Preventing Privilege Escalation

Abstract: 

Many operating system services require special privilege to execute their tasks. A programming error in a privileged service opens the door to system compromise in the form of unauthorized acquisition of privileges. In the worst case, a remote attacker may obtain superuser privileges. In this paper, we discuss the methodology and design of privilege separation, a generic approach that lets parts of an application run with different levels of privilege. Programming errors occurring in the unprivileged parts can no longer be abused to gain unauthorized privileges. Privilege separation is orthogonal to capability systems or application confinement and enhances the security of such systems even further.

Privilege separation is especially useful for system services that authenticate users. These services execute privileged operations depending on internal state not known to an application confinement mechanism. As a concrete example, the concept of privilege separation has been implemented in OpenSSH. However, privilege separation is equally useful for other authenticating services. We illustrate how separation of privileges reduces the amount of OpenSSH code that is executed with special privilege. Privilege separation prevents known security vulnerabilities in prior OpenSSH versions including some that were unknown at the time of its implementation.