Dirty Cow: The latest Linux Kernel Privilege-Escalation Vulnerability

News & Technical Blog

‘Dirty Cow’ may sound humorous and far strung from the world of IT Systems Security, but the truth couldn’t be more different. Gaining its name from a play on the acronym crafted from the Linux Kernel mechanism ‘Copy On Write’, Dirty Cow is the latest in a seemingly never-ending timeline of Linux Kernel exploits.

The theory is relatively simple, a malicious application will set up a race condition in order to be able to effectively modify a root owned file (executable or otherwise) when mapped into the personal memory space of a non-privileged user. These changes are then committed to storage by the Kernel.. Not ideal. TheRegister.co.uk explained the process perfectly:

The exploit works by racing Linux’s CoW mechanism. First, you have to open a root-owned executable as read-only and mmap() it to memory as a private mapping. The executable is now mapped into your process space. The executable has to be readable by the process’s user to do this.

Meanwhile, you repeatedly call madvise() on that mapping with MADV_DONTNEED set, which tells the kernel you don’t actually intend to use the memory.

Then in another thread within the same process, you open /proc/self/mem with read-write access. This is a special file that allows a process to access its own virtual memory as if it was a file. Using normal seek and write operations, you then repeatedly overwrite part of your own memory that’s mapped to the root-owned executable. The overwrite shouldn’t affect the executable on disk.

So now, your process has the read-only binary mapped in as a private read-only object, one thread is spamming madvise() on that read-only object, and another thread is writing to that read-only object. Writing to that memory object should trigger a CoW: the touched page of the executable will be altered only in the process’s memory – not the actual underlying root-owned file that’s mapped in.

However, due to the aforementioned bug, the kernel performs the CoW operation but then allows the process to write to the read-only mapped executable anyway. These changes are committed to disk by the kernel, which is bad news.

Whilst this exploit technically isn’t new (it’s been present in Kernel versions dating back to 2007), it has rocketed its priority and significance due to public acknowledgement in major bug trackers. Fully working code releases that make (malicious) use of this exploit are now circulating in infosec communities, ripe for misuse. Thankfully, most major distributions have already released patches to resolve the bug.

RedHat – https://access.redhat.com/security/cve/cve-2016-5195
Debian – https://security-tracker.debian.org/tracker/CVE-2016-5195
Ubuntu – https://people.canonical.com/~ubuntu-security/cve/2016/CVE-2016-5195.html

Linux Kernel creator and (still) key developer, Linus Torvalds, summarised the fix in his own release last week:

This is an ancient bug that was actually attempted to be fixed once (badly) by me eleven years ago in commit 4ceb5db9757a (“Fix get_user_pages() race for write access”) but that was then undone due to problems on s390 by commit f33ea7f404e5 (“fix get_user_pages bug”). In the meantime, the s390 situation has long been fixed, and we can now fix it by checking the pte_dirty() bit properly (and do it better).

Read the full release here

By on October 25th, 2016