There are several kernel hardening features that have appeared in other hardened operating systems that would improve the security of Ubuntu, and Linux in general. They have been controversial, so this page attempts to describe them, including their controversy and discussion over the years, so as much information is available to make an educated decision about potential implementations.

Variations on these approaches have appeared in many projects, including Openwall and grsecurity.

Since Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick)

A long-standing class of security issues is the symlink-based ToCToU race, most commonly seen in world-writable directories like /tmp/. The common method of exploitation of this flaw is crossing privilege boundaries when following a given symlink (i.e. a root user follows a symlink belonging to another user).

The solution is to not permit symlinks to be followed when users do not match, but only in a world-writable sticky directory (with an additional improvement that the directory owner's symlinks can always be followed, regardless who is following them).

Some links to the history of its discussion:

Past objections and rebuttals could be summarized as:

Code history:

Accepted in upstream v3.6, enabled via setting /proc/sys/fs/protected_symlinks to 1.

Hardlinks can be abused in a similar fashion to symlinks above, but they are not limited to world-writable directories. If /etc/ and /home/ are on the same partition, a regular user can create a hardlink to /etc/shadow in their home directory. While it retains the original owner and permissions, it is possible for privileged programs that are otherwise symlink-safe to mistakenly access the file through its hardlink. Additionally, a very minor untraceable quota-bypassing local denial of service is possible by an attacker exhausting disk space by filling a world-writable directory with hardlinks.

The solution is to not allow the creation of hardlinks to files that a given user would be unable to write to originally.

Some links to the history of its discussion:

Past objections and rebuttals could be summarized as:

Code history:

Accepted in upstream v3.6, enabled via setting /proc/sys/fs/protected_hardlinks to 1.

ptrace Protection

As Linux grows in popularity, it will become a growing target for malware. One particularly troubling weakness of the Linux process interfaces is that a single user is able to examine the memory and running state of any of their processes. For example, if one application (e.g. firefox) was compromised, it would be possible for an attacker to attach to other running processes (e.g. gpg-agent) to extract additional credentials and continue to expand the scope of their attack.

This is not a theoretical problem. SSH session hijacking and even arbitrary code injection is fully possible if ptrace is allowed normally.

For a solution, some applications use prctl() to specifically disallow such ptrace attachment (e.g. ssh-agent). A more general solution is to only allow ptrace directly from a parent to a child process (i.e. direct gdb and strace still work), or as the root user (i.e. gdb BIN PID, and strace -p PID still work as root).

This behavior is controlled via the /proc/sys/kernel/yama/ptrace_scope sysctl value. The default is "1" to block non-child ptrace. A value of "0" restores the prior more permissive behavior, which may be more appropriate for some development systems and servers with only admin accounts. Using "sudo" can also grant temporarily ptrace permissions via the CAP_SYS_PTRACE capability, though this method allows the ptrace of any process.

Code history:

Accepted in upstream v3.4 as CONFIG_SECURITY_YAMA (as a stand-alone LSM) and CONFIG_SECURITY_YAMA_STACKED since v3.7 (to be stacked with another LSM like AppArmor).

Since Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic)

Partial NX Emulation

Non-executable memory is likely one of the most important protections in modern computing. Hardware support exists for it in modern CPUs, but many systems do not benefit from this security.

To simulate the execute bit in the kernel's memory page tables, the CS register is used to break memory into two regions. This allows for a fast way to distinguish between memory above and below the CS-limit. Executable regions are loaded below the CS-limit. This is fast but not perfectly accurate, since the BSS regions of loaded libraries will remain in the executable region. It does provide a split between the loaded libraries (and BSS) and text segment from the brk and mmap heap and stack regions.

Versions of this patch have been carried by RedHat, SUSE, Openwall, grsecurity and others for a long time.

Code history:

* proposed upstream patch

No plans for upstreaming; Ubuntu requires PAE now.

Not Currently Proposed For Ubuntu

chroot Protection

Many administrators attempt to contain potentially exploitable services in chroots. Unfortunately, chroots are not designed to be a security protection (they are for development and debugging). It is possible to reasonably contain a non-privileged process in a chroot, but attempting to contain a root user is fraught with pitfalls. While it is certainly possible to patch the kernel to have a hardened chroot() (for example, grsecurity has a large set of protections that lock down chroots) so many behaviors are changed and come in conflict with the more common development configurations.

Solutions are varied. Among the methods of chroot escape is manipulating the current working directory to be outside the current chroot via a second chroot() call (others include using /proc/*/cwd, fchdir(), and ptrace). This single flaw is trivial to fix, but does not block the other avenues, so the gain is very small when compared with the down-side of carrying a delta from the upstream kernel.

A better solution is to side-step the problem entirely. Since these security protections are being designed correctly with containers (see CLONE_NEW*), it would be better to use containers or MAC from the start when trying to isolate a service.

Some links to the history of its discussion:

Past objections and rebuttals could be summarized as:

Example implementation of cwd fix

Upstream Hardening

Here is a rough plan for things to do to the upstream Linux kernel to make it harder for security vulnerabilities to become exploitable. Many CONFIG_* items below refer to PaX and grsecurity. Feel free to claim something to work on, or add a feature you think would be useful to have, including features from other hardening patches (e.g. Openwall's, etc):

Kernel protections



Userspace protections

OK, some of the above are actually new security hardening features to implement from scratch, so perhaps they should be listed in their own section first (not as ready candidates for upstream submission).

SecurityTeam/Roadmap/KernelHardening (last edited 2013-09-27 20:19:04 by kees)