Introduction (CVE-2019-5736)

Today, Monday, 2019-02-11, 14:00:00 CET CVE-2019-5736 was released:

The vulnerability allows a malicious container to (with minimal user interaction) overwrite the host runc binary and thus gain root-level code execution on the host. The level of user interaction is being able to run any command (it doesn’t matter if the command is not attacker-controlled) as root within a container in either of these contexts:

  • Creating a new container using an attacker-controlled image.
  • Attaching (docker exec) into an existing container which the attacker had previous write access to.

I’ve been working on a fix for this issue over the last couple of weeks together with Aleksa a friend of mine and maintainer of runC. When he notified me about the issue in runC we tried to come up with an exploit for LXC as well and though harder it is doable. I was interested in the issue for technical reasons and figuring out how to reliably fix it was quite fun (with a proper dose of pure hatred). It also caused me to finally write down some personal thoughts I had for a long time about how we are running containers.

What are Privileged Containers?

At a first glance this is a question that is probably trivial to anyone who has a decent low-level understanding of containers. Maybe even most users by now will know what a privileged container is. A first pass at defining it would be to say that a privileged container is a container that is owned by root. Looking closer this seems an insufficient definition. What about containers using user namespaces that are started as root? It seems we need to distinguish between what ids a container is running with. So we could say a privileged container is a container that is running as root. However, this is still wrong. Because “running as root” can either be seen as meaning “running as root as seen from the outside” or “running as root from the inside” where “outside” means “as seen from a task outside the container” and “inside” means “as seen from a task inside the container”.

What we really mean by a privileged container is a container where the semantics for id 0 are the same inside and outside of the container ceteris paribus. I say “ceteris paribus” because using LSMs, seccomp or any other security mechanism will not cause a change in the meaning of id 0 inside and outside the container. For example, a breakout caused by a bug in the runtime implementation will give you root access on the host.

An unprivileged container then simply is any container in which the semantics for id 0 inside the container are different from id 0 outside the container. For example, a breakout caused by a bug in the runtime implementation will not give you root access on the host by default. This should only be possible if the kernel’s user namespace implementation has a bug.

The reason why I like to define privileged containers this way is that it also lets us handle edge cases. Specifically, the case where a container is using a user namespace but a hole is punched into the idmapping at id 0 aka where id 0 is mapped through. Consider a container that uses the following idmappings:

id: 0 100000 100000

This instructs the kernel to setup the following mapping:

id: container_id(0) -> host_id(100000)
id: container_id(1) -> host_id(100001)
id: container_id(2) -> host_id(100002)

container_id(100000) -> host_id(200000)

With this mapping it’s evident that container_id(0) != host_id(0). But now consider the following mapping:

id: 0 0 1
id: 1 100001 99999

This instructs the kernel to setup the following mapping:

id: container_id(0) -> host_id(0)
id: container_id(1) -> host_id(100001)
id: container_id(2) -> host_id(100002)

container_id(99999) -> host_id(199999)

In contrast to the first example this has the consequence that container_id(0) == host_id(0). I would argue that any container that at least punches a hole for id 0 into its idmapping up to specifying an identity mapping is to be considered a privileged container.

As a sidenote, Docker containers run as privileged containers by default. There is usually some confusion where people think because they do not use the --privileged flag that Docker containers run unprivileged. This is wrong. What the --privileged flag does is to give you even more permissions by e.g. not dropping (specific or even any) capabilities. One could say that such containers are almost “super-privileged”.

The Trouble with Privileged Containers

The problem I see with privileged containers is essentially captured by LXC’s and LXD’s upstream security position which we have held since at least 2015 but probably even earlier. I’m quoting from our notes about privileged containers:

Privileged containers are defined as any container where the container uid 0 is mapped to the host’s uid 0. In such containers, protection of the host and prevention of escape is entirely done through Mandatory Access Control (apparmor, selinux), seccomp filters, dropping of capabilities and namespaces.

Those technologies combined will typically prevent any accidental damage of the host, where damage is defined as things like reconfiguring host hardware, reconfiguring the host kernel or accessing the host filesystem.

LXC upstream’s position is that those containers aren’t and cannot be root-safe.

They are still valuable in an environment where you are running trusted workloads or where no untrusted task is running as root in the container.

We are aware of a number of exploits which will let you escape such containers and get full root privileges on the host. Some of those exploits can be trivially blocked and so we do update our different policies once made aware of them. Some others aren’t blockable as they would require blocking so many core features that the average container would become completely unusable.


As privileged containers are considered unsafe, we typically will not consider new container escape exploits to be security issues worthy of a CVE and quick fix. We will however try to mitigate those issues so that accidental damage to the host is prevented.

LXC’s upstream position for a long time has been that privileged containers are not and cannot be root safe. For something to be considered root safe it should be safe to hand root access to third parties or tasks.

Running Untrusted Workloads in Privileged Containers

is insane. That’s about everything that this paragraph should contain. The fact that the semantics for id 0 inside and outside the container are identical entails that any meaningful container escape will have the attacker gain root on the host.

CVE-2019-5736 Is a Very Very Very Bad Privilege Escalation to Host Root

CVE-2019-5736 is an excellent illustration of such an attack. Think about it: a process running inside a privileged container can rather trivially corrupt the binary that is used to attach to the container. This allows an attacker to create a custom ELF binary on the host. That binary could do anything it wants:

  • could just be a binary that calls poweroff
  • could be a binary that spawns a root shell
  • could be a binary that kills other containers when called again to attach
  • could be suid cat
  • .
  • .
  • .

The attack vector is actually slightly worse for runC due to its architecture. Since runC exits after spawning the container it can also be attacked through a malicious container image. Which is super bad given that a lot of container workload workflows rely on downloading images from the web.

LXC cannot be attacked through a malicious image since the monitor process (a singleton per-container) never exits during the containers life cycle. Since the kernel does not allow modifications to running binaries it is not possible for the attacker to corrupt it. When the container is shutdown or killed the attacking task will be killed before it can do any harm. Only when the last process running inside the container has exited will the monitor itself exit. This has the consequence, that if you run privileged OCI containers via our oci template with LXC your are not vulnerable to malicious images. Only the vector through the attaching binary still applies.

The Lie that Privileged Containers can be safe

Aside from mostly working on the Kernel I’m also a maintainer of LXC and LXD alongside Stéphane Graber. We are responsible for LXC - the low-level container runtime - and LXD - the container management daemon using LXC. We have made a very conscious decision to consider privileged containers not root safe. Two main corollaries follow from this:

  1. Privileged containers should never be used to run untrusted workloads.
  2. Breakouts from privileged containers are not considered CVEs by our security policy. It still seems a common belief that if we all just try hard enough using privileged containers for untrusted workloads is safe. This is not a promise that can be made good upon. A privileged container is not a security boundary. The reason for this is simply what we looked at above: container_id(0) == host_id(0). It is therefore deeply troubling that this industry is happy to let users believe that they are safe and secure using privileged containers.

Unprivileged Containers as Default

As upstream for LXC and LXD we have been advocating the use of unprivileged containers by default for years. Way ahead before anyone else did. Our low-level library LXC has supported unprivileged containers since 2013 when user namespaces were merged into the kernel. With LXD we have taken it one step further and made unprivileged containers the default and privileged containers opt-in for that very matter: privileged containers aren’t safe. We even allow you to have per-container idmappings to make sure that not just each container is isolated from the host but also all containers from each other.

For years we have been advocating for unprivileged containers on conferences, in blogposts, and whenever we have spoken to people but somehow this whole industry has chosen to rely on privileged containers.

The good news is that we are seeing changes as people become more familiar with the perils of privileged containers. Let this recent CVE be another reminder that unprivileged containers need to be the default.

Are LXC and LXD affected?

I have seen this question asked all over the place so I guess I should add a section about this too:

  • Unprivileged LXC and LXD containers are not affected.

  • Any privileged LXC and LXD container running on a read-only rootfs is not affected.

  • Privileged LXC containers in the definition provided above are affected. Though the attack is more difficult than for runC. The reason for this is that the lxc-attach binary does not exit before the program in the container has finished executing. This means an attacker would need to open an O_PATH file descriptor to /proc/self/exe, fork() itself into the background and re-open the O_PATH file descriptor through /proc/self/fd/<O_PATH-nr> in a loop as O_WRONLY and keep trying to write to the binary until such time as lxc-attach exits. Before that it will not succeed since the kernel will not allow modification of a running binary.

  • Privileged LXD containers are only affected if the daemon is restarted other than for upgrade reasons. This should basically never happen. The LXD daemon never exits so any write will fail because the kernel does not allow modification of a running binary. If the LXD daemon is restarted because of an upgrade the binary will be swapped out and the file descriptor used for the attack will write to the old in-memory binary and not to the new binary.

Chromebooks with Crostini using LXD are not affected

Chromebooks use LXD as their default container runtime are not affected. First of all, all binaries reside on a read-only filesystem and second, LXD does not allow running privileged containers on Chromebooks through the LXD_UNPRIVILEGED_ONLY flag. For more details see this link.

Fixing CVE-2019-5736

To prevent this attack, LXC has been patched to create a temporary copy of the calling binary itself when it attaches to containers (cf. 6400238d08cdf1ca20d49bafb85f4e224348bf9d). To do this LXC can be instructed to create an anonymous, in-memory file using the memfd_create() system call and to copy itself into the temporary in-memory file, which is then sealed to prevent further modifications. LXC then executes this sealed, in-memory file instead of the original on-disk binary. Any compromising write operations from a privileged container to the host LXC binary will then write to the temporary in-memory binary and not to the host binary on-disk, preserving the integrity of the host LXC binary. Also as the temporary, in-memory LXC binary is sealed, writes to this will also fail. To not break downstream users of the shared library this is opt-in by setting LXC_MEMFD_REXEC in the environment. For our lxc-attach binary which is the only attack vector this is now done by default.

Workloads that place the LXC binaries on a read-only filesystem or prevent running privileged containers can disable this feature by passing --disable-memfd-rexec during the configure stage when compiling LXC.