OpenSSH, PAM and user names

FreeBSD just published a security advisory for, amongst other issues, a piece of code in OpenSSH’s PAM integration which could allow an attacker to use one user’s credentials to impersonate another (CVE 2015-6563, original patch). I would like to clarify two things, one that is already mentioned in the advisory and one that isn’t.

The first is that in order to exploit this, the attacker must not only have valid credentials but also first compromise the unprivileged pre-authentication child process through a bug in OpenSSH itself or in a PAM service module.

The second is that this behavior, which is universally referred to in advisories and the trade press as a bug or flaw, is intentional and required by the PAM spec (such as it is). There are multiple legitimate use cases for this, such as:

  • Letting PAM, rather than the application, prompt for a user name; the spec allows passing NULL instead of a user name to pam_start(3), in which case it is the service module’s responsibility (in pam_sm_authenticate(3)) to prompt for a user name using pam_get_user(3). Note that OpenSSH does not support this.

  • Mapping multiple users with different identities and credentials in the authentication backend to a single “template” user when the application they need to access does not need to distinguish between them, or when this determination is made through other means (e.g. environment variable, which service modules are allowed to set).

  • Mapping Windows user names (which can contain spaces and non-ASCII characters that would trip up most Unix applications) to Unix user names.

That being said, I do not object to the patch, only to its characterization. Regarding the first issue, it is absolutely correct to consider the unprivileged child as possibly hostile; this is, after all, the entire point of privilege separation. Regarding the second issue, there are other (and probably better) ways to achieve the same result—performing the translation in the identity service, i.e. nsswitch, comes to mind—and the percentage of users affected by the change lies somewhere between zero and negligible.

One could argue that instead of silently ignoring the user name set by PAM, OpenSSH should compare it to the original user name and either emit a warning or drop the connection if it does not match, but that is a design choice which is entirely up to the OpenSSH developers.

Update 2015-08-27 NIST rates exploitability as “medium” rather than “low” because an attacker who is able to impersonate the UID used by the unprivileged child can use a debugger or other similar method to modify the username that the child passes back to the parent. In other words, an attacker can leverage elevated privileges into other elevated privileges. I disagree with the rating, but have never had any luck getting NIST to correct even blatantly false information in the past.

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