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(?) The Answer Guy (!)

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
LinuxCare, http://www.linuxcare.com/

(?) PAM chroot

Wherein Jim rants about PAM

From Terrell larson on Sun, 02 May 1999

(?) I'm interested in a CHROOT option probably in pam-pwdb and I've been unable to find it. If it does not exist I may be willing to implement it IF I can find the current source tree and IF I can find out where to forward it for general use.

Info will be appreciated...

Thanx Terrell Larson

(!) Terrell,
It's an interesting question. I presume you're talking about implementing/re-implementing PAM support for an old convention among SVR4 UNIX implementations where specific accounts can be marked for special chroot handling by giving them a '*' as the "login shell"
This is described in O'Reilly & Associates' Practical Internet and Unix Security, p232, Garfinkel and Spafford and most other books on UNIX security.
(For our readers that are unfamiliar with the trick: the login program; upon seeing that the login shell for a given account is set to '*' does a chroot() system call to the directory that's listed as that account's "home" directory. Therein 'login' exec()'s the appropriate copy of 'login' thereunder. This normally would then exec() a normal shell, as listed in the /...(chroot top).../etc/passwd file.)
I was doing some research on a paper (that I still plan on submitting to USENIX, one of these days) when I first read about this convention. My paper was on a completely different use of chroot(), but I was doing a literature search.
Naturally I tried this particular trick on one of my Linux systems. It worked fine. In fact I just tested it, as I write this, on a new Debian 2.1 installation that I've been playing with and it works there.
However on PAM based systems (using pluggable authentication modules) --- notably on Red Hat 4.x, 5.x and presumably the new 6.0 system as well as any where the admins have added Linux PAM after-the-fact --- it doesn't work.
I mentioned this in e-mail to Andrew Morgan, the maintainer and co-ordinator of the PAM development project. There is, of course a listing for a pam_chroot module in the PAM administrator's guide. However, that doesn't do the same sort of thing --- and there's no example of how you'd use it to accomplish the same job. It's also listed as "unwritten." I did run across a file at the following URL that you might want to look at:
It's from late 1997 and is only about 3K. All it contains is source to a simple command, a man page and a sample configuration file. It seems to be an alternative implementation of the chrootuid program that Weitse Venema wrote years ago (part of his 'logdaemon' package).
This particular program (changeroot) seems to have nothing to do with PAM. I'd also guess (from the parent directory name) that the code is not under active development.
Obviously, you could use something like chrootuid, or this changeroot program or you could write a simple C program (or even a PERL script) that would implement this procedure and use a reference to that in lieu of the '*' that I've been talking about. In other words instead of an entry like:
guest:x:65533:65534:Jailed Guest:/usr/local/jail:*
... where 'login' spots the the '*', performs the chroot() to /usr/local/jail, and exec()'s the copy of /bin/login thereunder; we'd see something like:
guest:x:65533:65534:Jailed Guest:/usr/local/jail:/usr/local/sbin/jailsh
... where jailsh is a hypothetical SUID root program that performs these same steps.
This approach will work with any version of UNIX (so its more portable). Another advantage for Linux under a 2.2 kernel is that this hypothetical jailsh program could be written to use the new "privileges" model (which are listed in the sources under the "capabilities" misnomer --- but let's not get into that peeve).
The disadvantage of this approach is that we have to write a custom program (which I'm calling jailsh). It has to run as 'root' (or with several rootly privileges, setuid(), and chroot() at least). I might toss together something for use on one of my systems (I have in the past) --- but I'd be very reluctant to publish those as solutions that anyone else would trust. I simply don't consider myself a sufficiently experienced and skilled programmer to be writing SUID root code for public consumption.
So, this brings us back to your message. chroot() jails are not used much. You'd expect them to see more widespread use, but they they are a bit of a hassle to initially configure (creating a suitable skeleton tree under the target chroot point, getting the requisite shared libraries and device nodes in place for your applications, etc.). In addition there are ongoing concerns that chroot jails are too easy to break out of. In cases where you want to isolate a root/privileged program --- it's too easy for them to chroot back out of the jail. This concern may be addressed by clever use of the new "privileges" features in the 2.2 kernels. However, since you're asking, I presume you already have your application well considered.
It sounds like you are willing to contribute some code to this. So you might start with a small standalone program (based on chrootuid or the changelog program listed above, if their licenses are amenable to your needs).
You can find chrootuid at:
... and there's some some of GNU package called g2s
... that's listed as "an interesting alternative to inetd/tcpwrapper/chrootuid/relay/tcp-env/antispam/etc."
PAM pwdb is maintained by Christian Gafton. The canonical forum for discussions relating to PAM development is the pam-list (pam-list@redhat.com). The canonical web site is at:
... which is generally inaccessible (as kernel.org is the master site for the Linux kernel --- which gets too much traffic for a reasonable Internet connection). So it should be accessed through one of the mirrors. The Linux kernel crowd use a relatively simple and innovative DNS trick to maintain a list of mirrors that we can use without having to strain our memories. Basically you can use URLs of the form:
... to access a DNS round-robin collection of U.S. mirrors. There are mirrors in many other countries and regions, from Afghanistan (http://www.af.kernel.org) to Zimbabwe (http://www.zw.kernel.org). (Yes, they just use the ISO two letter country codes as a subdomain prefix). Most of these sites mirror the whole kernel.org FTP and web trees. If you have trouble connecting to one of the sites, try again. A check with 'dig' lists about a dozen U.S. mirror sites for www.us.kernel.org. Any decent resolver libraries will cycle through the available addresses until one works (upon successive access attempts). That's part of what allows the whole DNS round robin scheme to work).
These carry sources and links to the many ongoing PAM module projects.
But I digress. Getting back to PAM. Personally I'm somewhat disappointed in the Linux PAM project. I've expressed this to the list and I've discussed it with Christian Gafton in person. He and Andrew will probably be irritated to see this published in Linux Gazette --- and they are invited to compose and submit a rebuttal, or anything they like, to the editors here. (I've courtesy copied them on this e-mail).
My principal complaint is that the PAM project seems to be permanently stuck near version 0.6x. It was at 0.57 about two years ago. The response on the mailing list (and direction from Christian) when I raised this concern was: "So what, it's just an arbitrary version number."
Of course I'm not a programmer or a distribution integrator; I'm just a dumb user, admin and support guy and writer --- so my opinion doesn't count for much. However, it does get published, so others can beat up on me when they disagree. It seems to be that a version number of 0.x still connotes "beta" --- not ready for production use to most people. Red Hat and Caldera are the only distributions that include integrated PAM support. Many authentication dependent packages, like ssh, don't include PAM support "out-of-the-box" and it is non-trivial (read: "scary and difficult") for an "average" Linux user or junior sysadmin to install the PAM suite into an existing system.
As one example if you'd been using Debian, S.u.S.E. or Slackware for your application (with the chroot'd users) and you installed PAM, you'd probably be pretty distressed to find it suddenly broken. [ hint: don't log out until you've attempted to access all your desirable services via the localhost interface and gotten them visible again, minimally telnet or ssh. Yes, I've been there. -- Heather ] Granted, this whole '*' shell chroot business is pretty obscure to the "average" user or the "junior" sysadmin. However, it is documented in most books on Unix security (I reviewed about twenty books at a couple of books stores with the words UNIX and security in their titles --- over half of them described this mechanism and several gave examples).
Another complaint that I have is that the existing PAM deployment doesn't include S/Key or OPIE support, and doesn't even include clear examples of how to add-in and configure any form of pluggable OTP. Given that network password sniffing is one of the most common problems that one might want to solve with PAM this seems like a pretty significant omission.
The response to this on the list and in personal discussion amounted to:
"that's crypto --- and the U.S. government black helicopters are hovering over our heads ready to bomb Red Hat's offices if they include anything like it."
(Yes, I'm paraphrasing). Personally I think this is absurd. Yes, the U.S. federal government's restrictions regarding the "export" of cryptography software are an embarassment to free people everywhere. I'm personally ashamed of our entire political process as a result of the ways in which "my" government was repeatedly thwarted the popular will of the people vis a vis cryptography. However, S/Key and OPIE are not cryptography. They use hashes, fancy checksums, as the basis for their authentication. Specifically OPIE uses MD5 by default. (I guess that the spec for S/Key -- OPIE allows for one to use alternative hash algorithms, MD2, maybe SHA-1, etc. I don't know the details on that). Ironically the code for the standard UNIX password hashing method, use your password and some "salt" as a 56-bit DES key to "encrypt" a string of NULs, is far more easily subverted into true cryptographic use than MD5. Of course both the conventional DES hashing and the MD5 code are already in every major Linux distribution, and always have been!
One compromise would be to include DOCUMENTATION. Give us a URL that points to a script. Have the script walk one through the processing of fetching, installing, and configuring pam_opie. Granted it's not THAT difficult. I was able to perform the task by hand in about an hour. However, it would probably take an "average" sysadmin about twice that and it would probably take an "average" Linux user about four times that. Consequently it probably won't happen in any significant number of sites. So it just doesn't get done at all.
(The argument that OPIE and other OTP, one-time-password schemes, is an incomplete solution is also well considered. It doesn't secure the connection so sniffing will still reveal other confidential data, etc. ssh IS a much better solution. The new FreeS/WAN ipsec implementation is also a much better approach. However, there are enough people out there that can't or won't install strong cryptographic support that some stop gap is indicated. Providing smooth easy installation and configuration of OTP is one thing that PAM could do to address this problem).
By far my biggest complaint about PAM is that it hasn't delivered on its most important promise. It doesn't put Linux on par with FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD for authentication.
FreeBSD has supported S/Key compatible OTP "out-of-the-box" for YEARS. (Note: Walnut Creek, the largest distributor of FreeBSD CDs and books and the major sponsor for FreeBSD development hasn't been hit by the "black helicopters").
Beyond just this discussion of OTP, FreeBSD's libraries have provided seams shadow and MD5 password hashing for years. Regardless of PAM I still bump into Linux applications that fail to authenticate because they don't properly handle some aspect of shadowing and MD5 checksums. Just last week one of my fellow techs at Linuxcare was fighting for a couple of hours with that on a Yellow Dog (Linux for PowerPC) installation at the office.
That was the whole idea of the PAM project. However, PAM can't deliver on that promise until it attracts widespread support from the application/utility writers that perform authentication. FreeBSD hides most of the details behind their implemention of the standard library functions that most programmers were already using to perform their authentication (getpwent(), etc.). We can't do that with PAM and glibc --- but we need to straighten out this mess eventually.
So, I would welcome any new blood that got involved in the PAM project. I realize that Andrew will probably say: "Quit your whining and turn in some code!" That's fair enough. (However, as I've said before, you don't want to see any C code from me, yet).
PAM is an ambitious project. It goes beyond Linux (in an effort to implement standards that have been proposed to the IETF by Sun and other vendors). I realize that there is some delay because these proposed standards are in draft form and are still in flux (the XSSO, single-sign-on stuff also seems to be languishing). However, I'd still like to see it deliver more in the near term.

Copyright © 1999, James T. Dennis
Published in The Linux Gazette Issue 42 June 1999
HTML transformation by Heather Stern of Starshine Techinical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

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