Potential Security Risks with a VPN

VPNs are intended, in part, as a tool for increasing a network's security. They can easily become a doorway through which intruders can enter, though. VPNs are frequently explained through diagrams like Figures 26.1, 26.2 and 26.6. These show the way the various VPN components are tied together. Such figures don't emphasize strongly enough that many of the links are actually two links. For instance, consider a PPTP VPN in which a central network uses a VPN router to communicate in a secure way with Windows computers. Those Windows computers actually have two network interfaces ”one for the VPN and one for their normal Internet connections. Depending upon the firewall rules on the VPN router itself, the logical configuration of such a network might more closely resemble that shown in Figure 26.7.

Figure 26.7. Although a VPN provides secure links between systems or networks, both sides of the VPN link normally have direct Internet connections, and those can be abused.


Normally, the VPN is configured to trust its VPN clients more than it trusts hosts on the Internet at large. The VPN clients, though, have their own independent links to the Internet (in fact, those links are usually the means by which the VPN connection is established). Thus, unless security on the VPN clients is quite strong, they can become a means of attack. If the VPN or any other intervening firewalls or security tools treat VPN clients as truly local, the security provided by those firewalls and other security measures isn't nearly as good as it might at first appear. For instance, consider the case of an Internet worm or virus that attacks random computers. You might build protections from such attacks into your regular firewall. If a VPN client is compromised, though, and if the firewall protection doesn't apply to VPN clients, the worm or virus will quickly find its way into your allegedly protected network.

There are two approaches to restoring security in the face of potential VPN bypasses:

  • Secure both ends of the VPN ” If both ends of a VPN connection boast equivalent security, then the network as a whole remains secure. This approach is common when a VPN links entire networks; typically, both VPN routers or separate firewall systems protect all forms of entry. Such a configuration is trickier when the VPN links individual telecommuters or the like, because the number of VPN end-points can be quite high, and those systems may not be under your direct control. If an employee decides to install a potentially risky program on a home computer, there may be little you can do to stop it.

  • Don't trust VPN clients ” You might install firewall rules that deny certain types of access to the VPN clients, in effect relegating them to " second-class " status within your network's hierarchy. Taken to an extreme, this approach eliminates all benefits of the VPN, but you might use it to give your local network some protection. If your VPN users won't be using X, for instance, you could block the X protocols to VPN clients but not to local systems, thus reducing the chance of an X-based attack succeeding through the VPN.

In many cases, a combination of these two approaches is appropriate. You might insist that employees who use PPTP client software install firewall packages as well, and give them access only to particular local computers or protocols. You can use the Linux iptables command (described in Chapter 25) to configure these restrictions. When both ends of the VPN are under your complete control, you can rely more upon the first approach, because you can configure identical security measures on both Internet access points.

Advanced Linux Networking
Advanced Linux Networking
ISBN: 0201774232
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 203

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