Does Server Anonymization Really Help Protect?

Masking or anonymizing a Web server involves removing identifying detail that intruders could use to detect your OS and Web server vendor and version. This information, while providing little or no utility to legitimate users, is often the starting place for attackers.

This article explores some ways you can minimize the risk of such detection to strengthen any defense-in-depth network security architecture. Most of these examples focus on Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server, but some Apache detection countermeasures are also covered. Port80 Software has developed ServerMask, a server module for IIS web servers, to combat the majority of issues described below.

Hackers Start Here... shouldn't You?

Look at it from the attacker's point of view: knowing details about a Web server greatly increases the efficiency of any attack, as security vulnerabilities depend on software vendor and version. But blind probing might alert security systems; if an attacker can target their exploits at specific holes, they increase their chances of success significantly. A self-identifying system invites trouble.

The Server Header Tells All

Most Web servers politely identify themselves and their OS to anyone who asks. Network query tools like free ieHTTPHeaders or the Port80 Header Check Tool display HTTP headers or "banners" sent back. Among them, you will likely find results like this:

Server: Microsoft-IIS/5.0


Server: Apache/2.0.41-dev (UNIX)

There is not much mystery here. You can remove or obscure this HTTP Server header in a variety of ways, depending on your platform. Apache 2.x users who have the mod_headers module loaded can use a simple directive in their httpd.conf file, as follows:

Header set Server "New Server Name Goes Here"

IIS users can install IISLockDown and use the configuration option in URLScan's INI file for removing or replacing the header (removing the header is the way to go, as replacing the header moves it to the bottom of the header order, identifying that you are running URLScan on IIS). Also, be careful with URLScan if you are using Cold Fusion application server.

Unsightly File Extensions

File extensions like .asp or .aspx are clear indicators that the site is running on a Microsoft server; in general, hiding file extensions is a good practice to mask the technology generating dynamic pages. You can change your application mappings (.asp becomes .htm or .foo, etc.), but such one-to-one mapping can make mixing server-side technologies painful and does nothing to alleviate headaches during site migrations.

Doing without file extensions altogether is an even better idea, not only for security but also for ease-of-migration and content negotiation. Apache users will want to take a look at mod_negotiation. Watch out, though, for the Content-Location header in the server's response, which can give away the file extension that is not shown in the URL. You might have to suppress this header separately using mod_headers. In a similar vein, Port80 Software's ServerMask tool also allows admins to hide file extensions in IIS.

Half-Baked Cookies

The ASP session ID cookie, used by the Session object to maintain client state, is another dead giveaway:


You could disable ASP Session State so that this cookie is not placed, but you lose the convenience of using the Session object to maintain client state. You could also create an ISAPI filter to change the names of any session ID cookie. Or you could simply turn off ASP sessions; they are resource intensive, and turning them off improves the performance and scalability of your ASP application while also helping to anonymize your server.

Send These to the Recycle Bin

  • WebDAV: Another way of identifying Microsoft servers is their implementation of WebDAV -- the HTTP Extensions for Distributed Authoring and Versioning. Microsoft's WebDAV support adds a lot of information to the headers sent back by the server, especially when an HTTP OPTIONS request is made. If you are not using WebDAV (to support Outlook Web Access or Web Folders, etc.), you can disable it entirely by editing the registry or by using IISLockDown and URLScan.
  • Other Headers: Certain Web servers betray their identity by displaying specific headers in HTTP responses, and four popular IIS headers should be removed or at least examined. The X-Powered-By and X-AspNet-Version headers are obvious signs that you are running ASP.NET and therefore some flavor of IIS. Few popular Web servers send the Public header in response to OPTIONS requests (while almost all respond with the similar Allow header). The presence of Public is a good indication you are connected to either an IIS box or Netscape Enterprise 3.6 and should be masked. Last but not least, mask the MicrosoftOfficeWebServer header -- while this will not affect FrontPage publishing, you should test this header obfuscation if you are using these server extensions for any other purpose.
  • Integrated Windows Authentication: : IIS users should not rely on "Integrated Windows Authentication" -- especially not as a way of hiding anything on the server. This method betrays the very secret it would keep, since a script or visual hacker can identify the Windows box by means of the WWW-Authenticate headers sent by the server. When a file or directory is protected by NT Challenge-Response authentication, one of the authentication headers contains the string "NTLM" (NT LAN Manager) -- a Microsoft-specific form of HTTP authentication.

Get Your Headers Straight

The number and sequence of your HTTP headers and the presence or absence of certain platform-specific headers provide handy ways for more sophisticated hackers to fingerprint your Web server.

For IIS users, a custom ISAPI filter can alter the Microsoft-specific header order or sequence to emulate, say, a default Apache installation. Apache users can accomplish any header order emulation they wish by experimenting with the location and order of Header directives in mod_headers.

Whose Default is That?

Default messages, pages and scripts of all kinds often contain clues to server identity, and these should be removed or modified accordingly. Software behind the Web server often bubbles error messages back through the HTTP request/response cycle. Customized HTTP errors can mask application server, database server, Web server and OS identity.

This article shows how to implement custom HTTP errors in Apache. However, avoid implementing this on development servers; when done properly, it prevents database and server-side scripting errors from being seen, making it tough for developers to debug their applications.

Make sure you remove or hide any Web or application server administration pages, scripts or documentation installed under your server's Web root, and replace default home pages.

We Don't Need No Extra Services

Beyond the HTTP service itself, many computers used as Web servers host a number of other network services. In particular, try to avoid running the default FTP and SMTP services in Microsoft IIS. Despite the convenience of integrated services, if used they will advertise your IIS server's identity. (This is not an issue for Apache, since the Web server is not associated with FTP and SMTP services through a common administrative service).

When a connection is established with an SMTP service, the recipient server sends a human-readable greeting to the client known as the SMTP banner. What the SMTP banner displays has no effect on e-mail service, but, like the HTTP Server header, it divulges details about the software running on the box. The default Windows SMTP service exposes such information.

The default Microsoft IIS FTP server also presents a known banner. Since modifying the FTP banner is a more involved process than modifying the SMTP banner (plan on hacking several system DLLs), your best bet is an alternate FTP server like RhinoSoft's Serv-U FTP server that can display any text message in the FTP banner. As an added bonus, third-party FTP servers like Serv-U are more configurable than the IIS FTP service when it comes to security measures like assigning users their own login directories.

Unsanitary Inputs

Many platform-specific exploits use complex URL strings to gain access to a shell or CGI program, from which a hacker can easily get a directory listing revealing the OS' default file structure. Once a shell or CGI program is hijacked and the file system revealed, the door is wide open. The best defense against this trial-and-error exploit is a user-input filter or "sanitizer" that removes unacceptable characters (such as meta-characters and their various possible encodings) from user-supplied data. For IIS, the current standard is IISLockDown/URLScan. A new generation of application firewalls (such as ServerDefender from Port80 Software) extend this protection to the application layer behind the Web server.

Combing Through the Stacks

Even when all telltale signs are removed from your Web server's application layer, there remain detection weaknesses at lower network layers. Any server with a network connection has a network protocol stack subject to being scanned and identified. The best stack scanners (like NMAP from can ID most operating systems by using a variety of techniques to fingerprint the system's TCP stack.

OS-specific IP stacks are also vulnerable to detection via the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP), used by the popular Ping utility. The first line of defense against these kinds of network scanning vulnerabilities is a good, well-administered firewall. However, careful network analysis can still identify a box by examining the packets a firewall must permit a Web server to pass through in response to HTTP requests.

Take a look at the "What's that site running?" tool on Netcraft. If you point the site-profiling tool at your own Web site, it will probably correctly report both your Web server and OS. Changing your HTTP Server header will cause Netcraft to report a false value for your Web server -- or just "unknown" if the header is completely removed (the change is not immediate, as Netcraft caches results for a time).

Still, your OS will probably be correctly identified -- even behind a good firewall -- unless you mask TCP/IP signatures as well for full Web server stealth. You can attempt to alter TCP/IP signatures manually. To get Netcraft to report your OS as "unknown” you will have to tinker with some of your default TCP/IP settings, such as the receive window size (RWIN), the maximum transmission units (MTU), the maximum segment size (MSS), and/or the IP header time-to-live (TTL). Altering these settings will affect your server's performance in diverse ways, depending on network conditions, so considerable care should be taken when changing these defaults. In the hands of a skilled network administrator, however, this strategy can be an effective countermeasure to information leakage through stack scanning.

Let's Be Careful Out There

No combination of detection avoidance succeeds in completely anonymizing your Web server -- just as no combination of firewalls, IDS, and other security countermeasures can completely defeat a skilled and determined hacker. Like server hardening, server anonymization can help defeat the majority of would-be attackers. And like all aspects of network security, it's a never-ending battle to stay ahead of the bad guys.