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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Privilege Escalation

A Privilege Escalation Example, Impact of Privilege Escalation.

Privilege Escalation


Programs run in a context: Their access rights and privileges are controlled by that context. Most programs run in the context of the invoking user. If system access rights are set up correctly, you can create, modify, or delete items you own, but critical system objects are protected by being outside your context. Malicious code writers want to be able to access not just your objects but those outside your context as well. To do this, the malicious code has to run with privileges higher than you have. A privilege escalation attack is a means for malicious code to be launched by a user with lower privileges but run with higher privileges.


A Privilege Escalation Example


In April 2006, Symantec announced a fix to a flaw in their software (bulletin Sym06-007). Symantec produces security software, such as virus scanners and blockers, e-mail spam filters, and system integrity tools. So that a user's product will always have up-to-date code and supporting data (such as virus definition files), Symantec has a Live Update option by which the product periodically fetches and installs new versions from a Symantec location. A user can also invoke Live Update at any time to get up-to-the-minute updates. The Live Update feature has to run with elevated privileges because it will download and install programs in the system program directory. The update process actually involves executing several programs, which we will call LU1, LU2, Sys3, and Sys4; LU1 and LU2 are components of Live Update, and Sys3 and Sys4 are standard components of the operating system. These four pieces complete the downloading and installation.


Operating systems use what is called a search path to find programs to execute. The search path is a list of directories or folders in which to look for a program that is called. When a program A calls a program B, the operating system looks for B in the first directory specified in the search path. If the operating system finds such a program, it executes it; otherwise, it continues looking in the subsequent directories in the search path until it finds B or it fails to find B by the end of the list. The operating system uses the first B it finds. The user can change the search path so a user's program B would be run instead of another program of the same name in another directory. You can always specify a program's location explicitlyfor example, c:\program files\ symantec\LU1to control precisely which version runs.


In some releases for the Macintosh, Symantec allowed Live Update to find programs from the search path instead of by explicit location. Remember that Live Update runs with elevated privileges; it passes those elevated privileges along to Sys3 and Sys4. But if the user sets a search path starting in the user's space and the user happens to have a program named Sys3, the user's version of Sys3 runs with elevated privileges.


Impact of Privilege Escalation


A malicious code writer likes a privilege escalation. Creating, installing, or modifying a system file is difficult, but it is easier to load a file into the user's space. In this example, the malicious code writer only has to create a small shell program, name it Sys3, store it anywhere (even in a temporary directory), reset the search path, and invoke a program (Live Update). Each of these actions is common for nonmalicious downloaded code.


The result of running this attack is that the malicious version of Sys3 receives control in privileged mode, and from that point it can replace operating system files, download and install new code, modify system tables, and inflict practically any other harm. Having run once with higher privilege, the malicious code can set a flag to receive elevated privileges in the future.

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