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On Qmail, Forged Mail, and SPF Records

By Rick Moen

Here's an object lesson in how not to do e-mail, with the role of global village idiot played by Prof. Daniel J. Bernstein's (DJB's) popular proprietary SMTP server package, qmail.

I. Qmail Follies

The trail starts with a virus-infected MS-Wind0ws box in Ireland on an Eircom dynamic IP, which evidently has been energetically pumping out copies of the MyDoom worm and sending them everywhere its tiny little mind can think of, via Eircom's "smarthost" MTA boxes.

In one case, the forged malware mail was sent out addressed to TAG, with a claimed sender address of "MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net", i.e., my own MTA's mail-housekeeping mailbox. The Eircom host duly accepted this forgery and attempted delivery to my machine (in its guise as lists.linuxgazette.net) -- which said very emphatically "No" in its "550 Unsolicited spam" permanent-reject message.

Eircom tossed this result around its network, and eventually a different Eircom host's "qmail-send" process was thus left holding the bag, and had to decide whom to notify. It decided to lob my MTA's reject notice across the Internet to the forged claimed sender, "MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net", wrapped up inside an e-mail from the null sender ("<>").

I can't really complain about the latter phase of this process, in fairness: Eircom's second MTA had no clue about the message's real provenance, and had only forged header data to act on. In that context, it did the right thing.

The actual problem was at the first qmail instance, when that program's qmail-smtpd module accepted the forgery in the first place. qmail-smtpd is a deliberately stupid program capable only of accepting all incoming port-25 SMTP traffic without prejudice, handing the received bytes over to the qmail-queue module for instantiation on-disk, making an entry in a logfile, and closing the connection.

DJB's admirers call this deliberate stupidity a feature, pointing out that qmail's sparsity and modularity make it easier to deal with public data safely.[1] This is true, but it comes at an excessive cost, namely the qmail-smtpd module's designed-in helplessness to detect and reject forged and otherwise aberrant mail: all incoming mail gets accepted and the connection closed before its header or contents can even be looked over at all. This is in stark contrast to its main open-source competitors, Postfix, Exim, and sendmail -- all of which can intelligently inspect incoming mail before saying yes or no to delivery.

II. Forgeries

qmail is thus distinctively guilty of one of this decade's leading technological sins: generation of "backscatter spam" -- unwanted mail sent to innocent parties whose sending addresses were forged in bulk e-mail sent out by spammers and/or malware. It's important to stress that this is a design deficiency, one that's not curable without redesigning and rewriting qmail's qmail-smtpd module (at minimum). (And, if you're going to go to all that trouble, it's smarter to just switch to a good open-source MTA such as Postfix, instead.)

As I think I've mentioned before, mailing lists (as the leading modern example of mail forwarders) are ground zero in the Internet's junkmail wars, being frequently caught between spam/malware senders trying to pump out junk and vigilant mail admins trying to reject it. The MyDoom malware e-mail concerned here was a case in point, having been deliberately crafted to implicate "MAILER_DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net" as an apparent sender -- a ploy called "Joe Job" mail after its first known target, Joe Doll of joes.com (Joe's Cyberpost), against whom a Chicago-area spammer launched a pernicious and clever "revenge spam" attack on January 2, 1997, trying to punish Doll for the commendable act of throwing the spammer off his free hosting service.[2]

If Eircom had used a less deliberately stupid MTA, it could in theory have taken steps to determine that "194-125-179-235.as1.mgr.mullingar.eircom.net" (one of Eircom's own dynamic-IP addresses!) was an extremely doubtful source host for "linuxgazette.net" mail. However, there are also things we can do to help such efforts:


We at Linux Gazette really need to get around to limiting the potential for abuse by adding SPF (Sender Policy Framework) [3] records to the linuxgazette.net DNS for domain "linuxgazette.net" and subdomain "lists.linuxgazette.net" -- records that specify for all other mail systems which specific MTA hosts are solely authorised to originate SMTP mail from our mail-handling hostnames (aka authorised to be our MX or mail exchanger hosts). Basically, an SPF record is a reverse-MX record, in the same way that a PTR (reverse DNS) record is the mirrored half of a forward-lookup "A" record -- which, if checked during mail delivery, permits rejecting forgeries.

To my knowledge, only kayos's host and mine legitimately handle our outbound mail.[4] Thus, a suitable pair of SPF records would be as follows -- with each record comprising a hostname, an SPF version number, and a list of "mechanisms" (suggestions on what to do with mail from specified sets of hosts):

linuxgazette.net. IN TXT "v=spf1 a mx a:lists.linuxgazette.net -all"
lists.linuxgazette.net. IN TXT "v=spf1 a mx -all"

Parsing the first one by parts:

  linuxgazette.net.  #Identifies domain this is for.

  IN TXT  #INternet-style record of type TXT = freeform text, that being 
          #where SPF records are stored for lack of a dedicated SPF
          #reference record type assigned by the IANA, so far.  
          #(A dedicated record type has been applied for.)

  v=spf1  #Implementing SPF protocol version 1.

  a       #Honour as valid any "linuxgazette.net" mail arriving from our "A"
          #record host, which happens to be genetikayos.com, IP

  mx      #Honour as valid "linuxgazette.net" mail arriving from any other 
          #host listed as type "MX" for that domain.  There aren't any, 
          #but this will allow for future ones.

  a:lists.linuxgazette.net  #Accept as valid "linuxgazette.net" mail 
          #from my host, too (just in case it's ever necessary for
          #my host to handle some).
  -all    #"all" is a catchall mechanism that matches if none of the foregoing
          #keywords do.  Modifier "-", here, advises receiving MTAs that they 
          #should hardfail all matching mail ostensibly from the 
          #"linuxgazette.net" domain, i.e., reject any such mail received from 
          #any SMTP host not enumerated above.

(The second SPF line, published for subdomain/host lists.linuxgazette.net, should be pretty easy to parse, being slightly simpler but generally similar.)

There are two alternatives to "-all": The wishy-washy "?all" (neutral recommendation) is what, for example, aol.com and google.com publish, and means "We're sort of considering SPF deployment, but for now are saying nothing definitive about which hosts should be considered valid mail exchangers."

  $ dig -t TXT aol.com +short
  "v=spf1 ip4: ip4: ip4:
  ip4: ip4: ip4:
  ip4: ptr:mx.aol.com ?all"
  "spf2.0/pra ip4: ip4:
  ip4: ip4: ip4:
  ip4: ip4: ptr:mx.aol.com ?all"
  $ dig -t TXT google.com +short
  "v=spf1 ptr ?all"

The slightly more confident "~all" (softfail recommendation) implies "We're in transition to SPF, so please consider doubting the authenticity of mail from mail exchangers other than the ones we're listing here" -- but we advise against rejecting it out of hand." sendmail.com is using that model:

  $ dig -t TXT sendmail.com +short
  "v=spf1 ip4: ip4: ip4:
  ip4: ip4: ip4: ip:
  ip4: ~all"

The fully unequivocal "-all" (hardfail recommendation) catchall (which I recommend) means "Please consider this list of allowed hosts truly definitive; we'd prefer that you summarily reject all mail purporting to be ours but arriving from anywhere we don't list here." The District of Columbia-area tux.org LUG collective publishes that sort of record, for example:

  $ dig -t TXT tux.org +short
  "v=spf1 mx ptr -all"

Assuming I hear no serious objections, I'll be asking kayos to add the hardfail-type lines specified above to our domain records, going forward.

[ Objections? What objections? If I had a complaint, it would be something like "why didn't I think of this a year ago?" Thanks for taking care of it, Rick! -- Ben ]

----- Forwarded message from MAILER-DAEMON@eircom.net -----

Return-path: <>
Envelope-to: MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net
Delivery-date: Tue, 29 Aug 2006 09:20:25 -0700
Received: from mail00.svc.cra.dublin.eircom.net ([]:21343)
	 by linuxmafia.com with smtp   (Exim 4.61 #1 (EximConfig 2.0))
	 id 1GI6Hw-0005DL-Oa   
	for <MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net>; Tue, 29 Aug 2006 09:20:24 -0700
Received: (qmail 42778 messnum 6402494 invoked for bounce); 29 Aug 2006 16:18:01 -0000
Date: 29 Aug 2006 16:18:01 -0000
From: MAILER-DAEMON@eircom.net
To: MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-EximConfig: v2.0 on linuxmafia.com (http://www.jcdigita.com/eximconfig)
X-Spam-Checker-Version: SpamAssassin 3.1.1 (2006-03-10) on linuxmafia.com
X-Spam-Status: No, score=-1.6 required=4.0 tests=BAYES_00,NO_REAL_NAME 
	autolearn=no version=3.1.1
Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary="1156868198eircom.net6401928"
Subject: failure notice
X-SA-Exim-Version: 4.2.1 (built Mon, 27 Mar 2006 13:42:28 +0200)
X-SA-Exim-Scanned: Yes (on linuxmafia.com)

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at eircom.net.
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

<tag@lists.linuxgazette.net>: failed after I sent the message.
Remote host said: 550 Unsolicited spam:  score=6.7 required=4.0 trigger=4.2  -  Sorry, your message has been rejected by our filtering software due to achieving a high spam score.  We apologise if you have sent a legitimate message and it has been blocked.  If this is the case, please re-send adding verified- to the beginning of the E-mail address of each recipient.  If you do this, your message will get through successfully, e.g:  verified-fred.bloggs@domain.tld

--- Enclosed is a copy of the message.

Return-Path: MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net
Received: (qmail 30458 messnum 6401928 invoked from network[]); 29 Aug 2006 16:15:59 -0000
Received: from 194-125-179-235.as1.mgr.mullingar.eircom.net (HELO lists.linuxgazette.net) (
  by mail00.svc.cra.dublin.eircom.net (qp 30458) with SMTP; 29 Aug 2006 16:15:59 -0000
From: MAILER-DAEMON <MAILER-DAEMON@lists.linuxgazette.net>
To: tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Subject: Delivery failed
Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2006 17:13:14 +0100
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: multipart/mixed;
X-Priority: 3
X-MSMail-Priority: Normal
X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 6.00.2600.0000
X-MIMEOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2600.0000

Dear user tag@lists.linuxgazette.net,

We have found that your email account was used to send a huge amount of junk e-mail during the recent week.
Obviously, your computer had been infected by a recent virus and now runs a hidden proxy server.

We recommend that you follow our instruction in order to keep your computer safe.

Have a nice day,
The lists.linuxgazette.net team.

[RM note:  The MyDoom worm binary was file-attached at this point.]

----- End forwarded message -----

[1] See "The Security Architecture of qmail", http://hillside.net/plop/2004/papers/mhafiz1/PLoP2004_mhafiz1_0.pdf

[2] For more, see the Joe Job entries in my Linuxmafia.com Knowledgebase, at http://linuxmafia.com/kb/Mail/. I was among the many anti-spam activists on the Usenet news.admin.net-abuse-email newsgroup whom the spammer attempted to lure into revenge-attacking Joe Doll, through flamebait mail sent to me directly, forged so as to fool me into thinking Doll had sent it.

[3] SPF is an oft-misunderstood technical mechanism, very easy to add to one's published DNS records and with a bit more difficulty to SMTP servers, that makes it possible for mail servers to determine at the moment of receipt if a piece of mail's claimed sender is forged. The idea is for you as a domain owner to declare (in special SPF reference records in your DNS) which specific IPs/hostnames are the sole authorised sources of mail from your domain. Thereafter, any system receiving mail claimed to be from your domain has the means to verify that assertion, checking the "envelope From" and Return-Path headers' domain against your published SPF record.

If you care about your, your domain's, and its users' reputations, then you should add an SPF record to your DNS. It's that simple -- and it's something you can easily do once, and never have to revisit unless you move, add, or retire SMTP servers.

Objections to SPF divide generally into "It doesn't achieve [additional desired goal foo]" and "It might interfere with my favourite way of relaying mail through multiple SMTP servers" categories (see whitepaper, below) -- all of which miss the point that publishing an SPF record is absolutely in the interest of any domain owner. If you haven't created one yet, what are you waiting for?

Details at:
Note also the "SPF Setup Wizard" CGI at http://www.openspf.org/, that you can use to write prototype SPF records for domains.

How best, if at all, to implement the MTA (SMTP server) end of SPF, i.e., the checking of SPF records at the time of receiving mail, is a separate discussion, another point commonly missed in discussions of this subject. You as the sysadmin of an MTA always have within your sole control whether your server will act at all on SPF information, and whether it should follow particular SPF records' recommendations or not. SPF is just published information: you can ignore it, implement it, do the exact opposite of its suggestions, or anything else you can dream of. SPF does not break mailing lists (because they rewrite the "envelope From" and Return-Path headers) -- and there do exist ways to implement other forms of mail-forwarding that don't trigger unauthorised-MX suspicions. (Publishing SPF records isn't useful if, for some strange reason, you cannot determine what SMTP hosts are supposed to be legitimate senders of your outgoing mail -- but then, I'd say you have bigger problems.)

[4] Hosting of Linux Gazette's Web pages, svn archive, and main administrative e-mailboxes is kindly donated by T.R. "kayos" Fullhart on his genetikayos.com server, masquerading as "linuxgazette.net". All of the magazine's mailing lists, however, are hosted separately at my linuxmafia.com server, masquerading as "lists.linuxgazette.net".

Talkback: Discuss this article with The Answer Gang

Bio picture Rick has run freely-redistributable Unixen since 1992, having been roped in by first 386BSD, then Linux. Having found that either one sucked less, he blew away his last non-Unix box (OS/2 Warp) in 1996. He specialises in clue acquisition and delivery (documentation & training), system administration, security, WAN/LAN design and administration, and support. He helped plan the LINC Expo (which evolved into the first LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, in San Jose), Windows Refund Day, and several other rabble-rousing Linux community events in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's written and edited for IDG/LinuxWorld, SSC, and the USENIX Association; and spoken at LinuxWorld Conference and Expo and numerous user groups.

His first computer was his dad's slide rule, followed by visitor access to a card-walloping IBM mainframe at Stanford (1969). A glutton for punishment, he then moved on (during high school, 1970s) to early HP timeshared systems, People's Computer Company's PDP8s, and various of those they'll-never-fly-Orville microcomputers at the storied Homebrew Computer Club -- then more Big Blue computing horrors at college alleviated by bits of primeval BSD during UC Berkeley summer sessions, and so on. He's thus better qualified than most, to know just how much better off we are now.

When not playing Silicon Valley dot-com roulette, he enjoys long-distance bicycling, helping run science fiction conventions, and concentrating on becoming an uncarved block.

Copyright © 2006, Rick Moen. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 131 of Linux Gazette, October 2006

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