Surviving an attack from the Chinese


Among the ridiculous projects I have had out in the open, the most long running one is called It is a dead simple, tiny linux machine inspired by Paul Ford’s People respectfully use together that machine in their shared quest to learn and build awesome web pages.

However it was a surprise when one of the users sent me a private email with a security concern.

Here I must mention that the pattern you can spot when reading this and my previous post is purely coincidental. I will stop with the email fanfare, I promise. On with the email:

From bob
Subject: Strange connection or only my imagination?
Hey Tasos
I have noticed a very strange connection to your server from various ip address which are also listed in block ip for previous abouse pages you should check:
Both are from china, they connect to your server port on 22 but strangely they do not show up as user.

As one might notice, this is not good. I should dig in.

The worst case scenario is someone getting access to the root account of the server. If that had already happened I would be better off nuking the server.

First I ran the who command to checkout if there are active sessions/users which returned only my session/me. If root was among the online users, I would possibly be in deep trouble. But everything is fine. Now let’s checkout if root was online recently. The fact that bob saw these IPs connected at port 22 indicates ssh sessions. With the last command I can check out last logged in users. If root was connected recently and did not bother to wipe out it’s tracks, it will show up in the output.

$ last
tsangiot pts/4        athedsl-399048.h Sun Jan  8 00:11   still logged in   
tsangiot pts/3        snf-696309.vm.ok Sun Jan  8 00:09 - 00:12  (00:02)    
tsangiot pts/2        athedsl-399048.h Sat Jan  7 23:29   still logged in   
bob      pts/2        host17.186-125-6 Sat Jan  7 22:15 - 22:24  (00:09)    
bob      pts/2        host17.186-125-6 Sat Jan  7 21:39 - 22:14  (00:35)    
bob      pts/2        host17.186-125-6 Sat Jan  7 20:56 - 21:39  (00:42)    
bob      pts/3        host17.186-125-6 Sat Jan  7 13:51 - 14:06  (00:15)    
bob      pts/2        host70.186-125-4 Sat Jan  7 12:53 - 15:13  (02:19)    

Only me and bob. Hi bob!

Ok now there is a chance the attacker wiped himself from the logs. If that is the case, we are dealing with someone who managed to crack a very long password and is not reckless. In that imaginary scenario, I would congratulate the attacker before burning the house down.

*** cracking knuckles ***

I need to see which IP addresses are connected on the server and particularly on port 22 to make sure I am alone on the VPS wasteland.

To do that I can run a long netstat command:

$ netstat -tn 2>/dev/null | grep :22 | awk '{print $5}' | cut -d: -f1 | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | head

These are multiple commands piped together. To break them down:

1. netstat -tn 2>/dev/null

Uses netstat to list all network connections, ins and outs.

  1. -n – Display numeric only, don’t resolve into name.
  2. -t – Display only TCP connections.

2. grep :22

Only display the IP address that connected to server on port 22.

3. awk ‘{print $5}’

Uses awk to display the 5th field only.

4. cut -d: -f1

Uses cut to extract the content.

  1. -d – Character immediately following the -d option is use as delimiter, default is tab.
  2. -f – Specifies a field list, separated by a delimiter.

5. sort | uniq -c | sort -nr

Sort the list, group it and sort it again in reverse order.

A more detailed explanation of this command lies here.


$ netstat -tn 2>/dev/null | grep :22 | awk '{print $5}' | cut -d: -f1 | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | head

And yes I am alone here. Which means that even if someone else got access to the server he/she is not here anymore.

Then it struck me that people are connected on port 22 even if they try to login. They are not connected to the system but to pass through the ssh authentication they have to connect somehow to the server. So in the event of a bruteforce ssh attack there would be many attempts per minute to guess the password of the root account.

Perispomeni is an Ubuntu server so login attempts are stored on/var/log/auth.log. Let’s search that for the IPs in question.

$ sudo cat /var/log/auth.log|grep ""
Jan  7 22:23:17 perispomeni sshd[3580]: pam_unix(sshd:auth): authentication failure; logname= uid=0 euid=0 tty=ssh ruser= rhost=  user=root
Jan  7 22:23:19 perispomeni sshd[3580]: Failed password for root from port 36575 ssh2
Jan  7 22:23:25 perispomeni sshd[3580]: message repeated 2 times: [ Failed password for root from port 36575 ssh2]
Jan  7 22:23:25 perispomeni sshd[3580]: Received disconnect from 11:  [preauth]
Jan  7 22:23:25 perispomeni sshd[3580]: PAM 2 more authentication failures; logname= uid=0 euid=0 tty=ssh ruser= rhost=  user=root

Oh boy..

Ok it is clear that someone tries to brute force into the server. These are failed login attempts not only on port 22 but all of them. I knew little about this stuff when I first became the admin of that club but now I am wiser. Now I am a man with the plan.

I can disable ssh login for the root user. However I have not assessed what this means for my ability to troubleshoot stuff. I am afraid that if I mess things up I would need the ability to login from root. There is probably a solution involving the console on my VPS website but I have to investigate my limitations there.

What I need right now is a mechanism where repeated failure to login would cause a temporary lock of the attacker’s IP and enough failures would cause a permanent ban.

The tool for the job is called Fail2Ban. To configure Fail2Ban you should follow the guide from DigitalOcean. It is fairly easy and meets most of my criteria. I say most because it does not provide instructions for a permanent ban.

A permanent ban in a dynamic IP address might be a problem but these things are most of the times computers with static IP addresses. Even if they are not, with my 26 users the chance of getting a duplicate address is pretty slim and the remedy simple enough. Depending on your use case you should examine if this is the right way to go for you. If you run a public website for example I think it is not.

If one chooses to go down that road, he may stumble upon Phil Hagen’ ssolution. It is not the most elegant thing but it gets the job done.

In any case, this is how I found out about the Chinese attacking me.

Hey,! If you read this, next time send Jet Lee.

P.S.: If you’d like to join our server you can find a link on If not you still can become a Patron to support the effort.

About Me

My name is Tasos Sangiotis and I work at Arpedon, an engineering company. This website is a collection of posts, essays and photos. They are mainly about travel, food and technical stuff. Occasionally I shoot photos. They are mostly on Instagram. If you choose to wander this wasteland do so with caution. Consider this your final warning. To contact me use [email protected]