Privilege Escalation

Thus far, we have described ways that attackers can compromise a system due to lack of physical access controls on or surrounding a system. Instead of aiming only to prevent physical access to the machine or direct access to its drives, you must also consider how to safely allow semitrusted users some level of access to a machine, but not give them greater permissions than necessary.

Furthermore, you must try to prevent users from escalating their privileges themselves and gaining access to unintended resources. Having said that, Linux systems often require a user be able to elevate his or her own privileges from time to time, when executing certain commands. Sudo is a utility that grant granular access to commands that users can run with elevated permissions.


When using or administering a Linux box, you frequently need to switch back and forth between performing administrative-type tasks requiring enhanced permissions and regular-type tasks only needing basic user permissions. It would be ineffective to operate using a basic user account all of the time and unwise to do everything as root. Due to the restrictions placed on standard user accounts and the number of steps involved in switching back and forth between accounts, not to mention the irritation caused by the path changing every time, the tendency is to just log in to the system as the superuser and perform all the tasks from start to finish. This is very problematic.

When logged in as root, every action made, every process run, everything accomplished, operates with superuser permissions. If a command is mistyped and unintentionally gives instructions to overwrite a sensitive operating system file, it will be overwritten. If there is a GUI installation of Linux and users are surfing the Internet as root, malicious code will run in the web browser as root.

You can deal with this dilemma in several ways. Changing back and forth between the root account and a standard user account is one approach, but this is a hassle for numerous reasons. A better option is to use a utility like sudo to grant elevated permissions for the purpose of running a single command.

Sudo is an elegant utility that is perfect for infrequent administrative tasks that do not involve installing systemwide software programs. It ensures operating with elevated user permissions for a particular purpose using a single command. To use elevated permissions, type sudo at the command line and enter the password (the first time; the system remembers the password for a specified period thereafter).

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