Setuid Demystified

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Access control in Unix systems is mainly based on user IDs, yet the system calls that modify user IDs (uid-setting system calls), such as setuid, are poorly designed, insufficiently documented, and widely misunderstood and misused. This has caused many security vulnerabilities in application programs. We propose to make progress on the setuid mystery through two approaches. First, we study kernel sources and compare the semantics of the uid-setting system calls in three major Unix systems: Linux, Solaris, and FreeBSD. Second, we develop a formal model of user IDs as a Finite State Automaton (FSA) and develop new techniques for automatic construction of such models. We use the resulting FSA to uncover pitfalls in the Unix API of the uid-setting system calls, to identify differences in the semantics of these calls among various Unix systems, to detect inconsistency in the handling of user IDs within an OS kernel, and to check the proper usage of these calls in programs automatically.

Finally, we provide general guidelines on the proper usage of the uid-setting system calls, and we propose a high-level API that is more comprehensible, usable, and portable than the usual Unix API.

Download the paper in PDF format here.