Security Experts:

Linux Systemd Gives Root Privileges to Invalid Usernames

A bug in Linux’s systemd init system causes root permissions to be given to services associated with invalid usernames, and while this could pose a security risk, exploitation is not an easy task.

A developer who uses the online moniker “mapleray” last week discovered a problem related to systemd unit files, the configuration files used to describe resources and their behavior. Mapleray noticed that a systemd unit file containing an invalid username – one that starts with a digit (e.g. “0day”) – will initiate the targeted process with root privileges instead of regular user privileges.

Systemd is designed not to allow usernames that start with a numeric character, but Red Hat, CentOS and other Linux distributions do allow such usernames.

“It's systemd's parsing of the User= parameter that determines the naming doesn't follow a set of conventions, and decides to fall back to its default value, root,” explained developer Mattias Geniar.

While this sounds like it could be leveraged to obtain root privileges on any Linux installation using systemd, exploiting the bug in an attack is not an easy task. Geniar pointed out that the attacker needs root privileges in the first place to edit the systemd unit file and use it.

The attack scenarios described by the developer include tricking an administrator into creating a malicious unit file, or exploiting a different vulnerability to obtain write access and using unit files to escalate privileges. Others noted that an administrator can deliberately create a username that starts with a digit and wrongly assume that the program will run with user-level privileges instead of as root. Some scenarios described on Hacker News don’t even require the involvement of the system administrator.

Systemd developers have classified this issue as “not-a-bug” and they apparently don’t plan on fixing it. Linux users are divided on the matter – some believe this is a vulnerability that could pose a serious security risk, while others agree that a fix is not necessary.

“It's an obvious bug (at least on RHEL/CentOS 7), since a valid username does not get accepted by systemd so it triggers unexpected behaviour by launching services as root.

However, it isn't as bad as it sounds and does not grant any username with a digit immediate root access,” Geniar explained.

This is not the only systemd flaw disclosed recently. Chris Coulson, an engineer with Canonical, the developer of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, revealed last week that systemd is affected by an out-of-bounds write vulnerability (CVE-2017-9445) that can be triggered using a specially crafted TCP payload to crash the systemd-resolved daemon or execute arbitrary code in the context of the daemon process.

Related: Linux Flaw Allows Sudo Users to Gain Root Privileges

Related: Linux Kernel Flaw Disclosed at Pwn2Own Patched

Related: Google Researcher Details Linux Kernel Exploit

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.