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Historically, privileged programs have not been used widely on Microsoft Windows platforms because most user accounts run with administrator privileges; they already have all the privileges available Microsoft is taking the first steps toward transitioning users to non-administrator accounts in Windows Vista However, years of lackadaisical privilege management won t be undone in one release The new protections include enough intentional loopholes for usability to permit programs developed under the old model to work largely undisturbed [Russinovich, 2007] We re hopeful that Microsoft is heading in the right direction, but for the time being, privileged programs remain uncommon on Windows platforms, including Vista Most privileged programs are systems programs implemented in C, used on UNIX or Linux, and run as root It requires a significant amount of knowledge and effort to defend such a program With this as our area of focus, the chapter covers the following topics: Implications of privilege The principle of least privilege mandates that programs should use the minimum privileges necessary to provide the necessary functionality We discuss the implications of this principle on privileged programs Managing privilege We provide an overview of privilege management functions, discuss how they work (and fail to work), and give recommendations for how and when they should be used Privilege escalation attacks We discuss vulnerabilities found in privileged programs that are often targeted by privilege escalation attacks, including file access race conditions, insecure temporary files, command injection, and reliance on standard file descriptors
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This section introduces the principle of least privilege and examines the way it applies to privileged programs Principle of Least Privilege The principle of least privilege dates back to the 1970s Saltzer and Schroeder [Saltzer, 1974] provide the definition we use:
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Every program and every user of the system should operate using the least set of privileges necessary to complete the job
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The motivation behind the principle of least privilege is fairly clear: Privilege is dangerous The more privileges a program holds, the greater the potential damage it can cause A reduced set of possible actions diminishes the risk a program poses The best privilege management is no privilege management; the easiest way to prevent privilege-related vulnerabilities is to design systems that don t require privileged components When applied to code, the principle of least privilege implies two things: Programs should not require their users to have extraordinary privileges to perform ordinary tasks Privileged programs should minimize the amount of damage they can cause when something goes wrong The first implication has been a real problem on Microsoft Windows platforms, where, without administrator privileges, more than 90% of Windows software won t install and more than 70% will fail to run properly [Brown, 2004] The result is that most Windows users run with either highly elevated or administrator privileges Microsoft acknowledges the issue and is beginning the transition toward users running with non-administrator privileges in Windows Vista with a feature called User Account Control (UAC) Under UAC, users still have administrator privileges, but programs they run execute with diminished privileges by default Programs can still run with administrator privileges, but the user must explicitly permit them to do so Hopefully, this will be the impetus that forces software developers to write programs designed to run with less elevated privileges, but we expect that this transition will take many years In contrast, on UNIX and Linux systems, most users operate with restricted privileges most of the time Under this model, the second point becomes the measuring stick for conformance to least privilege Under
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UNIX and Linux, privilege is modal The privileges a program has are controlled by the user and group IDs that it inherits when it is run or those that it changes to subsequently Programs must manage their active IDs to control the privileges they have at any given time The most common privileged mode gives a program root access (full administrative control) Such programs are called setuid root, or setuid for short The operations a program performs limit its capability to minimize privileges Depending on the program s functionality and the timing of its privilege needs, it can raise and lower its privileges at different points during its execution Programs require privileges for a variety of reasons: Talking directly to hardware Modifying OS behavior Sending signals to certain processes Working with shared resources Opening low-numbered network ports Altering global configuration (registry and/or files) Overriding filesystem protections Installing new files in system directories Updating protected files Accessing files that belong to other users The transitions between privileged and unprivileged states define a program s privilege profile A program s privilege profile can typically be placed in one of the following four classes: Normal programs that run with the same privileges as their users Example: Emacs System programs that run with root privileges for the duration of their execution Example: Init (process 1) Programs that need root privileges to use a fixed set of system resources when they are first executed Example: Apache httpd, which needs root access to bind to low-numbered ports Programs that require root privileges intermittently throughout their execution Example: An FTP daemon, which binds to low-numbered ports intermittently throughout execution Figure 122 shows how each of the four classes of programs typically transitions between root and standard user privileges during execution
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