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August 7, 2015

Hardening OpenVPN for DEF CON

As people head off to DEF CON this week, many are probably relying on OpenVPN to safely tunnel their Internet traffic through "the world's most hostile network" back to an ordinarily hostile network. While I believe OpenVPN itself to be quite secure, the way in which it interacts with the operating system to route your traffic is quite unrobust and can be subverted in numerous ways on a hostile local area network. This article will describe some of the problems and suggest countermeasures. The article is Linux-centric, since I'm most familiar with Linux, but many of these concerns apply to other operating systems as well.


Unless you explicitly configure your OpenVPN tunnel to support IPv6 (which is only possible if your server has IPv6 connectivity), then all IPv6 traffic from your client will bypass the VPN and egress over the local network. This should concern you as more and more websites are available over IPv6 (including this blog), and clients generally prefer to use IPv6 if it's available.

The easiest countermeasure is to just disable IPv6 while you're at DEF CON. As a bonus, you'll reduce your network stack's attack surface and will be safe in the unlikely event someone drops an IPv6-specific 0day at DEF CON.


If you're using a VPN, you want to make sure you're using a trusted DNS server. If you use an attacker-controlled DNS server, they can return rogue IP addresses and redirect all your traffic back to a network they control after it passes through your VPN, rendering your VPN moot. Unfortunately, Unix-based operating systems (including OS X, though it may have improved since I last looked at this a few years ago) handle DNS server configuration incredibly poorly. Even if your VPN server specifies the address of a trusted DNS server, the DHCP server on the local network might return the address of a rogue DNS server. Which DNS server you end up using depends on too many factors to discuss here, but needless to say it does not inspire confidence.

I recommend doing whatever it takes to disable the retrieval of DNS information over DHCP, and hard-coding the IP address of a trusted DNS server in /etc/resolv.conf. On Debian, if isc-dhcp-client is your DHCP client, the most airtight way to stop DHCP messing with your DNS settings is to place the following in /etc/dhcp/dhclient-enter-hooks.d/zzz-preserve-resolvconf:

make_resolv_conf() { true }

I don't know enough about other operating systems/DHCP clients to provide specific instructions.

Denial of service

An attacker can always block your VPN, preventing you from using it. If they did this continuously, you'd probably notice that your VPN failed to start, and then proceed cautiously (or not at all) knowing you didn't have the protection of a VPN. A more clever attacker would let you establish the VPN connection, and only start blocking it later. If the OpenVPN client times out and quits, you'll start sending traffic over the untrusted network, and you might not notice.

I will present a countermeasure for this along with the countermeasure for the next attack.

Attacks on redirect-gateway

The usual way of telling OpenVPN to route all Internet traffic over the VPN is to use the redirect-gateway def1 option. When this option is used, the OpenVPN client adds three routes to your system's main routing table:

  1. A specific route for the VPN server, via the local network's default gateway.
  2. A route for via the VPN.
  3. A route for via the VPN.

The first route prevents the encrypted VPN traffic from being routed via the VPN itself, which would cause a feedback loop. The last two routes are a clever hack: together, and cover the entire IPv4 address space, and since they are more specific than the default route for that came from the local DHCP server, they take precedence.

However, a DHCP server can also push its own routes (called "classless static routes") to the DHCP client. So a rogue DHCP server can push routes even more specific than the OpenVPN routes, such as for,,, and These routes cover the entire IPv4 address space, and take precedence over the less-specific OpenVPN routes.

You could tell your DHCP client to ignore classless static routes, but there's another attack: a rogue DHCP server could push a subnet mask for an extremely large subnet, such as /2. Then the interface route for the local network would be more specific than your OpenVPN routes. The attacker can only grab 25% of the IPv4 address space this way, but that's a sizable percentage of the Internet.

A better countermeasure is to take advantage of Linux's advanced routing and use multiple routing tables. Although rarely used, a Linux system can have multiple routing tables, and you can use routing policy rules to specify which routing table a packet should use. The idea is to put all your OpenVPN routes in a dedicated routing table, and then add routing policy rules that say:

  1. If a packet is destined for the VPN server, use the main routing table.
  2. Otherwise, use the OpenVPN routing table.

This keeps your OpenVPN routes safely segregated from routes pushed by the DHCP server. The only packets that will ever use the routing table controlled by the DHCP server will be encrypted packets to the VPN server itself. Everything else will use a routing table controlled only by OpenVPN.

The first step is to configure the routing rules. Unfortunately, distros don't provide a good way of managing these, leaving you to run a series of ip rule commands by hand. The changes made by these commands are lost when the system reboots, so I suggest placing them in a system startup script such as rc.local.

ip rule add to table main pref 1000 ip rule add to unreachable pref 1001 ip rule add table 94 pref 1002 ip rule add unreachable pref 1003

Replace with the IP address of your VPN server. The preferences (1000-1003) ensure the rules are sorted correctly. 94 is the number of the OpenVPN routing table, which we'll reference below. The second rule prevents VPN server packets from being routed over the VPN itself in case the main routing table is empty, and the final rule prevents packets from using the main routing table in case the OpenVPN routing table is empty (which would happen if OpenVPN quit unexpectedly).

The next step is to configure the OpenVPN client to add its routes to table 94 instead of the main routing table. OpenVPN itself lacks support for this, but I wrote a routing hook that provides support. Download the hook and install it to /usr/local/lib/openvpn/route. Make it executable with chmod +x. Then, add the following options to your OpenVPN client config:

setenv OPENVPN_ROUTE_TABLE 94 route-noexec route-up /usr/local/lib/openvpn/route route

Remove the existing redirect-gateway option (also check the server config in case it's being pushed to the client).

The first option sets the routing table number. This has to match the number used in the ip rule command above. The second and third options tell OpenVPN to use my routing hook instead of its builtin routing code. The final option tells OpenVPN to route all traffic over the VPN.

Even worse attacks

If you want to be really careful, you should redirect your network device to an isolated VM and run all of your networking config (e.g. DHCP client, wireless supplicant) inside it. The Linux userspace networking stack is pretty hairy, and it all runs as root. A vulnerability would allow an attacker to take over your system before you even start your VPN.

Using a dedicated network VM is pretty complicated and beyond the scope of this blog post. Fortunately, if you're using an up-to-date operating system you're probably safe, since it seems unlikely anyone would burn a 0day at DEF CON just to take over random conference-goers' laptops. I'd be much more worried about the other attacks, which are straightforward enough to be in script kiddie territory.


Reader Victor Dorneanu on 2015-11-15 at 16:26:

Hi Andrew!

First thanks for this excellent article. I was playing around with your hook script and then I've noticed that nothing really happens. Having a look at your script I've seen this one:

/sbin/ip route show dev $dev table main | while read route

In my client conf I have:

# Add extra client protection script-security 2 setenv OPENVPN_ROUTE_TABLE 94 route-noexec route-up /usr/local/bin/route route

The connection is being successfully established, however the tun0 device has no ip routes at all, so in that case

/sbin/ip route show dev $dev table main | while read route

will cause nothing to happen.

Any ideas?

Cheers, Victor


Anonymous on 2017-05-14 at 15:35:

Nice article, but I think that it would be better to use Qubes OS's separate VPN domain (virtual machine), you can find more here


Reader Lizzie Moratti on 2024-05-08 at 17:15:

Hi Andrew, great article!

For the sentence, "The attacker can only grab 25% of the IPv4 address space this way, but that's a sizable percentage of the Internet." I do want to note that Option 121 actually allows you to push as many routes as you can fit into the packet length. We've done upwards of 10 routes at a single time.

One interesting thing we're exploring is the idea of installing routes for all traffic except a single IP-address. When a VPN is using a mitigation like fire-wall based rules that create a DOS you can use this to confirm a host is speaking to a single IP address. There's a lot of other things you can do with 121!

You mention VMs as a fix but you can also use Network Namspaces (on Linux) to isolate the network stacks. This might be a bit easier if you really need to use the host OS.


Andrew Ayer on 2024-05-12 at 21:08:

Hi Lizzie, thanks for reading!

"25% of the IPv4 address space" refers to attacks using a subnet mask (option 1). Obviously classless static routes (option 121) are more powerful, but they might be ignored by clients. A subnet mask attack is less powerful but will work against any DHCP client.

Network namespaces are another great option to protect against route attacks, though I've unfortunately encountered some wireless drivers which don't support network namespaces. When I wrote this post, I was also thinking about remote code execution vulnerabilities in the DHCP client, which network namespaces wouldn't defend against, but these days I would look for a DHCP client written in a memory-safe language instead of going to the trouble of using VMs.


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