9.9. Magic SysRq key

The "magic SysRq key" is a key sequence that allows some basic commands to be passed directly to the kernel. Kernel software developers use this interface to debug their software. Under most circumstances it can also be used to uncleanly reboot the computer, something that is otherwise difficult or expensive to do remotely.

For computers that are not used for kernel software development the magic SysRq key makes an ideal denial of service device. A few unauthenticated keystrokes and the computer is dead in the water. The console, serial or otherwise, must be in an area with access limited to trusted people.

The serial console uses the RS-232 break function as the "magic SysRq key". A "break" is a period of no transmission on the serial line, on traditional terminals it is activated by pressing a key labeled Break.

Anyone can dial into a modem and send a break, so if the serial console is attached to a modem we need to disable the magic SysRq key . If the serial console is attached to a terminal server which asks for authentication, or is attached directly to another terminal using a null modem cable then you may decide to activate the magic SysRq key.

The magic SysRq key can be disabled by setting a kernel variable or by not compiling support for the key.

Writing a 0 into /proc/sys/kernel/sysrq will disable the magic SysRq key. The command sysctl can also be used:

Figure 9-10. Using sysctl to defeat the magic SysRq key

bash# sysctl -w kernel.sysrq=0

Your Linux distribution may have a file /etc/sysctl.conf which is used to run sysctl during the boot of the machine. Add the lines:

Figure 9-11. Configuring /etc/sysctl.conf to defeat the magic SysRq key

# Disables the magic SysRq key
kernel.sysrq = 0

Even when setting the magic SysRq key off in /etc/sysctl.conf there is a period of vulnerability after the kernel boots but before contents of the file are applied.

It is much better to compile your own kernel and set the following configuration parameter:

Figure 9-12. Kernel make menuconfig showing disabled SysRq key

Kernel hacking  --->
 [ ] Magic SysRq key

This should place the following configuration parameter in /usr/src/linux/.config.

Figure 9-13. Kernel .config showing disabled SysRq key