How to Crash Systemd in One Tweet

How to Crash Systemd in One Tweet

The following command, when run as any user, will crash systemd:

NOTIFY_SOCKET=/run/systemd/notify systemd-notify “”

After running this command, PID 1 is hung in the pause system call. You can no longer start and stop daemons. inetd-style services no longer accept connections. You cannot cleanly reboot the system. The system feels generally unstable (e.g. ssh and su hang for 30 seconds since systemd is now integrated with the login system). All of this can be caused by a command that’s short enough to fit in a Tweet.

Edit (2016-09-28 21:34): Some people can only reproduce if they wrap the command in a while true loop. Yay non-determinism!

The bug is remarkably banal. The above systemd-notify command sends a zero-length message to the world-accessible UNIX domain socket located at /run/systemd/notify. PID 1 receives the message and fails an assertion that the message length is greater than zero. Despite the banality, the bug is serious, as it allows any local user to trivially perform a denial-of-service attack against a critical system component.

The immediate question raised by this bug is what kind of quality assurance process would allow such a simple bug to exist for over two years (it was introduced in systemd 209). Isn’t the empty string an obvious test case? One would hope that PID 1, the most important userspace process, would have better quality assurance than this. Unfortunately, it seems that crashes of PID 1 are not unusual, as a quick glance through the systemd commit log reveals commit messages such as:

  • coredump: turn off coredump collection only when PID 1 crashes, not when journald crashes
  • coredump: make sure to handle crashes of PID 1 and journald special
  • coredump: turn off coredump collection entirely after journald or PID 1 crashed

Systemd’s problems run far deeper than this one bug. Systemd is defective by design. Writing bug-free software is extremely difficult. Even good programmers would inevitably introduce bugs into a project of the scale and complexity of systemd. However, good programmers recognize the difficulty of writing bug-free software and understand the importance of designing software in a way that minimizes the likelihood of bugs or at least reduces their impact. The systemd developers understand none of this, opting to cram an enormous amount of unnecessary complexity into PID 1, which runs as root and is written in a memory-unsafe language.

Some degree of complexity is to be expected, as systemd provides a number of useful and compelling features (although they did not invent them; they were just the first to aggressively market them). Whether or not systemd has made the right trade-off between features and complexity is a matter of debate. What is not debatable is that systemd’s complexity does not belong in PID 1. As Rich Felker explained, the only job of PID 1 is to execute the real init system and reap zombies. Furthermore, the real init system, even when running as a non-PID 1 process, should be structured in a modular way such that a failure in one of the riskier components does not bring down the more critical components. For instance, a failure in the daemon management code should not prevent the system from being cleanly rebooted.

In particular, any code that accepts messages from untrustworthy sources like systemd-notify should run in a dedicated process as an unprivileged user. The unprivileged process parses and validates messages before passing them along to the privileged process. This is called privilege separation and has been a best practice in security-aware software for over a decade. Systemd, by contrast, does text parsing on messages from untrusted sources, in C, running as root in PID 1. If you think systemd doesn’t need privilege separation because it only parses messages from local users, keep in mind that in the Internet era, local attacks tend to acquire remote vectors. Consider Shellshock, or the presentation at this year’s systemd conference which is titled “Talking to systemd from a Web Browser.”

The Linux ecosystem has fallen behind other operating systems in writing secure and robust software. While Microsoft was hardening Windows and Apple was developing iOS, open source software became complacent. However, I see improvement on the horizon. Heartbleed and Shellshock were wake-up calls that have led to increased scrutiny of open source software. Go and Rust are compelling, safe languages for writing the type of systems software that has traditionally been written in C. Systemd is dangerous not only because it is introducing hundreds of thousands of lines of complex C code without any regard to longstanding security practices like privilege separation or fail-safe design, but because it is setting itself up to be irreplaceable. Systemd is far more than an init system: it is becoming a secondary operating system kernel, providing a log server, a device manager, a container manager, a login manager, a DHCP client, a DNS resolver, and an NTP client. These services are largely interdependent and provide non-standard interfaces for other applications to use. This makes any one component of systemd hard to replace, which will prevent more secure alternatives from gaining adoption in the future.

Consider systemd’s DNS resolver. DNS is a complicated, security-sensitive protocol. In August 2014, Lennart Poettering declared that “systemd-resolved is now a pretty complete caching DNS and LLMNR stub resolver.” In reality, systemd-resolved failed to implement any of the documented best practices to protect against DNS cache poisoning. It was vulnerable to Dan Kaminsky’s cache poisoning attack which was fixed in every other DNS server during a massive coordinated response in 2008 (and which had been fixed in djbdns in 1999). Although systemd doesn’t force you to use systemd-resolved, it exposes a non-standard interface over DBUS which they encourage applications to use instead of the standard DNS protocol over port 53. If applications follow this recommendation, it will become impossible to replace systemd-resolved with a more secure DNS resolver, unless that DNS resolver opts to emulate systemd’s non-standard DBUS API.

It is not too late to stop this. Although almost every Linux distribution now uses systemd for their init system, init was a soft target for systemd because the systems they replaced were so bad. That’s not true for the other services which systemd is trying to replace such as network management, DNS, and NTP. Systemd offers very few compelling features over existing implementations, but does carry a large amount of risk. If you’re a system administrator, resist the replacement of existing services and hold out for replacements that are more secure. If you’re an application developer, do not use systemd’s non-standard interfaces. There will be better alternatives in the future that are more secure than what we have now. But adopting them will only be possible if systemd has not destroyed the modularity and standards-compliance that make innovation possible.


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