15.2 Introduction

Security is a function that begins and ends with the system administrator. While all BSD UNIX® multi-user systems have some inherent security, the job of building and maintaining additional security mechanisms to keep those users “honest” is probably one of the single largest undertakings of the sysadmin. Machines are only as secure as you make them, and security concerns are ever competing with the human necessity for convenience. UNIX systems, in general, are capable of running a huge number of simultaneous processes and many of these processes operate as servers — meaning that external entities can connect and talk to them. As yesterday's mini-computers and mainframes become today's desktops, and as computers become networked and inter-networked, security becomes an even bigger issue.

System security also pertains to dealing with various forms of attack, including attacks that attempt to crash, or otherwise make a system unusable, but do not attempt to compromise the root account (“break root”). Security concerns can be split up into several categories:

  1. Denial of service attacks.

  2. User account compromises.

  3. Root compromise through accessible servers.

  4. Root compromise via user accounts.

  5. Backdoor creation.

A denial of service attack is an action that deprives the machine of needed resources. Typically, DoS attacks are brute-force mechanisms that attempt to crash or otherwise make a machine unusable by overwhelming its servers or network stack. Some DoS attacks try to take advantage of bugs in the networking stack to crash a machine with a single packet. The latter can only be fixed by applying a bug fix to the kernel. Attacks on servers can often be fixed by properly specifying options to limit the load the servers incur on the system under adverse conditions. Brute-force network attacks are harder to deal with. A spoofed-packet attack, for example, is nearly impossible to stop, short of cutting your system off from the Internet. It may not be able to take your machine down, but it can saturate your Internet connection.

A user account compromise is even more common than a DoS attack. Many sysadmins still run standard telnetd, rlogind, rshd, and ftpd servers on their machines. These servers, by default, do not operate over encrypted connections. The result is that if you have any moderate-sized user base, one or more of your users logging into your system from a remote location (which is the most common and convenient way to login to a system) will have his or her password sniffed. The attentive system admin will analyze his remote access logs looking for suspicious source addresses even for successful logins.

One must always assume that once an attacker has access to a user account, the attacker can break root. However, the reality is that in a well secured and maintained system, access to a user account does not necessarily give the attacker access to root. The distinction is important because without access to root the attacker cannot generally hide his tracks and may, at best, be able to do nothing more than mess with the user's files, or crash the machine. User account compromises are very common because users tend not to take the precautions that sysadmins take.

System administrators must keep in mind that there are potentially many ways to break root on a machine. The attacker may know the root password, the attacker may find a bug in a root-run server and be able to break root over a network connection to that server, or the attacker may know of a bug in a suid-root program that allows the attacker to break root once he has broken into a user's account. If an attacker has found a way to break root on a machine, the attacker may not have a need to install a backdoor. Many of the root holes found and closed to date involve a considerable amount of work by the attacker to cleanup after himself, so most attackers install backdoors. A backdoor provides the attacker with a way to easily regain root access to the system, but it also gives the smart system administrator a convenient way to detect the intrusion. Making it impossible for an attacker to install a backdoor may actually be detrimental to your security, because it will not close off the hole the attacker found to break in the first place.

Security remedies should always be implemented with a multi-layered “onion peel” approach and can be categorized as follows:

  1. Securing root and staff accounts.

  2. Securing root–run servers and suid/sgid binaries.

  3. Securing user accounts.

  4. Securing the password file.

  5. Securing the kernel core, raw devices, and file systems.

  6. Quick detection of inappropriate changes made to the system.

  7. Paranoia.

The next section of this chapter will cover the above bullet items in greater depth.