security issues

Colin Watson cjwatson at
Tue Mar 14 12:29:41 UTC 2006

On Mon, Mar 13, 2006 at 06:04:20PM -0600, Lamp wrote:
> Why on God's green earth was the password ever written to a file in
> the first place?!?!??

It was obviously never meant to be; multiple defences against it being
written to disk failed simultaneously. Those of you who are assuming
that this was because of the equivalent of "fprintf(log, password);"
assume wrongly; we aren't quite *that* careless! It was significantly
more complicated than that.

Here's my explanation of the problem that I posted to and the
Ubuntu forums:


The Ubuntu installer (like Debian) uses a framework called debconf to do
all its user interaction; that framework has a backend database which
stores all the answers, which is where passwords ended up being stored
for this vulnerability. Naturally, when you're asking for passwords
using debconf, you take a lot of care to clean them out of the database
afterwards: we explicitly clear them out in the password-asking code
pretty much as soon as we can, and we have a separate database for the
answers to password questions which isn't copied to the directory of
installer log files in the final installed system. This had all been
working well for some time (e.g. in Hoary).

Unfortunately, the way we arranged for the password question to be asked
in the first stage of the Breezy installer meant that two debconf
databases were involved rather than one, and the passwords only got
cleared out of one of those databases. Even this would have been OK if
it weren't for the fact that some changes we needed to make in cdebconf
for other reasons in Breezy (I've yet to track down the exact changesets
involved, but never mind) broke the mechanism that was supposed to make
sure that passwords ended up in a separate database. Sigh.

As for why we didn't notice the problem in Breezy when this was fixed in
Dapper, well, that's because the fix in Dapper was part of a massive
installer reorganisation
and it was really just fixed by accident. So it goes.

Anyhow, I've fixed this just about as soon as was humanly possible for
me, and take it extremely seriously. While perhaps for some of you it's
too little too late, we'll do everything we can to install better
defences against this kind of thing in future.


In briefer terms, the "installer log" in question was a dump of database
contents; the password was never meant to be written to any database,
and if it was written it was meant to be to a different database which
would only exist in the installer ramdisk and which wouldn't end up on
the installed system. Both these defences failed due to problems that,
unfortunately, I'm pretty sure would have escaped code review; our chief
problem was simply that nobody thought to grep the system for the
password before release. That's a problem that's easy to criticise with
hindsight ...

The attached diff fixes the core of the problem, although some other
changes were necessary to fix a related problem with preseeded
passwords. More defences are of course being implemented; the database
dumps in question (although they are often necessary to debug installer
problems) will be readable by root only from now on.


Colin Watson                                       [cjwatson at]

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