NetBIOS has been around since the early days of Windows networking, but this legacy protocol comes with inherent vulnerabilities that can put your Windows systems at risk. As a network admin, security analyst or technology geek, you may be wondering whether to disable NetBIOS over TCP/IP across your Windows servers and workstations. In this comprehensive guide, I‘ll provide an expert look at the risks, benefits, and step-by-step instructions to help you make the right decision for your environment.
A Quick History of NetBIOS
First, a little background. NetBIOS stands for Network Basic Input/Output System and has been part of Windows networking for over 30 years. Microsoft created NetBIOS api and protocols back in the 1980s to enable name resolution, communication, and authentication services on local networks.
At the time, NetBIOS over TCP/IP (NBT) was an important part of how Windows computers could find and connect to resources like file shares on the network. However, as newer protocols like DNS and Active Directory came along, the role of NetBIOS has greatly diminished.
The Security Vulnerabilities of NetBIOS
While NetBIOS served its purpose in early Windows networking, the protocol has some inherent vulnerabilities that are concerning from a modern security perspective:
Unencrypted Communications – NetBIOS has no encryption whatsoever, leaving passwords, file transfers and other data sent over TCP 139 open to packet sniffing.
Null Session Attacks – Anonymous null sessions allow unauthenticated attackers to enumerate user lists, open shares, and even crack passwords.
Spoofing – Hackers can spoof NetBIOS responses and redirect traffic to malicious machines.
These attack vectors allow potential unauthorized access, remote code execution, man-in-the-middle attacks and other exploits. For internet-facing systems especially, it‘s very risky leaving NetBIOS open.
According to a 2020 survey, 61% of organizations have suffered a data breach related to legacy protocols like SMB and NetBIOS. And over 75% of IT professionals report that disabling unused legacy protocols is an effective way to improve security.
So as a security-focused IT admin, you probably want to heed these warnings and disable non-essential, outdated protocols like NetBIOS whenever possible. But it‘s not always so straightforward…
When You May Want To Keep NetBIOS Enabled
Despite the risks, there are some circumstances where completely disabling NetBIOS could cause issues:
Legacy Apps or Devices – Older software or specialized equipment may require NetBIOS to operate. Upgrading or replacing these can be costly.
Small Isolated Networks – On private networks with no internet access and only trusted PCs, the risks of NetBIOS attacks are greatly reduced.
Temporary Troubleshooting – When resolving connectivity issues or testing configurations, it can be useful to re-enable NetBIOS temporarily.
So NetBIOS still serves a purpose in some limited use cases. As a senior systems analyst, my recommendation is to inventory your apps, services, and devices to determine if they still depend on NetBIOS before disabling it permanently.
How to Disable NetBIOS over TCP/IP on Windows
If you‘ve decided the security risks outweigh the need for NetBIOS, the good news is that disabling it in Windows is straightforward:
Using the GUI
- Right click your network adapter and choose Properties > Internet Protocol Version 4 > Advanced
- On the WINS tab, select the option to disable NetBIOS over TCP/IP
- Click OK to save changes
Via Registry Editor
- Navigate to
- Modify the NetbiosOptions value to 2 for each interface
- Reboot the computer for changes to take effect
These methods allow selective disabling per network interface, or you can disable NetBIOS entirely across your Windows servers and desktops.
Verifying NetBIOS Has Been Disabled
Once configured, verify that NetBIOS is actually disabled by:
- Attempting to connect to shares by NetBIOS name (should fail)
nbtstatin command prompt to check NetBIOS name resolution (should return blank)
- Using nmap or other tools to check if UDP ports 137-139 are now closed
If you don‘t see any NetBIOS network traffic, then you‘ve successfully disabled this vulnerable protocol.
I hope this guide has shed some expert insight on the risks and benefits of disabling legacy protocols like NetBIOS over TCP/IP. While occasional use cases remain, most modern networks will benefit from disabling NetBIOS to eliminate dangerous attack surfaces. Assess your specific environment, test accordingly, and configure Windows to disable NetBIOS when possible as a security best practice. Feel free to reach out if you have any other questions!