Secure UNIX Programming FAQ

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Thamer Al-Herbish

Nov 12, 2001, 5:57:20 AM11/12/01
Archive-name: unix-faq/programmer/secure-programming
Posting-Frequency: Every 15 days.

Secure UNIX Programming FAQ

Version 0.5

Sun May 16 21:31:40 PDT 1999

The master copy of this FAQ is currently kept at

The webpage has a more spiffy version of the FAQ in html.

This FAQ is also posted to (c.s.u) ,
comp.answers , news.answers.

Please do not mirror this FAQ without prior permission. Due to the
high volume of readers I'm worried that old versions of the FAQ are
left to grow stale, consequently receive email based on fixed

Additional Resources

After receiving many comments, and suggestions I decided to make some
more SUP FAQ related resources available.

A change log can be found at:

A moderated mailing list has been setup for the discussion of
Secure UNIX programming. You can find a copy of the announcement

I'm currently working on a terse reference guide. It will be made
available Real Soon Now in PostScript format. The reference can be
printed out and kept handy next to your can of cola. It contains,
tables, diagrams, and step by step instructions for various
operations mentioned in the FAQ. It will not be posted to Usenet,
and downloadable from the FAQ's website. Its "Real Soon Now" status
is very Real Soon Now.


I, Thamer Al-Herbish reserve a collective copyright on this FAQ.
Individual contributions made to this FAQ are the intellectual
property of the contributor.

I am responsible for the validity of all information found in this

This FAQ may contain errors, or inaccurate material. Use it at your
own risk. Although an effort is made to keep all the material
presented here accurate, the contributors and maintainer of this FAQ
will not be held responsible for any damage -- direct or indirect --
which may result from inaccuracies.

You may redistribute this document as long as you keep it in its
current form, without any modifications. Read -- keep it up to date
please!! :-)


This FAQ answers questions about secure programming in the UNIX
environment. It is a guide for programmers and not administrators.
Keep this in mind because I do not tackle any administrative issues.
Try to read it as a guide if possible. I'm sorry it sounds like a bad
day on jeopardy.

At the risk of sounding too philosophical, this FAQ is also a call to
arms. Over almost the last decade, a good six years, a movement took
place where security advisories would hit mailing lists and other
forums at astonishing speed. I think the veterans are all to familiar
with the repetitive nature of these security advisories, and the
small amount of literature that has been published to help avoid
insecure programming. This text is a condensation of this movement
and a contribution made to it, placed in a technical context to
better serve the UNIX security community. As the Usenet phrase goes:
"Hope this helps."

Additions and Contributions

The current FAQ is not complete. I will continue to work on it as I
find time. Feel free to send in material for the Todo sections, and
for the small notes I've left around. Also, compatibility is an issue
I struggle with sometimes. The best I can do for some UNIX flavors is
read man pages. Corrections/addendums for compatibility notes is
greatly appreciated, and easily done as a collective effort. All
contributions, comments, and criticisms can be sent to:

Secure UNIX Programming FAQ <>

Please don't send them to my personal mailbox, because I can keep
things organized better with the above e-mail address. Also please
try to be as concise as possible. Remember I will usually quote you
directly if you have something to add.

Finally, although the contributors list is currently short, the
material in this FAQ did not pop out of my head in a pig-flying
fashion. Attribution is given where applicable. If you feel any of
this is unfair to something you have published, do let me know. The
bibliography is found at the end.

Special thanks to John W. Temples, Darius Bacon, Brian Spilsbury,
Elias Levy, who had looked at some of the drafts of past material
that made it into this FAQ. As usual, all mistakes are mine and only

Also kudos to the people at for hosting Bugtraq all
these years. The archive is invaluable to my research.

Table of Contents

1) General Questions:
1.1) What is a secure program?
1.2) What is a security hole?
1.3) How do I find security holes?
1.4) What types of attacks exist?
1.5) How do I fix a security hole?

2) The Flow Of Information:
2.1) What is the flow of information?
2.2) What is trust?
2.3) What is validation?

3) Privileges and Credentials
3.1) What is a privilege and a credential?
3.2) What is the least privilege principle?
3.3) How do I apply the least privilege principle safely?

4) Local Process Interaction:
4.1) What is process attribute inheritance? Or why should I not
write SUID programs?
4.2) How can I limit access to a SUID/SGID process-image safely?
4.3) How do I authenticate a parent process?
4.4) How do I authenticate a non-parent process?

5) Accessing The File System Securely:
5.1) How do I avoid race condition attacks?
5.2) How do I create/open files safely?
5.3) How do I delete files safely?
5.4) Is chroot() safe?

6) Handling Input:
6.1) What is a "buffer overrun/overflow attack" and how do I
avoid it?
6.2) How do I hand integer values safely?
6.3) How do I safely pass input to an external program?

7) Handling Resources Limits: [ Todo ]
8) Bibliography
9) List of Contributors

1) General Questions

1.1) What is a secure program?

The simplest definition would be : a program that is capable of
performing its task withstanding any attempts to subvert it.
This extends to the attribute of "robustness." Most importantly
the program should be able to perform its task without
jeopardizing the security policies of the system it is running
on. This is done by making sure it adheres to local security
policies at all times. To draw an analogy, a locksmith will
install a lock, and the home owner will decide whether or not
he will lock the door at any given time. It is the lock smith's
responsibility to make sure the lock performs its function of
keeping an intruder out. It is just as much the responsibility
of the programmer to make sure the program adheres to the local
security policies. Thus returning to the introduction, this FAQ
is about the programmer's responsibilities and not the

The problem with that analogy is that when it is translated
back into UNIX terms one thinks of an authentication program.
By all means 'login' needs to be secure, but so do all the
system components. To quote the U.S. Department of Defense
Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria (a.k.a The Orange

"No computer system can be considered truly secure if the basic
hardware and software mechanisms that enforce the security
policy are themselves subject to unauthorized modification or

Unfortunately this doesn't really help because we are sadly
left thinking of firewalls, access control lists, persistent
authentication systems etc. and we miss out on the other system
components that must also be considered. So the quote can be
re-written as such:

"No computer system can be considered truly secure if the basic
hardware and software mechanisms that _can affect_ the security
policies are themselves subject to unauthorized modification or

This gives us a much better view of what a secure program is,
and places a distinction between a secure program and a
security program. The security program enforces security
policies; however, the secure program does not enforce any
policies but must also co-exist with the security policies.
This allows a much broader view of every program on the system.
All the applications, and all the servers, and all the clients
must be implemented securely. Granted that this approach is a
bit extremist, it is actually quite reasonable. Programming
securely should always be done as will be seen by some of the
points brought up in this FAQ.

Finally, to finish this definition, consider a Mail User Agent
(MUA), such a 'pine' or 'elm.' Both have to be written securely
because they can affect the security policies if they were not.
In light of an advisory posted to Bugtraq (Zalewski 1999), pine
was reported to have a security hole. Even though it is not
enforcing security policies it still failed to adhere to them.

1.2) What is a security hole?

The term is somewhat colloquial but it has been used in
technical context enough times to warrant common usage in
security advisories. It just means the program has a flaw that
allows an attacker to "exploit it." Thus comes the "exploit"
that denotes a program, or technique to take advantage of the
flaw, or "vulnerability." The terms mentioned here will be
found in many advisories, and in this FAQ so familiarity with
them is essential.

1.3) How do I find security holes?

Careful auditing of source code is usually the way. One way of
doing it is going through this FAQ in its treatment toward
specific security holes and attempt to find them throughout the
code in question. I will attempt to give tips toward finding a
said security hole where applicable.

However, if you really really need to find that security hole,
disassemble the binary image of the program, grok the asm
output into your head, run it slowly but carefully keeping
track of registers, stacks etc -- and yes grasshopper, that is
the One True Way.

1.4) What types of attacks exist?

There are three main types of attacks (Saltzer 1975):

Unauthorized release of privileged information.

Unauthorized modification of privileged information.

Denial of service.

The word unauthorized speaks for itself. If information can be
read, or modified when it should not have been, security has
been breached. A denial of service attack is any attack that
stops a program from performing its function. When considering
whether a program is secure from its design, provisions for
these three attacks need to be accounted for.

Obviously these attacks are aggregates of the more specific
ones that exploit security holes. But that should give you an
idea of what you're looking out for.

1.5) How do I fix a security hole?

Traditionally there are three approaches to fixing a security
hole. At the risk of going slightly off topic, let us go back
to the heyday of the SYN flood attack (daemon9 1997).

SYN flooding is when a host sends out a large number of TCP/IP
packets with an unreachable source address, and a TCP flag of
SYN. The receiving host responds and awaits for the SYN-ACK to
complete the three-way handshake. Since the source address is
unreachable the receiving host never receives a response to
complete the handshake. Instead it is left in a "half open"
state till it times out. The problem is that there is a finite
number of "slots" per connection received on the listening
socket. This is because the host needs to store information in
order to recognize the last part of the TCP three-way
handshake. This results in a denial of service where the
receiving host would simply stop accepting new connections till
the bogus half-open connections timed out. They are called
half-open connections because the handshake is never completed.

Interestingly enough several different approaches were used to
solve this problem:

Cisco Systems Inc., implemented a TCP Intercept feature on its
routers. The router would act as a transparent TCP proxy
between the real server, and the client. When a connection
request was made from the client, the router would complete the
handshake for the server, and open the real connection only
after the handshake has completed. This allowed the router to
impose a very aggressive strategy for accepting new
connections. It would place a threshold on the amount of
connection requests it would handle: If the amount of half-open
connections exceeded the threshold it would lower the timeout
period interval, thus dropping the half-open connections
faster. The real servers were completely shielded while the
routers took the brunt and handled it aggressively.

The OpenBSD developers implemented a work-around that caused
old half-open TCP connections to be randomly dropped when new
connection requests arrived on a full backlog. This allowed new
connections to be established even with a constant SYN-flood
taking place. The old bogus connections would be dropped at the
behest of a new connection, legitimate or not. The randomness
was implemented to be fair to all incoming connections.
Although arguably with a large enough flood this technique may
fail, it did have good results as tested by the developers.

Dan Bernstein (Bernstein 1996; Schenk 1996) proposed SYN
cookies, which would eliminate the need to store information
per half open connection. When a connection is initiated, the
server generates a cookie with the initial TCP packet
information. The server would then respond with the cookie.
When the client responded with a SYN-ACK to complete the
handshake, the server would redo the hash, this time with the
information taken from the recent SYN-ACK packet. This would of
course entail decrementing the sequence numbers since they have
been incremented in the client response. If the new hash
matched that of the returned sequence numbers, the server would
have completed the three-way handshake. Only the secret was
stored, the rest of the information is gathered from the
incoming packets during the handshake. This meant only one
datum for all incoming connections. Thus an infinite amount of
half open connections could exist.

Three different methods were used. Cisco used a "wrapper." The
actual UNIX system was completely unconcerned with what the
router did and required no modification. This is good for a
scalable solution, but does not remove the problem entirely.
The wrapper just acts as a canvas.

The OpenBSD solution was to fix the problem in the
implementation itself. This is usually the case with most
security holes, especially the less complicated ones.

The solution presented by Dan Bernstein was more of a design
change. The system's responses were changed, but remained
reasonably well in conformance with the TCP standard. Some
compromises were made however (see Schenk 1996).

There is no one True Way of fixing security holes. Approach the
problem first in the code, then design, and finally by wrapping
it if you really must.

2) The Flow Of Information

Although what is presented here is a bit cross platform and not
UNIX dependent, it is so essential that I had to put it in its own

2.1) What is the flow of information?

Every program can be considered to follow a simple design: it
accepts input, processes it, and produces output. Input may
come from the keyboard, a file, or the network. As long as it
is gained from an external source that is not part of the
program, it is considered input. Output is not necessarily
information printed on the screen, or in a log file, it may be
an affect like the creation of a file. The processing may be
any work from simple arithmetic, to parsing strings.
Mathematically speaking, at least, your program should really
be a function taking variables and producing results. This
cycle may happen more than once during a program's lifetime.

Most programmers, for purposes of keeping things simple, will
make assumptions about input. Particularly its format, and
whether to apply sanity checks. There are probably entire books
on doing this correctly: designing your program correctly,
picking the right data formats and so on. This FAQ isn't
interested in that aspect of processing information. Instead it
is interested in three things: trust, validation, and acting on

2.2) What is trust?

When trust is given to an external source of input, a program
accepts information from it while considering the information
valid. Secure programs need to be very untrusting and always
validate information gained from external sources. Some
programs, such as Dan Bernstein's 'qmail' distrust information
gained from within. Usually trust is only given to an external
source after it has been authenticated. Take the login program
under UNIX. Once authenticated the user is trusted to do
whatever he wishes to do under his own credentials. Although
this example fails because the login program vanishes and is
replaced by a shell, you get the idea.

As a general rule: any information than an attacker can
manipulate cannot be given trust. For example:

In March 1994 Sun Microsystems released a security update for
SunOS 4.1.x that fixed a security hole related to "/etc/utmp".
The file acted as a database that keeps track of current users
logged onto the system with additional information such as the
terminal, and time of login. Certain daemons such as comsat,
and talkd, would access the file to retrieve the terminal name
associated with a user. The terminal name would consist of the
path to the terminal device. The daemons would open the file
specified by the path, and write to it. Users could modify the
file, because it was world writable, and set arbitrary file
names for the terminal. This resulted in potentially having the
daemons open sensitive files while running with special
privileges, and writing to them at the behest of the attacker.
This is a good example of trusting information that can be
manipulated by an attacker.

2.3) What is validation?

When information is received from an untrusted source it must
be validated prior to processing it. In the case of the
aforementioned talkd hole, the daemon should have made sure the
path to the terminal file was indeed correct. This could have
been done by simply checking the password database, making sure
the ownership matched, and that the terminal path did indeed
point to a terminal. Later in the FAQ, the concept of the least
privilege principle is explained, and it would have worked
wonders with the aforementioned security hole.

There are several ways you can validate information depending
on what it is supposed to be. A good place to start is by
defining its attributes. Is it supposed to hold a file name?
Does the file exist? Is the user allowed access to that file?
That as mentioned previously is what the talkd daemon should
have done. In the "Handling Input" section a security hole
found in SSH(van der Wijk 1997; Al-Herbish 1997)) will be
brought up where privileged ports could be bound to by normal
users. In that particular case the function binding to a port
did not properly check to make sure the port number was not >
1024, and as such the attacker could bind to privileged ports;
however, the security hole entailed another error on the part
of the program that is discussed in more detail in the coming

2.4) What do you mean by "acting on input"?

[ I need a more formal term for it. Unfortunately I'm lost for
words. ]

When you pass input directly to a system call, external
program, memory copying routine etc. Basically you perform an
operation with the aid of the information. In the
aforementioned talkd hole the pathname read from the utmp
database was passed to a file opening system call directly. The
program assumed it was valid, and would not be malicious. This
is a wrong assumption.

PERL supports "tainting" (Wall, Schwartz 1992). All input
passed from an external source is tainted unless explicitly
untainted. Any tainted input that is passed directly to a
system call results in an error. This method of validation is
quite ingenious. Regardless of whether or not you are using
PERL, the methodology is a good one to follow.

3) Privileges and Credentials

3.1) What are privileges and credentials?

Every process under UNIX has three sets of credentials: Real
credentials, effective credentials, and saved credentials. The
credentials are split into two groups, user and group
credentials. Additionally the process has a list of
supplemental group credentials. The different "set*id()" system
calls allow a process to change the values in these sets. Only
the root user can change them arbitrarily. Non-root users are
limited to what they may change their credentials to.

It is essential to know how the system calls work on the
credential sets (see Stevens 1992 for a more exhaustive
reference). The following table lists each system call, what
credential set it affects, and what credentials it will allow
the process to change into. The credential sets are abbreviated
with RUID standing for real user ID, EGID for effective group
ID, SVUID for the saved user ID. ( Self explanatory really.)

System Call Changes Can change to









Make sure you've read the man pages, and just use the table for
reference. When changing credentials make sure you change the
right ones.

The credentials are checked by the kernel for access control. A
process is considered privileged if its credentials give it
access to privileged information, or privileged facilities.
This FAQ will make use of three main privilege levels:

Special User -- The root user.

Normal User -- A local user without root privileges.

Anonymous User -- A user that has not been authenticated,
or logged, into the local system.

The definitions above are a bit misleading without some
elaboration. The root user is considered special because the
kernel gives him special abilities; his access to files is not
limited by file permissions; he can bind to privileged ports;
he can change resource limits; he can arbitrarily change his
own credentials lowering them to any other credential; he can
send signals to any other process, and on some UNIX flavors
trace any other process. Although there are some other special
abilities the root user has, the list consisted of some of the
more important abilities. However, on certain systems
privileged information is accessible by non-root users. For
example, on SCO 5.0.4 the passwd database is accessible by any
user in group "auth." Thus non-root users in that group can
still access privileged information. In the case of SCO 5.0.4
it is also modifiable by users in that group. The astute reader
will note that modifying the password database can effectively
lead to modifying one's credentials. So keep in mind that the
usage of special privileges in this FAQ is meant to encompass
any user who has special abilities that are not conferred upon
other local users. This may seem ambiguous but I hope the
definition serves its purpose well.

The normal user has been authenticated, but is regarded as
normal without any special privileges. The traditional UNIX
kernel itself without any augmentation will not recognize any
user except for the root user. The special user and the normal
user have both been authenticated, but the special user is
recognized to have higher privileges.

The anonymous user is one who has not been authenticated. It is
very important to recognize this user when network applications
are written. For example, consider an FTP server using the
"anonymous" user open to everyone. In the same way consider the
FTP client that connects to the FTP server. The client is run
by a local "normal user," (or special user if the admin is
nutty enough) but it is connecting to a completely anonymous
entity. It must not give the server any special abilities on
the local system, and allow only a set of abilities such as
writing to a predefined file (downloading from the server).
Indeed some advisories discussed the simplest of programs such
as 'tar' (Tarreau 1998;Der Mouse 1998) where the tar archive
itself could subvert the application into unauthorized
modification of privileged information.

Depending on the privilege level, the application must take
into account what the privilege allows the entity to do.
Consider a web server that allows clients to browse the entire
file system under a normal user ID (or the username 'www'). The
web server should still not allow the client to browse just any
file or it has given away part of the normal privileges to
every user on the net.

3.2) What is the least privilege principle?

When an application runs with higher privileges than the source
of input, it can prevent the occurrence of security holes by
only using the higher privileges for specific tasks. This is
known as the least privilege principle (Saltzer 1975), because
the lowest privileges are used during the program's execution.
If the attacker is able to trick the program into accomplishing
a specific task, it will do so with his privileges.

Most UNIX flavors come with a utility that allows the user to
change his personal information. It is usually called chfn. The
information is copied to a temporary file from the password
database. The utility then forks a child process which executes
an editor on the temporary copy. The user is subsequently given
control of the editor and is free to modify the copy. Once the
user completes modifying the copy and exits from the editor,
the utility reads the temporary copy, performs any sanity
checks on the input, and copies it back to the password
database. The least privilege principle must be applied in this
case. The child process running the editor cannot do so with
special privileges. The editor may allow the user to run a
shell, or open other files. chfn must revert the privilege to
that of the user in the child process before executing the

A security hole that was reported concerning XFree86 (plaguez
1997) The server would run with root privileges and read any
configuration file specified from a command line option. The
advisory demonstrated how the shadowed password database could
be read by pointing the server to it as its configuration file.
Since the server ran with root privileges it could open the
database, and would inadvertently output its contents as part
of its error reporting. Thus an attacker could read files he
would not normally be able to. Had the X server used the same
privileges as the end user when attempting to read the
configuration file, it would not have been able to. The
attacker would only be able to access files readable by him.
The file opening operation should have been done with the least
privilege principle.

3.3) How do I apply the least privilege principle safely?

The least privilege principle can be applied by either lowering
privileges temporarily, or completely dropping privileges so
that they will never be regained again. However, there are
viable attacks that can occur from both operations. Also
lowering privileges is not always enough without doing away
with privileged information.

Note on saved credentials

Before discussing the details of lowering credentials properly,
the saved credential set needs to be elaborated upon. The saved
credential set is initialized to the effective credentials of
the process at the time of its execution. So if the
process-image has a set-id-on-execution (SUID) or
set-group-id-on-execution (SGID) bit set, the saved credentials
will match that credential. This is very useful if the program
wishes to temporarily drop its effective credentials and then
regain them.

Lowering privileges temporarily entails changing one of the
credential sets, usually the effective credentials because they
are most often checked by the kernel. The seteuid() and
setegid() system calls allow a process to set its effective
credentials to its real credentials or its saved credentials.
This is where the switching between the two credential sets
becomes very useful. A SUID or SGID process can change its
effective credentials to its real credentials, which are
inherited from the parent process, and then switch them back to
its saved credentials which it inherits from the SUID or SGID
file permission. In doing so the SUID or SGID program is
toggling its privileges between its caller and the
process-image owner.

Because a process cannot get its saved credentials via any
system call, it is recommended to do a geteuid() and getegid()
at the beginning of execution and store them internally. This
works because the saved credentials are an exact copy of the
effective credentials at the start of a process' execution.
This will work: saved_uid = geteuid(); saved_gid = getegid();

To change effective credentials to the saved credentials do a
setegid(saved_gid); seteuid(saved_uid); Now to switch them back
to match the real credentials do a setegid(getgid());
seteuid(getuid); Simple and straight forward.

The second method of applying the least privilege principle is
to completely drop privileges and never regain them again.
Recall the chfn example mentioned in question 3.2? It would
have to drop the privileges in its child process completely
because it gave the user control of the child process. This is
done by calling setgid() and then setuid(). A common mistake is
to drop the user ID first, and this will fail if the process is
relying on the fact that it has root privileges!

There are, as mentioned earlier, viable attacks. The first is
the signal attack. BSD derived operating systems allow a
process to send a signal to another process if:

The real user ID of process A is that of the root user.

The real user ID of process A matches the real user ID of
process B.

The effective user ID of process A matches the effective
user ID of process B.

The real user ID of process A matches the effective user ID
of process B.

The effective user ID of process A matches the real user ID
of process B.

Both processes share the same session ID.

With those semantics it is obvious that if a process lowered
its effective credentials to that of the user, he would be able
to send it a signal. In the event that the process begins to
run with the same real credentials as the user (all SUID or
SGID processes start out this way), it should change its
credentials if it expects to trust signals. Keep in mind that
by lowering its effective credentials to that of the user's
real credentials it _is_ susceptible. This access check on
signals is quite a mishmash. Also, change the session ID via

In April 1998, a Bugtraq posting discussed the circumvention of
a protection scheme employed by implementations of the BSD ping
utility (Sanfilippo 1998) The ping utility would use the alarm
routine to synchronize the periodical sending of Internet
Control Message Protocol (ICMP) echo requests to a remote host,
and would not allow the normal user to send requests repeatedly
in a flooding manner. The protection scheme was simply there to
prevent abusive users from flooding other hosts with a large
number of ICMP echo requests. The normal user, of course,
cannot send an ICMP packet because performing this task
requires the use of a raw socket. Only the root user can open a
raw socket because of the security implications associated with
raw network access -- receiving incoming packets rawly from the
network, and sending raw packets into the network. Thus the
ping utility is normally installed as SUID to root. The
technique Sanfilippo used to get around ping's security
mechanism was to constantly send the SIGALRM signal to it,
subverting the protection scheme it attempted to implement.
Since the alarm routine would schedule an occurrence of SIGALRM
after a specified interval, the ping utility would have a
signal handler for it, that sends the ICMP echo request.
Obviously the process may not install handlers and act on them
blindly if an attacker can trigger the signal handlers.

Some UNIX flavors support the SA_SIGINFO option that can set
when setting the signal handler via 'sigaction'. This passes
the handler additional information with regards to who sent the
signal, and whether or not it is kernel generated. Another
method is by using internal sanity checks. In the case of
'ping' this could have been done by simply keeping track of the
time that passed in between signals being generated and not
honoring them unless a sufficient amount of time had passed.

However, a worse case would be a SIGTERM or SIGKILL that halts
a process when it is in between a critical state. In the case
of 'chfn' it would be downright despicable of a user to halt it
just as it was writing out the new password file. If a process
is in an "unclean state" it should not allow itself to be
halted by an attacker and retain higher privileges untill the
point whence it can afford to be halted.

A common mistake is to assume that a process with lowered
credentials is no longer a security hazard. In fact it just
might be, even with the previous attacks accounted for.

A well known, but ancient, technique of getting the password
file from an old SunOS box was to cause its ftp daemon to dump
core. Similar security holes were later reported (Temmingh
1997). If a privileged process reads the password database into
memory and is then caused to dump core because of a signal
attack, the core image may hold a copy of the password file
which is then easily readable by the attacker. But cleaning up
internal memory may not be enough. A security hole was found on
OpenBSD's chpass utility with file descriptor leakage (Network
Associates Inc. 1998). The child process was passed a
privileged file descriptor because the descriptor was never
properly closed before giving the user control over the

Finally, process tracing attacks may take place. FreeBSD, and
NetBSD both allow a process to trace any process with a
matching real user ID. Tracing implies complete control over
the process, including the file descriptors, memory, and
executable instructions etc; however, a process may not be
traced if it is SUID or SGID.

Here's a check list for lowering real and effective

Lowering Effective Credentials

The process should not have any cleaning up to do. The
state of external objects should be in a form that is
suitable for reuse. This includes lock files, updates to
databases, and even temporary files.

All signal handlers that may be triggered should not be
trusted; they must be validated for authenticity.

All privileged information held in the process memory
should be cleared so that a core dump will not contain them
(don't just free up dynamic privileged memory, clean it out
before freeing).

Lowering Real Credentials:

Previous steps must be followed as well. Additional steps take
into account the process tracing attacks which are not viable
on all systems.

Privileged information may not be held by the process. This
includes file descriptors or sockets referencing privileged

The effective credentials should be dropped to the real
credentials as well, since a process that is traced can be
forced to execute arbitrary code under this effective

4) Local Process Interaction:

4.1) What is process attribute inheritance? Or why should I not
write SUID/SGID programs?


Process attribute inheritance (AFAIK a term I coined), is when
a child process inherits attributes from the parent process'
environment. I did see this referred to as "state variables",
but I forgot by who and all searching has led nowhere. The
problems with process attribute inheritance were fore shadowed
by the 'ping' security hole mentioned in question 3.3, as well
as the OpenBSD 'chpass' hole mentioned in that section.

A child process is an exact copy of its parent except for the
process ID and the parent process ID. These change for obvious
reasons. However, all other attributes are the copied with the
exception of file descriptors. File descriptors, however, are
shared. (For a more exhaustive explanation see Stevens 1992).

A process is executed after a call to execve() or one of the
other routines in its family. This system call filters out many
of the process attributes, but lets some through. This is
considered a UNIX "feature" and is relied upon by daemons such
as inetd. Keep in mind that a SUID process is a child that has
been execve()'d, so it does inherit these attributes. Before I
present a list of process attributes (albeit probably an
incomplete list), some known security holes will be discussed
to illustrate the types of attacks that can occur (Bishop

A post was made to Bugtraq that discussed a weakness in a
popular Mail User Agent package elm because it trusted an
environment (Jensen 1994) variable. An autoreply utility was
packaged with elm that would run with special privileges, and
perform its own internal checks to prevent exploitation by the
user. One of the checks included making sure a user did have
read access to an arbitrary file before allowing him to read it
(can you see what's wrong with this picture?). If the full path
to the file was not specified, the utility simply prepended
whatever was in the HOME environment variable, and opened the
file for reading, without performing any checks. This allowed
users to read files with the same privileges as the autoreply
process. The mistake was to assume that environment variables
can be trusted for valid information, and that the files in a
user's home directory are his to read. Both these assumptions
are false. Environment variables are inherited from a parent
process, and thus can contain arbitrary information. The
attacker can manipulate environment variables before forking
the child process. It is also not true that the user would have
access to the files in his home directory, necessarily. This
was a tragic case of giving trust to information that can be
manipulated by an attacker.

In December 1993, Sun Microsystems released a security
bulletin, which among other subjects brought up a weakness in
the modload and loadmod system utilities. The weakness was
trusting the Internal Field Separator (IFS) environment
variable. Since the shell would use the IFS to split the
contents of variables after they are expanded, the attacker can
specify how the contents are split. A path name such as
"/bin/cat" , could indeed cause the file "bin" to be executed
if the IFS is set to '/'. This is because the character '/'
would be recognized as a field to separate the other strings in
the variable. Since both these utilities would call upon a
shell during their execution, the attacker could arbitrarily
trick the utilities to run his process-images with their
privileges by modifying the IFS variable. We might think that
shells should not make use of the IFS variable if the shell is
not run in interactive mode. This is not a solution, since this
only canvases the problem of passing down harmful process
attribute. The solution is not to pass the variable in the
first place. If the aforementioned utility would not have
called a shell, it may still have encountered problems with
other child processes. For example the LD_PRELOAD environment
variable is used by the run-time linker to load code from any
shared library the variable specifies. Although the run-time
linker will ignore such environment variables for SUID or SGID
processes, the child process of a privileged process may
inherit them nonetheless and not have such protection. Since
the child process in turn inherits its parent's privileges, the
parent is effectively compromised through the child process. So
remember, the SUID process may have children that are passed
down harmful environment variables that would not affect the
SUID program necessarily but affect its children.

At this point I must concede that there may very well be
implementations of run-time linkers (read: haven't done the
research yet) that do not make the mistake of using the
LD_PRELOAD variable even in the child process of a SUID or SGID
process. Nonetheless, why risk it on an old box?

Finally a reminder of the OpenBSD chpass hole, and the
descriptor leak. If you haven't read it in section 3.3, go and
read it.

Thus four types of attacks are viable:

Child process trusts process attribute to contain valid
information. (elm hole)

The process attribute affects the child process directly.
(ping hole)

A process inherits an attribute and passes it down to a
child process that is affected by it. This is the same as
the second attack, but it is the child process of the
secure process that is affected. (or the grandchild of the
attacker). (LD_PRELOAD attack)

The child process of the secure process is passed an
attribute containing privileged information. (chpass hole)

Now for the list of process attributes and how to go about
avoiding any security holes.


Just a review of section 3. Processes running with the same
credentials, or similar (see section 3!) can be attacked by
process tracing, or sent signals that affect them.

File Descriptors:

The 'chpass' security hole had a file descriptor leak. A
quick and easy way of avoiding file descriptor leaks is by
setting the FD_CLOEXEC flag on the descriptor (again, see
Stevens 1992 as he discusses this rather well). But that's
not the end of it. In 1998 the OpenBSD team released a
patch for OpenBSD which would not allow a SUID or SGID
program from inheriting empty file descriptors in the first
three slots. It would instead set them pointing to
/dev/null. Theo deRaadt mentioned to me one of the problems
that could occur: if the inherited descriptor would be
opened as a raw socket, and error reporting by the standard
C library (standard error) would be sent through it, bogus
packets could be sent to the socket. Although he did
mention for other reasons programs such as traceroute were
not susceptible. As a workaround for systems without this
security feature, doing a stat on the first three file
descriptors to check their availability and opening them to
"/dev/null" should do. It just adds bloat to your code, and
should really be handled by the kernel.

Environment Variables:

Don't trust environment variables to contain valid
information. In the case of the above mentioned 'elm' hole,
it would have been wiser to look up the home directory in
the password database. Another more subtle issue is not
placing privileged information in an environment variable
(Smith 1998). Specifically, a security hole related to
FreeBSD's 'ps' utility. The utility would allow users to
view another process' environment variables. Consequently
applications like pppd that accepted passwords via
environment variables became vulnerable to unauthorized
release of privileged information attacks. In fact, the
hole was not related to 'ps' if you think about it
critically. The application that places privileged
information in the environment variable is at fault.

Finally comes the security hole related to having an
environment variable affect an external program. IFS and
LD_PRELOAD, as discussed previously, are viable environment
variables, but a secure program should remove all
environment variables except the ones it chooses to use and
knows will not affect it. A good idea is to get rid of
every environment variable you don't need and keep the ones
you know are useful and actually have a use for.

File Mode Creation Mask:

Although it is very common for a robust program to reset
its file mode creation mask by calling umask(), it should
still be noted as a viable security concern. An attacker
can pass a mask that would affect the file permissions of
files created by open() and mkdir(). Resetting the mask to
0 suffices to prevent a file mode creation mask attack.

Working and Root Directories

Both the current working directory, and the root directory
are inherited from the parent process. The working
directory affects file system calls if they are not passed
a full path name. This can be made into an attack. Thus it
is advisable to both set the current working directory, and
use full paths when making file system calls. The root
directory should not be a concern. Only the root user can
change the root directory.

Resource Limits

The setrlimit() system call allows a process to set soft or
hard limits on its consumption of resources. When a process
reaches its soft limit a signal is sent depending on which
limit is reached. SIGSEV for the maximum stack size,
SIGXFSZ for an I/O operation that exceeded a file size
limit etc. The list is left till the section on resource
limits, but the signals if not handled will result in the
process being terminated. A careful attacker may trigger a
denial of service attack where the process is terminated in
the middle of performing a critical operation. When the
hard limit is reached, the process is prevented from
executing any further. The soft limits may be raised or
lowered at the process' own discretion. Thus by setting all
limits to infinity, the process can relieve itself of any
resource limit attacks. However, the hard limit can be
lowered by a normal user, but cannot be raised except by
root. A viable attack is to lower the hard resource limits,
and have the child process choke from underneath. The most
obvious solution is not to begin execution if the hard
limits are too low, and to heighten the soft limits to
infinity. Raising the soft limits over the hard limits will
not work. Thus the process will begin by specifying how
much of the individual resources it requires, and if the
setrlimit() system call returns an error it will not begin
execution as to avoid resource starvation. This is not very
helpful though, and better treatment of resource limits is
given in its own section below.

Scheduling Priority

The scheduling priority on a process can be modified by a
call to nice() or setpriority(). This is usually done to
tell the scheduler how important the process is. A very low
priority may cause the process to execute slower, which can
aid an attacker if he is attempting to exploit a race
condition.The semantics of setpriority() requires the user
to have an effective user ID matching the real or effective
user ID of the peer process. So this may not necessarily be
inherited. However, the priority of a process can only help
an attacker exploit a race condition more easily. It does
not really constitute a denial of resource attack unless
the process has time constraints. Regardless of the speed
of a process, a race condition can always be exploited.
Even with the element of luck, or by slowing down the
system as a whole. Race conditions need to be eliminated
and not made harder to exploit. Keep an eye out for this
scheduling priority in the rare case that it actually does

Interval Timers

Three interval timers that can be manipulated by the
setitimer() system call. The alarm facility is usually
wrapped around a call to setitimer(). Since the interval
timers are inherited, a parent process could set a timer to
send its child process SIGALRM, SIGVTALRM or the SIGPROF
signal. These could be used to either subvert a program if
it were to handle them, or terminate it. These signals
should be ignored at the beginning of the process'
execution or the timers should be reset.

Signal Handlers

Although all signal handlers are reset to their defaults,
blocked signals remain blocked and so do ignored signals.
This could be a problem if our program design is built
around receiving a signal before carrying on, and assumes
it is not blocked or ignored. Resetting the state of the
signal mask, and resetting signal handlers should also be
done without any preconceptions of default settings.

With all of this SUID/SGID programming is daunting at best. A
better technique (proposed by Thomas Ptacek on the newsgroup)
would be to use a server-client model where the server is
privileged but does not inherit the environment of its parent
process -- a would be attacker. That way the client runs with
no privileges, connects to the privileged server and passes the
relevant information through the IPC channel.

4.2) How can I limit access to a SUID/SGID process-image


The question may seem vague but sometimes it would seem
attractive to have a SUID process that is only executable by a
particular set of users. Some time ago I implemented a
distributed network monitoring package that had java clients
talk to it remotely, and sniffers running on different servers
(a very ambitious undertaking). The actual servers where run
under a special group called "sly" that would in turn have
access to a SUID process-image to do all the sniffing. The
child process ran as root, but could only be executed by users
in the group "sly."

At first this looks good. The actual server does not run with
special privileges, and it would seem that if it got exploited
the attacker would not gain root privileges. However, he would
gain privileges for the group "sly" that would let him sniff
the local network. If he was then able to exploit the sniffer,
he would gain root privileges. But he needs to exploit the
server to the point of executing arbitrary code on the machine.
Creating a file, or tricking it into sending privileged
information would not equate to gaining the privileges of group
"sly" necessarily. So this does not lessen the need for secure
code, but it _could_ in the long run lessen the chances of
complete compromise. I'm going to call this technique, at the
risk of coining yet another term, privilege segmentation. The
attacker may gain privileges to a specific group but has more
work to do in order to gain higher privileges.

Fair warning that security via "chance" or "hope" is not good.
I don't particularly like hearing about "risk management," and
the above technique is just that: risk management.

4.3) How do I authenticate a parent process?

Since the child process inherits the parent's real user ID, a
call to getuid() does the trick. Unfortunately due to a
misconception, some programmers are led to believe that
getuid() is not sufficient. This stems from the thinking that
if a user managed in exploiting a SUID process into running
another process, the child would have a real user ID matching
the parent process' effective user ID. This is not true,
because the real user ID keeps propagating from parent to child
regardless of the SUID feature. As mentioned in 2.1, the child
process inherits the credentials directly, a perfect copy with
the exception of the effective credentials if the SGID or SUID
feature. The saved credentials are also reset. But this
exception does not extend to the real credentials which are
directly inherited.

However, if the exploited SUID process was to change its real
user ID to match its effective user ID, which is easily done
with setuid(), then getuid() is not sufficient. There is a
logical fallacy here: if the parent process has already been
exploited to the point where the attacker can cause it to
switch credentials what's the point in faking it anymore?
Nonetheless, additional steps can be taken but not portably. On
systems where login information is stored in the kernel, and
not on the file system, by setlogin(), getlogin() will always
return the username associated with the session. [ FreeBSD
stores login information in kernel. ]

On OpenBSD, and FreeBSD the issetugid() system calls can be
used to find out if the current process is a SUID or GUID
process. This propagation continues unless a child process
clears all its privileges, to quote the OpenBSD man page "uid
!= euid or gid != egid". So this system call may be used in
conjunction with getuid to be even more paranoid.

A good suggestion is to do a getuid(), check getlogin() if the
information is stored in the kernel, and finally do a
issetugid(). If all tests pass, you know you are talking to the
Real McCoy. In saying that, caution should not be thrown to the
wind. Using passwords, cookies,
insert-fancy-authentication-mechanism-here etc. is always
recommended, but the previous approach is the more light weight
kernel supported method.

4.4) How do I authenticate a non-parent process?

[ I could use writing on SO_PEERCRED (Linux) doors (Solaris)
and LOCAL_CREDS (NetBSD). Also I have some example code for the
techniques discussed below. If you tackle the any of the issues
above, you would be a very nice contributor to provide example
source. Also this is advanced stuff so I'll elaborate more when
I fix it up]

It is possible to authenticate processes via IPC channels
(Bernstein 1999). However the methods differ on different UNIX
flavors making it a very non-portable mess to write.

BSD derived systems support the concept of access rights
(Stevens 1990). The facility allows a process to pass a file
descriptor through a UNIX domain socket, and with a small hack
it can be used to authenticate a local process. The term hack
is only used because the facility was not intended for
authentication. However, if the client sends a descriptor
referencing a file that has read permissions only for its
owner,the receiver knows the sender is the owner. Thus the file
acts as an identifier. However, on systems where a user may
give away files with chown() this method cannot be used. The
attacker can simply create a file with read permissions only
for himself, open it, and then chown it to another user.
Fortunately this is a System V "feature," and on many systems
can be turned off as a kernel configuration option.

A similar technique is found under System V derived systems.
This is done by receiving file descriptors via a STREAMS file.
Only the file descriptor is discarded because the UID is passed
along with it. This is done by using an ioctl call with the
I_SENDFD and I_RECVFD flags on a streams file used as an IPC
channel. This technique does not suffer from the chown attack
because the credentials are passed _along_ with the descriptor.

BSD/OS, FreeBSD and other BSD derived operating systems also
have SCM_CREDS that sends credential information through a UNIX
domain socket. [ Ok, someone point me to some standard that
documents the semantics. Every BSD camp is doing it differently
":( ]

5) Using The File System Securely

[ The first contributor to find a better solution to 5.2 gets a
donut ]

Sadly too many past security holes show that the average programmer
fails to note that the file system is a database with links
pointing to resources, and that filenames act only as identifiers.
File names, which are stored in directories (considered special
files), point to inodes. Indeed that is how we get race condition
attacks, and symlink attacks. Both are given treatment below, but
keep in mind that the principles are open to other databases that
follow the same model as the file system. In particular race
conditions may occur in non-file-system related operations.

5.1) How do I avoid race condition attacks?

A race condition occurs when two or more operations occur in an
undefined manner (McKusick et al. 1996). Specifically in file
system races the attacker attempts to change the state of the
file system in between two file system operations on the part
of the program. Usually the program expects the two operations
to apply to the same file, or expects the information retrieved
to be the same. If the file operations are not atomic, or do
not reference the same file this cannot be guaranteed without
proper care. As an added note see Bishop 1996 for a more
exhaustive and but more theoretical discussion.

Solaris 2.x's 'ps' utility had a security hole that was caused
by a race condition (Chasin 1995). The utility would open a
temporary file, and then use the chown() system call with the
file's full path to change its ownership to root. This was
easily exploitable by slowing the system down, finding the file
created, deleting it, and then slipping in a new SUID word
writable file. After the file was created with that mode and
chowned to root by the insecure process, the attacker simply
copies a shell into the file. Viola, instant root shell. (The
exploit itself made use of symlinks to slip in the new file,
but I'm leaving the concept of symlinks untill the next 5.2)

At first glance, to the less perceptive reader, it may seem
that if the original file was not created world writable the
attacker could not delete it. Well it was not world writable
and he could. The file was created under the temporary
directory (usually "/var/tmp" or "/tmp") which had world
writable permissions. Global temporary directories are setup
this way or they aren't usable, hence the world global. It's a
completely different issue to argue whether having global
temporary directories is a good idea. [For a similar security
hole see Hull 1996]

The problem was that the second operation used the file name
and not the file descriptor. If a call to fchown() would have
been used on the file descriptor returned from the original
open() operation, the security hole would have been avoided.
File names are _not_ unique. The file name "/tmp/foo" is really
just an entry in the directory "/tmp". Directories are special
files. If an attacker can create, and delete files from a
directory the program cannot trust file names taken from it. Or
to look at it in a more critical way: because the directory is
modifiable by the attacker, a program cannot trust it as a
source of valid input. Instead it should use file descriptors
to perform its operations.

One solution is to use the sticky bit. This will prevent the
attacker from removing the file, but not prevent the attacker
from creating files in the directory. See below for a treatment
toward symbolic link attacks.

There are other race conditions that can occur. Using stat()
and instead of fstat(). Using access() and thinking that the
information will persist untill the next few lines of code. It
may not persist if the directory can be modified by an
attacker, so don't expect it to. The only way to make sure the
file permissions will not change, and that you have the file
you want is to fstat() after an open().

5.2) How do I create/open files safely?

Several attacks have made use of symbolic links to fool the
process into opening a different file. A symbolic link is a
convenient method of creating a file that references a
different file. It is not a hard link, because it does not
reference a particular inode. Instead it holds a path to
another file. This is convenient because the path could be
point to a non-existent file.

A process can be tricked into opening or creating a file it did
not intend to via a symbolic link attack. For example:

A security hole reported for SUN's license manager stemmed from
the creation of a file without checking for symbolic links (or
soft links) (Eriksson 1996). An open() call was made to either
create the file if it did not exist, or open it if it did
exist. The problem with a symbolic link is that an open call
will follow it and not consider the link to constitute a
created file. So if you had "/tmp/foo" symlinked to "/.rhosts"
(or "/root/.rhosts" depending on your cultural background), the
latter file would be transparently opened. The license manager
seemed to have used the O_CREAT flag with the open call making
it create the file if it did not exist. To make matters worse,
it created the file with world writable permissions. Since it
ran as root, the ".rhosts" file could be created, written to,
and root privileges attained. I'll leave it as an exercise to
the reader to work out how a world writable ".rhosts" file can
be used to get root privileges. (Back in those days a world
writable ".rhosts" was OK on the part of rlogind)

The problem is two fold, since it requires the following
conditions to solve it: "If file does not exist, and no
symbolic link exists in its place, then create file." And
remember: we can only use one system call to do this, in order
to avoid race conditions (see 5.1). At first glance it would
seem that using an O_EXCL should solve this problem.
Unfortunately it does not. Here's a quote from the FreeBSD man

"If O_EXCL is set and the last component of the pathname is a
symbolic link, open() will fail even if the symbolic link
points to a non-existent name."

Because O_EXCL, on FreeBSD, only checks the last component,
symbolic links between directories are still viable attacks.
Consider the path "/usr/foo/bar/footest" to the file "footest"
now make a symbolic link with "/usr/foo2" pointing to
"/usr/foo/bar." Opening "/usr/foo2/footest" will translate to
opening "/usr/foo/bar/test." The only way to avoid this is to
make sure that the full path does not consist of symbolic
links. One method to is chdir() down the path to the current
directory. Once the directory is reached, check to make sure it
matches the path specified previously. If it does, create the
file, knowing that you are using O_EXCL and relying on the last
component to be checked by the system call.

The semantics of O_EXCL as mentioned in the FreeBSD man page is
not found in the UNIX98 standard. This means some systems are
broken inherently. We'll proceed without taking these semantics
into consideration, and look for other work arounds.

One of the other work arounds is to create a file with write
only permissions for the program's real user ID. Then an
fstat() can be made and the program will know the full path to
the file it has opened. If it is the correct file, go about
business as usual, fchmod() if you want as well. However, if it
is the wrong file it needs to be deleted. See below for
treatment toward deleting files safely. Again, we find the
safest method to avoid attacks while accessing the file system
is to do it in a directory that is only accessible by the
program. If the directory can be modified by an attacker, or
any of its parent directories for that matter, the program may
be tricked into creating the wrong file.

A final note: when applying the aforementioned work around of
creating, checking, and deleting files, _do not_ use O_TRUNC or
you may wind up truncating the password database among other

5.3) How do I delete files safely?

You cannot delete files from a directory safely unless the
directory is writable only by the secure process. The problem
relates to the discussion in 5.1 regarding race conditions.
Since the unlink() system call requires a file name, and does
not accept a file descriptor, there is no way to atomically
delete files from the file system.

Also as mentioned in 5.2, make sure that the secure directory
(writable only by the secure process) is accessed from a path
that does not contain any symbolic links.

5.4) Is chroot() safe?

chroot() only limits the file system scope and nothing else.
This means that the process will not have access to files
outside of its root file system; however, it does have access
to the kernel, and all the system calls any other process has
access to.

This can lead to complications. Consider the attacks mentioned
in the "Process Interaction" section. If a process has the same
real user ID as another process it can hijack it via ptrace()
on certain BSD derived operating systems that allow ptrace()
without consent from the targeted process. Same goes for
kill(), setpriority(). Thus the process, even if not privileged
may still break out of the chroot() environment. Other attacks
include mknod(), but need root privileges. The aforementioned
attacks do not. What this boils down to is that the root
directory is only checked by the file system calls, and not
other system calls.

The chroot() call itself will only change the root file system
in the process' context. A chroot() call must be followed by a
chdir("/") call in order to reset the current working

Here are a list of recommended guidelines to make sure the
chroot() environment is indeed a "jail". I may have missed some
items, especially those that may pertain to more exotic UNIX

Credentials and Privileges

The chrooted process should not run with root credentials,
or have any special privileges. It should also not share
credentials with any other process outside of the chrooted
environment. If it does share credentials it will be able
to send signals and possibly even ptrace() other processes.
Other attacks may exist such as setpriority() etc. By
segregating the credentials, the process will not be able
to pass credential checks when making use of process
interacting system calls.

If there exists no SUID to root process-image in the
chrooted environment, after calling chroot() and dropping
privileges, the process cannot gain root privileges without
breaking out of the chroot environment. It is a highly
recommended to do away with SUID process images completely
in a chroot jail.

Privileged Information

The chrooted environment should not contain privileged
information. Password databases, confidential data etc.
should not be placed within the chrooted environment. In
the case of passwords, this can lead to the system being
compromised as a whole.

No devices should be present in the chrooted environment.
Especially devices that can be mounted as a file system, or
a Berkeley Packet Filter (BPF) device etc.

[ Send in more if I missed any. ]

6) Handling Input

This section should be read with section 2 "The Flow Of

6.1) What is a "buffer overrun/overflow attack" and how do I
avoid it?


The term can be misleading if one thinks about buffers filling up
in a modem. The problem is not lossage of data, but the ability
for the attacker to point the process to execute arbitrary code.
This FAQ will not cover the various ways of exploiting this
security hole, since it has become an art form in itself;
however, understanding how the security hole can be exploited
will help avoid some of the common myths circulating about work
arounds for it.

The traditional method is to pass a memory copying routine
(string copying included) data larger than the targeted memory,
which is usually holding data for an automatic variable (local
variable in a C function), and thus spilling the excess data on
the other local variables and eventually onto the instruction
stack itself. The end spillage would ideally cause a pointer on
the stack to point to arbitrary code, possibly held within an
environment variable. When the function returns, the process
executes the code pointed to by instruction stack. (Aleph One
1996). This is not the only method, among the others include
writing to heap memory (dynamic memory) and overwriting
structures such as stdio's FILE (Conover 1999). Like I said, it
has become an art form.

The previous paragraph was a gross over simplification, but that
is really the best that can be done within the scope of this FAQ.
The point that needs to be made is that bounds checking _must_ be
performed on input. Bounds checking basically means keeping track
of sizes and not overrunning any particular memory location with
more than it should hold. If the concept of bounds checking is
alien to you, I strongly urge you to pick up a C book. Even
though, by all means, the concept is not native to C alone.

Programs that do not perform bounds checking on internal data are
bugged. Programs that do not perform bounds checking on input are
insecure. Bugs cause programs to be insecure. So you want to
perform bounds checking always.

Obligatory warnings include: "Don't use strcpy() use strncpy()",
"Don't use the stdio library when receiving input that may be
malicious, it may be implemented without proper bounds checking."
Indeed, I could recite a plethora of security holes that came
from just this, but I'll leave the research this time as an
exercise for the reader. The actual principle was brought up in
the previous paragraphs and should be come easily to a

Some myths need to be dispelled now. Not returning from a
function and calling exit() will not act as a work around. Heap
attacks can still be made, local variables can still be
overwritten, and most importantly your program could easily be
crashed by a segmentation fault signal (please don't mail in with
"but I can catch that signal"). Using huge buffers to copy data
about and expect things to magically work will not do. If you
find a fellow programmer using these work arounds, please lock
them up in a padded room till they get better.

Certain languages provide bounds checking inherently. This is a
good thing; however, some will argue that bounds checking at run
time is too costly. This is also a good thing. If you want to
use, and can use a language that supports bounds checking, go
right ahead.

In C you won't have any bounds checking unless you have a
compiler that is patched to support it. Oddly enough there
doesn't seem to be any mention in any standard that would
outright forbid the usage of run time bounds checking, and as
such there exist a patch for GCC to do just this. Richard Jones
and Paul Kelley, who have done just this, have a page at:

Other work arounds include patching the kernel to _not_ execute
code on the stack, which prevents some exploits but not all (heap
attacks etc.). Several vendors and individuals have already taken
this initiative. A quick search on Dejanews and even the Bugtraq
archives should point you in the right direction. [ If I receive
any submissions of URLs for patches, I will be happy to add

Unfortunately, this question could not be answered completely and
thoroughly. It is too big of an exploit, and too simple of a
problem, but yet so wide spread it requires awareness more than
anything else. See Aleph One 1997 for a similar discussion on the
prevention on bounds checking.

6.2) How do I hand integer values safely?

A problem reported in sshd 1.2.7 (van der Wijk 1997) allowed a
normal user to bind to privileged ports. The daemon read the port
number into a 32 bit value, and did the port privilege checks on
the 32-bit integer. After it was satisfied that the value is not
under 1024 (IPPORT_RESERVED), the daemon would then place the
integer into a 16-bit unsigned integer ("short" on most systems).
The value if over 65535 could wrap under 1024. This effectively
allowed a user to bind to a privileged port. The fix is to check
the value in its 16-bit form. Thus in sshd's case, check it in the
sin_port member of the struct sockaddr_in. Any checks prior to that
should be done with the assumption that 65535 (or negative values)
can overflow in the 16-bit integer and not be valid. If you don't
quite see why, pick up a C book and go over the way casting is done
between different types of varying length.

Similar problems were reported in the Linux kernel's system call
interface (Solar Designer 1997).

The fix, as mentioned previously, is to double check that the
values are the same after any conversion between types. Luckily
this is one of the more arcane security holes that don't pop up too

6.3) How do I safely pass input to an external program?

One of the biggest mistakes is to use a shell. Indeed the famous
'phf' security hole, a cgi program that came packaged with the NCSA
httpd distribution, had a problem involving the use of a shell to
execute an external program (CERT 1997). The security hole stemmed
from a library routine it used, that was packaged with the NCSA cgi
example distribution, called escape_shell(). The routine would take a
command line, search for characters that would be interpreted by the
shell, and remove them so the attacker can not invoke additional
commands to the shell.

At first glance it seems like a completely correct way to go about
executing an external program. Escape the shell characters, and let
the shell do the calling. It is completely and utterly wrong. In the
rare case where you need to use a shell, a very rare and dangerous
case, go ahead and do just that. But by removing characters you open
yourself to a slew of mistakes. Indeed, escape_shell() forgot to
strip certain characters that the shell would interpret. This allowed
the attacker to send arbitrary commands to the shell.

Instead of checking input for shell characters, don't use the shell

Library routines such as system() and popen() invoke a shell. It is
more secure, from the input handling perspective, to use execve() or
one of its wrapper routines to call the process-image directly. The
logic is that you can't mess up checking for special shell characters
because you are not doing that.

Also make sure you've read the section on process attribute
inheritance. You may leak file descriptors as per the above mentioned
chpass hole.

8) Bibliography

Aleph One, "Smashing the Stack For Fun And Profit" Phrack, Vol.7,
No. 49, Nov 1996, [ File 14 of 16 ]

Al-Herbish, Thamer "Re: More ssh fun (sshd this time)" Online
posting. 23 Aug. 1997. Bugtraq.

Bernstein, Dan "Secure Interprocess Communication" 1998. <URL:

Bernstein, Dan "Re: A thought on TCP SYN attacks" Online posting.
26 Sept. 1996. SYN-Cookies Mailing List.

Bishop, Matt "How to write a setuid program" login 12(1) Jan/Feb

Bishop Matt, and M. Dilger "Checking for Race Conditions in File
Accesses," Computing Systems 9(2) (Spring 1996) pp. 131-152.

CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) "CERT(*) Advisory CA-96.06"
20 March 1996. <URL:>

Chasin, Scott "BUGTRAQ ALERT: Solaris 2.x vulnerability" Online
posting. 14 Aug. 1995. Bugtraq.

Conover, Matt "w00w00 on Heap overflows" Online posting. 27 Jan.

daemon9, route, infinity "Project Neptune "Phrack, Vol.7, No. 48,
July 1996, [ File 13 of 18 ]

Der Mouse "Re: Tar "features"" Online posting. 25 Sept. 1998.

Eriksson, Joel "License Manager's lockfiles (Solaris 2.5.1)" Online
posting. 12 Oct. 1998. Bugtraq.

Hull, Gregory "r00t advisory -- sol2.5 su(1M) vulnerability" Online
posting. 26 Aug. 1996.

Harrison, Roger "License Manager's lockfiles (Solaris 2.5.1)"
Online posting. 23 Oct. 1998. Bugtraq

Jensen, Geir Inge "Another autoreply security hole" Online posting,
12 Mar. 1994. Bugtraq.

Network Associates Inc. "Network Associates Inc. Advisory
(OpenBSD)" Online posting. 10 Aug. 1998. Bugtraq.

plaguez shegget "XFree86 insecurity" Online posting. 21 Nov. 1997.

Saltzer, J.H., and M.D. Schroeder, "The Protection of Information
in Computer Systems," Proc. IEEE, Vol. 63, No. 9, Sept. 1975, pp.

Sanfilippo, Salvatore "pingflood.c" Online posting. 9 Apr. 1998.

Schenk, Eric "A thought on TCP SYN attacks" Online posting. 25
Sept. 1996. SYN-Cookies Mailing List.

Solar Designer "Integer Overflows" Online posting. 28 Aug. 1997.

Stevens, Richard W. "UNIX Network Programming" New Jersey, Prentice
Hall, 1990.

Stevens, Richard W. "Advanced Programming In The UNIX
Environment" Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1992.

Smith, Ben "ps(1) for freebsd." Online posting. 12 Aug. 1998.

Tarreau, William "Tar "features"" Online posting. 22 Sept. 1998.

Temmingh, Roelof W "FreeBSD rlogin and coredumps" Online posting.
17 Feb. 1997. Bugtraq

Wall, Larry and Schwartz, Randal L. "Programming Perl" :
Sebastopol, California : O'Reilly And Associates, 1992.

van der Wijk, Ivo "More ssh fun (sshd this time)" Online posting.
19 Aug. 1997. Bugtraq.

Zalewski, Michal "ipop3d (x2) / pine (x2) / Linux kernel (x2) /
Midnight Commander (x2)" Online posting. 7, March 1999. Bugtraq.

9) List of Contributors

Thamer Al-Herbish <>

Peter Roozemaal <>

"Youth, Nature, and relenting Jove,
To keep my lamp _in_ strongly strove,
But Romanelli was so stout,
He beat all three -- _and blew it out_."

-- George Gordon Byron "My Epitaph" From "Occasional Pieces"

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