If You Have a Cisco Firewall, Disable this Feature NOW!!!

I don’t often have an opportunity to post a rant in an IT blog (And even less opportunity to create a click-bait headline), but here goes nothing! Cisco’s method of doing ESMTP packet inspection is INCREDIBLY STUPID and you should disable it immediately. Why do I say that? Because when Cisco ASAs/whatever they call them these days are configured to perform packet inspection on ESMTP traffic, the preferred option of doing so is to block the STARTTLS verb entirely.*

In other words, Cisco firewalls are designed to completely disable email encryption in order to inspect email traffic. This is such a stupid method of allowing packet inspection that I can barely find words to explain it. But find them I shall.

You might think that you want your Firewall to inspect your email traffic in order to block malicious email or prevent unauthorized access, or what have you. And in that context, I agree. It’s a useful thing. But knowing that the Firewall is not only inspecting the traffic but also preventing any kind of built in E-Mail encryption from running is rant food for me.

I can just imagine the people at Cisco one day sitting around coming up with ideas on how to implement ESMTP packet inspection. I can imagine some guy saying, “I know, we can design our firewall to function as a Smart Host, so it can receive encrypted emails from our customer’s email servers, decrypt them, inspect them, then communicate with the destination servers and attempt to encrypt the messages from there.” I can then imagine that guy being ignored by the rest of his coworkers once the lazy dork in the room says, “How about we just block the STARTTLS verb?”

Thank you, Cisco engineers, for using the absolute laziest possible method you could find to ensure that all email traffic gets inspected, thereby making certain that your packet inspection needs are met while preventing your clients from using TLS encryption over SMTP.

So, if you have a Cisco firewall and want to have the ability to, you know, encrypt email, make sure you disable ESMTP packet inspection. If that feature is turned on, all your email is completely unencrypted. Barracuda provides a lovely guide on disabling ESMTP inspection. https://www.barracuda.com/support/knowledgebase/50160000000IyefAAC

Cisco tells people to just disable the rule that blocks STARTTLS in email, but that wouldn’t really help their packet inspection much, since everything past the STARTTLS verb is encrypted. If it’s encrypted, it can’t be inspected, other than looking at the traffic and going, “Yep. That’s all gobbledygook. Must be encrypted.” So that’s just a dumb recommendation that doesn’t do anything useful (It also requires a trip to the Cisco CLI, which is a great fun thing). This is why I say disable ESMTP packet inspection on your Cisco Firewall, cause it’s making you less secure.

*For the uninitiated, ESMTP stands for Extended Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, and it’s what every mail server on the Internet today uses to exchange emails with each other. The STARTTLS verb is a command that initiates an encrypted email session, so blocking it prevents encrypted email exchanges entirely. This is a bad thing.


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