No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux

October 2014

A week is a long time in Cyber Security.

These past few weeks you may have heard about the latest ‘big vulnerability’, dubbed ShellShock. If you haven’t, or want more information on it, I direct you to the best authority I know: Wikipedia.

You may have seen discussion threads like this one online, where one user posts a demonstration and states:

Shows an example of the bash exploit on an apache server. It even shows that SELinux was enforcing when the exploit happened.

Naturally, Dan Walsh has received a few questions about this. If you don’t know the name, his twitter profile gives all the introduction you need.

No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux - Daniel Walsh Twitter

Dan has put together an excellent detailed blog on what SELinux does for you in this situation. The fundamental thing to understand is this:

SELinux does not block the exploit but it would prevent escalation of confined domains.

At Nexor, we use SELinux to protect our High Assurance Guards. I have blogged about it previously, and here is the key quote about what SELinux is:

… it is a means to sandbox processes by limiting what they can access and what they can do. Take for example a webserver process running with administrator privileges. If a remote attacker takes control of this network-facing process, it can then use that process’s administrator rights to gain control of the entire server. SELinux mitigates this risk, by defining exactly what a webserver is allowed to do – regardless of what user privileges the process has. An attacker who gains control of the webserver cannot access any data or perform any action that a webserver would not normally be allowed to. The damage is limited to the process that was compromised.

This is perhaps best explained with some lovely pictures. Without SELinux, if your webserver’s apache daemon is compromised, your whole server is compromised:

No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux

With SELinux, your apache process is compromised, but it is restricted to only accessing the data an apache process should ever want to read:
No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux

So no, SELinux doesn’t prevent the attack gaining control of the webserver. But that’s not what SELinux is for. As Dan Walsh says in his blog:

… this is a horrible exploit but as you can see SELinux would probably have protected a lot/most of your valuable data on your machine. It would buy you time for you to patch your system.

So no. Shellshock does not defeat SELinux. And yes. SELinux is awesome.

Our Guards

In our High Assurance Guards, we use SELinux to ensure non-bypassability of the guarding process. In other words, data that comes in cannot go out until the guard has had a look at it. Let’s take a look at an example.

Our File Guardian is typically deployed in a scenario like this:

No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux

Files are sent between an Unclassified and a Classified network. The guard prevents secret documents escaping to the Unclassified network. The Unclassified network may be connected to the internet, and therefore may become infected with malware. Therefore, the guard ensures no malware spreads to the Classified network.

So let’s look at the path a file takes through the guard when a file goes from Unclassified to Classified.

No, Shellshock does not defeat SELinux

SELinux is used to ensure some very simple principles.

  1. The File Receiver can only read from the Unclassified interface and write to the Guard.
  2. The Guard can only read from the file receiver and write to the File Sender.
  3. The File Sender can only read from the Guard and write to the Classified interface.

Let’s assume the File Receiver in this case is the Samba daemon. Say some new zero-day attack on Samba is discovered. What could happen?

Yes, the attack may gain control of the Samba daemon. But then what? The only thing it can do is listen for new files coming in, and communicate out to the Guard. You can’t send data directly to the Classified network, SELinux forbids it. You could modify data in transit, but the only place you can send it is the Guard, which will catch it. Basically, you’re stuffed.

You do, of course, have to ensure the Guard is robust and that the communication between it and the File Receiver is secure – but that’s a topic for another blog.

For now, the point is this. Attacks like Shellshock do not defeat SELinux, in fact quite the contrary. SELinux does exactly what it is supposed to do. And your Nexor File Guardian keeps on guarding.


Author Bio – Colin Powers

Colin Powers is a Software Engineer at Nexor, a Cyber Champion for @YPNglobal and 3-time Cyber Challenge finalist.


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