Thoughts on password prompts and secure desktop environments

I’ve been thinking a little lately about desktop security – what makes a desktop system (with a graphical interface) secure or insecure? How is desktop security supposed to work, in particular on a unix-y system (Linux or one of the BSDs, for example)?

A quite common occurrence on today’s systems is to be prompted for your password—or perhaps for “an administrator” password—when you try, from the desktop environment, to perform some action that requires extended privileges; probably the most common example would be installing a new package, another is changing system configuration such as network settings. The two cases of asking for your own password or for another one are actually different in ways that might not initially be obvious. Let’s look at the first case: You have already logged in; your user credentials are supposedly established; why then is your password required?. There is an assumption that you are allowed to perform the requested action (otherwise your ability to enter your own password should make no difference). The only reason that I see for prompting for a password, then, is to ensure that:

  1. The user sitting in the seat is still the same user who logged in, i.e. it’s not the case that another individual has taken advantage of you forgetting to log out or lock the screen before you walked away; and
  2. The action is indeed being knowingly requested by the user, and not for instance by some rogue software running in the user’s session. By prompting for a password, the system is alerting the user to the fact that a privileged action has been requested.

Both of these are clearly in the category of mitigation—the password request is designed to limit the damage/further intrusion that can be performed by an already compromised account. But are they really effective? I’m not so sure about this, particularly with current solutions, and they may introduce other problems. In particular I find the problem of secure password entry problematic. Consider again:

  1. We ask the user to enter their password to perform certain actions
  2. We do this because we assume the account may be compromised

There’s an implicit assumption, then, that the user is able to enter their password and have it checked by some more privileged part of the system, without another process which is running as the same user being able to see the password (if they could see the password, they could enter it to accomplish the actions we are trying to prevent them from performing). This is only likely to be possible if the display system itself (eg the X server) is running as a different user* (though not necessarily as root), and that it provides facilities to enable secure input without another process eavesdropping, and that the program requesting the password is likewise also running as a separate user—otherwise, there’s little to stop a malicious actor from connecting to the relevant process with a debugger and observing all input. In that case, forcing the user to enter their password is (a) not necessarily going to prevent an attacker from performing the protected actions anyway, and, worse, (b) actually making it easier for an attacker to recover the users password by forcing them to enter it in contexts where it can be observed by other processes.

* Running as a different user is necessary since otherwise the process can be attached via ptrace, eg. a debugger. I’ll note at this point that more recent versions of Mac OS no longer arbitrary programs to ptrace another process; debugger executables must be signed with a certificate which gives them this privilege.

Compare this to the second case, where you must enter a separate password (eg the root password) to perform a certain action. The implicit assumption here is different: your user account doesn’t have permission to perform the action, and the allowance for entering a password is to cover the case where either (a) you actually are an administrator but are currently using an unprivileged account or (b) another, privileged, user is willing to supply their password to allow for a particular action to be invoked from your account on a one-off basis. The assumption that your account may be in the hands of a malicious actor is no longer necessary (although of course it may well still be the case).

So which is better? The first theoretically mitigates compromised user accounts, but if not done properly has little efficacy and in fact leads to potential password leakage, which is arguably an even worse outcome. The second at least has additional utility in that it can grant access to functions not available to the current user, but if used as a substitute for the first (i.e. if used routinely by a user to perform actions for which their account lacks suitable privileges) then it suffers the same problems, and is in fact worse since it potentially leaks an administrator password which isn’t tied to the compromised account.

Note that, given full compromise of an account, it would anyway be fairly trivial to pop up an authentication window in an attempt to trick the user into supplying their password. Full mitigation of this could be achieved by requiring the disciplined use a SaK (secure attention key) which has seemingly gone out of favour (the Linux SaK support would kill the X server when pressed, which makes it useless in this context anyway). Another possibility for mitigation would be to show the user a consistent secret image or phrase when prompting them for authentication, so they knew that the request came from the system; this would ideally be done in such a way that prevented other programs from grabbing the screen or otherwise recovering the image. Again, with X currently, I believe this may be difficult or impossible, but could be done in principle with an appropriate X extension or other modification of the X server.

To summarise, prompting the user for a password to perform certain actions only increases security if done carefully and with certain constraints. The user should be able to verify that a password request comes from the system, not an arbitrary process; additionally, no other process running with user privileges should be able to intercept password entry. Without meeting these constraints, prompting for a password accomplishes two things: First, it makes it more complex (but does not make it impossible, generally) for a compromised process to issue a command which the user has privilege but which is behind an ask-password barrier. Secondly, it prevents an opportunistic person, who already has physical access to the machine, from issuing such commands when the real user has left their machine unattended. These are perhaps good things to achieve (I’d argue the second is largely useless), but in this case they come with a cost: inconvenience to the user, who has to enter their password more often that would otherwise be necessary, and potentially making it easier for sophisticated attackers to obtain the user password (or worse, that of an administrator).

Given the above, I’m thinking that current Linux desktop systems which prompt for a password to initiate certain actions are actually doing the wrong thing.

Edit: I note that Linux distributions may disallow arbitrary ptrace, and also that ptrace can be disabled via prctl() (though this seems like it would be race-prone). It’s still not clear to me that asking for a password with X is secure; I guess that XGrabKeyboard is supposed to make it so. This still leaves the possibility of displaying a fake password entry dialog, though, and tricking the user into supplying their password that way.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on password prompts and secure desktop environments

  1. Hey, great insights!

    I find it annoying. So annoying that I will easily make an easy password to ease the pain of often typing it.
    Why not at least make the GUI like the sudo command – a timer will “lock” the user out of the privilege if the person don’t use it again.
    And why not connect the terminal “sudo-unlock” to the graphical on? So if say I start gparted(1) privileged and the issue a sudo-request within the time frame (or vice-versa) the system would not ask for the password?

    Why not have the option to disable these prompts, or do like Windows, just ask for an “OK” as admin, if one feels it’s worth loosing the hassle of constant password retyping? No one will do malicious things on say this particular home computing setup!

    I guess remote attacks is part of the reason, but then again if I have solid backup solutions and no worries please make it easy to be sloppy!

    Disclaimer:
    I don’t know what I implicate. This is from end-user (UX) experience.

    Regards,

    neb

  2. The “fake password keyboard entry dialog” problem could be solved with sufficient X server / Wayland compositor integration with the password dialog; every time you want to enter a password, first perform a key combination (Ctrl+Alt+P or something) to inform the computer that you think it is asking for a password; whichever responsible desktop process can then check that a valid password handling program has focus (and if not, throw up a big warning.)

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