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How to detect devices on your network running telnet services

Detecting Telnet Enabled Devices

Telnet. One of the oldest network protocols

Telnet is a protocol used on the Internet or local area networks to provide a bidirectional interactive text-oriented communication facility using a virtual terminal connection. Telnet was developed in 1969 and it is still widely used today for configuring network devices.

Telnet typically uses Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) port 23, but traffic can be directed to a wide range of TCP ports such as 80, 8080, etc…. This is important when it comes to detecting Telnet on your network, you cannot just go off looking for devices which are listening on TCP port 23.

Why worry about Telnet?

Because Telnet is an unencrypted protocol, session traffic will reveal command line interface (CLI) command sequences appropriate for the make and model of the device. CLI strings may reveal login procedures, presentation of user credentials, commands to display boot or running configuration, copying files and creation or destruction of GRE tunnels, etc…

A recent cyber briefing from the UK based National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) recommends that you check your network for any devices running unencrypted management protocols such as:

  • Telnet
  • Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP, port 80)
  • Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP, ports 161/162)
  • Cisco Smart Install (SMI port 4786)

If these services are in use the NCSC recommends the following:

  • Do not allow unencrypted (i.e. plaintext) management protocols (e.g. Telnet) to enter an organisation from the Internet. When encrypted protocols such as SSH, HTTPS, or TLS are not possible, management activities from outside the organisation should be done through an encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) where both ends are mutually authenticated.
  • Do not allow Internet access to the management interface of any network device. The best practice is to block Internet-sourced access to the device management interface and restrict device management to an internal trusted and whitelisted host or LAN. If access to the management interface cannot be restricted to an internal trusted network, restrict remote management access via encrypted VPN capability where both ends are mutually authenticated. Whitelist the network or host from which the VPN connection is allowed, and deny all others.
  • Disable legacy unencrypted protocols such as Telnet and SNMPv1 or v2c. Where possible, use modern encrypted protocols such as SSH and SNMPv3. Harden the encrypted protocols based on current best security practice. The NCSC and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) strongly advise owners and operators to retire and replace legacy devices that cannot be configured to use SNMP V3.
  • Immediately change default passwords and enforce a strong password policy. Do not reuse the same password across multiple devices. Each device should have a unique password. Where possible, avoid legacy password-based authentication, and implement two-factor authentication based on public-private keys.

Using network traffic analysis to detect Telnet activity

As I mentioned previously, Telnet normally runs over TCP port 23. However, you can configure Telnet to run over any port and so you cannot just watch out for network traffic running on TCP port 23. You must be able to monitor all traffic and pick out the Telnet traffic by using some form of application detection.

Wireshark is one of the most popular traffic analysis tools and has the capability to detect Telnet traffic as it has access to packet payloads which can be used for application identification. Flow based tools (NetFlow, SFlow) are not suitable for detecting Telnet activity as they are not application aware. Wireshark is fine for low network traffic volumes or if you have a PCAP file that you want to analyze.

If you want to get continous monitoring in place then you need to look at setting up a data source such as a SPAN, mirror port or network TAP. Once you have a data source then you need a commercial network traffic analysis system in place like our own LANGuardian. It has an application recognition engine which can report on any Telnet activity no matter what port it is running over.

Using LANGuardian to detect Telnet activity on your network

LANGuardian uses Content-Based Application Recognition (CBAR) to identify what applications are running on your network. With support for hundreds of the most common applications and protocols, and a unique deep packet inspection algorithm, CBAR delivers greater accuracy and fewer false positives than other approaches to application recognition.

Typically you monitor network traffic at your network core where a lot of the most interesting traffic passes through. You then apply a filter so that you only show Telnet traffic.

The image to the right shows how you can use the LANGuardian Applications in Use report filter to focus in on Telnet activity. This can then be saved as a custom report if you want to add it to a dashboard or get an alert if Telnet activity is detected on your network.

Telnet application filter

A sample output of this Applications in Use report is shown below. Here we can see that some Telnet activity has been detected.

Telnet applicaton detected

Drilling down on this Telnet traffic then reveals that Telnet services are active on two seperate ports on a single server as you can see in the image below. LANGuardian can also alert you if a new server port becomes active which is useful for watching out for new activations of Telnet services on your network.

Telnet sessions

You can download a 30 day trial of LANGuardian from here and use it to detect any device running Telnet services on your network. You do not need any logs or client software. Just setup a SPAN or mirror port and you can passively monitor activity at your network edge and east west traffic moving within your network.