14.2. Introduction

Security is everyone's responsibility. A weak entry point in any system could allow intruders to gain access to critical information and cause havoc on an entire network. One of the core principles of information security is the CIA triad, which stands for the Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability of information systems.

The CIA triad is a bedrock concept of computer security as customers and users expect their data to be protected. For example, a customer expects that their credit card information is securely stored (confidentiality), that their orders are not changed behind the scenes (integrity), and that they have access to their order information at all times (availablility).

To provide CIA, security professionals apply a defense in depth strategy. The idea of defense in depth is to add several layers of security to prevent one single layer failing and the entire security system collapsing. For example, a system administrator cannot simply turn on a firewall and consider the network or system secure. One must also audit accounts, check the integrity of binaries, and ensure malicious tools are not installed. To implement an effective security strategy, one must understand threats and how to defend against them.

What is a threat as it pertains to computer security? Threats are not limited to remote attackers who attempt to access a system without permission from a remote location. Threats also include employees, malicious software, unauthorized network devices, natural disasters, security vulnerabilities, and even competing corporations.

Systems and networks can be accessed without permission, sometimes by accident, or by remote attackers, and in some cases, via corporate espionage or former employees. As a user, it is important to prepare for and admit when a mistake has led to a security breach and report possible issues to the security team. As an administrator, it is important to know of the threats and be prepared to mitigate them.

When applying security to systems, it is recommended to start by securing the basic accounts and system configuration, and then to secure the network layer so that it adheres to the system policy and the organization's security procedures. Many organizations already have a security policy that covers the configuration of technology devices. The policy should include the security configuration of workstations, desktops, mobile devices, phones, production servers, and development servers. In many cases, standard operating procedures (SOPs) already exist. When in doubt, ask the security team.

The rest of this introduction describes how some of these basic security configurations are performed on a FreeBSD system. The rest of this chapter describes some specific tools which can be used when implementing a security policy on a FreeBSD system.

14.2.1. Preventing Logins

In securing a system, a good starting point is an audit of accounts. Ensure that root has a strong password and that this password is not shared. Disable any accounts that do not need login access.

To deny login access to accounts, two methods exist. The first is to lock the account. This example locks the toor account:

# pw lock toor

The second method is to prevent login access by changing the shell to /usr/sbin/nologin. Only the superuser can change the shell for other users:

# chsh -s /usr/sbin/nologin toor

The /usr/sbin/nologin shell prevents the system from assigning a shell to the user when they attempt to login.

14.2.2. Permitted Account Escalation

In some cases, system administration needs to be shared with other users. FreeBSD has two methods to handle this. The first one, which is not recommended, is a shared root password used by members of the wheel group. With this method, a user types su and enters the password for wheel whenever superuser access is needed. The user should then type exit to leave privileged access after finishing the commands that required administrative access. To add a user to this group, edit /etc/group and add the user to the end of the wheel entry. The user must be separated by a comma character with no space.

The second, and recommended, method to permit privilege escalation is to install the security/sudo package or port. This software provides additional auditing, more fine-grained user control, and can be configured to lock users into running only the specified privileged commands.

After installation, use visudo to edit /usr/local/etc/sudoers. This example creates a new webadmin group, adds the trhodes account to that group, and configures that group access to restart apache24:

# pw groupadd webadmin -M trhodes -g 6000
# visudo
%webadmin ALL=(ALL) /usr/sbin/service apache24 *

14.2.3. Password Hashes

Passwords are a necessary evil of technology. When they must be used, they should be complex and a powerful hash mechanism should be used to encrypt the version that is stored in the password database. FreeBSD supports the DES, MD5, SHA256, SHA512, and Blowfish hash algorithms in its crypt() library. The default of SHA512 should not be changed to a less secure hashing algorithm, but can be changed to the more secure Blowfish algorithm.


Blowfish is not part of AES and is not considered compliant with any Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS). Its use may not be permitted in some environments.

To determine which hash algorithm is used to encrypt a user's password, the superuser can view the hash for the user in the FreeBSD password database. Each hash starts with a symbol which indicates the type of hash mechanism used to encrypt the password. If DES is used, there is no beginning symbol. For MD5, the symbol is $. For SHA256 and SHA512, the symbol is $6$. For Blowfish, the symbol is $2a$. In this example, the password for dru is hashed using the default SHA512 algorithm as the hash starts with $6$. Note that the encrypted hash, not the password itself, is stored in the password database:

# grep dru /etc/master.passwd

The hash mechanism is set in the user's login class. For this example, the user is in the default login class and the hash algorithm is set with this line in /etc/login.conf:


To change the algorithm to Blowfish, modify that line to look like this:


Then run cap_mkdb /etc/login.conf as described in Section 14.13.1, “Configuring Login Classes”. Note that this change will not affect any existing password hashes. This means that all passwords should be re-hashed by asking users to run passwd in order to change their password.

For remote logins, two-factor authentication should be used. An example of two-factor authentication is something you have, such as a key, and something you know, such as the passphrase for that key. Since OpenSSH is part of the FreeBSD base system, all network logins should be over an encrypted connection and use key-based authentication instead of passwords. For more information, refer to Section 14.8, “OpenSSH”. Kerberos users may need to make additional changes to implement OpenSSH in their network. These changes are described in Section 14.5, “Kerberos.

14.2.4. Password Policy Enforcement

Enforcing a strong password policy for local accounts is a fundamental aspect of system security. In FreeBSD, password length, password strength, and password complexity can be implemented using built-in Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM).

This section demonstrates how to configure the minimum and maximum password length and the enforcement of mixed characters using the pam_passwdqc.so module. This module is enforced when a user changes their password.

To configure this module, become the superuser and uncomment the line containing pam_passwdqc.so in /etc/pam.d/passwd. Then, edit that line to match the password policy:

password        requisite       pam_passwdqc.so         min=disabled,disabled,disabled,12,10 similar=deny retry=3 enforce=users

This example sets several requirements for new passwords. The min setting controls the minimum password length. It has five values because this module defines five different types of passwords based on their complexity. Complexity is defined by the type of characters that must exist in a password, such as letters, numbers, symbols, and case. The types of passwords are described in pam_passwdqc(8). In this example, the first three types of passwords are disabled, meaning that passwords that meet those complexity requirements will not be accepted, regardless of their length. The 12 sets a minimum password policy of at least twelve characters, if the password also contains characters with three types of complexity. The 10 sets the password policy to also allow passwords of at least ten characters, if the password contains characters with four types of complexity.

The similar setting denies passwords that are similar to the user's previous password. The retry setting provides a user with three opportunities to enter a new password.

Once this file is saved, a user changing their password will see a message similar to the following:

% passwd
Changing local password for trhodes
Old Password:

You can now choose the new password.
A valid password should be a mix of upper and lower case letters,
digits and other characters.  You can use a 12 character long
password with characters from at least 3 of these 4 classes, or
a 10 character long password containing characters from all the
classes.  Characters that form a common pattern are discarded by
the check.
Alternatively, if no one else can see your terminal now, you can
pick this as your password: "trait-useful&knob".
Enter new password:

If a password that does not match the policy is entered, it will be rejected with a warning and the user will have an opportunity to try again, up to the configured number of retries.

Most password policies require passwords to expire after so many days. To set a password age time in FreeBSD, set passwordtime for the user's login class in /etc/login.conf. The default login class contains an example:

#       :passwordtime=90d:\

So, to set an expiry of 90 days for this login class, remove the comment symbol (#), save the edit, and run cap_mkdb /etc/login.conf.

To set the expiration on individual users, pass an expiration date or the number of days to expiry and a username to pw:

# pw usermod -p 30-apr-2015 -n trhodes

As seen here, an expiration date is set in the form of day, month, and year. For more information, see pw(8).

14.2.5. Detecting Rootkits

A rootkit is any unauthorized software that attempts to gain root access to a system. Once installed, this malicious software will normally open up another avenue of entry for an attacker. Realistically, once a system has been compromised by a rootkit and an investigation has been performed, the system should be reinstalled from scratch. There is tremendous risk that even the most prudent security or systems engineer will miss something an attacker left behind.

A rootkit does do one thing useful for administrators: once detected, it is a sign that a compromise happened at some point. But, these types of applications tend to be very well hidden. This section demonstrates a tool that can be used to detect rootkits, security/rkhunter.

After installation of this package or port, the system may be checked using the following command. It will produce a lot of information and will require some manual pressing of ENTER:

# rkhunter -c

After the process completes, a status message will be printed to the screen. This message will include the amount of files checked, suspect files, possible rootkits, and more. During the check, some generic security warnings may be produced about hidden files, the OpenSSH protocol selection, and known vulnerable versions of installed software. These can be handled now or after a more detailed analysis has been performed.

Every administrator should know what is running on the systems they are responsible for. Third-party tools like rkhunter and sysutils/lsof, and native commands such as netstat and ps, can show a great deal of information on the system. Take notes on what is normal, ask questions when something seems out of place, and be paranoid. While preventing a compromise is ideal, detecting a compromise is a must.

14.2.6. Binary Verification

Verification of system files and binaries is important because it provides the system administration and security teams information about system changes. A software application that monitors the system for changes is called an Intrusion Detection System (IDS).

FreeBSD provides native support for a basic IDS system. While the nightly security emails will notify an administrator of changes, the information is stored locally and there is a chance that a malicious user could modify this information in order to hide their changes to the system. As such, it is recommended to create a separate set of binary signatures and store them on a read-only, root-owned directory or, preferably, on a removable USB disk or remote rsync server.

The built-in mtree utility can be used to generate a specification of the contents of a directory. A seed, or a numeric constant, is used to generate the specification and is required to check that the specification has not changed. This makes it possible to determine if a file or binary has been modified. Since the seed value is unknown by an attacker, faking or checking the checksum values of files will be difficult to impossible. The following example generates a set of SHA256 hashes, one for each system binary in /bin, and saves those values to a hidden file in root's home directory, /root/.bin_chksum_mtree:

# mtree -s 3483151339707503 -c -K cksum,sha256digest -p /bin > /root/.bin_chksum_mtree
# mtree: /bin checksum: 3427012225

The 3483151339707503 represents the seed. This value should be remembered, but not shared.

Viewing /root/.bin_cksum_mtree should yield output similar to the following:

#          user: root
#       machine: dreadnaught
#          tree: /bin
#          date: Mon Feb  3 10:19:53 2014

# .
/set type=file uid=0 gid=0 mode=0555 nlink=1 flags=none
.               type=dir mode=0755 nlink=2 size=1024 \
    \133        nlink=2 size=11704 time=1380277977.000000000 \
                cksum=484492447 \
    cat         size=12096 time=1380277975.000000000 cksum=3909216944 \
    chflags     size=8168 time=1380277975.000000000 cksum=3949425175 \
    chio        size=18520 time=1380277975.000000000 cksum=2208263309 \
    chmod       size=8640 time=1380277975.000000000 cksum=2214429708 \

The machine's hostname, the date and time the specification was created, and the name of the user who created the specification are included in this report. There is a checksum, size, time, and SHA256 digest for each binary in the directory.

To verify that the binary signatures have not changed, compare the current contents of the directory to the previously generated specification, and save the results to a file. This command requires the seed that was used to generate the original specification:

# mtree -s 3483151339707503 -p /bin < /root/.bin_chksum_mtree >> /root/.bin_chksum_output
# mtree: /bin checksum: 3427012225

This should produce the same checksum for /bin that was produced when the specification was created. If no changes have occurred to the binaries in this directory, the /root/.bin_chksum_output output file will be empty. To simulate a change, change the date on /bin/cat using touch and run the verification command again:

# touch /bin/cat
# mtree -s 3483151339707503 -p /bin < /root/.bin_chksum_mtree >> /root/.bin_chksum_output
# more /root/.bin_chksum_output
cat changed
	modification time expected Fri Sep 27 06:32:55 2013 found Mon Feb  3 10:28:43 2014

It is recommended to create specifications for the directories which contain binaries and configuration files, as well as any directories containing sensitive data. Typically, specifications are created for /bin, /sbin, /usr/bin, /usr/sbin, /usr/local/bin, /etc, and /usr/local/etc.

More advanced IDS systems exist, such as security/aide. In most cases, mtree provides the functionality administrators need. It is important to keep the seed value and the checksum output hidden from malicious users. More information about mtree can be found in mtree(8).

14.2.7. System Tuning for Security

In FreeBSD, many system features can be tuned using sysctl. A few of the security features which can be tuned to prevent Denial of Service (DoS) attacks will be covered in this section. More information about using sysctl, including how to temporarily change values and how to make the changes permanent after testing, can be found in Section 12.9, “Tuning with sysctl(8)”.


Any time a setting is changed with sysctl, the chance to cause undesired harm is increased, affecting the availability of the system. All changes should be monitored and, if possible, tried on a testing system before being used on a production system.

By default, the FreeBSD kernel boots with a security level of -1. This is called insecure mode because immutable file flags may be turned off and all devices may be read from or written to. The security level will remain at -1 unless it is altered through sysctl or by a setting in the startup scripts. The security level may be increased during system startup by setting kern_securelevel_enable to YES in /etc/rc.conf, and the value of kern_securelevel to the desired security level. See security(7) and init(8) for more information on these settings and the available security levels.


Increasing the securelevel can break Xorg and cause other issues. Be prepared to do some debugging.

The net.inet.tcp.blackhole and net.inet.udp.blackhole settings can be used to drop incoming SYN packets on closed ports without sending a return RST response. The default behavior is to return an RST to show a port is closed. Changing the default provides some level of protection against ports scans, which are used to determine which applications are running on a system. Set net.inet.tcp.blackhole to 2 and net.inet.udp.blackhole to 1. Refer to blackhole(4) for more information about these settings.

The net.inet.icmp.drop_redirect and net.inet.ip.redirect settings help prevent against redirect attacks. A redirect attack is a type of DoS which sends mass numbers of ICMP type 5 packets. Since these packets are not required, set net.inet.icmp.drop_redirect to 1 and set net.inet.ip.redirect to 0.

Source routing is a method for detecting and accessing non-routable addresses on the internal network. This should be disabled as non-routable addresses are normally not routable on purpose. To disable this feature, set net.inet.ip.sourceroute and net.inet.ip.accept_sourceroute to 0.

When a machine on the network needs to send messages to all hosts on a subnet, an ICMP echo request message is sent to the broadcast address. However, there is no reason for an external host to perform such an action. To reject all external broadcast requests, set net.inet.icmp.bmcastecho to 0.

Some additional settings are documented in security(7).

All FreeBSD documents are available for download at https://download.freebsd.org/ftp/doc/

Questions that are not answered by the documentation may be sent to <freebsd-questions@FreeBSD.org>.
Send questions about this document to <freebsd-doc@FreeBSD.org>.