Unix security

Unix security

Unix security: maintaining a secure environment on Unix and Unix-like operating systems is dependent on design concepts of these operating systems, but vigilance through user and administrative techniques is important to maintain security also.

Design concepts


A core security feature in these systems is the permissions system. All files in a typical Unix-style filesystem have permissions set enabling different access to a file.

Permissions on a file are commonly set using the chmod command and seen through the ls command. For example: -r-xr-xr-x 1 root wheel 745720 Sep 8 2002 /bin/sh

Unix permissions permit different users access to a file. Different "user groups" have different permissions on a file.

More advanced Unix filesystems include the "Access Control List" concept which allows permissions to be granted to multiple users or groups. An "Access Control List" may be used to grant permission to additional individual users or groups. For example: /pvr [u::rwx,g::r-x,o::r-x/u::rwx,u:sue:rwx,g::r-x,m::rwx,o::r-x]

In this example, which is from the chacl command on the Linux operating system, the user sue is granted "write" permission to the "/pvr" directory.

User groups

Users under Unix style operating systems often belong to managed groups with specific access permissions. This enables users to be grouped by the level of access they have to this system. Many Unix implementations add an additional layer of security by requiring that a user be a member of the "wheel" user privileges group in order to access the su command.cite book|title=UNIX Administration: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for Effective Systems and Network Management |first=Bozidar |last=Levi |publisher=CRC Press |year=2002 |pages=p207 |isbn=0849313511]


Most Unix style systems have an account or group which enables a user to exact complete control over the system, often known as a root account. If access to this account is gained by an unwanted user, this results in a complete breach of the system. A root account however is necessary for administrative purposes, and for the above security reasons the root account is "seldom" used for day to day purposes (the sudo program is more commonly used), so usage of the root account can be more closely monitored.

Root access "as it should be" can be visualised by those familiar with the Superman stories using the following analogy:

::Using a root account is rather like being Superman; an administrator's regular user is more like Clark Kent. Clark Kent becomes Superman for only as long as necessary, in order to save people. He then reverts to his "disguise". Root access should be used in the same fashion. The Clark Kent disguise doesn't really restrict him though, as he is still able to use his super powers. This is analogous to using the sudo program.

User and administrative techniques

Unix has many tools that can improve security if used properly by users and administrators.


Selecting a strong password and guarding it properly are probably the most important things a user can do to improve Unix security.In Unix systems, passwords are usually stored under the file /etc/passwd. This file also keeps track of the users registered in the system and their main definitions. The entries in /etc/passwd occupy exactly one line each, and have the following form:

nickname:password_hash:UserID:GroupID:Complete_Name:home_dir:shell_binAn example would be: xfze:$1$zuW2nX3sslp3qJm9MYDdglEApAc36r/:1000:100:José Carlos D. S. Saraiva:/home/xfze:/bin/bash

Since all users must have read access to this file, in order for the system to check the login password, one security issue was raised: anyone could have read the file and retrieve the password hashes of other users. To solve this problem, the file /etc/shadow was created to store the passwords, with only root having read access. Under password shadowing, the /etc/passwd the 2nd field (password hash) is replaced by an 'x' which tells the system to retrieve the corresponding user's password via the /etc/shadow file.

The /etc/shadow file usually only contains the first two fields:


The remaining fields in the /etc/shadow file include:
#The minimum number of days between password changes
#The maximum number of days until the password must be changed
#The number of days of warning given before the password must be changed
#The number of days after the password must be changed when the account becomes unusable
#The date (expressed as the number of days since January 1st, 1970) when the account is expired

These fields may be used to improve Unix security by enforcing a password security policy.

Users and accounts

Administrators should delete old accounts promptly.
*su, sudo, sudosh, ssh only, no remote root logins

oftware Maintenance


Operating systems, like all software, may contain bugs in need of fixing or may be enhanced with the addition of new features. Patching the operating system in a secure manner requires that the software come from a trustworthy source and not have been altered since it was packaged. Common methods for verifying that operating system patches have not been altered include the use of cryptographic hash, such as an MD5 based checksum, or the use of read-only media.

From a security standpoint, the specific packaging method, such as the RPM Package Manager format originally from Red Hat Linux is not as important as the use of features which ensure the integrity of the patch itself.

ource Distributions

Source distributions include the ability to examine the code for suspicious content. The drawback, absent an accompanying cryptographic hash value, is that the user must be able to perform a security analysis of the code themselves.

RPM Packages

Linux distributions which use the RPM Package Manager format for providing base functionality and software updates make use of MD5 and GPG to ensure content integrity. The hash values are packaged with the RPM file and verified when the package is installed.

Debian Packages

Linux distribution which use the Debian .deb package format for providing base functionality and software updates make use of GPG signatures to ensure content integrity. A signature is computed when the package is constructed and verified later when the package is installed.

Other vendors and distributions

Regardless of the vendor or distribution, all software distributions should provide a mechanism for verifying that the software is legitimate and has not been modified since it was originally packaged.


Unnecessary system software should not be installed or configured on a system. Software which is no longer required should be removed completely, if possible.

*Identify what services are running
**netstat -na
**sockstat -4 (FreeBSD)

The commands inetd and xinetd act as super-servers for a variety of network protocols such as rlogin, telnet and ftp.

Turning off unnecessary services

*using "chkconfig" on Red Hat Linux
*using "/etc/rc.conf" and "/usr/local/etc/rc.d" on FreeBSD (mention /etc/rc.local)
*using "rc-update" on Gentoo Linux

This approach is usually called "proactive security". There are some operating systems which are "secure by default". Amongst others, the free BSD flavours (FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD) are proactively secure. For example, the output of netstat on a NetBSD 3.0 workstation clearly outlines this technique: $ netstat -a Active Internet connections (including servers) Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address Foreign Address State tcp 0 0 localhost.smtp *.* LISTEN tcp 0 0 *.ssh *.* LISTEN Active Internet6 connections (including servers) Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address Foreign Address (state) tcp6 0 0 localhost.smtp *.* LISTEN tcp6 0 0 *.ssh *.* LISTEN Active UNIX domain sockets Address Type Recv-Q Send-Q Inode Conn Refs Nextref Addr c0d10d80 dgram 0 0 0 c0cd8680 0 c0cb7000 -> /var/run/log c0cb7000 dgram 0 0 0 c0cd8680 0 0 -> /var/run/log c0cd8680 dgram 0 0 cb9639e8 0 c0d10d80 0 /var/run/log

The following example from a BSD system $ sockstat -4 USER COMMAND PID FD PROTO LOCAL ADDRESS FOREIGN ADDRESS root sendmail 569 4 tcp localhost.smtp *.* root sshd 593 4 tcp *.ssh *.*

Shows that on this machine only the SSH service is listening to the public network interface of the computer. sendmail is listening to the loopback interface only. Access to a service may be further restricted by using a firewall.

File Systems

File system security

File system security within UNIX and Unix-like systems is based on 9 permission bits, set user and group ID bits, and the sticky bit, for a total of 12 bits. These permissions apply almost equally to all filesystem objects such as files, directories and devices.

The 9 permission bits are divided into three groups of three bits each. The first group describes the permissions of the file owner, the second group describes the permissions of a group associated with the file owner or the directory containing the file, and the third group describes the permissions associated with any process which does not have the same user ID as the file. Each group of three bits contains a bit indicating the read, write or execute access is granted. In the case of directories, execute access is interpreted as the permission to perform a filename lookup within the directory.

The set user ID and set group ID bits, commonly abbreviated "set-UID" and "set-GID" respectively, are used to change the identity of the process which executes a file having either or both of those bits set. A file having the "set-UID" permission bit set will cause a process which executes that file to temporarily switch the effective user ID to that of the file owner. A file having the "set-GID" permission bit set will cause a process which executes that file to temporarily switch the effective group ID to that of the file group. A process may then alternate between the effective user or group ID which it inherited from the file and the real user or group ID which it inherited when the user logged on to the system. This provides a mechanism by which a process may limit the access rights it possesses to those code regions which require those access rights. This is a form of a security technique known as privilege separation and improves program security by limiting the unintended or undesirable actions of a processes.

A directory having the "set-GID" permission bit set will cause a newly created file to have an initial file group value equal to the file group of the directory. This provides a mechanism whereby a subsystem, such as the system's mail subsystem, can create files which have a common file group value so that "set-GID" processes within that subsystem are then able to read or write the file.

The "sticky bit", formally known as the "save text on swap" bit, derives its name from its original purpose. Originally the "sticky bit" caused a process's initial memory image to be stored as a contiguous image on the disk drive which was used to store real memory pages when they were not in use. This improved the performance of commonly executed commands by making the initial memory image readily available. Modern UNIX systems no longer perform that function when the bit is set, but the name has been preserved nonetheless. In the case of files, the "sticky-bit" may be used by the system to indicate the style of file locking to be performed. In the case of directories, the "sticky bit" prevents any process, other than one which has super-user privileges or one having an effective user ID of the file owner, from deleting a file within that directory. The "sticky bit" is most commonly used on publicly writable directories, such as the various temporary working space directories on the system.

Viruses and Virus Scanners

Unix-like operating systems are immune to most Microsoft Windows viruses because binaries created to run on Windows generally won't run on other platforms. However, many Unix like installations provide file storage services to Microsoft Windows clients, such as through the use of Samba software, and may unintentionally become a repository for viruses stored by users. It is common for Unix servers to act as Mail Transfer Agents consequently email virus scanning is often installed. The ClamAV virus scanner is available in source code form and may be used to scan Unix file systems for viruses which infect other operating systems.

There are viruses and worms that target Unix-like operating systems. In fact, the first computer worm -- the Morris worm -- targeted Unix systems.


A "firewall" derives its name from physical construction methods in which a reinforced, fire-resistant wall is used to protect opposite sides of the wall from a fire occurring on one side of the wall. In the same way, a network firewall protects systems and networks from network threats which exist on the opposite side of the firewall.


iptables is the current user interface for interacting with Linux kernel netfilter functionality. It replaced ipchains. Other Unix like operating systems may provide their own native functionality and other open source firewall products exist. More detailed information about iptables is contained elsewhere. A brief discussion is contained here in order to describe how iptables may be used to configure a Linux firewall.

netfilter provides a state-full packet filter which can be configured according to network interface, protocol, source and/or destination address, source and/or destination port and the state of the packet. A network packet traverses several "chains" between the time it is received by a network interface and the time it is accepted by the host or forwarded to another host. The common chains are INPUT, OUTPUT and FORWARD. The INPUT "chain" is traversed for all packets as they are received by a network interface, regardless of whether they are to be accepted by the host or forwarded to another host. The OUTPUT "chain" is traversed for all packets as they are transmitted by a network interface. The FORWARD chain is traversed for those packets are being routed through the host from one network interface to another, such as is the case for a multi-homed system (a system with more than one physical network interface).

Each of the built-in chains has a default "policy" which defines what action is taken for a packet which reaches the end of the chain. Packet traversal ends when a "rule" matches the packet and has an action of ACCEPT, DROP, REJECT or RETURN.

The simplest iptables firewall consists of "rules" for each desired service, followed by a rule which indicates that any packets which reach this rule are dropped. A system which only permitted, for example, incoming email traffic would have a rule which accepted connections on the SMTP port, and then dropped others. A rule would be required which indicated that all established connections were also permitted so that outgoing connections would receive responses from other systems.

INPUT chain

The following example shows a simple packet filter for the INPUT chain for the above described example:

Chain INPUT (policy DROP 0 packets, 0 bytes) pkts bytes target prot opt in out source destination 0 0 ACCEPT all -- any any anywhere anywhere state ESTABLISHED 0 0 ACCEPT tcp -- any any anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:smtp 0 0 LOG all -- any any anywhere anywhere LOG level warning 0 0 DROP all -- any any anywhere anywhere

The addition of an explicit DROP action ensures that the packets are discarded should the default policy of the INPUT chain accidentally be changed to ACCEPT.

OUTPUT chain

There is less need for an OUTPUT chain and the default "policy" of the OUTPUT chain can safely be set to ACCEPT. In some instances it may be desirable for a firewall to limit certain outgoing connections to a certain set of approved systems. This is known as egress filtering and may be used to prevent viruses within the firewall from escaping to other systems. For example, it may be the policy of a network to limit outgoing email connections to a single authorized email servers as a way of combating e-mail spam. This could be achieved by the following example:

Chain OUTPUT (policy ACCEPT) pkts bytes target prot opt in out source destination 0 0 DROP tcp -- any any !server anywhere tcp dpt:smtp

There is no need to include any other rules in this example as the default policy for the OUTPUT chain is ACCEPT. Note also that this rule assumes that the host which is acting as the firewall will not be sending email itself, such as to the email server. This is a good assumption as typically a firewall system contains the minimal amount of system code needed to act as a firewall.

A more restrictive OUTPUT chain would contain permissive (ACCEPT) entries for those services which may be accessed outside the firewall and then a restrictive (DROP) policy for the chain itself.


Secure network communication:
*Layer 7: GPG/PGP
*Layer 4: SSL/TLS/SSH/Stunnel/S/MIME
*Layer 3: VPN, IPsec
*Layer 2: PPTP

Packet sniffing:
*tcpdump, Wireshark

*Man in the middle attack
*land ping of death xmas Denial-of-service attack et al.


*rootkits, kernel modules, chkrootkit
*exploit details, buffer overflows, local vs remote
* Security-Enhanced Linux

ervice details

*SMTP - spam
*Sendmail - banners help header version etc.
*Domain Name System - reverse mapping dnssec

External links

* [http://www.dsm.fordham.edu/~moniot/Classes/InternetWebF00/unix-security/unix-security.html "The Unix Security Model for web server administration"] Robert K. Moniot 2000
* [http://www.alw.nih.gov/Security/Docs/network-security.html "An Architectural Overview of UNIX Network Security"] Robert B. Reinhardt 1993
* [http://blog.anantshri.info/2007/08/27/how-to-change-root-password-in-debian/ a simple guide to change password in debian] - a must read for new administrators if they wish to avoid crackers.
* [http://andercheran.aiind.upv.es/toni/unix/index_en.html Unix security papers]
* [http://astalavista.com/media/directory06/uploads/unixsecurity.nrl.txt "UNIX System Administrator Responsibilities"]


"Practical UNIX and Internet Security," Simson Garfinkel and Gene Spafford, O'Reilly & Associates, 2003.

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