Tip of the day: using host based firewall on Windows XP SP2

Published: 2006-08-25
Last Updated: 2006-08-25 07:50:18 UTC
by Bojan Zdrnja (Version: 3)
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I'm sure almost everyone knows about the host based firewall that was added to Windows XP with the Service Pack 2. Although Windows XP had a possibility of filtering network traffic before the SP2 was released, it was rarely used as it required use of IPsec policies.

With the release of SP2, Microsoft also made a pretty brave step (let's stay on the firewall in this diary) ? the firewall was turned on by default and this inevitably caused some applications to break.

The idea of today's tip of the day is to encourage you to use the host based firewall in your corporations. I'm explicitly mentioning corporations as I noticed that in a lot of cases administrators in corporations simply turn off the host based firewall provided with SP2 because it prevents them from managing the machine remotely.

The host based firewall that comes with Windows XP SP2 is in no way perfect, but it can offer an additional layer of protection (and we all know that defense in depth is the only way to get more secure) that can help you a lot sometimes.
For example, take a look at the last month patch bundle Microsoft released. The most critical and remotely exploitable vulnerability was in the Server service (MS06-040).
Windows XP SP2 machines which were just running the host based firewall in the default configuration were automatically protected from this. Of course, these machines should still be patched (as soon as possible), but this at least gives some breathing space.

One thing that you have to be aware of is that the host based firewall that comes with Windows XP SP2 filters only inbound traffic. While this isn't as good as some commercial firewalls, it still offers decent nice protection. I won't go into why Microsoft didn't filter outbound traffic as well, but the bottom line is that if a machine gets infected with a malware, it can easily turn the firewall off (or add itself on the list of allowed programs, as many malware does today), so if you look at it this way, outbound traffic filtering isn't that important. The firewall in Windows Vista is much more powerful and does allow outbound traffic filtering.

Letting the good guys in

The biggest problem with the host based firewall not being used in corporations today is that, besides bad traffic, it also drops legitimate inbound traffic.
Typically administrators need access to IPC in order to remotely manage your machine, or they use remote desktop services to perform actions on client machines. The host based firewall effectively stops this and administrators have to rely to group policies in order to change configuration on client machines. As group policies are read only when machine is booted (with Windows XP, this is different with Vista) and remote users typically put their machines in standby, you can see why administrators don't like this.

So, in order to still have some security, I typically recommend that administrators just put holes on their client machines which will allow connection from their designated management machine or network. This way the host based firewall will still protect the machine from everything (and everyone) else and the administrator can freely manage the machine remotely.

Adding such a rule is pretty easy. On a client machine you can add this through the Windows firewall control applet for a service or port you want to allow access to and select the appropriate scope. For example, you can allow access to port 445 just to IP address, which is your management server.

Using profiles

Fellow handler Swa (who else?) noted that the bad guys might know this (for example, a disgruntled employee in your company) and then wait at local Starbucks where your employees hang, get the internal IP address for himself and attack the target machine.

Windows actually comes with a pretty nice feature for different firewall profiles. In GPOs, an administrator can define different rules for the "Domain Profile" and different rules for the "Standard Profile".
Windows has a NLA (Network Location Awareness) service which determines where the machine is, and applies appropriate policy for the host based firewall:

Now, NLA will use the connection-specific DNS suffix to determine where your machine is. If it matches your domain, the Domain Profile will be used. Otherwise, the Standard Profile is used (you can check the connection-specific DNS suffix with the ipconfig command). So all you have to do now is setup rules you need for administration in the Domain profile, while completely closing machine in the Standard profile.

A bad guy could still spoof an Access point on a wireless network, for example, and have his own DHCP server to issue fake information to you, but this indeed raises the bar a bit.

Command line kung-fu

Seeing that command line kung-fu is very popular with our readers, I'd just like to end this tip of the day with some nice command line options you can use to configure the host based firewall on Windows XP SP2.

You have full firewall configuration options through the netsh command interface. This is very useful when you want to create a batch file which will open or close some ports on your machine.
I've used this to open the host based firewall to only one IP, so the anti-virus product we had was able to communicate with the client machines (poll their status, tell them to update definitions, etc).

So, let's say that you want to open port 10000 to the IP address, where your AV server is. This can be easily done with the following command line:

netsh firewall add portopening TCP 10000 Anti-Virus ENABLE CUSTOM

You can script this easily to do whatever you want. Just be aware of the limitation ? you can't have port ranges so you'll have to open every port separately, in case you need to open more ports.

If you have some neat tricks with the Windows XP SP2 host based firewall let us know, and I'll update the diary with the best tips we receive.

Keywords: ToD
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