Another Backdoor to Root Access

In last week's article, I showed you how to enter single user mode at

the lilo prompt, ala:

lilo: linux single


lilo: linux 1

Both of those arguments tell init to boot into runlevel 1. If you have

sulogin set to run, then single user mode is only available if you know

the actual root password, which is a good thing. However, another method

exists for you to gain passwordless root access without using single

user mode at all.

Normally, the linux kernel will launch /sbin/init once it's finished

loading. init is responsible for starting all the programs appropriate

for your given runlevel based on the entries in the /etc/inittab file.

That's why init is always process #1 when you do a 'ps'. However, we can

tell the Linux kernel to run a different program instead of /sbin/init

by using the 'init=' option on the lilo command line:

lilo: linux init=/bin/bash

Now the kernel will launch /bin/bash as root. Viola! A root shell, no

questions asked. You could run anything you wanted, but /bin/bash is

probably the most convenient method.

When you boot Linux in this manner, you'll find that your disks are

mounted read-only[1]. Once you're at a shell though, fixing this is


# fsck /

# mount -orw,remount /

So you can see that enabling sulogin is not sufficient to prevent

someone at the console from getting a root shell; you must create

password restrictions for your kernel definitions to prevent anyone from

passing command-line arguments to the kernel. I showed you how to do

this last week, but let's recap.

Add 'restricted' and 'password' options to the relevant /etc/lilo.conf

kernel definition[2]:







Of course, don't forget to make the lilo.conf file unreadable by local


# chmod 600 /etc/lilo.conf

And now re-run lilo when you're done:

# lilo

If you're paranoid, then you can always make lilo.conf immutable

(unchangeable) with chattr[3]

# chattr +i /etc/lilo.conf

If you ever do need to make changes, then you'll need to turn off the

immutable bit first:

# chattr -i /etc/lilo.conf

# $EDITOR /etc/lilo.conf

# chattr +i /etc/lilo.conf

So, does this mean we're completely secure now? Nope, sadly not. Other

ways remain that provide root access to the machine, such as booting

from alternate devices like a floppy/CD[4] or just pulling out the disk

and mounting it on a different machine and accessing it there directly,

but we've covered the most direct and simple methods via our lilo



[1] You could have the kernel mount '/' read write by specifying:

lilo: linux rw init=/bin/bash

at the lilo prompt. However, I like to fsck the drive manually and

remount. Call me paranoid.

[2] Actually, you can use restricted or password in the global section

as well, not just in an image definition. However, I like having

different passwords for each image, so I don't put 'password' in the

global section. Restricted, on the other hand, is fine if you want

them all restricted.

[3] chattr only works on ext2/ext3 file systems.

[4] Most BIOS can disable or password-protect the ability to boot off

other devices. I leave that as an exercise for the reader so we can

get onto more interesting topics again next week.

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