Boot Access is Root Access

Ever accidentally lose the ability to become root on your own system?

Perhaps you accidentally changed root's shell to /bin/bish because of a

typo when adding that new user. Perhaps you simply forgot what you

changed the root password to since you always use sudo. (Sudo == good --

logging in as root == bad.) Or maybe when trying to remove that old

/etc.bak directory you hit a space instead of dot. Whoops.

When these mistakes happen, it's nice to know that you have options to

get on your machine as root to clean up your mess and I'll show you some

of them. When you see how easy they are, you may make the logical (and

disturbing realization) that even unauthorized folks can use these same

techniques to take over your machine.

All the methods I'm going to talk about here are possible if an attacker

has physical access to your machine. With physical access, the baddie

has some pretty impressive power. I usually just call this the 'Boot

access is Root access' effect.

When your Linux box boots, it generally goes through several stages.

First the BIOS [1] gives you a chance to hit F8, F5, or whatever other

fun key combo it likes to let you mess with things. It'll probably

initialize some hardware, and you'll get a nice text splash screen or

two. Eventually, you get to the Lilo prompt. [2]

Most likely you've never spent time at the Lilo (Linux loader) prompt,

since it will boot Linux automatically if you don't press a key right

away. However, this is your opportunity to tell Linux how it should

boot. Say your default kernel is called 'linux' in lilo.conf, but you

have an older kernel, say 2.2.15 named linux.old. All a malicious hacker

needs do at the console is type:


at the lilo prompt and the older kernel will boot.

Since 2.2.15 has several instant ways for a normal user to become root,

the attacker can simply log in (this assumes they have an account, or

method of obtaining one) and they'll have root access in seconds.

To prevent someone at the console from booting an alternate kernel you

have several options:

Comment out the Alternate Kernel Definitions from /etc/lilo.conf

The definition starts with 'image=' and goes until the next 'image='

line (or end of file). For example to make our linux.old kernel

unavailable, you'd find the kernel definition, which would look like






Comment these out by putting a '#' at the beginning of the line. When

you're done editing the file, run lilo to make the changes:

# lilo

Added linux *

Added openbsd


Make sure that you don't see 'linux.old' as one of the entries.

Whichever is marked with a '*' is the default kernel, the one that will

launch if you don't explicitly specify one.

Password Protect the Other Kernel Definitions

You simply add a 'password' line to the configuration, such as this:






When attempting to boot the linux.old kernel, lilo will require the

password you specify in lilo.conf. I only suggest you do this with old

kernels that could be useful at some time and which are hopefully not

known to have instant root bugs. All completely unneeded kernels should

be removed from lilo.conf, and from your hard drive for that matter.

Again, make sure to re-run lilo when finished.

Next Week: Single User Mode

[1] Yes, I'm being PC centric. Forgive me, fellow non-x86 users.

[2] Now I must apologize to all non-lilo users -- I can't win.

Other boot loaders have similar security precautions: RTFM.

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