Escalating Privileges in Ubuntu 20.04 from User Account

Ubuntu 20.04 is an incredibly popular operating system, perhaps the most popular among the Linux distributions due to its ease-of-use. In general, it’s a fairly trustworthy operating system too, especially since its source code is open. However, an update with the 20.04 revision has led to security researcher [Kevin Backhouse] finding a surprisingly easy way to escalate privileges on this OS, which we would like to note is not great.

The exploit involves two bugs, one in accountservice daemon which handles user accounts on the computer, and another in the GNOME Display Manager which handles the login screen. Ubuntu 20.04 added some code to the daemon which looks at a specific file on the computer, and with a simple symlink, it can be tricked into reading a different file which locks the process into an infinite loop. The daemon also drops its privileges at one point in this process, a normal security precaution, but this allows the user to crash the daemon.

The second bug for this exploit involves how the GNOME Display Manager (gdm3) handles privileges. Normally it would not have administrator privileges, but if the accountservice daemon isn’t running it escalates itself to administrator, where any changes made have administrator privileges. This provides an attacker with an opportunity to create a new user account with administrator privileges.

Of course, this being Ubuntu, we can assume that this vulnerability will be immediately patched. It’s also a good time to point out that the reason that open-source software is inherently more secure is that when anyone can see the source code, anyone can find and report issues like this which allow the software maintainer (or even the user themselves) to make effective changes more quickly.