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Linux kernel bug: DirtyCOW “easyroot” hole and what you need to know

No sooner had we written about long-lived Linux kernel bugs...and along comes an 11-year-old vulnerability that's easy to exploit.

Here comes what we’re calling a bus-scenario BWAIN.

DirtyCOW, as it’s been satirically dubbed, is a kernel bug in Linux that’s been around for at least 11 years and as good as allows any existing user to turn themselves into the all-powerful system administrator known in the Linux world as root.

To explain: a bus scenario is where you don’t hear much about a particular security topic for a while, and then it comes up twice in quick succession, like those proverbial buses that keep you waiting for ages and then arrive in a bunch.

A BWAIN is a Bug With An Impressive Name, an attention-grabbing trick started by the infamous Heartbleed vulnerabiity.

And COW is short for Copy On Write, a time-saving trick that most modern operating systems use so that when you copy something (a file, for example, or a block of memory), you don’t actually get a copy right away.

You just get carefully-regulated access to the original item, until someone changes it; only then does the copy really happen, because only then are there two distinct versions that need to diverge.

Of course, if there’s a glitch in the COW mechanism, and the copy doesn’t happen when it should, or happens when it shouldn’t, changes can be lost, or applied in the wrong place.

The DirtyCOW hole, known officially as CVE-2016-5195, is a glitch of the second sort: data gets written into the wrong memory location.

If you’re a techie, you may well be satisfied with this explanation:

A race condition was found in the way Linux kernel’s memory subsystem handled breakage of the read only private mappings COW situation on write access.

An unprivileged local user could use this flaw to gain write access to otherwise read only memory mappings and thus increase their privileges on the system.

The COW situation

We found the jargon “breakage of the COW situation” a touch confusing, so we decided to dig a bit further.

For better or worse, there’s a proof-of-concept (PoC) program already available that demonstrates the bug in action.

We used the PoC to learn if and how this vulnerability could be exploited; we found that it could, rather easily and very quickly. (We used a not-yet-patched 32-bit 4.4.19 Linux kernel, for what that’s worth.)

The PoC works roughly like this:

1. Map your own process memory into what’s known as a writeable private mapping.

COW, of course, means that you don’t actually get a copy right away.

Nevertheless, you can change this memory at will whenever you want, without affecting your own running program, because any modifications to a private map don’t “shine through” into the underlying process memory.

2. Map into memory a file to which you have read-only access.

In theory, COW ought to be irrelevant here: you don’t have write access to the file, so you don’t have write access to the memory map, so you shouldn’t be able to change it at all.

3. Fire up two parallel threads of execution.

One thread hammers away writing changes into the writeable private map; the other hammers away telling the kernel it can temporarily free up any memory used for the mapped file.

A race condition

Due to CVE-2016-5195, the two threads hammering away at the two memory maps will soon experience some sort of access collision – what’s known in the jargon as a race condition – and the data you’re trying to write into the private memory map will accidentally be dumped into the memory map of the read-only file instead.

Unfortunately, the main idea of a memory-mapped file is programmatic convenience: changes written into the memory map are immediately and automatically reflected in the actual file on disk.

Obviously, that’s not supposed to happen because you only have read access to the file’s memory map, and you have no privilege to write to the file itself.

The result is a security SNAFU: a regular user can permanently tamper with system files that would usually require a root login to modify.

That could include important configuration files like ssh_config, private cryptographic keys, or even system software such as the /bin/login program itself.

Ironically, perhaps, this bug was first addressed eleven years ago by Linus Torvalds himself, but the fix back then was removed because it caused problems on the IBM mainframe version of Linux.

What Linus describes as a merely “theoretical” bug back then has ended up perfectly practical today:

This is an ancient bug that was actually attempted to be fixed once (badly) by me eleven years ago […] but that was then undone due to problems on s390… [W]hat used a purely theoretical race back then has become easier to trigger.

What to do?

This bug doesn’t provide a way for an outsider to break into your system in the first place, so it’s not what we call a remote code execution (RCE) hole.

DirtyCOW is an EoP vulnerability, short for elevation of privilege.

Nevertheless, as we explained above, attackers who are already inside your network are likely to find this a handy way of extending their reach.

A patch is already available.

If you are an intrepid Linux user you can apply the patch yourself and rebuild your kernel.

If not, watch out for the next kernel update from your distro producer and apply it as soon as you can.


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something isn’t right… this flaw is exploitable from remote… that’s how it was discovered ;)

Phil Oester, the Linux security researcher who uncovered the flaw, explained to V3 that the exploit is easy to execute and will almost certainly become more widely used.

“The exploit in the wild is trivial to execute, never fails and has probably been around for years – the version I obtained was compiled with gcc 4.8,” he said.
Oester said that he uncovered the exploit for the bug, which has been around since 2007, while examining a server that appeared to have been attacked.

“One of the sites I manage was compromised, and an exploit of this issue was uploaded and executed. A few years ago I started packet capturing all inbound HTTP traffic and was able to extract the exploit and test it out in a sandbox,” he told V3.

“These rolling packet captures have proved invaluable numerous times. I would recommend this extra security measure to all admins.”


Hang on a minute. Oester says, as you quote:

One of the sites I manage was compromised, and an exploit of this issue was uploaded and executed.

The sequence seems quite clear to me: the site was compromised, giving the crooks the power to run *something*, and then the exploit was deliberately executed, thus giving the crooks the power to run *anything*. In other words, to execute this exploit, the crooks needed RCE powers first.


that’s one possible interpretation… he doesn’t say how the site was exploited and i can easily see a wordpress site being broken by uploading just this using one of those unvetted unsafe uploader scripts… if the web server is running as nobody:nobody and they got this exploit uploaded and running in the server’s context, then the server now had root:root and they could move onward and upward with other infiltration tasks… sure, it required that unvetted unsafe uploader script to be leveraged but it was the actual COW exploit that got them all the way in…


He says “the site was compromised” first, and then the use of this exploit followed. That’s my interpretation. If you got in due to an unsafe uploader script, then…errrr, that’s how you got in, wouldn’t you say :-)


ummm… yeah… remember, too, that there was a well known uploader script that saved files to a directory that was callable via URL… with the age of this defect and the discoverer’s statements as presented by the press, it seems that this is a possible vector that was used… there’s still a lot of room for clarity of his statements, though… the question is if he is willing to be more clear and/or forthcoming about his scenario…

my point being that this exploit can/could be leveraged from outside your network as i described above… upload the file, execute it by URL and off we go to root:root… that’s the reason why i wrote my initial reply pointing this aspect out… it doesn’t have to be a user in your network or on your server…


Tim Thumb, are you thinking of, if you’ve got WordPress in mind?


To me it is very clear that this exploit doesn’t allow you RCE in any way. If you don’t have unpriviliged access to a machine, this exploit will do nothing for you.


Actually the dirtycow looks like a type of cache implementation NOT an exploit. Maybe it was not fully a feature and it became an exploitable bug.


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