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Maximum Security:

A Hacker's Guide to Protecting Your Internet Site and Network

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Who or What Is Root?

Throughout this book, I have made references to the terms root and administrator. It occurred to me that the average user might have no idea what those terms mean, so I have provided this brief chapter to explain these concepts.

The General Idea

Most users deal primarily with a single workstation. Their first experience with such a machine probably comes at home or at school. Even when the machine is connected to a network, a user might think of his machine as the only one of relevance. That is, he might view his machine as a separate entity that exists (or could exist) without the presence of all those other machines.

In most instances, that is exactly right. The majority of workstations have a local disk and on that disk, local software, including an operating system and applications. Only in hard-core networking or academic environments do you see the diskless client.

NOTE: A diskless client is any machine that lacks a local hard disk drive and must therefore find another way to boot. One way is through the use of a floppy that loads the minimum drivers necessary to engage the Ethernet card within the machine. This card then sends a broadcast message requesting a login session. This is common in networks driven by Novell NetWare, for example; these networks use a floppy with the Ethernet driver, the LAN adapter software, and a small shell. Another method is where the workstation has firmware (or other software, hard-coded to some portion of the board) within it that can initiate a boot session over a network via Ethernet or other protocols. This is more commonly seen in UNIX-based networks, with the use of X terminals or the use of remote booting services.

Nevertheless, most users learn about computers by using their home machine. Although machines at work might restrict users to a single program or operate on a now archaic platform, the home machine is completely under the users' control. They can navigate, execute programs, and delete items as they see fit (alas, often to their detriment). So the average user probably has only a murky understanding of how a network operates. Indeed, the average user had no reason to understand networking...until now.

In a network, there must be some central control not just for humans but also for machines. Consider the use of name servers. A name server provides a method to resolve Internet addresses from names. Every real network on the Internet has one such name server. If any machine on that network is unaware of the name server's address, that machine will be unable to resolve Internet hostnames to physical addresses. The name server's address, therefore, must be located somewhere on the drive. In UNIX networks, this information is generally stored in the /ETC/RESOLV.CONF file. On the Mac platform, this is stored in the MacTCP settings (generally reachable through the Control Panels menu). On the Microsoft Windows platform, it is stored (at least for dial-up accounts) in the dial-up networking configuration of each individual connection. This is generally specified in the TCP/IP settings of the connection (see Figure 22.1).

FIGURE 22.1.
TCP/IP settings for a connection: the name server.

Using a name server is a way of centralizing information so that it is easier to reach. Consider the Archie network. Archie servers can be used to search for files all over the world; for example, you could search for a file and find that the only location for it is in Iran. The Archie system works differently than you might think. It doesn't fan out across the globe, searching every machine on the Internet until it finds (or fails to find) the requested file. Instead, administrators of networks report the content of their drives to centralized Archie servers. This makes sense because it is easier to search a simple record database on an Archie server than engage connections all over the world. In this way, Archie servers and gateways use simple techniques to perform what appears to be a modern miracle.

Similarly, a small network has many centralized resources. These may include file libraries, applications, or address databases. Centralization of these resources ensures that the system runs smoothly and effectively. For example, imagine if everyone on the network could designate any Ethernet or IP address they wanted for their workstation. How would other machines know what this address was? This would cause a great deal of confusion on the network. Certainly, information would not travel reliably in such a climate.

The design of the modern network also provides for some level of economics, not only from a financial point of view, but from a practical one. For example, each workstation need not install a C compiler as long as one is available to all users. These shared resources can be enjoyed by all users, but must be installed only once. (This is a slight oversimplification; in many instances, a single interpreter or compiler might not suffice.)

Someone must control where, when, and how such resources can be used; that someone is whom I refer to when I use the terms root, supervisor, administrator, and operator. This person (or rather, this account) works almost identically on all networked operating systems. This account has privileges to read, write, execute, delete, create, list, or otherwise modify every file on the drive. As such, this person has enormous power.

Although this power is necessary to maintain the system, it can be quite dangerous in inexperienced hands. This lesson is quickly learned by users who decide to migrate from the Microsoft Windows platform to UNIX. To get this change-over under way, many users purchase a book on Linux that comes with a CD-ROM. They manage to get through the installation process and log in as root, and then they travel around the drive, trying out various applications. Inevitably, they delete or otherwise modify some crucial part of the system, rendering the system unusable. Not yet possessing the skills necessary to find and remedy the problem, they simply reinstall. The average new Linux user does this two or three times before finally getting it right. (Getting it right means not roaming the drive as root without a valid reason. Instead of roaming as root, you should create a user account for yourself with limited privileges until you learn the system more completely. This user account will inherit privileges that forbid you from destroying crucial, indispensable network resources.)

Because network administration is such a touchy subject, those charged with this responsibility are usually long on experience. Most of them are toolsmiths, individuals who not only can run the system efficiently, but can create new software to improve on deficiencies inherent in the out-of-the-box operating system distribution. At a minimum, root must know how to properly administer file and directory access control.

About Access Control

Access control refers to methods of controlling user access to files, directories, ports, and even protocols. Modern forms of access control grew out of efforts to create secure systems. For example, the criteria used to measure the security of a system naturally include access control as an integral element. The capability to grant or deny access by this or that user to a given resource should be an inherent part of the networked operating system. Most networked systems have some form of access control.

Most schemes of access control rely on a system of privileges or permissions. These might involve read, write, or list permissions, or they might be even more finely implemented. The level to which these are categorized dramatically affects whether or not access control will be used. Some forms of access control are so restrictive that the network might be unable to run efficiently.

In any event, root decides the majority of these permissions. Some access control schemes are embedded within the system. For example, on many operating systems, a series of directories or files are owned (or limited to access) by root or the network system administrator by default. Thus, by default, only root can access them. These are typically system configuration files vital to the operation of the network. In the wrong hands, these could provide unauthorized access to and perhaps compromise of the network.

On a UNIX network, you can easily identify all permissions simply by listing a directory structure of the files within that directory. To get an idea of how this listing looks, see Figure 22.2.

Figure 22.2, a typical example of a listing from the base directory of a UNIX box, shows a series of columns of information. Each column displays significant details about the listed file or directory. Figure 22.3 shows those columns broken down into categories of information called attributes.

I want to briefly detail these attributes. They are, in reverse order of importance in terms of access control:

  • Attribute #4: File Statistics. These columns relate the size of the file or directory, the date and time (usually of its last modification, or where there is no modification, when it was created), and the name. This is very similar to the information you receive on a DOS directory listing or in a file management application like Explorer in Windows 95.

  • Attribute #3: The Group. This column specifies the group to which the file is assigned. Groups are clusters of individuals (usually) who have common permissions and requirements throughout the system. However, system processes can also belong to groups, and can even form them. Figure 22.3 lists two groups: root and sys.

  • Attribute #2: The Owner. This attribute specifies the owner of the file or directory (in this case, root).

  • Attribute #1: Permissions. This field is where permissions are explicitly stated.

It is with Attribute #1 that we most concerned. Attribute #1 (or the permissions) are set to reflect three distinct elements of access. Reading Attribute #1 from left to right, those elements are

  • The permissions for the owner (who is revealed in Attribute #2)

  • The permissions for the group (identified in Attribute #3)

  • The permissions for those not belonging to the group specified in Attribute #3 (the rest of the folks on that system)

In each case, a letter or a dash appears. The dash signifies that a certain access permission or privilege is denied. The remaining letters (r, w, and x) represent access privileges; specifically, they represent read, write, and execute access.

NOTE: If you examine the listings provided in Figure 22.2, you will also note that a d appears within the first field (Attribute #1). This signifies that the listed item is a directory and not a file.

The structure of the permission scheme reads from left to right in ascending order. In other words, the first three characters (reading from left to right) represent the permissions for the owner. The next three represent permissions for the group. The last three represent permissions for the rest of the world.

Networked operating systems that have access control might not present it in exactly this manner. UNIX has presented permissions this way for many years. It is a quick and efficient way (at a command prompt) to find out who can access what. Different systems might do this in different ways. Older Novell NetWare, for example, has a shell interface that allows you to use a semi-graphical interface to set and view these permissions. Microsoft Windows NT is graphical, but you can also set a surprising number of access control options from a prompt.

About Gaining Root

If this is how UNIX implements access control, the obvious task of a cracker is to gain root privileges. Because UNIX was (and probably still is) the predominant operating system on Internet servers, crackers have put themselves to the task of gaining root for over 20 years. The reason is simple: Whoever has root sets the permissions; whoever sets the permissions has control of the entire system. If you have compromised root, you have seized control of the box (and maybe the entire network).

Pros and Cons of the Permissions System

The permissions system has many advantages, including support of classing. That means you can create a hierarchical structure in which you can refine the privileges based on classes (of groups, users, and so forth). Because of this, you can quickly and efficiently implement at least the basics of security. Groups can reflect the organizational structure of your firm. Naturally, any member of a group will inherit security permissions from his parent group (in other words, a certain member of a group will inherit the same default permissions on files that all members of the group would have immediately upon being added to the group). Thus, you can assign at least minimal privileges with a single stroke.

After setting the group (and after the owner and user of the group have inherited these permissions from their superseding classes), root can begin to detail a more refined expression of those privileges. That is, root can begin to implement even more restrictive guidelines for a particular user's permissions. A well-organized system administrator can efficiently manage the permissions and privileges of hundreds or even thousands of users. Amazing.

Nevertheless, the system has its drawbacks. Indeed, the very existence of root is a security risk for several reasons. For instance, any program that must be run as root will, if successfully attacked, grant the attacker root privileges. Furthermore, if root is compromised, the entire system is subject to attack. This is especially critical in multisegment networks.

Cracking Root

Although I have no hard evidence, I would suggest that the percentage of crackers who can obtain root on a given box or architecture is pretty high. The percentage who can do it on a UNIX system is a more or less static value, I would imagine. Much is known about UNIX, and the reporting lists are quite informative (the same might be said for Novell NetWare). Nonetheless, that number with respect to NT is changing rapidly in an upward direction. I suspect that within a year, that number will be as high or higher than percentages in other categories.

Cracking root (at least on UNIX) occurs far more commonly through advanced programming techniques than through cracking the /etc/passwd file. Root operators know a little something about security and generally make their own passwords extremely difficult to crack (and they should). Experienced system administrators have probably cracked their own passwd file a dozen times. They will likely create a password that takes weeks or even months to crack. Thus, employing a password cracker is probably a waste of time.

If, on the other hand, programs located on the disk are run as root processes, you might be able to crack root quickly and easily. It is not necessary that you log in as root, only that you gain root privileges. This most often comes through the exploitation of a buffer overflow.

TIP: You can get a better view of buffer overflows and other programming errors and weaknesses in Chapter 30, "Language, Extensions, and Security."

Exploits of this nature are posted regularly to many mailing lists and newsgroups. As long as the cracker knows how to run a compiler, these postings can be clipped and pasted directly to a text editor, compiled, and executed with minimal effort. After the cracker has made a test run on a similar platform (for example, on a SolarisX86 to simulate a possible Solaris hole, or ideally, Solaris to Solaris), he is ready. The compromise will take only seconds.

In most cases, the cracker need not even keep up with the times. Many older holes still work on systems that have not been adequately secured. I hate to say it, but most system administrators do not spend their time scouring mailing list archives for possible holes within the system. Too bad.

Root Might Be a Thing of the Past

As incredible as it may seem, root might soon be an outdated concept. Many of the security problems that emerge on the Internet are due to the existence of this privileged account. Studies are underway to seek alternatives. The folks at Bell Labs have actually implemented such a system called Plan 9 (see Chapter 21, "Plan 9 from Bell Labs"). As explained in the publicly available documentation on Plan 9:

Plan 9 has no super-user. Each server is responsible for maintaining its own security, usually permitting access only from the console, which is protected by a password. For example, file servers have a unique administrative user called adm, with special privileges that apply only to commands typed at the server's physical console. These privileges concern the day-to-day maintenance of the server, such as adding new users and configuring disks and networks. The privileges do not include the ability to modify, examine, or change the permissions of any files. If a file is read-protected by a user, only that user may grant access to others.

Cross Reference: The above paragraph is excerpted from "Plan 9 from Bell Labs," a paper by the core members of the Plan 9 team. Those members are Rob Pike, Dave Presotto, Sean Dorward, Bob Flandrena, Ken Thompson, Howard Trickey, and Phil Winterbottom. This paper can be found online at

Plan 9 is an interesting idea, and will surely eliminate many of the security problems now associated with the root account. Nonetheless, there are other problems that this new system could create. One revolves around this statement (made in "Plan 9 from Bell Labs"):

If a file is read-protected by a user, only that user may grant access to others.

If this policy was enforced in the most absolute sense, malicious users might present a problem. For example, if a malicious user's materials were read-only to the rest of the world, or if even more stringent controls were placed on access of the files, it might present a situation where the only viable answer to a malicious user is to freeze or possibly destroy his account. This is a nice solution, but an irritating one, all the same.

This notwithstanding, I believe the Plan 9 model is far more secure not only because it eliminates root but because of the unique manner in which it implements distributed computing. As you might remember from Chapter 21, Plan 9 uses both a CPU and a file server. The user is saddled with something that is a cross between an X terminal and a PC. Because the file server remains isolated, and because nearly all resources are distributed and the permissions set on that file server are automatically set in a dynamic fashion (for example, as files and processes change or are created), there is a good chance that a systemwide compromise of Plan 9 is nearly impossible.

Nonetheless, there might be other security implications of Plan 9. For example, because you can tap a resource from any type of file system, remote or otherwise, and because these resources can be attached to local directories to act and appear as though they are local, there is the possibility that Plan 9 might ultimately emerge as a tool capable of compromising other operating systems. This is hard to say, however, because there is relatively little documentation available about tests in this area. I haven't tried to make such a test. Yet.

NOTE: The developers of Plan 9 thought big. By that, I mean they thought in terms of an operating system that could support a total number of users in the tens of thousands. I can see where it will ultimately be used in WAN settings.

Root on Other Operating Systems

UNIX is not the only system that uses root. Microsoft Windows NT also uses a version of root, called administrator. Similarly, Novell implements a version called supervisor. In all cases, root's power and obligations are the same: They involve system management. Both systems provide for almost identical control of access permissions (however, I believe NetWare is a bit more comprehensive).

The Cracker Who Is Root

I should explain here that having root is not an uncommon condition. Root can be had for the price of a few dollars. For example, you can install Linux or FreeBSD on a PC and instantly be root on that particular box. Some administrators might scoff at this, thinking it matters little if a cracker establishes a box on which he or she is root. But this does give the cracker some small advantages:

  • It gives the cracker access to some native applications in the operating system environment that he would not otherwise have. I have mentioned that having root status on a UNIX box provides the cracker with many tools that are not available on other platforms.

  • Security specialists often write commercial-grade packages and release them on the Internet free of charge. In some instances, this is purely a philanthropic act, a contribution to network security by people with the ability to improve it (SATAN is one such program). In other instances, a product might be provided free to noncommercial users, but might be restricted to use on a localhost box. SAFESuite by ISS is an example of one such utility. Because such tools can be a threat to Internet security if in the wrong hands, developers often design them so that only root can run the software. This poses a natural barrier to many crackers. For example, they cannot simply load the software onto a workstation at a university and expect the software to run. Also, although many free versions of UNIX can be acquired for next to nothing, the cracker also needs to come by the hardware. That means impoverished crackers can't easily set up their own equipment and call themselves root.

  • The cracker gets an opportunity to learn how logging works. Because he is root, he can attack his machine and analyze the results. He can also try out various types of security software and attempt to circumvent those utilities.

  • The cracker who is root learns the fundamentals of system administration. This, more than any other experience, offers valuable knowledge and insight into system security.

There are also less important advantages, such as being able to manipulate one's own mail and news server, and provide networking services to other crackers in the void. However, these advantages are negligible from an educational point of view. The only real challenge involved there is that of preventing individuals who do have access to the box from destroying it.

Beware of Root

If you are a cracker, you will need to beware. Root operators are very testy. If they suspect you of wrongdoing, you have problems. This brings us to an important issue: Root is always a human being. How that human being deals with you differs case by case.

Crackers routinely position themselves in direct opposition of root, primarily because the relationship between these two sets of people is assumed to be adversarial. In fact, the relationship is adversarial, but that does not necessarily mean a state of war. Many system administrators revel in stories about cracked networks. As long as that network is not their own, such stories are consuming and highly informative. One almost gets the feeling that some system administrators carry a recessive cracker gene, but manage to find a suitable (and constructive) outlet for this darker side in testing the security of their own network. In fact, you could say that in order to maintain a secure network, one has to have a little cracker sense.

Nonetheless, contrary to what many might think, root people are often what I would characterize as very hip. Their position demands great responsibility, which they generally shoulder alone. Thus, one might say that root people exist in their own world; within it, they are omnipotent (or at least, they initially appear that way). To be a good system administrator, you need more than good toolsmithing skills or a solid knowledge of the operating system. You must have a certain level of humanity and good judgment. In my experience, most system administrators will tolerate a little skullduggery before they freeze an errant user's account. This courtesy is extended not because they favor crackers, but because most system administrators have a fundamental sense of fair play.

That said, beware of root. Few individuals are more apt to persevere than a system administrator whose network has been compromised. They might hunt you down across continents, or might simply fly from California to North Carolina, armed with some cell telephone scanning tools (as in the Shimomura case). In one instance, a 75 cent error prompted a now famous system administrator (Clifford Stoll) to track down and expose an entire espionage ring centered in Germany. The Cuckoo's Egg: Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, conducted research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) in California. During his tenure there, Stoll assumed responsibility for management of the network (Stoll has in fact been using the Internet since 1975) and was assigned to the task of discovering the source of a 75 cent accounting error. His investigation ultimately revealed that someone had gained unauthorized access to the local network. Rather than immediately deny the unauthorized user access, he allowed the cracker to continue these intrusions. Stoll ultimately determined that the cracker was using the LBL network as a laun-ching point to crack systems located in the MILNET hierarchy. (MILNET is a defense-related grouping of networks, distinct from the rest of the Internet.) Stoll determined that the cracker--based in Germany--was stealing important defense-related information. Stoll finally enlisted the help of American and German intelligence agencies (who were not initially willing to listen to his suspicions). It turned out that the cracker was part of a ring that was stealing U.S. defense information and selling it to the Soviets. The story became an Internet legend, second only to the Internet Worm. For more information, pick up a copy of Stoll's book, The Cuckoo's Egg (Doubleday, 1989), which records the events in meticulous detail.


This chapter clears up a few things about root. This is important because in the chapters that follow, I discuss various ways to attack the root account and otherwise obtain root access. The following points have been made:

  • Root refers to anyone who has system administrator status.

  • This status is usually issued on a box-by-box basis. For each box on a UNIX network, there is a root. For each NT box, there is an administrator.

  • Root sets all file and directory permissions that are not automatically set by the operating system at the time of install.

  • These permissions either grant or deny users (and groups) read, write, or execute access privileges.

Chapter 23, "An Introduction to Breaching a Server Internally," addresses some issues regarding crackers and how they obtain root access.

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