- Creating Safe Processes
- Handling Child Process Termination
- Semantics of Command-line Arguments
forkas a Primitive for Parallelism
This section describes how to create new child processes in a safe manner. In addition to the concerns addressed below, there is the possibility of file descriptor leaks, see Preventing File Descriptor Leaks to Child Processes.
The name and path to the program being invoked should be hard-coded or controlled by a static configuration file stored at a fixed location (at an file system absolute path). The same applies to the template for generating the command line.
The configured program name should be an absolute path. If it
is a relative path, the contents of the
must be obtained in a secure manner (see Accessing Environment Variables).
PATH variable is not set or untrusted,
the safe default
/bin:/usr/bin must be
If too much flexibility is provided here, it may allow invocation of arbitrary programs without proper authorization.
Child processes should be created without involving the system shell.
system should not be used.
posix_spawn function can be used
instead, or a combination
execve. (In some cases, it may be
preferable to use
vfork or the
clone system call instead
In Python, the
subprocess module bypasses
the shell by default (when the
keyword argument is not set to true).
os.system should not be used.
The Java class
java.lang.ProcessBuilder can be
used to create subprocesses without interference from the
On Windows, there is no argument vector, only a single argument string. Each application is responsible for parsing this string into an argument vector. There is considerable variance among the quoting style recognized by applications. Some of them expand shell wildcards, others do not. Extensive application-specific testing is required to make this secure.
Note that some common applications (notably ssh) unconditionally introduce the use of a shell, even if invoked directly without a shell. It is difficult to use these applications in a secure manner. In this case, untrusted data should be supplied by other means. For example, standard input could be used, instead of the command line.
Child processes should be created with a minimal set of environment variables. This is absolutely essential if there is a trust transition involved, either when the parent process was created, or during the creation of the child process.
In C/C++, the environment should be constructed as an array of
strings and passed as the
envp argument to
should not be used. They are not thread-safe and suffer from
Python programs need to specify a
env argument of the
The Java class
which returns a map that can be manipulated.
The following list provides guidelines for selecting the set of environment variables passed to the child process.
PATHshould be initialized to
HOMEcan be inhereted from the parent process environment, or they can be initialized from the
pwentstructure for the user.
XAUTHORITYvariables should be passed to the subprocess if it is an X program. Note that this will typically not work across trust boundaries because
XAUTHORITYrefers to a file with
The location-related environment variables
LC_TIMEcan be passed to the subprocess if present.
The called process may need application-specific environment variables, for example for passing passwords. (See Passing Secrets to Subprocesses.)
All other environment variables should be dropped. Names for new environment variables should not be accepted from untrusted sources.
When invoking a program, it is sometimes necessary to include
data from untrusted sources. Such data should be checked
NUL characters because the
system APIs will silently truncate argument strings at the first
The following recommendations assume that the program being
invoked uses GNU-style option processing using
getopt_long. This convention is widely
used, but it is just that, and individual programs might
interpret a command line in a different way.
If the untrusted data has to go into an option, use the
--option-name=VALUE syntax, placing the
option and its value into the same command line argument.
This avoids any potential confusion if the data starts with
For positional arguments, terminate the option list with a
-- marker after the last option, and
include the data at the right position. The
-- marker terminates option processing, and
the data will not be treated as an option even if it starts
with a dash.
The command line (the name of the program and its argument) of a running process is traditionally available to all local users. The called program can overwrite this information, but only after it has run for a bit of time, during which the information may have been read by other processes. However, on Linux, the process environment is restricted to the user who runs the process. Therefore, if you need a convenient way to pass a password to a child process, use an environment variable, and not a command line argument. (See Specifying the Process Environment.)
On some UNIX-like systems (notably Solaris), environment variables can be read by any system user, just like command lines.
If the environment-based approach cannot be used due to portability concerns, the data can be passed on standard input. Some programs (notably gpg) use special file descriptors whose numbers are specified on the command line. Temporary files are an option as well, but they might give digital forensics access to sensitive data (such as passphrases) because it is difficult to safely delete them in all cases.
When child processes terminate, the parent process is signalled.
A stub of the terminated processes (a
zombie, shown as
ps) is kept around until the status
information is collected (reaped) by the
parent process. Over the years, several interfaces for this
have been invented:
The parent process calls
wait4, without specifying a process ID. This will deliver any matching process ID. This approach is typically used from within event loops.
The parent process calls
wait4, with a specific process ID. Only data for the specific process ID is returned. This is typically used in code which spawns a single subprocess in a synchronous manner.
The parent process installs a handler for the
sigaction, and specifies to the
SA_NOCLDWAITflag. This approach could be used by event loops as well.
None of these approaches can be used to wait for child process terminated in a completely thread-safe manner. The parent process might execute an event loop in another thread, which could pick up the termination signal. This means that libraries typically cannot make free use of child processes (for example, to run problematic code with reduced privileges in a separate address space).
At the moment, the parent process should explicitly wait for
termination of the child process using
and hope that the status is not collected by an event loop
Programs can be marked in the file system to indicate to the
kernel that a trust transition should happen if the program is
SUID file permission bit indicates
that an executable should run with the effective user ID equal
to the owner of the executable file. Similarly, with the
SGID bit, the effective group ID is set to
the group of the executable file.
Linux supports fscaps, which can grant additional capabilities to a process in a finer-grained manner. Additional mechanisms can be provided by loadable security modules.
When such a trust transition has happened, the process runs in a potentially hostile environment. Additional care is necessary not to rely on any untrusted information. These concerns also apply to libraries which can be linked into such processes.
The following steps are required so that a program does not accidentally pick up untrusted data from environment variables.
Compile your C/C++ sources with
-D_GNU_SOURCE. The Autoconf macro
Check for the presence of the
secure_getenvfunction. The Autoconf directive
AC_CHECK_FUNCS([secure_getenv secure_getenv])performs these checks.
Arrange for a proper definition of the
secure_getenvfunction. See Obtaining a definition for
getenvto obtain the value of critical environment variables.
secure_getenvwill pretend the variable has not bee set if the process environment is not trusted.
Critical environment variables are debugging flags, configuration file locations, plug-in and log file locations, and anything else that might be used to bypass security restrictions or cause a privileged process to behave in an unexpected way.
secure_getenv function or the
__secure_getenv is available from GNU libc.
# ifdef HAVE__SECURE_GETENV
# define secure_getenv __secure_getenv
# error neither secure_getenv nor __secure_getenv are available
Background processes providing system services (daemons) need to decouple themselves from the controlling terminal and the parent process environment:
In the child process, call
setsid. The parent process can simply exit (using
_exit, to avoid running clean-up actions twice).
In the child process, fork again. Processing continues in the child process. Again, the parent process should just exit.
Replace the descriptors 0, 1, 2 with a descriptor for
/dev/null. Logging should be redirected to syslog.
Older instructions for creating daemon processes recommended a
umask(0). This is risky because it
often leads to world-writable files and directories, resulting
in security vulnerabilities such as arbitrary process
termination by untrusted local users, or log file truncation.
If the umask needs setting, a restrictive
value such as
Other aspects of the process environment may have to changed as well (environment variables, signal handler disposition).
It is increasingly common that server processes do not run as background processes, but as regular foreground process under a supervising master process (such as systemd). Server processes should offer a command line option which disables forking and replacement of the standard output and standard error streams. Such an option is also useful for debugging.
After process creation and option processing, it is up to the
child process to interpret the arguments. Arguments can be
file names, host names, or URLs, and many other things. URLs
can refer to the local network, some server on the Internet,
or to the local file system. Some applications even accept
arbitrary code in arguments (for example,
python with the
Similar concerns apply to environment variables, the contents of the current directory and its subdirectories.
Consequently, careful analysis is required if it is safe to pass untrusted data to another program.
A call to
fork which is not immediately
followed by a call to
execve (perhaps after
rearranging and closing file descriptors) is typically unsafe,
especially from a library which does not control the state of
the entire process. Such use of
should be replaced with proper child processes or threads.
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