systemd for Administrators, Part XII

Post Syndicated from Lennart Poettering original

Here’s the twelfth installment

my ongoing series

Securing Your Services

One of the core features of Unix systems is the idea of privilege separation
between the different components of the OS. Many system services run under
their own user IDs thus limiting what they can do, and hence the impact they
may have on the OS in case they get exploited.

This kind of privilege separation only provides very basic protection
however, since in general system services run this way can still do at least as
much as a normal local users, though not as much as root. For security purposes
it is however very interesting to even further what services can do, and
shut them off a couple of things that normal users are allowed to do.

A great way to limit the impact of services is by employing MAC technologies
such as SELinux. If you are interested to secure down your server,
SELinux is a very good idea. systemd enables developers and administrators to
apply additional restrictions to local services independently of a MAC. Thus,
regardless whether you are able to make use of SELinux you may still enforce
certain security limits on your services.

In this iteration of the series we want to focus on a couple of these
security features of systemd and how to make use of them in your services.
These features take advantage of a couple of Linux-specific technologies that have
been available in the for a long time, but never have been exposed in a
widely usable fashion. These systemd features have been designed to be as easy to use
as possible, in order to make them attractive to administrators and upstream

  • Isolating services from the network
  • Service-private /tmp
  • Making directories appear read-only or inaccessible to services
  • Taking away capabilities from services
  • Disallowing forking, limiting file creation for services
  • Controlling device node access of services

All options described here are documented in systemd’s man pages, notably systemd.exec(5).
Please consult these man pages for further details.

All these options are available on all systemd systems, regardless if
SELinux or any other MAC is enabled, or not.

All these options are relatively cheap, so if in doubt use them. Even if you
might think that your service doesn’t write to /tmp and hence enabling
PrivateTmp=yes (as described below) might not be necessary, due to
today’s complex software it’s still beneficial to enable this feature, simply
because libraries you link to (and plug-ins to those libraries) which you do
not control might need temporary files after all. Example: you never know what
kind of NSS module your local installation has enabled, and what that NSS module
does with /tmp.

These options are hopefully interesting both for administrators to secure
their local systems, and for upstream developers to ship their services secure
by default. We strongly encourage upstream developers to consider using these
options by default in their upstream service units. They are very easy to make
use of and have major benefits for security.

Isolating Services from the Network

A very simple but powerful configuration option you may use in systemd
service definitions is PrivateNetwork=:


With this simple switch a service and all the processes it consists of are
entirely disconnected from any kind of networking. Network interfaces became
unavailable to the processes, the only one they’ll see is the loopback device
“lo”, but it is isolated from the real host loopback. This is a very powerful
protection from network attacks.

Caveat: Some services require the network to be operational. Of
course, nobody would consider using PrivateNetwork=yes on a
network-facing service such as Apache. However even for non-network-facing
services network support might be necessary and not always obvious. Example: if
the local system is configured for an LDAP-based user database doing glibc name
lookups with calls such as getpwnam() might end up resulting in network access.
That said, even in those it is more often than not OK to use
PrivateNetwork=yes since user IDs of system service users are required to
be resolvable even without any network around. That means as long as the only
user IDs your service needs to resolve are below the magic 1000 boundary using
PrivateNetwork=yes should be OK.

Internally, this feature makes use of network namespaces of the kernel. If
enabled a new network namespace is opened and only the loopback device
configured in it.

Service-Private /tmp

Another very simple but powerful configuration switch is


If enabled this option will ensure that the /tmp directory the
service will see is private and isolated from the host system’s /tmp.
/tmp traditionally has been a shared space for all local services and
users. Over the years it has been a major source of security problems for a
multitude of services. Symlink attacks and DoS vulnerabilities due to guessable
/tmp temporary files are common. By isolating the service’s
/tmp from the rest of the host, such vulnerabilities become moot.

For Fedora 17 a feature has
been accepted
in order to enable this option across a large number of

Caveat: Some services actually misuse /tmp as a location
for IPC sockets and other communication primitives, even though this is almost
always a vulnerability (simply because if you use it for communication you need
guessable names, and guessable names make your code vulnerable to DoS and symlink
attacks) and /run is the much safer replacement for this, simply
because it is not a location writable to unprivileged processes. For example,
X11 places it’s communication sockets below /tmp (which is actually
secure — though still not ideal — in this exception since it does so in a
safe subdirectory which is created at early boot.) Services which need to
communicate via such communication primitives in /tmp are no
candidates for PrivateTmp=. Thankfully these days only very few
services misusing /tmp like this remain.

Internally, this feature makes use of file system namespaces of the kernel.
If enabled a new file system namespace is opened inheritng most of the host
hierarchy with the exception of /tmp.

Making Directories Appear Read-Only or Inaccessible to Services

With the ReadOnlyDirectories= and InaccessibleDirectories=
options it is possible to make the specified directories inaccessible for
resp. both reading and to the service:


With these two configuration lines the whole tree below /home
becomes inaccessible to the service (i.e. the directory will appear empty and
with 000 access mode), and the tree below /var becomes read-only.

Caveat: Note that ReadOnlyDirectories= currently is not
recursively applied to submounts of the specified directories (i.e. mounts below
/var in the example above stay writable). This is likely to get fixed

Internally, this is also implemented based on file system namspaces.

Taking Away Capabilities From Services

Another very powerful security option in systemd is
CapabilityBoundingSet= which allows to limit in a relatively fine
grained fashion which kernel capabilities a service started retains:

CapabilityBoundingSet=CAP_CHOWN CAP_KILL

In the example above only the CAP_CHOWN and CAP_KILL capabilities are
retained by the service, and the service and any processes it might create have
no chance to ever acquire any other capabilities again, not even via setuid
binaries. The list of currently defined capabilities is available in capabilities(7).
Unfortunately some of the defined capabilities are overly generic (such as
CAP_SYS_ADMIN), however they are still a very useful tool, in particular for
services that otherwise run with full root privileges.

To identify precisely which capabilities are necessary for a service to run
cleanly is not always easy and requires a bit of testing. To simplify this
process a bit, it is possible to blacklist certain capabilities that are
definitely not needed instead of whitelisting all that might be needed. Example: the
CAP_SYS_PTRACE is a particularly powerful and security relevant capability
needed for the implementation of debuggers, since it allows introspecting and
manipulating any local process on the system. A service like Apache obviously
has no business in being a debugger for other processes, hence it is safe to
remove the capability from it:


The ~ character the value assignment here is prefixed with inverts
the meaning of the option: instead of listing all capabalities the service
will retain you may list the ones it will not retain.

Caveat: Some services might react confused if certain capabilities are
made unavailable to them. Thus when determining the right set of capabilities
to keep around you need to do this carefully, and it might be a good idea to talk
to the upstream maintainers since they should know best which operations a
service might need to run successfully.

Caveat 2: Capabilities are
not a magic wand.
You probably want to combine them and use them in
conjunction with other security options in order to make them truly useful.

To easily check which processes on your system retain which capabilities use
the pscap tool from the libcap-ng-utils package.

Making use of systemd’s CapabilityBoundingSet= option is often a
simple, discoverable and cheap replacement for patching all system daemons
individually to control the capability bounding set on their own.

Disallowing Forking, Limiting File Creation for Services

Resource Limits may be used to apply certain security limits on services
being run. Primarily, resource limits are useful for resource control (as the
name suggests…) not so much access control. However, two of them can be
useful to disable certain OS features: RLIMIT_NPROC and RLIMIT_FSIZE may be
used to disable forking and disable writing of any files with a size >


Note that this will work only if the service in question drops privileges
and runs under a (non-root) user ID of its own or drops the CAP_SYS_RESOURCE
capability, for example via CapabilityBoundingSet= as discussed above.
Without that a process could simply increase the resource limit again thus
voiding any effect.

Caveat: LimitFSIZE= is pretty brutal. If the service
attempts to write a file with a size > 0, it will immeidately be killed with
the SIGXFSZ which unless caught terminates the process. Also, creating files
with size 0 is still allowed, even if this option is used.

For more information on these and other resource limits, see setrlimit(2).

Controlling Device Node Access of Services

Devices nodes are an important interface to the kernel and its drivers.
Since drivers tend to get much less testing and security checking than the core
kernel they often are a major entry point for security hacks. systemd allows
you to control access to devices individually for each service:

DeviceAllow=/dev/null rw

This will limit access to /dev/null and only this device node,
disallowing access to any other device nodes.

The feature is implemented on top of the devices cgroup controller.


Besides the easy to use options above there are a number of other security
relevant options available. However they usually require a bit of preparation
in the service itself and hence are probably primarily useful for upstream
developers. These options are RootDirectory= (to set up
chroot() environments for a service) as well as User= and
Group= to drop privileges to the specified user and group. These
options are particularly useful to greatly simplify writing daemons, where all
the complexities of securely dropping privileges can be left to systemd, and
kept out of the daemons themselves.

If you are wondering why these options are not enabled by default: some of
them simply break seamntics of traditional Unix, and to maintain compatibility
we cannot enable them by default. e.g. since traditional Unix enforced that
/tmp was a shared namespace, and processes could use it for IPC we
cannot just go and turn that off globally, just because /tmp‘s role in
IPC is now replaced by /run.

And that’s it for now. If you are working on unit files for upstream or in
your distribution, please consider using one or more of the options listed
above. If you service is secure by default by taking advantage of these options
this will help not only your users but also make the Internet a safer