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O'Reilly Book Excerpts: Linux Security Cookbook

Secure Cooking with Linux, Part 3

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Linux Security Cookbook
By Daniel J. Barrett, Richard E. Silverman, Robert G. Byrnes

by Daniel J. Barrett, Richard E. Silverman, Robert G. Byrnes

Editor's note: Our previous set of recipes from Linux Security Cookbook covered two intermediate-level Linux security solutions. This week we offer recipes that fall into an advanced category. Learn how to use PAM to restrict authentication on Linux systems and how to use SMTP to accept connections from arbitrary clients securely.

Recipe 4.3, Creating Access Control Lists with PAM

Author's note: PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules) is a flexible infrastructure for controlling authentication on Linux systems. In this recipe, taken from Chapter 4, "Authentication Techniques and Infrastructures," we show you how to restrict authentication to a given set of users by creating an access control list.


You would like to apply an access control list (ACL) to an existing service that does not explicitly support ACLs (e.g., telnetd, imapd, etc.).


Use the listfilePAM module.

First, make sure the server in question uses PAM for authentication, and find out which PAM service name it uses. This may be in the server documentation, or it may be clear from examining the server itself and perusing the contents of /etc/pam.d. For example, suppose you're dealing with the IMAP mail server. First notice that there is a file called /etc/pam.d/imap. Further, the result of:

# locate imapd

shows that the IMAP server is in /usr/sbin/imapd, and:

# ldd /usr/sbin/imapd => /lib/ (0x40027000)

shows that the server is dynamically linked against the PAM library (, also suggesting that it uses PAM. In fact, the Red Hat 8.0 IMAP server uses PAM via that service name and control file ("imap").

Continuing with this example, create an ACL file for the IMAP service, let's say /etc/imapd.acl, and make sure it is not world-writable:

# chmod o-w /etc/imapd.acl

Edit this file, and place in it the usernames of those accounts authorized to use the IMAP server, one name per line. Then, add the following to /etc/pam.d/imap:

account required /lib/security/ file=/etc/imapd.acl \
item=user sense=allow onerr=fail

With this configuration, only those users listed in the ACL file will be allowed access to the IMAP service. If the ACL file is missing, PAM will deny access for all accounts.


The PAM "listfile" module is actually even more flexible than we've indicated. Entries in your ACL file can be not only usernames (item=user), but also:

  • Terminal lines (item=tty)

  • Remote host (item=rhost)

  • Remote user (item=ruser)

  • Group membership (item=group)

  • Login shell (item=shell)

The sense keyword determines how the ACL file is interpreted. sense=allow means that access will be allowed only if the configured item is in the file, and denied otherwise. sense=deny means the opposite: access will be denied only if the item is in the file, and allowed otherwise.

The onerr keyword indicates what to do if some unexpected error occurs during PAM processing of the listfile module - for instance, if the ACL file does not exist. The values are succeed and fail. fail is a more conservative option from a security standpoint, but can also lock you out of your system because of a configuration mistake!

Another keyword, apply=[user|@group], limits the restriction in question to apply only to particular users or groups. This is intended for use with the tty, rhost, and shell items. For example, using item=rhost and apply=@foo would restrict access to connections from hosts listed in the ACL file, and furthermore only to local accounts in the foo group.

To debug problems with PAM modules, look for PAM-specific error messages in /var/log/messages and /var/log/secure. (If you don't see the expected messages, check your system logger configuration. [Recipe 9.28])

Note that not all module parameters have defaults. Specifically, the file, item, and sense parameters must be supplied; if not, the module will fail with an error message like:

Dec  2 15:49:21 localhost login: PAM-listfile: Unknown sense or sense not specified

You generally do not need to restart servers using PAM: they usually re-initialize the PAM library for every authentication and reread your changed files. However, there might be exceptions.

There is no standard correspondence between a server's name and its associated PAM service. For instance, logins via Telnet are actually mediated by /bin/login, and thus use the login service. The SSH server sshd uses the same-named PAM service (sshd), whereas the IMAP server imapd uses the imap (with no "d") PAM service. And many services in turn depend on other services, notably system-auth.

See Also

See /usr/share/doc/pam-*/txts/README.pam_listfile for a list of parameters to tweak.

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