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Home : Advisories : Vulnerabilities in KTH Kerberos IV

Title: Vulnerabilities in KTH Kerberos IV
Released by: Jouko Pynnönen
Date: 9th December 2000
Printable version: Click here

Kerberos is a network authentication protocol which by using

secret-key cryptography provides authentication over insecure networks.

There are at least two common free Kerberos implementations:

MIT and KTH (Royal Institute of Techology, Sweden). The latter is

included in OpenBSD and FreeBSD.

The KTH Kerberos IV implementation (http://www.pdc.kth.se/kth-krb/)

contains the following vulnerabilities:

    1) Honoring certain environment variables

    2) Buffer overflow in protocol parsing code

    3) File system race when writing ticket files

The vulnerabilities may lead to local and remote root compromise if

the system supports Kerberos authentication and uses the KTH

implementation (as is the case with e.g. OpenBSD per default). The

system needn't be specifically configured to use Kerberos for all of

the issues to be exploitable; some of the vulnerabilities are

exploitable even if Kerberos is disabled by commenting out the realm

name in the "krb.conf" file.

It should be noted that the MIT implementation of Kerberos is

probably NOT vulnerable for most of the problems discussed here;

however a quick glance at the MIT code reveals that the krb4

compatibility code of krb5 seems to honor "KRB_CONF" and "KRB_REALMS"

while running setuid (the package inspected was krb5-1.1.1-9.src.rpm on

a Red Hat Linux system, vulnerability wasn't further tested). The telnetd

versions used on most Linux systems don't pass the mentioned environment

variables to the login process.


1) Honoring certain environment variables

The variable "krb4_proxy" is used regardless of setuidness of the

process. A local user may set the variable to intercept the

authentication requests with their own proxy and generate false

replies. In conjunction with the buffer overflow (see below) this could

lead to root compromise. The variable is used when an authentication

request is being sent, thus to be exploitable with this environment

variable the system must be configured to use Kerberos.

The "krb4_proxy" variable can be imported through a telnet session to

fool the login process to proxy its authentication requests in the same

way. This is possible without having a local account on the system.

However it's unclear at this point (for me at least) whether exploiting

this without the buffer overflow is possible; the password check itself

can be bypassed, but the login program does an additional check to find

out if it's talking with a bogus server. The encryption key used for

this is contained in the local srvtab file. If this key can be

retrieved by the bogus proxy, or the verification request can be

validly proxied to the original server as normally, then it would be

possible to exploit this without the buffer overflow.

The environment variable "KRBCONFDIR" is used if the process isn't

running setuid. The variable can be brought in via a telnet session to

redefine the directory containing Kerberos configuration files. A

local user, or a remote user who is able to upload files on the system,

can supply their own configuration files (krb.conf, krb.extra,

krb.realms, srvtab) to be used by the login program, which at the

moment of authentication has both effective and real user id equal to

zero. It is thus possible to define an arbitrary Kerberos server which

may then tell the login program to accept the authentication. For this

issue to be exploitable, the system needn't be configured to use

Kerberos, or Kerberos may be disabled in the original configuration

file /etc/kerberosIV/krb.conf.

This scenario was successfully tested on an OpenBSD-2.7 system and a

Linux system with the latest kth-krb4 package compiled (no Linux

distributions as far as I know use the KTH Kerberos implementation).

Logins with any user with a valid shell defined were accepted when

using a password coded in the bogus server code. To get root access, a

login name such as nobody.root can be issued, as plain root logins

aren't usually accepted.

2) Buffer overflow in protocol parsing code

There is at least one easily producable buffer overflow in the Kerberos

library. When parsing an authentication reply from a Kerberos server

a memcpy() call without bound checking is done. This happens in

function kdc_reply_cipher(), end of file lib/krb/kdc_reply.c:

    p += krb_get_int(p, &clen, 2, little_endian);

    cip->length = clen;

    memcpy(cip->dat, p, clen);

    p += clen;

The code reads a 16-byte length value from the packet and without

further checking copies the amount of bytes to a fixed-sized buffer.

This causes a segmentation fault, but has turned out to be

not-so-trivial to exploit; writing over return address happens, but

setting the address isn't necessarily easy because there's a limit for

the maximal length of a reply that is read from the server

(MAX_KTXT_LEN, 1250 bytes). The length parameter itself contained by

the packet can be set to any value between 0 and 65535.

3) File system races

The Kerberos system stores ticket files in /tmp. When a privileged

process writes such a file, there exists a race condition which can be

used to overwrite arbitrary files with the ticket data. The ticket file

name is predictable and a user may create a symbolic link having the

same name. This was tested on an OpenBSD system.


OS vendors were notified 11/28 via a mailing list, and KTH Kerberos

team 12/01.

OpenBSD has published information about the vulnerabilities at


and a patch for the problem at


A patch fixing the buffer overflow problem by from Assar Westerlund


diff -u -w -u -w -r1.13 kdc_reply.c

--- kdc_reply.c 2000/05/15 00:15:26 1.13

+++ kdc_reply.c 2000/12/04 14:23:30

@@ -124,6 +124,9 @@

     p += krb_get_int(p, &exp_date, 4, little_endian);

     p++; /* master key version number */

     p += krb_get_int(p, &clen, 2, little_endian);

+    if (reply->length - (p - reply->dat) < clen)

+ return INTK_PROT;


     cip->length = clen;

     memcpy(cip->dat, p, clen);

     p += clen;

To check whether your login process is linked against the Kerberos

library issue the command

ldd /usr/bin/login

If "libkrb" is included in the library listing, then the program is

likely to have Kerberos code compiled in. In this case you should

consider recompiling it and possibly Kerberos-aware "su" or

"ksu", "rlogin", and "rsh" without Kerberos support, or upgrading


To test if your telnetd filters out the dangerous environment variables,

you can do this:

$ telnet

telnet> environ define KRBCONFDIR /tmp

telnet> environ export KRBCONFDIR

telnet> environ define krb4_proxy http://your.host:80

telnet> environ export krb4_proxy

telnet> open localhost

Then you can login with your username and password. If you now issue

the command

$ env | grep -i \^krb

you will see the currently defined environment variables concerning

Kerberos. If you get no output you are safe; if you see KRBCONFDIR or

krb4_proxy listed, then the telnetd of your system lets the Kerberos

environment variables through (assuming your login scripts don't set


You can check with file timestamps if arbitrary Kerberos configuration

files get read (in the above example, ls -lu /tmp/krb.conf shows the

time the file was last read, assuming you've created it first). For the

krb4_proxy exploitableness you can use "nc -l -p " or another

program to listen on a port and then check if the login program

connects to it while logging in with krb4_proxy defined to



Vulnerabilities discovered by:  Jouko Pynnonen 

Thanks to:                      Assar Westerlund + kth-krb team,

                                Hobbiton.org, Theo de Raadt

Greets to:                      Esa Etelavuori, cc-opers@IRCNet


Jouko Pynnonen           Online Solutions Ltd      Secure your Linux -

jouko@solutions.fi                                 http://www.secmod.com

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