Martin Meredith wrote a blog post about logging in as root and the people who so strongly advocate against it . The question is whether you should ssh directly to the root account on a remote server or whether you should ssh to a non-root account and use sudo or su to gain administrative privileges.
Does sudo/su make your system more secure?
Some years ago the administrator of a SE Linux Play Machine used the same home directory for play users to login as for administrative logins as for his own logins – he used newrole to gain administrative access (like su or sudo but for SE Linux).
His machine was owned by one of his friends who created a shell function named newrole in one of his login scripts that used netcat to send the administrative password out over the net. He didn’t immediately realise that this was a problem until his friend changed the password and locked him out! This is one example of a system being 0wned due to having the double-authentication – of course if he had logged in directly with administrative privs while using the same home directory that the attacker could write to then he would still have lost but the attacker would have had to do a little more work.
When you login you have lots of shell scripts run on your behalf which have the ability to totally control your environment, if someone has taken over those scripts then they can control everything you see, when you think you run sudo or something they can get the password. When you ssh in to a server your security relies on the security of the client end-point, the encryption of the ssh protocol (including keeping all keys secure to prevent MITM attacks), and the integrity of all the programs that are executed before you have control of the remote system.
One benefit for using sshd to spawn a session without full privileges is in the case where you fear an exploit against sshd and are running SE Linux or some other security system that goes way beyond Unix permissions. It is possible to configure SE Linux in the “strict” configuration to deny administrative rights to any shell that is launched directly by the sshd. Therefore someone who cracks sshd could only wait until an administrator logs in and runs newrole and they wouldn’t be able to immediately take over the system. If the sysadmin suspected that a sshd compromise is possible then a sysadmin could login through some other method (maybe visit the server and login at the console) to upgrade the sshd. This is however a very unusual scenario and I suspect that most people who advocate using sudo exclusively don’t use a SE Linux strict configuration.
Does su/sudo improve auditing?
If you have multiple people with root access to one system it can be difficult to determine who did what. If you force everyone to use su or sudo then you will have a record of which Unix account was used to start the root session. Of course if multiple people start root shells via su and leave them running then it can be difficult to determine which of the people who had such shells running made the mistake – but at least that reduces the list of suspects.
If you put “PermitUserEnvironment yes” in /etc/ssh/sshd_config then you have the option of setting environment variables by ssh authorized_keys entries, so you could have an entry such as the following:
environment=”ORIG_USERemail@example.com” ssh-rsa AAAAB3Nz[...]/w== firstname.lastname@example.org
Then you could have the .bashrc file (or a similar file for your favorite shell) have code such as the following to log the relevant data to syslogd:
if [ "$SSH_TTY" = "" ]; then
logger -p auth.info "user $ORIG_USER ran command \"$BASH_EXECUTION_STRING\" as root"
logger -p auth.info "user $ORIG_USER logged in as root on tty $(tty)"
I think that forcing the use of su or sudo might improve the ability to track other sysadmins if the system is not well configured. But it seems obvious that the same level of tracking can be implemented in other ways with a small amount of effort. It took me about 30 minutes to devise the above shell code and configuration options, it should take people who read this blog post about 5 minutes to implement it (or maybe 10 minutes if they use a different shell or have some other combination of Bash configuration that results in non-obvious use of initialisation scripts (EG if you have a .bash_profile file then .bashrc may not be executed).
Once you have the above infrastructure for logging root login sessions it wouldn’t be difficult to run a little script that asks the sysadmin “what is the purpose for your root login” and logs what they type. If several sysadmins are logged in at the same time and one of them describes the purpose of their login as “to reconfigure LDAP” then you know who to talk to if your LDAP server stops working!
Should you run commands with minimum privilege?
It’s generally regarded that running each command with the minimum privilege is a good idea. But if the only reason you login to a server is to do root tasks (restarting daemons, writing to files that are owned by root, etc) then there really isn’t a lot of potential for achieving anything by doing so. If you need to use a client for a particular service (EG a web browser to test the functionality of a web server or proxy server) then you can login to a different account for that purpose – the typical sysadmin desktop has a dozen xterms open at once, using one for root access to do the work and another for non-root access to do the testing is probably a good option.
Can root be used for local access?
Linux Journal has an article about the distribution that used to be known as Lindows (later Linspire) which used root as the default login for desktop use . It suggests using a non-root account because “If someone can trick you into running a program or if a virus somehow runs while you are logged in, that program then has the ability to do anything at all” – of course someone could trick you into running a program or virus that attempts to run sudo (to see if you enabled it without password checks) and if that doesn’t work waits until you run sudo and sniffs the password (using pty interception or X event sniffing). The article does correctly note that you can easily accidentally damage your system as root. Given that the skills of typical Linux desktop users are significantly less than those of typical system administrators it seems reasonable to assume that certain risks of mistake which are significant for desktop users aren’t a big deal with skilled sysadmins.
I think that it was a bad decision by the Lindows people to use root for everything due to the risk of errors. If you make a mistake on a desktop system as non-root then if your home directory was backed up recently and you use IMAP or caching IMAP for email access then you probably won’t lose much of note. But if you make a serious mistake as root then the minimum damage is being forced to do a complete reinstall, which is time consuming and annoying even if you have the installation media handy and your Internet connection has enough quota for the month to complete the process.
Finally there are some services that seek out people who use the root account for desktop use. Debian has some support channels on IRC  and I decided to use the root account from my SE Linux Play Machine  to see how they go. #debian has banned strings matching root. #linpeople didn’t like me because “Deopped you on channel #linpeople because it is registered with channel services“. #linuxhelp and #help let me in, but nothing seemed to be happening in those channels. Last time I tried this experiment I had a minor debate with someone who repeated a mantra about not using root and didn’t show any interest in reading my explanation of why root:user_r:user_t is safe for IRC.
I can’t imagine that good the #debian people expect to gain from denying people the ability to access that channel with an IRC client that reports itself to be running as root. Doing so precludes the possibility of educating them if you think that they are doing something wrong (such as running a distribution like Lindows/Linspire).
I routinely ssh directly to servers as root. I’ve been doing so for as long as ssh has been around and I used to telnet to systems as root before that. Logging in to a server as root without encryption is in most cases a really bad idea, but before ssh was invented it was the only option that was available.
For the vast majority of server deployments I think that there is no good reason to avoid sshing directly as root.