(Editor’s note: This post has been updated since publication. A new section has been added at the bottom of the post with additional information.)
In today’s world, the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses and the slow adoption of IPv6 means that publicly routable IPv4 addresses are in high demand. It also means that when you spin up a cloud-based virtual private server using a service like Digital Ocean, Linode, or Amazon Web Services (AWS), you’ll almost certainly get an IPv4 address that was previously in use by someone else. In the worst case, your new IP address might be on some blacklists, but the most likely situation is that you’ll get some extra “background noise” in your server logs.
18.104.22.168 - - [06/May/2018:03:10:08 +0000] "GET /0f0qa0a/captive_portal.html HTTP/1.1" 404 152 "-" "Go-http-client/1.1"
22.214.171.124 - - [06/May/2018:03:10:41 +0000] "GET /0f0qa0a/captive_portal.html HTTP/1.1" 404 152 "-" "Go-http-client/1.1"
These Nginx logs were pulled from a fresh virtual private server that I created with a new-to-me IPv4 address. If you’re curious, my original Server Logs Explained post contains a breakdown of the log format I’m using, but I’ll cover what these log excerpts mean in this post as well.
Essentially, two completely different IP addresses performed an
HTTP GET request for the same resource,
/0f0qa0a/captive_portal.html. Unable to provide this mysterious file, my server responded with
404 Not Found. This pair of log entries became much more interesting when I noticed that my server kept getting the same two requests from the same two remote IP addresses every few seconds.
Some Detective Work
First of all, these log entries are completely harmless. Anyone can request any random page from a web server, and the server should return a
404 response if the page does not exist. At this point, curiosity is the only reason to continue exploring the source of the two requests.
A cursory WHOIS lookup on both IPs reveals that they are owned by OVH Hosting, a French company that provides cloud-based hosting services. It’s similar to the other cloud hosting companies I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It isn’t a big leap to assume that both IPs belong to virtual servers hosted by OVH, so with that assumption in mind, let’s move forward.
Next, a reverse DNS (rDNS) lookup on each IP address yields the following interesting results:
126.96.36.199 maps to
188.8.131.52 maps to
Right away, there’s “ovh” in the hostnames for the two servers, which seems to confirm that OVH Hosting was a good guess. There’s also something else interesting about these results:
184.108.40.206 is a Canadian IP address, and it has “ca” in its hostname. On top of that,
220.127.116.11 is a French IP address, and it has “eu” in its hostname. It’s beginning to look like these two servers are part of some company’s public-facing server infrastructure.
Let’s look at the far left section of the hostnames,
prometheus-nodes. There’s no law that dictates how you should name your servers, but it is pretty common to give them logical names that correspond to the software that runs on them. With that in mind, what is “prometheus”?
Prometheus is a real piece of software. Its GitHub page describes it as “a systems and service monitoring system”, which would explain the persistent requests in my server logs. Monitoring solutions work by constantly checking a service, evaluating the responses they receive, and notifying administrators if something looks wrong. It seems reasonable to conclude that some important service was being hosted by the previous owner of my IP address, and someone forgot to reconfigure their monitoring solution after decommissioning the server.
There’s still more we can learn from the reverse hostnames. A simple Google search for one of the hostnames turns up this GitHub issue from February, where a bunch of information is listed that confirms that the server runs Prometheus. On top of that, the user who opened the issue claims to work for a company called “AnchorFree”.
AnchorFree — could that have anything to do with the
afdevops.com portion of the hostnames? Even though there’s no public-facing website associated with that domain, Googling for “afdevops.com” turns up this user profile on Docker Hub. Guess what’s listed in the bio for that user? Anchorfree, Inc.
There’s something else, too. A WHOIS lookup on “afdevops.com” reveals that it is registered under the real name of one of the co-founders of AnchorFree. That was easy. Too bad GDPR is killing WHOIS at the end of this month. (Ed: This was accurate when this post was drafted in 2018.)
Now that we know that both servers are owned by AnchorFree, let’s figure out what AnchorFree actually is. Wikipedia and AnchorFree’s actual website both confirm something interesting — AnchorFree is the parent company behind Hotspot Shield, a fairly well-known “freemium” VPN app.
Nothing in this post is particularly revealing, but it’s interesting to consider what happens when IP addresses owned by cloud service providers get reused. If you incorporate cloud service provider IP addresses into your server infrastructure, it’s important to remember that those addresses may be recycled for other customers in the future. If you set up important services or access control lists based on IP addresses you don’t own, it’s possible to introduce problems that won’t become apparent until later. In cases like this, it might be as simple as having your monitoring solution check the wrong IP address for a few days.
On the other hand, consider what might happen if you decommissioned a server but forgot to remove its forward DNS entry. If a malicious actor gained control of its old IP address, they could set up a phishing website that would appear to be hosted on your domain. Change control and detailed documentation are important when it comes to using public cloud services.
A reader contacted me in October 2019 to let me know he had been hit by similar requests from two additional IP addresses:
I also happened across a completely unrelated blog post from 2018 that documents the same strange requests for
/0f0qa0a/captive_portal.html that were the basis for this post. In that case, the author chose to block the repetitive requests with his firewall.
Finally, on a whim, I tried accessing one of the IP addresses in a web browser and was taken to a login page asking for AnchorFree SSO credentials. By itself, that isn’t particularly surprising, since we already know that AnchorFree runs those servers. In any case, it would be great if AnchorFree did a little auditing of their public cloud infrastructure.