10.4. Shell Scripting Languages (sh and csh Derivatives)

I strongly recommend against using standard command shell scripting languages (such as csh, sh, and bash) for setuid/setgid secure code. Some systems (such as Linux) completely disable setuid/setgid shell scripts, so creating setuid/setgid shell scripts creates an unnecessary portability problem. On some old systems they are fundamentally insecure due to a race condition (as discussed in Section 3.1.3). Even for other systems, they're not really a good idea.

In fact, there are a vast number of circumstances where shell scripting languages shouldn't be used at all for secure programs. Standard command shells are notorious for being affected by nonobvious inputs - generally because command shells were designed to try to do things ``automatically'' for an interactive user, not to defend against a determined attacker. Shell programs are fine for programs that don't need to be secure (e.g., they run at the same privilege as the unprivileged user and don't accept ``untrusted'' data). They can also be useful when they're running with privilege, as long as all the input (e.g., files, directories, command line, environment, etc.) are all from trusted users - which is why they're often used quite successfully in startup/shutdown scripts.

Writing secure shell programs in the presence of malicious input is harder than in many other languages because of all the things that shells are affected by. For example, ``hidden'' environment variables (e.g., the ENV, BASH_ENV, and IFS values) can affect how they operate or even execute arbitrary user-defined code before the script can even execute. Even things like filenames of the executable or directory contents can affect execution. If an attacker can create filenames containing some control characters (e.g., newline), or whitespace, or shell metacharacters, or begin with a dash (the option flag syntax), there are often ways to exploit them. For example, on many Bourne shell implementations, doing the following will grant root access (thanks to NCSA for describing this exploit):
 % ln -s /usr/bin/setuid-shell /tmp/-x
 % cd /tmp
 % -x
Some systems may have closed this hole, but the point still stands: most command shells aren't intended for writing secure setuid/setgid programs. For programming purposes, avoid creating setuid shell scripts, even on those systems that permit them. Instead, write a small program in another language to clean up the environment, then have it call other executables (some of which might be shell scripts).

If you still insist on using shell scripting languages, at least put the script in a directory where it cannot be moved or changed. Set PATH and IFS to known values very early in your script; indeed, the environment should be cleaned before the script is called. Also, very early on, ``cd'' to a safe directory. Use data only from directories that is controlled by trusted users, e.g., /etc, so that attackers can't insert maliciously-named files into those directories. Be sure to quote every filename passed on a command line, e.g., use "$1" not $1, because filenames with whitespace will be split. Call commands using "--" to disable additional options where you can, because attackers may create or pass filenames beginning with dash in the hope of tricking the program into processing it as an option. Be especially careful of filenames embedding other characters (e.g., newlines and other control characters). Examine input filenames especially carefully and be very restrictive on what filenames are permitted.

If you don't mind limiting your program to only work with GNU tools (or if you detect and optionally use the GNU tools instead when they are available), you might want to use NIL characters as the filename terminator instead of newlines. By using NIL characters, rather than whitespace or newlines, handling nasty filenames (e.g., those with embedded newlines) is much simpler. Several GNU tools that output or input filenames can use this format instead of the more common ``one filename per line'' format. Unfortunately, the name of this option isn't consistent between tools; for many tools the name of this option is ``--null'' or ``-0''. GNU programs xargs and cpio allow using either --null or -0, tar uses --null, find uses -print0, grep uses either --null or -Z, and sort uses either -z or --zero-terminated. Those who find this inconsistency particularly disturbing are invited to supply patches to the GNU authors; I would suggest making sure every program supported ``--null'' since that seems to be the most common option name. For example, here's one way to move files to a target directory, even if there may be a vast number of files and some may have awkward names with embedded newlines (thanks to Jim Dennis for reminding me of this):
 find . -print0 | xargs --null mv --target-dir=$TARG

In a similar vein, I recommend not trusting ``restricted shells'' to implement secure policies. Restricted shells are shells that intentionally prevent users from performing a large set of activities - their goal is to force users to only run a small set of programs. A restricted shell can be useful as a defense-in-depth measure, but restricted shells are notoriously hard to configure correctly and as configured are often subvertable. For example, some restricted shells will start by running some file in an unrestricted mode (e.g., ``.profile'') - if a user can change this file, they can force execution of that code. A restricted shell should be set up to only run a few programs, but if any of those programs have ``shell escapes'' to let users run more programs, attackers can use those shell escapes to escape the restricted shell. Even if the programs don't have shell escapes, it's quite likely that the various programs can be used together (along with the shell's capabilities) to escape the restrictions. Of course, if you don't set the PATH of a restricted shell (and allow any program to run), then an attacker can use the shell escapes of many programs (including text editors, mailers, etc.). The problem is that the purpose of a shell is to run other programs, but those other programs may allow unintended operations -- and the shell doesn't interpose itself to prevent these operations.