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Jailing specific processes inside a VPN

by Niklas Haas on May 9, 2017

Tagged as: networking, linux, tips.

I’ve always wondered how difficult it would be to do something like this, so I decided to give it a try. Turns out the answer is, since the addition of UID matching to ip rule, not very difficult.

iproute2 configuration

The basic approach is to give the VPN interface a separate routing table, and redirect suspect processes to that routing table instead. Since working with numeric IDs directly is sort of a pain, you can give them friendly names:

$ cat /etc/iproute2/rt_tables
# reserved values
255	local
254	main
253	default
0	unspec
# local
1	vpn

Confining your process to a specific user

Since ip rule can only match based on UID, rather than PID (which is more stable anyway), the first step is making sure your process is running under some suitable user. For example, suppose you’re trying to isolate transmission-daemon, then the appropriate user would be transmission, which (at least on my system) transmission-daemon gets run under. If your program lacks such a convenient user, then you could always add your own and use something like sudo to switch to it, e.g.:

$ cat /etc/sudoers.d/rtorrent
joe ALL = (rtorrent) NOPASSWD: /usr/bin/rtorrent

Then user joe could use sudo -u rtorrent /usr/bin/rtorrent to run rtorrent as a separate user rtorrent.

OpenVPN configuration

The second part of the configuration is making sure to set up the correct routing table as part of OpenVPN’s initialization. For the purposes of this example, I want to ignore the VPN provider’s pushed routes (since they try overriding my system-wide routing to go through their VPN, whereas I only want it for certain processes), which the addition of route-noexec solves.

$ cat /etc/openvpn/example/openvpn.conf
script-security 2
route-up /etc/openvpn/example/
route-pre-down /etc/openvpn/example/
$ cat /etc/openvpn/example/
sudo ip route add default via $route_vpn_gateway table vpn

# Confine transmission and rtorrent to this table (as an example)
for user in rtorrent transmission; do
    uid=$(id -u $user)
    sudo ip rule add uidrange $uid-$uid table vpn
$ cat /etc/openvpn/example/
sudo ip route flush table vpn

# Delete all ip rules that mention this table
while sudo ip rule del table vpn; do :; done

The magic happens due to the ip rule invocation. Basically, it creates a rule that looks like this:

$ ip rule list
0:	from all lookup local 
32765:	from all uidrange 141-141 lookup vpn 
32766:	from all lookup main 
32767:	from all lookup default 

This means that any packet originating from UID 141-141 (i.e. transmission) will get routed as according to the table vpn, which looks like this: (as an example)

$ ip route list table vpn
default via dev tun0 

ip and root privileges

For these scripts to work, openvpn needs to be able to execute ip commands (with root privilege). You could either accomplish this by preventing openvpn from ever dropping privileges (bad), or, as I prefer, using sudo to re-gain access to ip for the openvpn user:

$ cat /etc/sudoers.d/openvpn
openvpn ALL = (root) NOPASSWD: /bin/ip

Note that dropping privileges for OpenVPN is done by adding something like the following to your openvpn.conf:

user openvpn
group openvpn

Linux configuration

It’s possible that due to the way source route verification works under Linux, you will not receive any replies directed your way (and e.g. ping as the confined user will fail). The solution to this is setting rp_filter to 2, e.g.

$ cat /etc/sysctl.d/20-disable-rp_filter.conf
net.ipv4.conf.default.rp_filter = 2
net.ipv4.conf.all.rp_filter = 2

followed by sysctl -p.

If it still doesn’t work, you may need to flush the routing cache, i.e. ip route flush cache.

Disclaimer and warning

A word on DNS

If you use a local DNS server (e.g. one pushed by your DHCP server), then DNS lookups from the confined user will fail, because there’s no appropriate route for the local DNS server. There are several solutions to this:

  1. Use a public DNS server that’s accessible via the VPN as well.
  2. Hard-code domains you care about to /etc/hosts.
  3. Add an extra route for your local DNS server to the vpn table.

While #3 seems the most attractive, this is a privacy risk because DNS requests will leak your real IP! Only do this if you’re sure you know what you’re signing yourself up for.

Other sources of IP leaks

It’s possible that all your effort will be for naught and your client will find other ways of leaking your ‘real’ IP to the internet. Unless you have carefully audited and tested your specific program, do NOT take this guide as any sort of guarantee. WebRTC, torrent clients etc. have all found ways to inadvertently de-anonymize VPN users.

One website you can use for testing these sorts of things is, which includes support for testing torrent clients in particular. Handy if you just want to make sure your client isn’t egregiously advertising your real IP to trackers.