I received the following message from a network administrator
A scan from the campus nessus scanner detected the above named device as running Ubuntu 11.10
Is it actually possible to detect the distro through a remote scan?
I am not 100% sure how nessus got the distribution of linux you are running, but the answer in general is YES, it can find a lot about your system if the system is not secured but being let run as it was installed from the original installation media.
Nessus, by its nature, attacks the ports that are known to be left open by the default system installation. Let this be Linux or any other Unix or the Redmond's finest OS, nessus tries to exploit the open ports.
This document at nessus blog can explain the OS determination operation a lot better that I can.
Short answer: yes.
Several services like ftp or ident or webservers show operating system + version. For example 404 sites sometimes include the name of the webserver, domain name, port, and operating system.
To interprete your case any further we would need additional information regarding the running services and the ports that you have open. It is also interesting to hear about what you mean with 'above named device'.
Many services reveal information about themselves via the communication protocol. It's a vital part of establishing communication in some cases. Seeing as how most distros are binary based, with the implication that the user will most likely never tamper with the binaries to conceal (heck, even if the distro is source based the user won't bother) information about the services.
It is dead easy to compile a list of "known service names" and use nmap to identify the OS.
I bet it is even possible, given sufficient knowledge about the IP/TCP implementation on the various OSes, to determine the kernel version of the OS using solely the TCP responses from a "secured" service. Come to think of it, even ping responses can have a signature.
For someone devoted to this kind of activity (gaining access to remote hosts), the act of identifying viable targets is the first and most trivial task to accomplish. I've never even thought about this stuff and with a carefully worded search, it's easy to find a wealth of examples such as:
The interesting info here would be: OpenSSH 5.8p1-hpn13v10lpk That alone could enable someone to guess what OS I'm running. Just search for "hpn13v10lpk"...