Secure use of iptables and connection tracking helpers


Authors: Eric Leblond, Pablo Neira Ayuso, Patrick McHardy, Jan Engelhardt, Mr Dash Four


Principle of helpers

Some protocols use different flows for signaling and data transfers. This is the case for FTP, SIP and H.323 among many others. In the setup stage, it is common that the signaling flow is used to negotiate the configuration parameters for the establishment of the data flow, i.e. the IP address and port that are used to establish the data flow. These sort of protocols are particularly harder to filter by firewalls since they violate layering by introducing OSI layer 3/4 parameters in the OSI layer 7.

In order to overcome this situation in the iptables firewall, Netfilter provides the Connection Tracking helpers, which are modules that are able to assist the firewall in tracking these protocols. These helpers create the so-called expectations, as defined by the Netfilter project jargon. An expectation is similar to a connection tracking entry, but it is stored in a separate table and generally with a limited duration. Expectations are used to signal the kernel that in the coming seconds, if a packet with corresponding parameters reaches the firewall, then this packet is RELATED to the previous connection.

These kind of packets can then be authorized thanks to modules like state or conntrack which can match RELATED packets.

This system relies on parsing of data coming either from the user or the server. It is therefore vulnerable to attack and great care must be taken when using connection tracking helpers.

Connection Tracking helpers default configuration

Due to protocol constraints, not all helpers are equal. For example, the FTP helper will create an expectation whose IP parameters are the two peers. The IRC helper creates expectations whose destination address is the client address and source address is any address. This is due to the protocol: we do not know the IP address of the person who is the target of the DCC.

The degree of freedom due to connection tracking helpers are therefore dependent on the nature of the protocol. Some protocols have dangerous extensions, and these are disabled by default by Netfilter. The user has to pass an option during loading of the module to enable this dangerous protocol features. For example, the FTP protocol can let the user choose to have the target server connect to another arbitrary server. This could lead to a hole in the DMZ and it is therefore deactivated by default. To enable it, you’ve got to pass the loose option with the 1 value.

The following list describes the different connection tracking helper modules and their associated degree of freedom:

Module Source address Source Port Destination address Destination port Protocol Option
amanda Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In CMD TCP  
ftp Fixed 0-65535 In CMD In CMD TCP loose = 0 (default)
ftp Full 0-65535 In CMD In CMD TCP loose = 1
h323 Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In CMD UDP  
h323 q931 Fixed 0-65535 In CMD In CMD UDP  
irc Full 0-65535 Fixed In CMD TCP  
netbios_ns Iface Network Fixed Fixed Fixed UDP  
pptp Fixed In CMD Fixed In CMD GRE  
sane Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In CMD TCP  
sip rtp_rtcp Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In CMD UDP sip_direct_media = 1 (default)
sip rtp_rtcp Full 0-65535 In CMD In CMD UDP sip_direct_media = 0
sip signalling Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In CMD In CMD sip_direct_signalling = 1 (default)
sip signalling Full 0-65535 In CMD In CMD In CMD sip_direct_signalling = 0
tftp Fixed 0-65535 Fixed In Packet UDP  

The following keywords are used:

  • Fixed: Value of a connection tracking attribute is used. This is not a candidate for forgery.
  • In CMD: Value is fetched from the payload. This is a candidate for forgery.

The options are module loading options. They permit activation of the extended but dangerous features of some protocols.

Secure use of Connection Tracking Helpers

Following the preceding remarks, it appears that it is necessary to not blindly use helpers. You must take into account the topology of your network when setting parameters linked to a helper.

For each helper, you must carefully open the RELATED flow. All iptables statements using “-m conntrack –ctstate RELATED” should be used in conjunction with the choice of a helper and of IP parameters. By doing that, you will be able to describe how the helper must be used with respect to your network and information system architecture.

Example: FTP helper

For example, if you run an FTP server, you can setup

iptables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper ftp -d $MY_FTP_SERVER -p tcp \\
       --dport 1024: -j ACCEPT

If your clients are authorized to access FTP outside of your network, you can add

iptables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper ftp -o $OUT_IFACE -p tcp \\
       --dport 1024: -j ACCEPT
iptables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper ftp -i $OUT_IFACE -p tcp \\
       --dport 1024: -j ACCEPT

The same syntax applies to IPV6

ip6tables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper ftp -o $OUT_IFACE -p tcp \\
       --dport 1024: -j ACCEPT
ip6tables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper ftp -i $OUT_IFACE -p tcp \\
       --dport 1024: -j ACCEPT

Example: SIP helper

You should limit the RELATED connection due to the SIP helper by restricting the destination address to the RTP server farm of your provider

iptables -A FORWARD -m conntrack --ctstate RELATED -m helper \\
       --helper sip -d $ISP_RTP_SERVER -p udp -j ACCEPT

Example: h323 helper

The issue is the same as the one described for SIP, you should limit the opening of the RELATED connection to the RTP server addresses of your VOIP provider.

Securing the signaling flow

You will also need to build carefully crafted rules for the authorization of flows involving connection tracking helpers. In particular, you have to do strict anti-spoofing (as described below) to avoid traffic injection from other interfaces.

Using the CT target to refine security


One classic problem with helpers is the fact that helpers listen on predefined ports. If a service does not run on standard port, it is necessary to declare it. Before 2.6.34, the only method to do so was to use a module option. This was resulting in having a systematic parsing of the added port by the chosen helper. This was clearly suboptimal and the CT target has been introduced in 2.6.34. It allows to specify what helper to use for a specific flow. For example, let’s say we have a FTP server on IP address running on port 2121.

To declare it, we can simply do

iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -p tcp --dport 2121 \\
       -d -j CT --helper ftp

Therefore, the use of the module options is NOT recommended anymore – please use the CT target instead.

Disable helper by default


Once a helper is loaded, it will treat packets for a given port and all IP addresses. As explained before, this is not optimal and is even a security risk. A better solution is to load the module helper and deactivate their parsing by default. Each helper we need to use is then set by using a call to the CT target.


Since Linux 3.5, it is possible to desactivate the automatic conntrack helper assignment. This can be done when loading the nf_conntrack module

modprobe nf_conntrack nf_conntrack_helper=0

This can also be done after the module is loading by using a /proc entry

echo 0 > /proc/sys/net/netfilter/nf_conntrack_helper

Please note that flows that already got a helper will keep using it even if automatic helper assignment has been disabled.

For older kernel, it is possible to obtain this behavior for most connection tracking helper modules by setting the port number for the module to 0. For example

modprobe nf_conntrack_$PROTO ports=0

By doing this, the following modules will be deactivated on all flows by default:

  • ftp
  • irc
  • sane
  • sip
  • tftp

Due to the absence of a “ports” parameter, some modules will not work:

  • amanda
  • h323
  • netbios_ns
  • pptp
  • snmp

Please note that if you are using the ports=0 solution, this will cause a renaming of the conntrack helper which will be named $PROTO-0. The CT rules must then be updated to reflect this change. For example, if the option has been used for the ftp helper, one should use

iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -p tcp --dport 21 \\
       -d -j CT --helper ftp-0


Helpers and anti-spoofing

Helpers rely on the parsing of data that come from client or from server. Therefore, it is important to limit spoofing attacks that could be used to feed the helpers with forged data. Helpers are IP only and are not doing, as the rest of the connection tracking, any coherence check on the network architecture.

Using rpfilter module

A rpfilter Netfilter module is available since Linux 3.3 and iptables 1.4.13. It provides a convenient match that can be used to detect invalid packets. To use it on IPv6 and IPv4, one can for example use

iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -m rpfilter --invert -j DROP
ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -m rpfilter --invert -j DROP

Using rp_filter

Linux provides a routing-based implementation of reverse path filtering. This is available for IPv4. To activate it, you need to ensure that /proc/sys/net/ipv4/conf/*/rp_filter files contain 1. Complete documentation about rp_filter is available in the file ip-sysctl.txt in the Documentation/networking/ directory of the Linux tree.

The documentation at the time of the writing is reproduced here

rp_filter - INTEGER
   0 - No source validation.
   1 - Strict mode as defined in RFC3704 Strict
       Reverse Path. Each incoming packet is
       tested against the FIB and if the interface
       is not the best reverse path the packet
       check will fail. By default, failed packets
       are discarded.
   2 - Loose mode as defined in RFC3704 Loose
       Reverse Path. Each incoming packet\'s source
       address is also tested against the FIB
       and if the source address is not reachable
       via any interface, the packet check will fail.

   Current recommended practice in RFC3704 is to
   enable strict mode to prevent IP spoofing from
   DDos attacks. If using asymmetric routing
   or other complicated routing, then loose mode
   is recommended.

   The max value from conf/{all,interface}/rp_filter
   is used when doing source validation on the

   Default value is 0. Note that some distributions
   enable it in startup scripts.

At the time of the writing, there is no routing-based implementation of rp_filter in the Linux kernel for IPv6, therefore manual anti-spoofing via Netfilter rules is thus needed.

Manual anti-spoofing

The best way to do anti-spoofing is to use filtering rules in the RAW table. This has the great advantage of bypassing the connection tracking and helps to reduce the load that could be created by some flooding.

Anti-spoofing must be done on a per-interface basis. For each interface, we must list the authorized network on the interface. There is an exception, which is the interface with the default route where an inverted logic must be used. In our example, let’s take eth1, which is a LAN interface, and have eth0 being the interface with the default route. Let’s also have $NET_ETH1 being the network connected to $ETH1 and $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 a network routed by this interface. With this setup, we can do anti-spoofing with the following rules

iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth0 -s $NET_ETH1 -j DROP
iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth0 -s $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 -j DROP
iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth1 -s $NET_ETH1 -j ACCEPT
iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth1 -s $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 -j ACCEPT
iptables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth1 -j DROP

The IPv6 case is similar if we omit the case of the local link network

ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth0 -s $NET_ETH1 -j DROP
ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth0 -s $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 -j DROP
ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -s fe80::/64 -j ACCEPT
ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth1 -s $NET_ETH1 -j ACCEPT
ip6tables -A PREROUTING -t raw -i eth1 -s $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 -j ACCEPT
 Posted by at 17:33

  10 Responses to “Secure use of iptables and connection tracking helpers”

  1. […] required counter-measures are described in the Secure use of iptables and connection tracking helpers […]

  2. Thanks for his info. Since I am lazy I began thinking about how to record when a help would be needed. Maybe using a pcap file or something. What do you think? Then take the info gleaned from the pcap file to derive what helpers might be needed.

  3. Hello Joe. You could process differently: load the helpers and activate them. You can then log all RELATED packets (and block them if you don’t want to take a risk). Doing this you will now what is the usage of helpers in your network.

  4. I would suggest you to implement also a little protection against several types of scans and uncommon usage of the TCP protocol:

    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags FIN,SYN,RST,PSH,ACK,URG NONE -j DROP
    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags FIN,SYN,RST,PSH,ACK,URG FIN,SYN,RST,PSH,ACK,URG -j DROP
    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags FIN,SYN,RST,PSH,ACK,URG FIN,PSH,URG -j DROP
    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags FIN,SYN,RST,PSH,ACK,URG FIN,SYN,RST,ACK,URG -j DROP
    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags SYN,RST SYN,RST -j DROP
    -A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp –tcp-flags FIN,SYN FIN,SYN -j DROP
    -A INPUT -m state –state INVALID -j DROP | the privacy experts.

  5. @sigxcpu: There’s no need for all the TCP flag checks, because conntrack already checks TCP flags. See tcp_valid_flags in . You can see from the rest of the file, the checking is more thorough than flags (sequence numbers etc are also checked).

    So the –state INVALID rule should be enough.

    As far as I can tell, the only one of your combinations that conntrack wouldn’t reject is FIN,PSH,URG, which is legitimate TCP so shouldn’t be dropped. Also your 2nd and 4th rules are redundant, they can be combined into one which ignores PSH.

  6. This article although informative, is still a bit confusing.
    Do we use both prerouting forward and the CT, or just CT?

  7. Hello Egarc,

    in PREROUTING raw, CT target is used to assign signaling trafic to helper. In forward, nothing change but it is recommended to filter RELATED trafic with caution.

  8. Hi

    In the last exaple let’s say my $NET_ETH1 is
    Could you explain what $ROUTED_VIA_ETH1 is?

  9. Hi,

    I have no problem to create CT rules attaching helpers to conntrack sessions for TCP and UDP helpers/protocols:

    # iptables -t raw -L
    Chain PREROUTING (policy ACCEPT)
    target prot opt source destination
    CT udp — anywhere anywhere udp dpt:amanda CT helper amanda
    CT tcp — anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:ftp CT helper ftp
    CT udp — anywhere anywhere udp dpt:1719 CT helper RAS
    CT tcp — anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:1720 CT helper Q.931
    CT tcp — anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:ircd CT helper irc
    CT tcp — anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:1723 CT helper pptp
    CT udp — anywhere anywhere udp dpt:sip CT helper sip

    And these actually works OK.

    But I really miss any documentation how to attach for example GRE helpers. PPTP connection needs GRE. And it seems to me, that only loading nf_nat_proto_gre and nf_conntrack_proto_gre (in addtition to PPTP helper rules as listed above) doesn’t work:

    nf_nat_proto_gre 918 1 nf_nat_pptp

    nf_conntrack_proto_gre 3671 1 nf_conntrack_pptp

    attaching GRE helper by CT target doesn’t work either:

    window# iptables -t raw -A PREROUTING -p 47 -j CT –helper gre
    iptables: No chain/target/match by that name.

    window# iptables -t raw -A PREROUTING -p 47 -j CT –helper pptp
    iptables: No chain/target/match by that name.

    So what is the proper way, to attach “proto” helpers to iptables / conntrack?

    Thank you.

  10. I am sorry for my beginner-level question. I am a debian 8.6 user. I installed linux-image-amd64 via backports and at the end of installation I have read this message:

    linux-latest (75) unstable; urgency=medium

    * From Linux 4.7, the iptables connection tracking system will no longer
    automatically load helper modules. If your firewall configuration
    depends on connection tracking helpers, you should explicitly load the
    required modules. For more information, see

    — Ben Hutchings Sat, 29 Oct 2016 01:53:18 +0100

    Could you please tell me if I am still as safe as before when I enable UFW? It uses iptables for firewall but that’s all I know.

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