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O'Reilly Book Excerpts: Practical Unix & Internet Security, 3rd Edition

Secure Programming Techniques, Part 3

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Practical UNIX and Internet Security
By Simson Garfinkel, Gene Spafford, Alan Schwartz

Editor's note: An overwhelming number of Unix security problems have been caused by SUID/SGID programs. In this week's excerpt from Chapter 16 of Practical Unix & Internet Security, 3rd Edition, we offer tips on writing SUID/SGID programs. Consider the rules described in this excerpt as well as those we covered in Part 1 and Part 2. And as an added bonus, this excerpt also includes advice on using the chroot( ) system call to enhance the security of your programs.

Tips on Writing SUID/SGID Programs

If you are writing programs that are SUID or SGID, you must take added precautions in your programming.

  1. "Don't do it. Most of the time, it's not necessary."[17]

  2. Avoid writing SUID shell scripts.

  3. If you are using SUID to access a special set of files, don't. Instead, create a special group for your files and make the program SGID to that group. If you must use SUID, create a special user for the purpose.

  4. If your program needs to perform some functions as superuser, but generally does not require SUID permissions, consider putting the SUID part in a different program, and constructing a carefully controlled and monitored interface between the two.

  5. If you need SUID or SGID permissions, use them for their intended purpose as early in the program as possible, and then revoke them by returning the effective, and real, UIDs and GIDs to those of the process that invoked the program.

  6. If you have a program that absolutely must run as SUID, try to avoid equipping the program with a general-purpose interface that allows users to specify much in the way of commands or options.

  7. Erase the execution environment, if at all possible, and start fresh. Many security problems have been caused because there was a significant difference between the environment in which the program was run by an attacker and the environment in which the program was developed.

  8. If your program must spawn processes, use only the execve( ), execv( ), or execl( ) calls, and use them with great care. Avoid the execlp( ) and execvp( ) calls because they use the PATH environment variable to find an executable, and you might not run what you think you are running. Avoid system( ) and popen( ) at all costs.

  9. If you must provide a shell escape, be sure to setgid(getgid( )) and setuid(getuid( )) before executing the user's command--and use them in the correct order! You must reset the group ID before you reset the user ID, or the call will fail.

  10. In general, use the setuid( ) and setgid( ) functions and their friends to bracket the sections of your code that require superuser privileges. For example:

    /* setuid program is effectively superuser so it 
       can open the master file */
    fd = open("/etc/masterfile",O_RDONLY);
    assert(seteuid(getuid(  )) == 0);
    /* Give up superuser now, but we can get it back.*/
    assert(geteuid() == getuid(  ));                             
    /* Insure that the euid is what we expect. */
    if(fd<0) error_open(  );                              
    /* Handle errors. */

    Editor's note: Be aware that the assert() macro is nullified when you compile with the NDEBUG flag enabled. This is a common release optimization. Please read man assert for more details.

  11. Not all versions of Unix allow you to switch UIDs in this way; moreover, the semantics of the various versions of setuid( ), seteuid( ), and setreuid( ) have been shown to vary between Unix flavors, and even be misimplemented. It's also crucial both to check their return values and to separately test to ensure that the UIDs are as you expect them. Read Chen, Wagner, and Dean's paper "Setuid Demystified" ( before you even think about writing code that tries to save and restore privileges.

  12. If you must use pipes or subshells, be especially careful with the environment variables and IFS. One approach is to erase these variables and set them to safe values. For example:

    putenv("IFS= \t\n");
  13. Then, examine the environment to be certain that there is only one instance of the variable: the one you set. An attacker can run your code from another program that creates multiple instances of an environment variable. Without an explicit check, you may find the first instance, but not the others; such a situation could result in problems later on. In particular, step through the elements of the environment yourself rather than depending on the library getenv( ) function.

    Another approach, simpler but more drastic, is to create an empty environment and fill it with only those variables that you know are OK. This environment can then be passed to execve():

    char *env[MAX_ENV];
    int mysetenv(const char *name, const char *value) {
            static char count = 0;
            char buff[255];
            if (count == MAX_ENV) return 0;
            if (!name || !value) return 0;
            if (snprintf(buff, sizeof(buff), "%s=%s", name, 
                value) < 0) return 0;
            if (env[count] = strdup(buff)) {
                    return 1;
            return 0;
    ...And then in the program...
    if (mysetenv("PATH", "/bin:/usr/bin") &&
    mysetenv("SHELL", "/bin/sh") &&
    mysetenv("TERM", "vt100") &&
    mysetenv("USER", getenv("USER")) &&
    mysetenv("LOGNAME", getenv("LOGNAME")) &&
    mysetenv("HOME", getenv("HOME"))) {
    } else {
            perror("Unable to establish safe environment");
  14. Use the full pathname for all files that you open. Do not make any assumptions about the current directory. (You can enforce this requirement by doing a chdir("/tmp/root/") as one of the first steps in your program, but be sure to check the return code!)

  15. Consider statically linking your program. If a user can substitute a different module in a dynamic library, even carefully coded programs are vulnerable. (We have some serious misgivings about the trend in commercial systems towards completely shared, dynamic libraries. (See our comments in Section 23.6.2 in Chapter 23 of Practical Unix & Internet Security, 3rd Edition.)

  16. Consider using perl-T or taintperl for your SUID programs and scripts. Perl's tainting features often make Perl more suited than C to SUID programming. For example, taintperl insists that you set the PATH environment variable to a known "safe value" before calling system(). The program also requires that you "untaint" any variable that is input from the user before using it (or any variable dependent on that variable) as an argument for opening a file.

    However, note that you can still get yourself in a great deal of trouble with taintperl if you circumvent its checks or if you are careless in writing code. Also note that using taintperl introduces dependence on another large body of code working correctly: we suggest you skip using taintperl if you believe that you can code at least as well as Larry Wall.[18]

Using chroot( )

You can enhance the security of your programs by using the chroot( ) system call. The chroot( ) call changes the root directory of a process to a specified subdirectory within your filesystem. This change essentially gives the calling process a private world from which it cannot escape.[19] Several widely used network daemons, such as the BIND nameserver, are written so they can run in a chroot() environment.

For example, if you have a program that only needs to listen to the network and write into a log file that is stored in the directory /usr/local/logs, then you could execute the following code to restrict the program to that directory:

assert(chdir("/usr/local/logs") == 0);
assert(chroot("/usr/local/logs") == 0);
assert(chdir("/") == 0);

There are several issues that you must be aware of when using the chroot( ) system call that are not immediately obvious:

  1. It is imperative that you successfully chdir( ) into the chroot area before doing anything important (and best if you chdir( ) there before you call chroot( )). chroot( ) does not change the working directory, and a privileged program can break out of a chroot area if its working directory is outside the area.

  2. With some systems, it is also critical that you set the current working directory to be "/" after the chdir is executed. Otherwise, it is possible to break out of the chroot( ) system in some cases.

  3. If your operating system supports shared libraries and you are able to statically link your program, you should be sure that your program is statically linked. On some systems, static linking is not possible. On these systems, you should make certain that the necessary shared libraries are available within the restricted directory (as copies).

  4. You should not give other users write access to the chroot( )ed directory.

  5. If you intend to log with syslog( ), you should call the openlog( ) function before executing the chroot( ) system call, or make sure that a /dev/log device file exists within the chroot( ) directory.

  6. chroot( )ed processes should run with a UID that is not used by any programs outside of the chroot( ) area. This prevents the processes from using debugger hooks to manipulate outside processes and potentially subvert the jail.

  7. Do not allow root-owned processes to run inside the chroot area. As soon as your program successfully chroots, it should immediately setgid( ) and setuid( ) to give up its superuser privileges. Likewise, where possible, restrict the occurance of SUID programs and devices within the chroot environment.

Many versions of Unix provide a program called chroot that can be used to execute an arbitrary command in a chrooted environment, like this:

# chroot /path/to/directory /chrooted/path/to/command arguments

This will cause a chroot to the specified directory (which must be set up as described earlier), and then run the given command, which must be in the chrooted area (along with any necessary shared libraries, etc.) already.

Note that under some versions of Unix, a user with a root shell and the ability to copy compiled code into the chrooted environment may be able to "break out." The same applies to an SUID program (or other program running as root) that has not dropped its privileges. Thus, don't put all your faith in this mechanism.


[17] Thanks to Patrick H. Wood and Stephen G. Kochan, Unix System Security (Hayden Books, 1985) for this insightful remark.

[18] Hint: if you think you can, you are probably wrong.

[19] BSD systems have an even more powerful version of chroot( ) called jail( ) that can provide significantly better isolation to jailed processes.

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