers

This article covers the key principles of vulnerability management for cloud, devops, and devsecops, and herein addresses the challenges faced by fintechs.

The previous post covered TVM from the application security point of view, but what about everything else? Being cloud and “dynamic”, even with Kubernetes and the mythical Immutable Architecture, doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about the security of the operating systems and many devices in your cloud. The devil loves to hear claims to the effect that devops never SSHs to VM instances. And does SaaS help? Well that depends if SaaS is a good move – more on that later.

Fintechs are focussing on application security, which is good, but not so much in the security of other areas such as containers, IaaS/SaaS VMs, and little thought is ever given to the supply of patches and container images (they need to come from an integral source – preferably not involving pulling from the public Internet, and the patches and images need to be checked for integrity themselves).

And in general with vulnerability assessment (VA), we in infosec are still battling a popular misconception, which after a quarter of a decade is still a popular misconception – and that is the value, or lack of, of unauthenticated scanners such as OpenVAS and Nessus. More on this later.

The Overall Approach

The design process for a TVM capability was covered in Part One. Capabilities are people, process, and technology. They’re not just technology. So the design of TVM is not as follows: stick an OpenVAS VM in a VPC, fill it with target addresses, send the auto-generated report to ops. That is actually how many fintechs see the TVM challenge, or they just see it as being a purely application security show.

So there is a vulnerability reported. Is it a false positive? If not, then what is the risk? And how should the risk be treated? In order to get a view of risk, security professionals with an attack mindset need to know

  • the network layout and data flows – think from the point of view of an attacker – so for example if a front end web micro-service is compromised, what can the attacker can do from there? Can they install recon tools such as a port scanner or sniffer locally and figure out where the back end database is? This is really about “trust relationships”. That widget that routes connections may in itself seem like a device that isn’t worthy of attention, but it routes connections to a database hosting crown jewels…you can see its an important device and its configuration needs some intense scrutiny.
  • the location and sensitivity of critical information assets.
  • The ease and result of an exploit – how easy is it to gain a local shell presence and then what is the impact?

The points above should ideally be covered as part of threat modelling, that is carried out before any TVM capability design is drafted.

if the engineer or analyst or architect has the experience in CTF or simulated attack, they are in a good position to speak confidently about risk.

Types of Tool

I covered appsec tools in part two.

There are two types: unauthenticated and credentialed or authenticated scanners.

Many years ago i was an analyst running VA scans as part of an APAC regional accreditation service. I was using Nessus mostly but some other tools also. To help me filter false positives, I set up a local test box with services like Apache, Sendmail, etc, pointed Nessus at the box, then used Ethereal (now Wireshark) to figure out what the scanner was actually doing.

What became abundantly obvious with most services, is that the scanner wasn’t actually doing anything. It grabs a service banner and then …nothing. tumbleweed

I thought initially there was a problem with my setup but soon eliminated that doubt. There are a few cases where the scanner probes for more information but those automated efforts are somewhat ineffectual and in many cases the test that is run, and then the processing of the result, show a lack of understanding of the vulnerability. A false negative is likely to result, or at best a false positive. The scanner sees a text banner response such as “apache 2.2.14”, looks in its database for public disclosed vulnerability for that version, then barfs it all out as CRITICAL, red colour, etc.

Trying to assess vulnerability of an IaaS VM with unauthenticated VA scanners is like trying to diagnose a problem with your car without ever lifting the hood/bonnet.

So this leads us to credentialed scanners. Unfortunately the main players in the VA space pander to unauthenticated scans. I am not going to name vendors here, but its clear the market is poorly served in the area of credentialed scanning.

It’s really very likely that sooner rather than later, accreditation schemes will mandate credentialed scanning. It is slowly but surely becoming a widespread realisation that unauthenticated scanners are limited to the above-mentioned testing methodology.

So overall, you will have a set of Technical Security Standards for different technologies such as Linux, Cisco IoS, Docker, and some others. There are a variety of tools out there that will get part of the job done with the more popular operating systems and databases. But in order to check compliance to your Technical Security Standards, expect to have to bridge the gap with your own scripting. With SSH this is infinitely feasible. With Windows, it is harder, but check Ansible and how it connects to Windows with Python.

Asset Management

Before you can assess for vulnerability, you need to know what your targets are. Thankfully Cloud comes with fewer technical barriers here. Of course the same political barriers exist as in the on-premise case, but the on-premise case presents many technical barriers in larger organisations.

Google Cloud has a built-in feature, and with AWS, each AWS Service (eg Amazon EC2, Amazon S3) have their own set of API calls and each Region is independent. AWS Config is highly useful here.

SaaS

I covered this issue in more detail in a previous post.

Remember the old times of on-premise? Admins were quite busy managing patches and other aspects of operating systems. There are not too many cases where a server is never accessed by an admin for more than a few weeks. There were incompatibilities and patch installs often came with some banana skins around dependencies.

The idea with SaaS is you hand over your operating systems to the CSP and hope for the best. So no access to SMB, RDP, or SSH. You have no visibility of patches that were installed, or not (!), and you have no idea which OS services are enabled or not. If you ask your friendly CSP for more information here, you will not get a reply, and if you do they will remind you that handed over your 50-million-lines-of-source-code OSes to them.

Here’s an example – one variant of the Conficker virus used the Windows ‘at’ scheduling service to keep itself prevalent. Now cloud providers don’t know if their customers need this or not. So – they verge on the side of danger and assume that they do. They will leave it enabled to start at VM boot up.

Note that also – SaaS instances will be invisible to credentialed VA scanners. The tool won’t be able to connect to SSH/RDP.

I am not suggesting for a moment that SaaS is bad. The cost benefits are clear. But when you moved to cloud, you saved on managing physical data centers. Perhaps consider that also saving on management of operating systems maybe taking it too far.

Patching

Don’t forget patching and look at how you are collecting and distributing patches. I’ve seen some architectures where the patching aspect is the attack vector that presents the highest danger, and there have been cases where malicious code was introduced as a result of poor patching.

The patches need to come from an integral source – this is where DNSSEC can play a part but be aware of its limitations – e.g. update.microsoft.com does not present a ‘dnskey’ Resource Record. Vendors sometimes provide a checksum or PGP cryptogram.

Some vendors do not present any patch integrity checksums at all and will force users to download a tarball. This is far from ideal and a workaround will be critical in most cases.

Redhat has their Satellite Network which will meet most organisations’ requirements.

For cloud, the best approach will usually be to ingress patches to a management VPC/Vnet, and all instances (usually even across differing code maturity level VPCs), can pull from there.

Delta Testing

Doing something like scanning critical networks for changes in advertised listening services is definitely a good idea, if not for detecting hacker shells, then for picking up on unauthorised changes. There is no feasible means to do this manually with nmap, or any other port scanner – the problem is time-outs will be flagged as a delta. Commercial offerings are cheap and allow tracking over long histories, there’s no false positives, and allow you to create your own groups of addresses.

Penetration Testing

There’s ideal state, which for most orgs is going to be something like mature vulnerability management processes (this is vulnerability assessment –> deduce risk with vulnerability –> treat risk –> repeat), and the red team pen test looks for anything you may have missed. Ideally, internal sec teams need to know pretty much everything about their network – every nook and cranny, every switch and firewall config, and then the pen test perhaps tells them things they didn’t already know.

Without these VM processes, you can still pen test but the test will be something like this: you find 40 holes of the 1000 in the sieve. But it’s worse than that, because those 40 holes will be back in 2 years.

There can be other circumstances where the pen test by independent 3rd party makes sense:

  • Compliance requirement.
  • Its better than nothing at all. i.e. you’re not even doing VA scans, let alone credentialed scans.

Wrap-up

  • It’s far from all about application security. This area was covered in part two.
  • Design a TVM capability (people, process, technology), don’t just acquire a technology (Qualys, Rapid 7, Tenable SC. etc), fill it with targets, and that’s it.
  • Use your VA data to formulate risk, then decide how to treat the risk. Repeat. Note that CVSS ratings are not particularly useful here. You need to ascertain risk for your environment, not some theoretical environment.
  • Credentialed scanning is the only solution worth considering, and indeed it’s highly likely that compliance schemes will soon start to mandate credentialed scanning.
  • Use a network delta tester to pick up on hacker shells and unauthorised changes in network services and firewalls.
  • Being dynamic with Kubernetes and microservices has not yet killed your platform risk or the OS in general.
  • SaaS may be a step too far for many, in terms of how much you can outsource.
  • When you SaaS’ify a service, you hand over the OS to a CSP, and also remove it from the scope of your TVM VA credentialed scanning.
  • Penetration testing has a well-defined place in security, which isn’t supposed to be one where it is used to inform security teams about their network! Think compliance, and what ideal state looks like here.

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Clouds and Vulnerability Management

In the world of Clouds and Vulnerability Management, based on observations, it seems like a critical issue has slipped under the radar: if you’re running with PaaS and SaaS VMs, you cannot deliver anything close to a respectable level of vulnerability management with these platforms. This is because to do effective vulnerability management, the first part of that process – the vulnerability assessment – needs to be performed with administrative access (over SSH/SMB), and with PaaS and SaaS, you do not, as a customer, have such access (this is part of your agreement with the cloud provider). The rest of this article explains this issue in more detail.

The main reason for the clouding (sorry) of this issue, is what is still, after 20+ years, a fairly widespread lack of awareness of the ineffectiveness of unauthenticated vulnerability scanning. More and more security managers are becoming aware that credentialed scans are the only way to go. However, with a lack of objective survey data available, I can only draw on my own experiences. See – i’m one of those disgraceful contracting/consultant types, been doing security for almost 20 years, and been intimate with a good number of large organisations, and with each year that passes I can say that more organisations are waking up to the limitations of unauthenticated scanning. But there are also still lots more who don’t clearly see the limitations of unauthenticated scanning.

The original Nessus from the late 90s, now with Tenable, is a great product in terms of doing what it was intended to do. But false negatives were never a concern in with the design of Nessus. OpenVAS is still open source and available and it is also a great tool from the point of view of doing what it was intended to do. But if these tools are your sole source of vulnerability data, you are effectively running blind.

By the way Tenable do offer a product that covers credentialed scans for enterprises, but i have not had any hands-on experience with this tool. I do have hands on experience with the other market leaders’ products. By in large they all fall some way short but that’s a subject for another day.

Unauthenticated scanners all do the same thing:

  • port scan to find open ports
  • grab service banners – this is the equivalent of nmap -sV, and in fact as most of these tools use nmap libraries, is it _exactly_ that
  • lets say our tool finds Apache HTTP 14.x, it looks in its database of public disclosed vulnerability with that version of Apache, and spews out everything it finds. The tools generally do little in the way of actually probing with HTTP Methods for example, and they certainly were not designed to try, for example, a buffer overflow exploit attempt. They report lots of ‘noise’ in the way of false positives, but false negatives are the real concern.

So really the tools are doing a port scan, and then telling you you’re running old warez. Conficker is still very widespread and is the ultimate player in the ‘Pee’ arena (the ‘Pee’ in APT). An unauthenticated scanner doesn’t have enough visibility ‘under the hood’ to tell you if you are going to be the next Conficker victim, or the next ransomware victim. Some of the Linux vulnerabilities reported in the past few years – e.g. Heartbleed, Ghost, DirtyCOW – very few can be detected with an unauthenticated scanner, and none of these 3 examples can be detected with an unauthenticated scanner.

Credentialed scanning really is the only way to go. Credentialed based scanners are configured with root/administrative access to targets and are therefore in a position to ‘see’ everything.

The Connection With PaaS and SaaS

So how does this all relate to Cloud? Well, there two of the three cloud types where a lack of access to the operating system command shell becomes a problem – and from this description its fairly clear these are PaaS and SaaS.

 There are two common delusions abound in this area:

  • [Cloud maker] handles platform configuration and therefore vulnerability for me, so that’s ok, no need to worry:
    • Cloud makers like AWS and Azure will deal with patches, but concerns in security are much wider and operating systems are big and complex. No patches exist for 0days, and in space, nobody can hear you scream.
    • Many vulnerabilities arise from OS configuration aspects that cannot be removed with a patch – e.g. Conficker was mentioned above: some Conficker versions (yes its managed very professionally) use ‘at’ job scheduling to remain present even after MS08-067 is patched. If for example you use Azure, Microsoft manage your PaaS and SaaS but they don’t know if you want to use ‘at’ or not. Its safer for them to assume that you do want to use it, so they leave it enabled (when you sign up for PaaS or SaaS you are removed from the decision making here). Same applies to many other local services and file system permissions that are very popular with the dark side.
  • ‘Unauthenticated scanning gets me some of the way, its good enough’ – how much of the way does it get you? Less than half way? its more like 5% really. Remember its little more than a port scan, and you shouldn’t need a scanner to tell you you’re running old software. Certainly for critical cloud VMs, this is a problem.

With PaaS and SaaS, you are handing over the management of large and complex operating systems to cloud providers, who are perfectly justified, and also in many cases perfectly wise, in leaving open large security holes in your platforms, and as part of your agreement with them, there’s not a thing you can do about it (other than switch to IaaS or on-premise).

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