ARCHIVED: What sorts of security concerns are there with the X Window System?
This document addresses security issues on the Indiana University Bloomington Computer Science Department Sun workstations. The general principles involved are applicable to most Unix installations of the X Window System.
Security of the X Window System
X is a wonderful, network-transparent windowing environment. However, the introduction of network accessibility introduces some new risks to the system. Fortunately, most of these risks are not too difficult to deal with.
Note: This information applies if you are using X on a workstation, such as one of the Ships or Burrow machines. Xterminals are somewhat different, and not covered here.)
X works by a server-client system; an X server process, which manages your display, is started up on your workstation, and numerous X clients (e.g., xterm, xclock, xbiff) attach to your X server and access your display. Since your server controls screen access, anybody who can connect to your X server with a client can access your display. The main security issue is controlling who can connect to your X server.
The default security mechanism is host-based access, via a program called xhost. Its description in the Xsecurity manual (which you should also read) states the following:
- Host Access
- Any client on a host in the host access control list is allowed access to the X server. This system can work reasonably well in an environment where everyone trusts everyone, or when only a single person can log into a given machine, and is easy to use when the list of hosts used is small. This system does not work well when multiple people can log into a single machine and mutual trust does not exist.
By default, the workstation you are using is the only host from which
connections are permitted. Many people add other machines to their
xhost list for convenience, such as
Steel, moose, etc. Some people add every
machine in the Ships lab to
their xhost list, or (worst of all) just use
which allows anybody from anywhere in the universe to access their X
Obviously, with the multiuser workstations we have here, anybody (with an account, legitimate or not) can log into your workstation and access your X server if you use xhost. Xhost stands for "X hanging open -- security terrible."
Why this is undesirable
Anyone who can access your X server could perpetuate harmless,
annoying, or quite damaging activity. A casual mischief-maker might
simply do a "meltdown" on your display. Others might accidentally open
an Emacs window on your display because they have something
incorrect in their configuration, such as putting
`hostname`:0 in the
.login file. Somebody might
xkill or even
xterminate to destroy
any (or all) of your windows. Somebody might use a utility called
XWatchWin to view the contents of any (or all) of your windows and see
everything you are doing. Somebody might even quietly attach to your
server and monitor all keyboard events, allowing a log to be made of
everything you type while in X, including passwords. You might not
even notice unless you specifically hunt for intrusions, and even so,
they're difficult to spot.
What you can do
There are a number of ways to secure an X server, described in
man Xsecurity. The mechanism described here
is called MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1. There are stronger means of securing
your server, but they are not sensible to use in the environment
Note: xdm is a display manager which isn't used here, so you may ignore those sections.
- When using MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1, the client sends a 128
bit "cookie" along with the connection setup information.
If the cookie presented by the client matches
one that the X server has, the connection is allowed
access. The cookie is chosen so that it is hard to
guess; xdm generates such cookies automatically when
this form of access control is used. The user's copy
of the cookie is usually stored in the .Xauthority file
in the home directory, although the environment
variable XAUTHORITY can be used to specify an alternate
location. Xdm automatically passes a cookie to the
server for each new login session, and stores the
cookie in the user file at login.
The cookie is transmitted on the network without encryption, so there is nothing to prevent a network snooper from obtaining the data and using it to gain access to the X server. This system is useful in an environment where many users are running applications on the same machine and want to avoid interference from each other, with the caveat that this control is only as good as the access control to the physical network. In environments where network-level snooping is difficult, this system can work reasonably well.
Thus, you have a 128 bit secret code, or cookie, which is stored in a
file normally called
xauth for more about managing this file.) There are a few
issues regarding its use, however, that remain.
There is a program called
/usr/bin/X11/newcookie, which will generate cookies for
the current host. UITS does not recommend it, because its
cookies are not very random, do not have enough significant bits, are
passed as arguments in command calls (snoopable via a lucky ps), and
most notably, are generated by a simple random number generator which
uses the current time as a seed. Thus, any potential cracker who can
figure out when the cookie was generated (by checking your login time,
or the modification time of the
.Xauthority file) can
narrow the seed value down to a few possibilities and try them. You
are more secure using xhost than you are using
/usr/bin/X11/newcookie as a cookie generator; I have a
(very short) algorithm which breaks cookies generated in this fashion.
There is another algorithm I have which uses the time in microseconds rather than seconds as a key; it is in /u/mvanheyn/bin/newcookie. I recommend it over the system newcookie. The key algorithm is a routine I hacked up called "cookiegen", in my bin directory (source is in my src directory). It's not a fantastic cookie generator, and a potential cracker might be able to narrow the search space down to "only" several million possibilities. There exist better cookie algorithms, like the one I use.
Normally, cookies are generated each time you log on; this allows them to change over time (so that somebody who steals your cookie somehow cannot use it next time) and allows the system to deal well with first logins (i.e. when you use a new workstation the first time.) You may want something in your .login along the lines of if ($TERM == sun) then /u/mvanheyn/bin/newcookie endif which should handle everything rather nicely. (Feel free to check my stuff for a model, though I probably don't use the same login shell you do.)
Passing your cookie around
Your cookie must be known by all the machines which will be accessing your display; if you run xbiff on a different machine (e.g., Steel), your cookie will need to be passed over there.
The simplest way to achieve this is with xrsh, which can handle
cookie-passing for you. Include near the top of your
Note: You also may wish to put
near the top of your
.xinitrc to ensure that xhost
protocol is off.
This will do two good things for you: it will get xrsh to do the right thing (copy your cookie to another system you try to use via xrsh) and stop xrsh from doing the wrong thing (by default, xrsh will assume xhost protocol, and start adding machines to your xhost list, making you insecure again. For security to work, your xhost list must be empty.)
(Note: xrsh still can do some moderately stupid
things with regard to passing cookies around; the above will work, but
.xinitrc file for a somewhat more efficient
method. In particular, xrsh doesn't check for exclusion on your
.Xauthority file, so if you have two xrsh processes
starting up simultaneously, it can screw up. This is probably only a
problem if you have multiple xrsh commands in your
.xinitrc. Xrsh also uses the <gagC shell to do
things, which generally makes life unpleasant.)
If you have occasion to need to pass your cookie around manually
rather than having xrsh do it, the cookie for the display foo:0
(normally just $DISPLAY) can be copied to the machine bar by the
xauth extract - foo:0 | rsh bar xauth merge -
Your clients will automatically consult the file
.Xauthority as long as your HOME environment variable is
set properly. You still, however, need to deal with:
Telling your X server to use your cookie
Create a file called
.xserverrc in your HOME; this file
will be executed to start your X server (so be sure to
.xserverrc). Here is mine (more or less), which I stole from
exec X -auth $HOME/.Xauthority
Supposedly, the -auth option also tells the X server that it should
not include any hosts, even the local one, in the xhost list. I don't
trust this, so I have
xhost - in my
How secure you are now
Nobody can now access your X server process as long as nobody can find
out your cookie. Obviously, the file
be unreadable, your cookie generation algorithm should be
unpredictable, and your xhost list should be empty. If somebody has
an illicit network connection then he could monitor it and capture
your cookie in transit, but illicit network connections could see the
cookie as NFS sends it from the machine where your HOME is
to your local workstation, so going to the DES-based
XDM-AUTHORIZATION-1 makes little sense. Also, if somebody has already
broken general security on the system (either your account or root),
this system won't make you secure, although screen manipulation should
be the least of your problems under such circumstances.
There still exist other layers to the system which are vulnerable to security breaks, but they are not as risky as the X layer. The fbtab file has been changed to secure configuration, so people can't circumvent your security by sneaking in at the framebuffer level or sabotage your session with things like clear_colormap or kbd_mode -a. The network layer might become insecure, in which case you may as well go home and give up on security (unless you really want to go to Sun's secure RPC setup for all transactions.) The human layer is still the biggest security problem though; don't choose a guessable password, don't have . as the first directory in your PATH (preferably don't have it at all), don't walk away from your workstation leaving yourself logged on... (although there is a method which lowers the risks from that; ask me about it.)
If you can't get magic cookies to work after all that, send me email and I might be able to help. Happy hunting, and remember, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you... :-)
by Marc VanHeyningen (email@example.com)
Last modified on November 01, 2008.