CTO, Benoit Hamelin
April 04, 2017

Detection of Privilege Elevation by Malware on Linux

One of the hallmarks of targeted cyber attacks is to seek, from an execution toehold on a host, to increase its computational privileges in order to assert greater control of the system. Once the attacker has attained this position, it may become tremendously difficult to detect them, especially if they act and persist through a kernel rootkit. Fortunately, the privilege elevation process tends to be noisy, and can be detected prior to succeeding, if one looks for the proper clues. This article presents detection heuristics for privilege elevation on Linux systems.

There are multiple ways for a program to seek privilege elevation, but they all are based on one simple principle: high privileges are granted by other high privilege programs. Such programs can be classified across two categories:

  1. the operating system kernel;
  2. highly privileged user-mode programs.

The signs of exploitation differ depending on whether the attacker is exploiting the kernel or a user-mode program. Let’s start with the latter.

Exploiting high-privilege user-mode programs

There are basically two categories of exploits at play here:

  1. forking off of a running highly privileged program;
  2. starting a highly privileged program from a lowly privileged program.

Case (B) is the easiest to monitor for malware detection. The typical scenario considered here is that the program just started was a set-UID or set-GID program. Any process under UNIX is running as a certain user and group, and its set of privileges derive from them. The usual privilege transfer protocol stipulates that the user and group of a process are inherited from the parent process that forks it off; the child process then executes a new program, which does not alter this set of privileges. However, set-UID and set-GID executables change this protocol: after the child process has been forked off, when it executes this program, the user (set-UID) or group (set-GID) it runs as becomes that which owns the program. Therefore, if the executable is owned by a user with a high level of privilege — typically the root user — the process runs with high privileges.

Many common UNIX programs, such as su and sudo, necessarily leverage this privilege transfer rule. However, many systems administrators tolerate other set-UID or set-GID programs in order to facilitate the execution or delegation of certain tasks. This is a dangerous vulnerability, especially if the set-UID/GID programs are relatively complex. Indeed, many hackers know how to supply parameter sets to such programs in order to trick them to run arbitrary shell commands.

Case (A) is quite a bit harder to monitor. In this case, the exploit consists of submitting specially crafted input to a highly privileged program so as to either take advantage of a design flaw, or to exploit a vulnerable bug. In both cases, the end result is that the attacker can trick the program into forking a process from which the exploit provides means to run a chosen program. The child process from the forking operation naturally inherits its parent’s high privileges. This case is harder to monitor, because many service daemons run with a high level of privilege, and naturally spawn off legitimate highly privileged child processes. A good example is the sshd daemon, which handles SSH connections to the machine: whenever the root user is permitted to log on the machine through SSH, sshd is legitimately able to fork off root-privileged interactive shells and commands.

In both cases, the solution for detecting malware activity is to raise an alert whenever a privileged process spawns off a child process with lower or equal privileges. We can consider privileged any process that runs with a UID smaller or equal to N: on many servers, N can be 0 (root); certain specialized Linux systems (e.g. Android) attribute important privileges to non-root users up to UID = 9999. This effectively captures any set-UID program execution (we whitelist the common legitimate set-UID programs su and sudo), as well as any privileged process spawned from a privileged daemon. We obviously advise IT administrators in customer organizations to minimize the number of uncommon set-UID programs and “root-spawns-root” processes (which result in false positive alerts). Our strategy of choice is to locally whitelist the latter processes that the customer insists on deploying on his servers.

Exploiting the operating system kernel

While many hacks leverage vulnerabilities of user-mode processes, others attack kernel bugs to get execution therein. Since user-mode processes are a much easier place to implement common computing tasks, such as TCP/IP communications, kernel exploits often look to raise the privileges of a shell (or other program) already being run by the attacker. In the Linux kernel, this is rather simple, as the address to the list of task structures is made public to all user mode processes. Once simply has to walk this list and set the user and group of the attacker’s shell to 0 (root).

However, such an exploit breaks an important rule of the lifecycle of processes: a process can set its own UID in order to lower its privileges, but never to raise them. By setting a process’ UID or GID to a lower value than it already had, the attacker poses an uncommon gesture that is easy to look for. In this case, SNOW keeps a running snapshot of all processes and the user and group each is running as. It updates this snapshot at randomized time intervals, and when it does, it compares with the previous snapshot: if any of them bears a lower UID than it did previously, this raises an alert. Since the lowering of a process’ UID is not a legitimate metadata shift, this detection heuristic generates no false positive alert.


In essence, looking for privilege elevation requires tracking two things on a system:

  1. the apparition of any child process with UID/GID <= N;
  2. the lowering of the UID/GID of any running process.

Heuristic #1 is the only of the two that can generate false positive alerts. Most of these may be eliminated through more security-conscious system configuration and administrative processes. The few instances that cannot be discarded are hence easily whitelisted, but should be clearly identified as known potential security holes.

A tale about the NSS Labs 2018 Endpoint Detection and…

We're talking about ways in order to elevate privileges on…

The increasing connectivity and openness of today‚Äôs information systems often…

Recording of the webinar right away! The webinar is recorded…

From a software quality perspective comes the idea to verify…

When actively monitoring endpoints to detect signs of cyber attacks,…