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developerWorks: Minimizing Privileges

May 25, 2004, 06:00 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by David A. Wheeler)

On March 3rd, 2003, Internet Security Systems warned of a serious vulnerability in Sendmail. All electronic mail is transferred using a mail transfer agent (MTA), and Sendmail is the most popular MTA, so this warning affected many organizations worldwide. The problem was that an e-mail message with a carefully-crafted 'from,' 'to,' or 'cc' field could give the sender complete (root) control over any machine running Sendmail as it's commonly configured. Even worse, typical firewalls would not protect interior machines from this attack.

"The immediate cause of the vulnerability was that one of Sendmail's security checks was flawed, permitting a buffer overflow. But a significant contributing factor is that Sendmail is often installed as a monolithic 'setuid root' program, with complete control over the system it runs on. Thus, any flaw in Sendmail can give an attacker immediate control over the entire system.

"Is this design necessary? No; a popular competing MTA is Wietse Venema's Postfix. Postfix, like Sendmail, does a number of security checks, but Postfix is also designed as a set of modules that minimize privilege. As a result, Postfix is generally accepted as a more secure program than Sendmail. This article discusses how to minimize privileges, so you can apply the same ideas to your programs..."

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