Are QNAP NAS Drives Safe Enough to Use in 2022?
Are you a QNAP NAS owner? Perhaps you are considering buying a QNAP NAS based on a recommendation from a friend, work colleague, IT professional or even myself (Robbie) on YouTube. The appeal of owning your own server, cutting the connection with your subscription cloud providers such as Dropbox or Google drive, having all your data backed up in-house and that feeling of pure control/ownership is hard to underestimate. However, over the last 2 years or more, it has been hard to ignore that the brand has suffered a series of security issues surrounding the subject of ransomware – a process whereby your data is encrypted with a unique, near uncrackable cypher and a document (typically a .txt) is left for you with instructions for you to make a payment in bitcoin to a predesignated account in order for instructions and the key to recovery your data. Ransomware in of itself is not new and originally dates back to 1996 under the name cryptoviral extortion (you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but the wiki covers a lot of those early developments into the concept) and is frighteningly easy to conduct IF an intruder has access to your system and/or the means to inject the command to encrypt the data inside of any system. Words like virus, hack and malware have been thrown around the internet for the last 20-30 years, however, Malware feels significantly more organized and comparatively recent, as well as being something that has been enacted on all storage platforms, such as Google Drive (thanks to sync tools), Apple was directly hit in 2021 and over 300 BIG name companies that you WILL of heard of in the last 18 months that included:
Acer, FujiFilm, Northern UK Rail, Exabyte Web Hosting, Foxtons, The Salvation Army, Shutterfly Photography, Bose Sound, The NRA, Kronos CRM systems, Gigabyte Motherboards, Volvo, SPAR, Olympus Cameras, GUESS Fashion, ADATA, CD Projekt, Travelex, SK Hynix, Capcom, Crytek, Kmart
Those are just a brief scan of confirmed news reports and only a small fraction of the companies, brands and institutions that have been successfully targetted. Tech companies, media companies, charities and countless retail outlets. Why am I going through all this? Well, 1, these companies should have exceptionally sophisticated storage and remote access protocols in place, 2, cannot use the excuse of being companies with practically no formal association with high-level storage and 3, are companies with a responsibility to protect significantly custom databases that eventually fell foul (partially or fully) to vulnerabilities. Personally, I DO think QNAP have blame that they need to acknowledge publically, made significant errors in these ransomware attacks AND have handled a number of the follow-up actions to these incidents very poorly (both in terms of communication and execution). However, I do also think that the end-user base is also not completely innocent and alongside ascertaining whether the brand is safe to use in 2022, we should also think about how we store data, the limits of our own due diligence and our expectations from server devices.
Important – If you are currently unaware of the Deadbolt ransomware attack that took place on QNAP NAS devices, you can find out more in the NASCompares article and video here. Additionally, if you have been affected by ransomware on your storage solution (QNAP or whatever brand), this post is not intended to play ‘blame games’ or detract from the impact (personally or professionally) that it has caused. I have experienced ransomware attacks, malware attacks through my browser, virus attacks on my OS and seen my fair share of attacks fail and (annoying) succeed. Please do not take this article in the spirit of ‘get stuffed, It’s your fault!”, but as a means of dissecting the current state of play at QNAP NAS and the realistic expectations/responsibilities of all involved.
PSA – GET YOUR BACKUPS IN ORDER!
Before you even go one paragraph further, I have a simple question for you – do you have a backup in place? If yes, then carry on to the next part. If not, and I cannot stress this enough, GET ONE NOW. The time you are spending reading this you could be susceptible to data loss in about 10 different ways without even factoring in ransomware (Power failure leading to hard drive corruption, Malware from a slightly iffy google search this morning, cloud storage provider going bust, OS failure on your device, etc). In this day and age owning a sufficient data backup is as sensible as buying a raincoat or looking both ways when you cross the street – you don’t do it because you like rain or like looking at cars, you do it because they are peace of mind, they are a safety net, they are for caution in case of the worst. It is a bit tenuous, but owning one or multiple backups always make me think of this quote from Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King:
“There are really only two types of men in the world when it comes to bad trouble,” Andy said, cupping a match between his hands and lighting a cigarette. “Suppose there was a house full of rare paintings and sculptures and fine old antiques, Red? And suppose the guy who owned the house heard that there was a monster of a hurricane headed right at it. One of those two kinds of men just hopes for the best. The hurricane will change course, he says to himself. No right-thinking hurricane would ever dare wipe out all these Rembrandts, my two Degas horses, my Jackson Pollocks and my Paul Klees. Furthermore, God wouldn’t allow it. And if worst comes to worst, they’re insured. That’s one sort of man. The other sort just assumes that hurricane is going to tear right through the middle of his house. If the weather bureau says the hurricane just changed course, this guy assumes it’ll change back in order to put his house on ground zero again. This second type of guy knows there’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”
Get a Backup in place
More Ransomware Attacks than Any other NAS Brand?
WannaCry, QLocker, eChoraix, Deadbolt, how, many, times…
Probably the most compelling argument against the safety of QNAP for many buyers is the simple fact that they seem to have been in the news more than any other NAS brand for reasons of ransomware attacks. Indeed, even a quick browse of the last 24 months on the site ‘Bleeping Computer’ for stories on QNAP shows you that there have been multiple vulnerabilities found in their software/access that have allowed encryption commands to be injected into the QNAP NAS system to execute the ransomware attacks. How can this one brand be such a soft target? What are they doing wrong? Well as it stands, reading through news posts before/after previous ransomware attacks, as well as the dissection of evens on the official forums in the midst of the current Deadbolt attack, the consistent threads are:
- QNAP is rolling out software and services with weak default settings and acceptable minimums to allow inexperienced users to open up external access WITHOUT the users understanding the risks
- QNAP has weaknesses in it’s software that the brand arguably takes a more reactive, than proactive stance on repairing
- QNAP’s recommendations on actions to user post-ransomware attack both publically and in 1-to-1 dialogue with users has been felt unsatisfactory
- Your QNAP NAS is better off currently used offline/network only
As general as all that might sound (without letting personal opinions colour it) those are largely the four core issues for many that have voiced their feelings on this in the forums. Moving away from the hefty subject of data loss slightly (we will be returning to that in a bit, but that is a question of Backups and routines to discuss), there is the fact that there have been vulnerabilities found in QNAP 1st party applications and services – but then again, so have there been in different NAS brand’s own services too. A click look at their respective Security Advisory pages will tell you this. This doesn’t exonerate QNAP in any way here with deadbolt, as part of the ‘social agreement’ between the end-user and QNAP is that as long as we ‘follow due diligence in protecting the data inside the NAS as directed AND maintain our own network/router setup, the QNAP NAS should protect our data inside the NAS to the best of it’s ability. This is where it all becomes problematic. As QNAP have never successfully balanced the line between giving the user freedom, control and customization WHILST still preventing the user from doing anything self-harming without a full idea of the consequences. It’s a line that their biggest competitor Synology seems to toe better and this comparison only serves to re-enforce the feeling (and numbers) that QNAP are attacked more. So, how can QNAP change this perception and what have QNAP actioned so far?
The Nature and Practice of Firmware Updates – Prevention & Cures
“Remind me Tomorrow” click
Though sometimes NOT the means with which a vulnerability in the QNAP NAS software/services is achieved, it is still a factor in some instances that updating to a later firmware would actually have closed a vulnerability. However, this is a remarkably broad statement and the truth is a great deal more nuanced. First, we have to understand that ALL software that has a remote access component via the internet will likely be investigated by cybercriminals for weaknesses. Not just NAS ones – ALL of them, from Microsoft office and Android mobile OS, to your LG TV and Amazon FireTV. Hell, I bet there are people who have investigated the ‘buy now’ option of WINRAR in effort to see if an opening exists to use it as a ransomware entry vector. What I am saying is that as soon as a commercially popular software with internet access exists, people are going to try and take it apart to find out its weaknesses for exploitation. If/When these weaknesses are found and actioned (or submitted to the brand for bounty programs – whereupon brands ask people to try and break their software, so they can make it better/safer/improved), the brand then issues a firmware update to the affected software/services to its user base, then around the merry-go-round we go again! This is not a process that happens daily – but it definitely happens weekly or monthly (depending on the frequency of the brand to instigate the changes that are raised to them). This is why is it so common for companies that are affected by ransomware in their software/services to immediately highlight the need for firmware updates. At that point, the attack vector and vulnerability is reverse engineered, patched and closed. Many of these vulnerabilities are small. Very, VERY small sometimes. Indeed, it is for this reason that all the reputable NAS brands have security advisory pages that list current weaknesses, vulnerabilities and issues on their platform that are being investigated (Synology HERE, Asustor HERE and yes, QNAP HERE) and in all my time in the world of network-attached storage, I do not think I have ever seen one of these pages have ‘100% resolved’, but when something is resolved the resolution is invariably rolled into an update. So what we can take from this is that although firmware updates do not completely remove the possibility of new vulnerabilities being found in the future, they do seemingly close the bulk of existing vulnerabilities that have been found by/volunteered to the brand.
So why do we not install the firmware updates automatically? This isn’t limited to NAS of course! From the Mac notification that have been nagging you at the top right of your screen, to the windows update at the bottom right and all those applications on your phone that are asking you to please install the latest updates to your software – we choose to ignore them til ‘later’! Worse still, there is the old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality that will often result in many users only installing smaller updates, but flat out avoiding the BIG updates as they can ‘change where everything is’ or ‘I heard it breaks a bunch of stuff’. Businesses in particular with shared files in their thousands are always reluctant to run any process that can suspend that access temporarily or change how something works. So, there we have a fine melting pop of ingredients that has led (in some instances, but not all – as we will go further go into) to many users being hit by ransomware attacks via vulnerabilities that, although patches were available, were not actioned. How do we resolve this? Forced update that leaves the user’s own hesitance out of the equation? Limitations of the system’s remote connectivity unless the latest firmware update is installed (console gamers will be very familiar with that method of course)? Or a 50/50 split where minor updates are optional, but larger ones are mandatory? It’s a tough tight rope to walk. So, let’s see how QNAP walked/walks this tight rope and how they could have possibly done it ALOT better.
System Updates and Updates that are QNAP Forced?
Forced? Optional? Access Penalties?
As mentioned, tighter control of firmware implementation would allow the brand to ensure that QNAP NAS that have internet accessibility are updated to a high/current firmware revision. Alternatively, the brand could limit the systems external connectivity and disable all settings if the firmware on the system is not up to date – simply running a check with the QNAP domain when trying to access these services and settings and declining if the latest update is not installed. Xbox and Playstation users are more than aware of this as a fixed rule to ensure that installed software is officially licenced and checked in advance. However, those are closed systems and many buyers have selected QNAP because of the flexibility and customization it offers.
Forced updates are something of a taboo subject too, with the recent rather heavy-handed move by QNAP in light of the Deadbolt ransomware attack to remote push the latest firmware update to all QNAP NAS systems that were internet-connected without any notice to the end-users (overriding any settings that disabled or prevented this). Now, clearly, QNAP did this as an extreme and something to prevent the vulnerability of the system software and/or configuration from being exploited further (that have still not been fully confirmed in its attack vectors, with some users who have ridiculously high-security settings still getting hit). In non-ransomware instances, I think QNAP issuing a message to their user base with a “In 5 day’s there will be an essential system update on XX day XX month at XX:XX time” message, with even a brief explanation of why would have been infinitely more preferable and would have been met with a much more positive stance (as well as it also making many users update sooner). However, clearly, the decision for a forced update was more of a last resort/hastily decided choice and that forms part of another reason that many users find the QNAP platform to sometimes bring services and software to market that could do with a little more time in the oven. Whatever way you look at it, QNAP was going to be damned, whatever they did. But did they put themselves in this position? What about the expectations of the end-user and due diligence? What SHOULD be the expected skillset of a QNAP NAS buyer to start with?
The Extent of the End User Responsibility, Skillsets and Expectations?
How much should a user be expected to know about networking?
The simplicity of NAS systems (not just QNAP) can often be oversold. It’s annoying and I am as guilty as most of this, but given the wide range of users who install a NAS system into their storage environments, the ease of setup and use is not shared with the ease of setup and understanding of network security in your home or office. On the one hand, QNAP have have supplied multiple services and processes in their system software that make remote access easy, encrypted transmissions easy, SSL certificate applying easy, 2-step authentication easy, UPNP and router pushing easy – you name it, they have tried to make it easy. But should they have? The ease of setting up a number of these services (as well as non-randomized settings in some places) can easily give users a false sense of security. So, for those users of a higher skillset, it would be acceptable that a QNAP NAS should only be remotely accessed with the highest layers of security applied, and it should not allow remote level access to be possible without some unique intervention and set-up by the end-user (not just a password and/or disabling an admin account), although to stop presets of this nature would lead to a noticeable spike in the difficulty of setup, perhaps that is what is needed. This is by no means a new issue we are discussing and even a brief google search online finds examples of attack vectors and methods as far back as 1999 on public/org sites.
However, in reality, it simply would not work like this, The user base of QNAP NAS is just too varied and though these tougher and more unique security implementations would secure things, the less technically skilled users would hit hurdle after hurdle, once again, one of the prices of some (not all) of that flexibility. Alot of users who have been hit by ransomware attacks have specifically headed to official forums because they do not have the remote setup experience that might be deemed an acceptable minimum to start opening ports via the QNAP settings or directly on the router. This once again brings us back around to what should be the expected skill level of a QNAP NAS owner, how much of the control and security profile of the storage system belongs to QNAP and how much should the buyer be expected to do independently? You can buy a car, you can fill it with petrol and the manufacturer can tell you its top speed, and miles to the gallon – but no car manufacturer would feel the need to add to all their adverts “must have a driving licence”, do they? It’s a rather stretched simile I know, but the fact remains that users cannot expect to connect their storage to the internet in 2022, open up pathways to it via the internet and not at least make allowances or provisions that an attack could happen. This leads us to the hardest and coldest fact of QNAP’s recent ransomware attacks that, although only applies to a % of users, is still depressingly true.
How Backups and Data Storage are Still being Misunderstood
A frighteningly large number of victims with no backup. Acceptable backup levels?
One of the hardest choices for anyone that has been successfully targetted by ransomware attackers (not exclusive to NAS either) is the choice to pay or not. When I am asked to make recommendations for a home or business user in the free advice section here on NASCompares or the comments on YouTube, I will always ask what the user storage quote is currently (now then double annually over 5yrs), their user base (volume and frequency) and their budget? That last one is always a kicker for some, as no one wants to show their cards! I’m not a salesman and I do not work for a eRetailer, I ask because there is a lot of ground between a £99 DS120j and a £5000 RS3621XS+. However, budget is INCREDIBLY important and should not only be measured by the number of 0’s in the account, but also by the cost of if the data is lost! Many users are so busy thinking of how much it will cost to provision for the future, that they are not factoring in the cost of replacing the past! This is the exact personal vulnerability that ransomware targets and sadly, a lot of users still do not understand 1) what a backup actually IS and 2) what a backup actually ISN’T.
If your data ONLY lives on the NAS, then the NAS is not a backup. You likely knew that. But socially and conventionally, we tend to forget it quite easily. We make space on phones by deleting stuff because ‘it is backed up on the NAS’. We sync our laptops and MacBooks with a remote folder to keep our files safe on the NAS, but still make changes or delete files on the hoof. We take the NAS as red as a backup and at that point, it isn’t! Likewise there are things that SOUND like backups… RAID… Snapshots… Hot Spares… they sound very reassuring, but are not backups, they are safety nets! And are all typically found ‘in system’. A REAL backup is something that is the same files, ELSEWHERE! There is no avoiding that a QNAP NAS (or a Synology or Asustor NAS for that matter) is NOT a backup solution in of itself, but can be used IN a Backup Strategy. All brands highlight at numerous points o their website that you should have a 1-2-3 Backup strategy, or a bare-metal and cloud backup, or a periodic USB backup, a NAS to NAS remote backup – or ALL of them! Sadly, there are a lot of users in the official QNAP forums that have been hit by ransomware and did not have backups in place, with some knowledge that they needed a backup but their budget’s prohibited it. Whilst others say that QNAP said it’s a backup device, they bought it as a backup device, QNAP missold it and that is the end of argument!
The sad truth is that QNAP is not responsible for your backup routine or strategy, it supplies the means to store and access data and their responsibility (succeed or fail) is to ensure its hardware and/or software provides a default secure level of access, as well as the means to configure that access to the users control. There HAVE been vulnerabilities found and they have patched them, as is the usual process in these things (at least, they say they have at that is the best guarantee we can ever have from a brand in the circumstances), but they are NOT responsible for your backup routine. This now leads us to the subject of the QNAP hardware, the QNAP software and comparisons with Synology.
Hardware vs Software Priorities – Both the Brand and the User Base
Hardware vs Software, QNAP vs Synology, Is the grass greener?
Way back in the mid twenty-teens, whenever I would discuss QNAP and Synology on the platform, I would always say that you go to Synology for the Software and QNAP for the Hardware. Synology’s DSM platform clearly makes up the bulk of the companies investment and attention, makes up a significant chunk of the price tag and is designed around keeping things as user-friendly as possible (within reason). This is why their devices at each generation refresh (DS916+>DS918+>DS920+ or DS216>DS218>DS220+) only make smaller increases on the previous generation – the software IS the focus. With QNAP we tend to see the hardware taking bigger leaps each generation. Better standard ethernet, better PCIe gens, Better CPUs much earlier and overall greater hardware at any given time. For PC builders and those that know a lot more about the contents of their laptop than the contents of their router, this is speaking THEIR language and makes the price tag translate better. Fast forward to 2022 and although that logic still remains the same, these brands are more 60/40 in their architecture (where 60 = their preferred hardware or software bias). The issue starts when QNAP seem to rush their software out the door very quickly. Alongside a lot of more beta applications being available, they roll out a lot of new types of software that (and I am sorry to use that expression again, but) could have used more time in the oven. This approach to software development and release can be dicey and although it makes QNAP the more exciting platform (with its better hardware, more diverse software and continued AI or generally automated services), it also means that the platform has less of the layers of troubleshooting red-tape that Synology has (which inversely means the Synology product is going to be more expensive and less hardware rich, as that investment of time needs to be repaid to be justified).
Look at the Apple TV box or Amazon FireTV / Firestick? Is it user-friendly? yes! Is it slick and intuitive? Yes! Is it flexible in the installation of 3rd party applications? NO (at least, not without workarounds)! Is it hardware-powerful? LORD NO! One glance on eBay will show you a thousand other media boxes at the same price with Android on board, 5-10x the hardware and customization coming out of the wazoo. Nevertheless, many users will not buy the apple/amazon media option because although they KNOW it will be slick and ‘hold your hand’ all the way, it will be a closed system, noticeably more expensive and even then “nothing is full proof, right?”. And a lot of the anger at QNAP for their increased ransomware targeting and handling of this needs to also be balanced against why a lot of users chose the QNAP NAS brand. The QNAP NAS platform does have good applications and services, some genuinely unique ones and ones that allow tremendous flexibility and customization – but users need to remain relative to what drew them to the platform and have sufficient backups AND safety nets in place. I would say this about QNAP, about Synology, hell… Google drive, DropBox, Backblaze… ALL of them have localized client tools that rely way too much on the success of versioning/roll-backs being possible on the cloud platform. None of them are 100% full proof and QNAP dropped the ball multiple times here, but none of these ways are unprecedented and should be provisioned for regardless of your NAS brand or cloud platform.
The Sad Truth about Servers, Security and Vulnerabilities
Vulnerability > Update > vulnerability > update > rinse > repeat
No platform, software or service is going to be 100% bulletproof. You can increase your personal layers of security (VPNs, Encryption, layers, restrictive white lists, etc) to hit 99.99% but whatever way you are looking at it, everything we use is software-based and therefore, fallible. Equally, users cannot pretend that it is still the early days of the internet anymore and still be annoyed when a statistical possibility that should have been factored against was not. Do I think QNAP NAS are safe? I’m sorry to say that the answer is never going to be a simple Yes/No. I think they provide what they say they provide and I think that QNAP hardware is still the best in the market right now. But their software needs to be less rushed, the extra time/budget be spent on that software, or utilize a trusted 3rd party. The need to relinquish some of the customization of their platform in efforts to remove some of the configuration out of the hands of less tech-savvy users who end up overly reliant in defaults. Perhaps a much more rigorous setup policy that, on day 1, have an EXPERT door and a NOVICE door, with randomized defaults and extremely regimented update rules on the latter. Equally, the brand (though better than it was) needs to work on its communication with its end-user base, both in the event of critical issues and education on what the user base needs to have to increase security OUTSIDE of their product.
I still recommend the brand, I still think users should use their products, but we need to be realistic and honest with ourselves about what we buy and our expectations. If I buy a QNAP NAS, I expect it to store the data I store in it and allow me access to it on my terms, but ‘my terms’ might be a lot more/less strict than the next person and with that comes due diligence in 2022. I hope that the most recent ransomware attack, deadbolt, is the last ‘big’ one we hear about the year/moving forward, but I do not think it will be. More than just QNAP, one look at the vulnerabilities listed on security advisories of all the brands tell us that there is big money to be made by these intruders and the brands can only stay 1 step ahead. As always, me and Eddie here on NASCompares have been running a page that links to the bigger NAS security Advisory pages that gets regularly updated, so if you want to get notifications on these as they get added (pulled from the official pages themselves), then you can visit the page below and put your email in for updates when they happen. Have a great week and backup, backup, BACKUP.
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Finally, If you are currently unaware of the Deadbolt ransomware attack that took place on QNAP NAS devices, you can find out more in the NASCompares article and video below:
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