Simple Linux (Ubuntu) Security

I’m setting up a Bitcoin full node to perform some analyses on the full blockchain. Here are quick steps I followed to improve the security of a basic Ubuntu box for these purposes [1]. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list! Rather, this should serve as a general approach that helps you think about how you can continue to improve and monitor the security of the systems you’re using. And, while I’m using Ubuntu, these general principles apply to other Linux distros, too.

  1. Step 1: Use What You Know
  2. Step 2: Run The Bare Necessities
  3. Step 3: Filter Communications
  4. Step 4 – ∞: Update & Monitor
  5. Final Step: I Give You… THE INTERNET!

Step 1: Use What You Know

When I was younger, I remember someone suggesting to my father that he could use a simpler tool to test a TV component instead of the oscilloscope he was already using. However, he promptly replied, “I like to use what I know best,” and he just kept using the oscilloscope. This wisdom applies to the security realm, too.

My first step towards configuring a full node involves ditching Windows. This shouldn’t be a interpreted as an indictment against the possible security of Windows. Rather, I don’t know Windows security as well as I know Linux security, and I should stick with what I know best. And, I chose Ubuntu because I’ve used this distro the most over the past year. [Note to future self: remember that for some reason burning DVDs at any of the faster speeds on my iMac leads to images that can’t be mounted 🙁 ]

Step 2: Run The Bare Necessities

Sure, with Ubuntu, you can have it all… but just know ALL includes possible vulnerabilities, too. When I install Ubuntu for this type of purpose, I first start by installing the “Minimum Install,” an option that some other distros offer, too. Once installed, I follow the steps below to remove more unneeded stuff (“stuff” is a technical term that is often under-appreciated, but not here, my friends, not here.)

  1. Run the command below to view the running processes:
    # sudo lsof -i
  2. Identify a process that seems unneeded (e.g., cups, avahi-daemon, etc.)
  3. Remove the package using the command below [2]:
    # sudo apt-get autoremove cups
  4. Restart the computer and make sure there are no errors.
  5. Rinse and repeat until the song above plays like an anthem when I view the processes.

Step 3: Filter Communications

“Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?”

I’ve learned to filter communications on social media with some people so I can avoid drama… not you, of course [note to self…]. In the same way, helping computers filter communications can help limit your system administration drama.

I’ve learned to love iptables, and so can you. As in any relationship, it first starts by listening… figuratively and literally. Often, when you run the command below, you’ll see that iptables is overly ACCEPTing in terms of communications (oh, Ubuntu, how quaint):
# sudo iptables -S

This is one situation in which it’s preferable NOT to be accepting. In fact, in order to prioritize security, we start by blocking everything, and then we explicitly accept what we absolutely need (e.g., port 80 for apt-get, port 53 for DNS, etc.) There are plenty of tutorials on iptables out there (e.g., here, here, and here), but hopefully these principles point you in the general direction so you can get started [3].

Steps 4 – ∞: Update & Monitor

“I can’t wait to share this hour-long video on social media… repeatedly.”

New parents know the joy of bringing home a new baby to the nursery that they’ve carefully prepared. Every little detail in the room has been painstakingly considered. New parents also quickly realize that the easy work was preparing the room. Every new day going forward requires constant updates and monitoring (e.g., new diapers, new clothes, new furniture, new diap… whoops, sorry, I was dreaming of sleep and forgot I already said… zzzzzzzzzz…)

In the same way, our precious new Ubuntu box will require constant updates and monitoring. If you study pen-testing techniques, you’ll quickly realize a common theme: exploits are old! Unless you’re up against an incredibly brilliant hacker or powerful nation state, the hackers attacking your system are searching for vulnerabilities in software that have already been patched. If you diligently update your system, you can avoid the vast majority of exploits that could be used against your baby. It’s simple:
# sudo apt-get update
# sudo apt-get upgrade

Finally, because you know your little baby better than anyone else, because you’ve limited your system to the bare necessities, because you’ve filtered your communications, and because you’ve diligently updated your system, you can sometimes identify zero-day exploits (and mitigate them) before there’s even a patch (all zero-days have to transition to one-days somehow, and you could be the one!) Monitoring the logs and noticing suspicious activity on a well-secured system is much easier because there is less to see: nefarious behavior that is new will stand out. Stay vigilant, my friends!

Final Step: I Give You… THE INTERNET!

You’re ready to let your little baby go out into the world [4]. Fair thee well!

All-Time Classic!

Footnotes

  1. You will often hear of hardening a system to reduce the attack surface for a specific use. I hate this term, because a “hardened” system soon becomes soft and squishy if it’s not actively updated and monitored and improved. Remember, security is a process, not a product.
  2. There are various ways to remove packages using apt-get. I use the autoremove option because it automatically removes associated dependencies, too, if they are otherwise unused.
  3. Remember, rules are ephemeral unless you take steps to make them persistent. New users are often surprised to see their configuration work disappear when they next reboot. I like to use a combination of the iptables-persistent package and the iptables-save command to make my rules persistent.
  4. There are certainly other things one can (and should) do, such as contain the possible damage apps/processes can do to the rest of the system, but I’ll cover these approaches in a later post.

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