I've been running my own personal mail server for almost two years. On Friday May 15, I tried to send an email and immediately received a undeliverable mail response from my mail server.

This is the mail system at host tarnbarford.net.

I'm sorry to have to inform you that your message could not
be delivered to one or more recipients. It's attached below.

For further assistance, please send mail to postmaster.

If you do so, please include this problem report. You can
delete your own text from the attached returned message.

                   The mail system

<xxxxxxxx@xxxxxxxx>: host gmail-smtp-in.l.google.com[] said:
    550-5.7.1 [      12] Our system has detected that this message
    is 550-5.7.1 likely unsolicited mail. To reduce the amount of spam sent to
    Gmail, 550-5.7.1 this message has been blocked. Please visit 550-5.7.1
    http://support.google.com/mail/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=188131 for 550
    5.7.1 more information. y7si5709303wjw.181 - gsmtp (in reply to end of DATA

A week earlier a friend told me that one of my mails had been marked as spam by GMail, which was concerning, but I figured maybe I could take some steps to ensure my mail server looked more legitimate, like setting up reverse DNS lookup, SPF and DKIM correctly. This seemed much more concerning. I took a break outside to think about and what I should do next and why Google was picking on me all of a sudden? Slowly it dawned on me that maybe my server had been compromised.

I rushed back to my computer, shelled into the server and ran tail -f on the mail log. I was immediately presented a continuous stream of log messages. Fuck. I stopped the tail to see what was happening, it didn't look good "delivery temporarily suspended", "ERROR: Mail Refused", "Retrying will NOT succeed.". I stopped postfix and re-ran the tail command, the tail of log appeared but thankfully new log messages were not appearing.

"Table tennis?" a colleague had approached me from behind and shocked me. "Not now, I'm busy" I snapped back, shocking him and me. I broke my trance like stare from the shell on my screen, turned around and explained that my mail server had been compromised and appeared to by trying to send spam.

I turned back to my computer to see a message from Michal, we share a physical server which we run virtual machines on using KVM. "Hey", this cannot have been unrelated so I beat him to the punch, "my server was spamming :'(". He'd received an abuse email from our hosting provider.

15:41:48 piwoni: hey
15:41:54 tarnacious: yes?
15:42:05 tarnacious: my server was spamming :'(
15:42:09 piwoni: yes
15:42:14 tarnacious: I don't know how
15:42:16 piwoni: wanted to tell you
15:42:19 tarnacious: thanks
15:42:22 tarnacious: too late
15:42:44 tarnacious: you get email from hetzner?
15:42:45 tarnacious: :D
15:42:49 piwoni: yes
15:42:53 tarnacious: today?
15:42:55 piwoni: yes
15:42:58 tarnacious: ok.
15:43:05 tarnacious: has been 4 days.
15:43:11 tarnacious: ip address is ruined :(
15:43:33 piwoni: how did it happen?
15:43:42 tarnacious: I don't know yet.
15:43:45 piwoni: ok
15:44:05 piwoni: do you have anyting on your
15:44:08 piwoni: site?
15:44:13 piwoni: form?
15:44:36 tarnacious: nope.
15:44:37 piwoni: is the smtp with auth
15:44:45 tarnacious: yep.
15:44:56 tarnacious: maybe brute force the auth
15:45:10 tarnacious: I do not know yet.
15:45:49 tarnacious: queue was pretty massive, but most mail servers have stopped talking to me.

What happened

I still hadn't worked out how my server had been compromised. I've been running it for almost two years and I was pretty confident it wasn't an open relay. I looked through the logs and found a message from android@tarnbarford.net. I ran grep from= /var/log/mail.log, this account was trying to send a lot of mail.

15:51:43 tarnacious: ok, i see what has happened :(
15:51:49 piwoni: ?
15:52:39 tarnacious: in my mail logs...
15:52:47 tarnacious: sasl_username=android connects.
15:52:51 tarnacious: and me.
15:53:06 piwoni: android?
15:53:11 piwoni: username
15:53:11 piwoni: :P
15:53:17 tarnacious: android is an account I created to build android.
15:53:21 piwoni: heh
15:53:25 piwoni: and pass ?
15:53:28 tarnacious: I guess I must have given him a week password.
15:53:29 piwoni: empty ?
15:53:53 piwoni: how do you store them ?
15:54:57 tarnacious: unix password
15:55:13 piwoni: change it
15:56:44 tarnacious: no shit

I use this machine for many other things including; a web server, a VPN server, a git server, for connecting to IRC servers, for pair programming, and for running arbitrary long running processes. I try to manage the system like I think a Unix system administer would; I create user accounts for everything, I care about file permissions and try to run a much as possible as non-privileged users.

The android account was created for building a custom CyanogenMod. Aside from taking ages to build, it also requires significantly more disk space than I can free on my Macbook Air. As the user was not in the sudoers file and password SSH connections are not allowed, I hadn't thought the password was very important and presumably created an extremely weak one.

What I had not thought of was that the password could be used to authenticate with the SMTP server, this is because I have postfix set-up to use Linux accounts as users. It appeared that someone had managed to guess a username/password combination on the SMTP server. A friend later joked that the attacker may have been surprised to get access so early in their dictionary attack.

I changed the android users password, cleared the entire postfix mail queue, restarted postfix and watched the logs. There were a few intermittent failed login attempts, but the server didn't seem to be trying to send any more mail.

What was sent

Feeling like I had done enough to temporarily safely start running the server again while still keeping an eye on the logs I moved onto working out what had happened. For this I had copied all the logs to a working directory and unzipped them. I had logs from April 19th to May 17th, 12GB in total, which itself was pretty ominous.

I initially attempted to analyse the logs myself with some awk scripts but found the postfix logs quite difficult to extract useful summaries from. The problem is there can be many log entries for a single message and useful information is spread across them. There is some sort of ID in each log message and I initially thought that the ID would be unique per message and I could group on that and work out what happened for each ID, but it turns out it is a little more complicated than that as messages can have multiple recipients. Probably worth looking around, surely someone has solved the problem.

After a quick search I found a script, pflogsumm.pl, that seemed to summarise the type of information I was looking for. I'm not sure how accurate it is or what these numbers mean, but it is very clear that my little mail server had been quite busy.

Grand Totals

 493404   received
   1543k  delivered
      0   forwarded
 311685   deferred  (33608k deferrals)
 448708   bounced
    486   rejected (0%)
      0   reject warnings
      0   held
      0   discarded (0%)

   2406m  bytes received
   5826m  bytes delivered
    672   senders
   1166   sending hosts/domains
   1053k  recipients
 105817   recipient hosts/domains

The per day traffic summary was quite interesting to me as I shows that the account had been compromised a few weeks earlier than I thought. I also find the usage patterns quite interesting, it looks like it was compromised on April 26 and a few thousand emails were sent, possibly to test if the server could be used to send spam. Then it is used in bursts, with no email at been sent between May 7 and May 9.

Per-Day Traffic Summary
    date          received  delivered   deferred    bounced     rejected
    Apr 19 2015        21         21          0          0         12
    Apr 20 2015        35         35          0          0         30
    Apr 21 2015        32         32          0          0         14
    Apr 22 2015        30         30          0          0         44
    Apr 23 2015        34         34          0          0          8
    Apr 24 2015        28         28          0          0         13
    Apr 25 2015        22         22          0          0         10
    Apr 26 2015       110       2030          0       2039          9
    Apr 27 2015        61         60          0          0         18
    Apr 28 2015     67547     193033        565k     52301         15
    Apr 29 2015       149      11711     453347      10425         21
    Apr 30 2015    136912     460833       1244k     90682         17
    May  1 2015     11679     194702       4523k     26787         15
    May  2 2015       113      10189       3798k      2113         10
    May  3 2015        69       7538       3601k       850          9
    May  4 2015        44       5902       3344k      6094         10
    May  5 2015       109      19998       3064k        64         14
    May  6 2015        63       7587     187980          0          9
    May  7 2015        52         54         43          0         18
    May  8 2015        65         64         21          0         17
    May  9 2015        50         50         21          0         27
    May 10 2015     35576      74756     335577      22229         14
    May 11 2015     48658     125790        668k     68149         22
    May 12 2015     88920     203938       3024k    115446         26
    May 13 2015        73       5227       3056k     11819         13
    May 14 2015        76       3157       2885k      6634         13
    May 15 2015    102763     253975       2876k     33070         12
    May 16 2015        48         48          0          3         30
    May 17 2015        65         65          0          3         16

The top domains is pretty uninteresting, except that I can clearly see why GMail decided to start blocking emails from me.

Host/Domain Summary: Message Delivery
 sent cnt  bytes   defers   avg dly max dly host/domain
 -------- -------  -------  ------- ------- -----------
 281109     1116m    1540k    4.8 h   87.7 h  hotmail.com
 247760      705m   15277k   13.1 h  121.2 h  yahoo.com
 152088     1129m       0     1.2 m    4.9 h  tarnbarford.net
 118590   371368k  132586     5.3 h  120.9 h  gmail.com
  40608   130322k  359555     2.5 h   37.5 h  aol.com
  35961   132388k       1     2.8 h   15.5 h  telenet.be
  23607    73362k      12     7.3 h   17.3 h  163.com
  21060    77012k  206635    11.9 h  120.8 h  skynet.be
  18418    73872k  481938    25.0 h   76.2 h  hanmail.net
  17039    61274k   88959     4.4 h   82.1 h  msn.com
  15737    57300k   62322     5.4 h   15.5 h  live.nl
  13636    42315k       9     6.2 h   17.3 h  126.com
  13020    34618k   58867     6.9 h   21.1 h  ameritech.net
  11876    36937k   95879    10.5 h   77.1 h  vip.sina.com
  11828    30012k    1176k    8.0 h  121.1 h  adelphia.net
  11168    40958k   38749     5.1 h   31.7 h  hotmail.fr
  10203    33512k  267776    15.7 h  120.9 h  yahoo.fr
   9005    29039k       0     6.8 h   17.3 h  sina.com

These are the top two recipients, the next ten are genuine and then a huge list of addresses used three or less times.

Recipients by message count
 150742   android@tarnbarford.net
  34696   ppway2323@hotmail.com

I have no idea why ppway2323@hotmail.com was sent so many emails and I also don't know where the 150742 emails to android@tarnbarford.net are. There are only 87 emails in the Maildir of the user, they are all delivery status notifications. Usually the delivery status emails contain the original email, so we get some information on what was sent. They are not all the same, but they are all spam, this one is quite common.

Subject: Re: Part time job opportunity
To: Recipients <android@tarnbarford.net>
From: android@tarnbarford.net
Date: Thu, 14 May 2015 15:49:24 -0700
Reply-To: tinagerardi9470@gmail.com

Our Ref: Bny/23/9swd/34
Your Ref: ABWN/NYT/87E3

Position: Retail Product Research Coordinator.

We are a reputable Survey Company handling products and services survey
evaluation for most Fortune 500 companies in the United States of America. We
are seeking Dedicated Part time staff for the position of Retail Product
Research Coordinator. You will work as a team to test products pricing and
product display in your Geographical Zone.It is probationary assignments that
will last 18 months.Your basic pay per assignment will be $900.00. You will be
entitled to a pay review after 90 days. You only need 1hr in a day to carry out
your assignment. If interested in this position please send your reply to
tinagerardi9470@gmail.com. Include your full name, Address and a Day time
Telephone number. We will send you a package with your first Assignment as soon
as we we hear from you.

Sincerely;  Tina Gerardi.
Survey  Coordinator.

Adding security and anti-spam measures

My initial thoughts were to build a new mail server on its own machine, I had wanted to do this anyway as the mail server was was both relatively important to me and relatively difficult to set up. If not automate the set up, I wanted to at least document it. I decided against building it now as it appeared the server itself wasn't compromised, I didn't have the time and I would probably have to deal with my host name being on email blacklists even if I changed IP address. So I decided to see if I could harden this server and get myself off the blacklists.

I immediately added smtpd_sender_restrictions to only allow mail to be sent by specified users. Although I will probably create users with --disabled-password in the future, there are potentially other accounts on the system with weak passwords. It was quite easy to verify this was working, I just removed myself from the list, restarted postfix and tried to send a mail.

$ cat mail.eml | msmtp -a tarn tarn.barford@retresco.de
msmtp: recipient address tarn.barford@retresco.de not accepted by the server
msmtp: server message: 554 5.7.1 <tarn@tarnbarford.net>: Sender address rejected: Access denied
msmtp: could not send mail (account tarn from /Users/tarn/.msmtprc)

I enabled fail2ban jails for postfix and sasl which means any IP address that fails to authenticate 3 times will be banned for an hour. This was just a matter of enabling some sections in the fail2ban configuration as I already had it running for ssh connections. I found out this works the hard way by accidentally banning myself while testing other SMTP logins failed.

I used policyd to setup per-address rate limiting for sending and receiving mail. This was a bit more tricky, but I found a guide that helped me get it set-up. I tested this works by setting the quota really low and sending a few messages.

$ cat mail.eml | msmtp -a tarn tarn.barford@retresco.de
$ cat mail.eml | msmtp -a tarn tarn.barford@retresco.de
$ cat mail.eml | msmtp -a tarn tarn.barford@retresco.de
$ cat mail.eml | msmtp -a tarn tarn.barford@retresco.de
msmtp: recipient address tarn.barford@retresco.de not accepted by the server
msmtp: server message: 554 5.7.1 <tarn@tarnbarford.net>: Sender address rejected: Sender quota exceed.
msmtp: could not send mail (account tarn from /Users/tarn/.msmtprc)

Setting up a Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is just a matter setting a TXT record on the domain name.

$ dig +short -t txt tarnbarford.net
"v=spf1 mx a -all"

In my case all mail from my domain should come from the IP that is in the MX record, and if not then it should be rejected.

To send DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) you need to create a key-pair, publish the public key as a domain record and add a header each email with a signature of the contents. There is a Debian package for OpenDKIM that includes a daemon that can sign mails and is easy to integrate with Postfix. Below is an example of a DKIM signed message I sent to myself.

DKIM-Signature: v=1; a=rsa-sha256; c=relaxed/simple; d=tarnbarford.net;
    s=mail; t=1432809266;
Date: Thu, 28 May 2015 12:34:24 +0200
From: Tarn Barford <tarn@tarnbarford.net>
To: tarn@tarnbarford.net
Subject: DKIM
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
Content-Disposition: inline
User-Agent: Mutt/1.5.23 (2014-03-12)

hello, DKIM.

My DKIM public key for this message can be found based on the from header and the s field in the DKIM signature.

$ dig +short -t txt mail._domainkey.tarnbarford.net
"v=DKIM1\; k=rsa\; p=MIGfMA0GCSqGSIb3DQEBAQUAA4GNADCBiQKBgQC0LNf8wdRCk2eXt1+EAIAdDSfq4aLMR/a6hCdPzJdAZ5OB1Z2LvOJlUGtx81MAttOG2lztjMmdrEq4mmGe0LUXOmOTqMcY8/woNspqvj9N4zPUEZXFP6yrYlgVGuVcLYWV6huCviwlt49KciaB9al+E2PogZJxDda5/cYffrI4PQIDAQAB"

There are plenty of tools to create and validate DKIM mail signatures including a Python library. This validated that my DKIM signature was valid for the above mail.

$ virtualenv .
$ ./bin/pip install dkimpy
$ ./bin/pip install dnspython
$ ./bin/dkimverify.py < test.eml
signature ok

While this verifies the signature is ok, I wasn't entirely satisfied and wanted to see what was going on. The DKIM-Signature header has a body hash field bh which is specified in the header as being an rsa-sha256 hash. Once this is verified the signature itself can be verified on the headers alone as the headers contain a hash of the body contents.

$ printf "hello, DKIM.\r\n" | openssl dgst -binary -sha256 | openssl base64

This matches the body hash in the signature, so we can continue. To verify the authenticity of this mails headers a signature, a public key and the exact headers that were signed with the private key are required.

The b field in the DKIM-Signature header is the signature. It is base64 encoded and openssl requires the binary form, so it needs to be decoded and saved.

$ printf "PAy0LzlmVsAQaQ9NzI4d+RSLMpz8Fg/eqNrVYU9rFlc7WHnIkBwBpFol2NQy8T+ygDxuw3OAjDh0kjV7W9LF0Y2rnjVfVJ5RLQRVe0HJiVOkLyS9cESoZZ63Ki4uUb/oB8NhhvWPjrKw6hukPZYGSCOhGg8Zz8da1EviMHB6oP4=" | openssl enc -base64 -d -A > signature

The p field in the mail._domainkey is a base64 encoded, DER encoded public key.

$ printf "MIGfMA0GCSqGSIb3DQEBAQUAA4GNADCBiQKBgQC0LNf8wdRCk2eXt1+EAIAdDSfq4aLMR/a6hCdPzJdAZ5OB1Z2LvOJlUGtx81MAttOG2lztjMmdrEq4mmGe0LUXOmOTqMcY8/woNspqvj9N4zPUEZXFP6yrYlgVGuVcLYWV6huCviwlt49KciaB9al+E2PogZJxDda5/cYffrI4PQIDAQAB" | openssl enc -base64 -d -A > key.der

This can be verified this by converting it back into a familiar looking public key and saving it as key.pub.

$ openssl rsa  -pubin -inform DER < key.derwriting RSA key | tee key.pub
writing RSA key
-----END PUBLIC KEY-----

The modulus and exponent of this public key can also be checked and should be rejected if it isn't long enough.

$ openssl rsa -noout -text -pubin < key.pub
Modulus (1024 bit):
Exponent: 65537 (0x10001)

The DKIM-Signature also specifies a list of headers in the h field. These are the headers, followed by the DKIM-Signature header itself minus the signature field b that are hashed and then signed. There are some rules about formatting these headers before they are signed; line wrapping must be removed, the header key and value are separated by a single colon without spaces and headers are separated with a Carriage Return and Line Feed.

$ printf "date:Thu, 28 May 2015 12:34:24 +0200\r\n" > headers
$ printf "from:Tarn Barford <tarn@tarnbarford.net>\r\n" >> headers
$ printf "to:tarn@tarnbarford.net\r\n" >> headers
$ printf "subject:DKIM\r\ndkim-signature:v=1; a=rsa-sha256; c=relaxed/simple; d=tarnbarford.net; s=mail; t=1432809266; bh=YocFhtTgjr2exNi9eb3SUWb8spcRxFH1Tqh/0OcRcfA=; h=Date:From:To:Subject:From; b=" >> headers

Now openssl can again be used, this time to verify the key, the signature and the headers.

$ openssl dgst -sha256 -verify key.der -keyform DER -signature signature headers
Verified OK

Great, it verifies as expected. There is obviously more detail in the RFCs or by looking at an open source implementation, but I found it interesting to see how it worked for one email.

A Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) policy is simply another DNS record that allows a domain to specify what action other mail servers should take with mail purportedly from this domain based on the combined results of SPF and DKIM checks (allow, reject, hold, etc). It also provides an email address for participating mail servers to send reports.

$ dig +short -t txt _dmarc.tarnbarford.net

My DMARC policy says to reject 100% of mails that fail either SPF or DKIM checks and mail conformance information to postmaster@tarnbarford.net. I now get digest DMARC reports from participating mail servers, here is what Google sent me.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>


I found MXToolbox which checks a domain or IP address against quite a few email blacklists. It is quite useful as it also provides some information and links to get your IP off each list. My IP was listed in eight blacklists, I was able to get it off six almost immediately by following the delisting procedures. I believe I was on the other two remaining lists already as our other IP addresses in the network are also on the list, and are not even mail servers.

Google has been more difficult, "How to Remove Your IP from the Gmail Blacklist" goes into some detail and links to a Google Support page where you can submit delivery issues. The post says it will take 3-7 days to process provided you fixed the reason it was blocked in the first place. I filled the form out a few weeks ago after stopping the spamming and adding the sending restrictions. I thought I had done enough at that stage to be unblocked, but apparently Google didn't think so as I am still blocked. I have since added SPF, DKIM, DMARC and rate limiting and I will fill the form out again after I post this story.


This story shouldn't be seen as a reason not to run your own mail server, if you want to you should, it's fun! This was a pretty embarrassing security failure, but the exploit was crude and relatively harmless. In working out what happened and putting systems in place to prevent it occurring again I have learned a lot and added a range of anti-spam and security features to my little mail server.

Hopefully soon I will again be able to mail Google addresses, I will update this post when this happens (or doesn't).

Update June 19, 2014: I never actually re-sent that request to Google to unblock me, but today it seems I am able to send mail to GMail accounts again. Thanks GMail!