Table of Contents
When a person (or a program) requests access to the system, authentication confirms the identity to be a trusted one.
Configuration errors of PAM may lock you out of your own system. You must have a rescue CD handy or setup an alternative boot partition. To recover, boot the system with them and correct things from there.
Normal Unix authentication is provided by the pam_unix(8) module under the PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules). Its 3 important configuration files, with "
:" separated entries, are the following.
Table 4.1. 3 important configuration files for pam_unix(8)
||(sanitized) user account information|
||secure user account information|
/etc/passwd" contains the following.
... user1:x:1000:1000:User1 Name,,,:/home/user1:/bin/bash user2:x:1001:1001:User2 Name,,,:/home/user2:/bin/bash ...
As explained in passwd(5), each "
:" separated entry of this file means the following.
Password specification entry
Numerical user ID
Numerical group ID
User name or comment field
User home directory
Optional user command interpreter
The second entry of "
/etc/passwd" was used for the encrypted password entry. After the introduction of "
/etc/shadow", this entry is used for the password specification entry.
Table 4.2. The second entry content of "
the encrypted password is in "
|*||no login for this account|
|!||no login for this account|
/etc/shadow" contains the following.
... user1:$1$Xop0FYH9$IfxyQwBe9b8tiyIkt2P4F/:13262:0:99999:7::: user2:$1$vXGZLVbS$ElyErNf/agUDsm1DehJMS/:13261:0:99999:7::: ...
As explained in shadow(5), each "
:" separated entry of this file means the following.
Encrypted password (The initial "
$1$" indicates use of the MD5 encryption. The "*" indicates no login.)
Date of the last password change, expressed as the number of days since Jan 1, 1970
Number of days the user will have to wait before she will be allowed to change her password again
Number of days after which the user will have to change her password
Number of days before a password is going to expire during which the user should be warned
Number of days after a password has expired during which the password should still be accepted
Date of expiration of the account, expressed as the number of days since Jan 1, 1970
/etc/group" contains the following.
As explained in group(5), each "
:" separated entry of this file means the following.
Encrypted password (not really used)
Numerical group ID
"," separated list of user names
The actual group membership of a user may be dynamically added if "
Here are few notable commands to manage account information.
Table 4.3. List of commands to manage account information
browse account information of "
browse shadowed account information of "
browse group information of "
||manage password for the account|
||set one-time password for the account activation|
||manage password aging information|
You may need to have the root privilege for some functions to work. See crypt(3) for the password and data encryption.
On the system set up with PAM and NSS as the Debian alioth machine, the content of local "
When creating an account during your system installation or with the passwd(1) command, you should choose a good password which consists of at least 6 to 8 characters including one or more characters from each of the following sets according to passwd(1).
Lower case alphabetics
Digits 0 through 9
Do not choose guessable words for the password. Account name, social security number, phone number, address, birthday, name of your family members or pets, dictionary words, simple sequence of characters such as "12345" or "qwerty", … are all bad choice for the password.
There are independent tools to generate encrypted passwords with salt.
Table 4.4. List of tools to generate password
Modern Unix-like systems such as the Debian system provide PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules) and NSS (Name Service Switch) mechanism to the local system administrator to configure his system. The role of these can be summarizes as the following.
PAM offers a flexible authentication mechanism used by the application software thus involves password data exchange.
NSS offers a flexible name service mechanism which is frequently used by the C standard library to obtain the user and group name for programs such as ls(1) and id(1).
These PAM and NSS systems need to be configured consistently.
The notable packages of PAM and NSS systems are the following.
Table 4.5. List of notable PAM and NSS systems
||V:830, I:999||828||Pluggable Authentication Modules (basic service)|
||V:11, I:28||205||Pluggable Authentication Module allowing LDAP interfaces|
||V:12, I:31||147||Pluggable Authentication Module to enable cracklib support|
||I:3||139||Pluggable Authentication Modules (documentation in html and text)|
||V:916, I:998||10164||GNU C Library: Shared libraries which also provides "Name Service Switch" service|
||I:24||2084||GNU C Library: Manpages|
||I:8||11389||GNU C Library: Reference manual in info, pdf and html format (non-free)|
||I:593||144||NSS module for Multicast DNS name resolution|
||I:26||230||NSS module for using LDAP as a naming service|
NSS module for using LDAP as a naming service (new fork of
"The Linux-PAM System Administrators' Guide" in
libpam-doc is essential for learning PAM configuration.
"System Databases and Name Service Switch" section in
glibc-doc-reference is essential for learning NSS configuration.
You can see more extensive and current list by "
PAM is the most basic way to initialize environment variables for each program with the system wide default value.
Here are a few notable configuration files accessed by PAM and NSS.
Table 4.6. List of configuration files accessed by PAM and NSS
set up PAM configuration for the "
||set up NSS configuration with the entry for each service. See nsswitch.conf(5)|
||limit the user login by the pam_nologin(8) module|
||limit the tty for the root access by the pam_securetty(8) module|
||set access limit by the pam_access(8) module|
||set group based restraint by the pam_group(8) module|
||set environment variables by the pam_env(8) module|
set additional environment variables by the pam_env(8) module with the "
set locale by pam_env(8) module with the "
||set resource restraint (ulimit, core, …) by the pam_linits(8) module|
||set time restraint by the pam_time(8) module|
The limitation of the password selection is implemented by the PAM modules, pam_unix(8) and pam_cracklib(8). They can be configured by their arguments.
PAM modules use suffix "
The modern centralized system management can be deployed using the centralized Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) server to administer many Unix-like and non-Unix-like systems on the network. The open source implementation of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol is OpenLDAP Software.
The LDAP server provides the account information through the use of PAM and NSS with
libnss-ldap packages for the Debian system. Several actions are required to enable this (I have not used this setup and the following is purely secondary information. Please read this in this context.).
You set up a centralized LDAP server by running a program such as the stand-alone LDAP daemon, slapd(8).
You change the PAM configuration files in the "
/etc/pam.d/" directory to use "
pam_ldap.so" instead of the default "
Debian uses "
/etc/pam_ldap.conf" as the configuration file for
libpam-ldap and "
/etc/pam_ldap.secret" as the file to store the password of the root.
You change the NSS configuration in the "
/etc/nsswitch.conf" file to use "
ldap" instead of the default ("
compat" or "
Debian uses "
/etc/libnss-ldap.conf" as the configuration file for
You must make
libpam-ldap to use SSL (or TLS) connection for the security of password.
You may make
libnss-ldap to use SSL (or TLS) connection to ensure integrity of data at the cost of the LDAP network overhead.
You should run nscd(8) locally to cache any LDAP search results in order to reduce the LDAP network traffic.
See documentations in pam_ldap.conf(5) and "
/usr/share/doc/libpam-doc/html/" offered by the
libpam-doc package and "
info libc 'Name Service Switch'" offered by the
Similarly, you can set up alternative centralized systems with other methods.
Integration of user and group with the Windows system.
Integration of user and group with the legacy Unix-like system.
This is the famous phrase at the bottom of the old "
info su" page by Richard M. Stallman. Not to worry: the current
su command in Debian uses PAM, so that one can restrict the ability to use
su to the
root group by enabling the line with "
pam_wheel.so" in "
libpam-cracklib package enables you to force stricter password rule, for example, by having active lines in "
/etc/pam.d/common-password" as the following.
password required pam_cracklib.so retry=3 minlen=9 difok=3 password [success=1 default=ignore] pam_unix.so use_authtok nullok md5 password requisite pam_deny.so password required pam_permit.so
sudo(8) is a program designed to allow a sysadmin to give limited root privileges to users and log root activity.
sudo requires only an ordinary user's password. Install
sudo package and activate it by setting options in "
/etc/sudoers". See configuration example at "
/usr/share/doc/sudo/examples/sudoers" and Section 1.1.12, “sudo configuration”.
My usage of
sudo for the single user system (see Section 1.1.12, “sudo configuration”) is aimed to protect myself from my own stupidity. Personally, I consider using
sudo a better alternative than using the system from the root account all the time. For example, the following changes the owner of "
<some_file>" to "
$ sudo chown <my_name> <some_file>
Of course if you know the root password (as self-installed Debian users do), any command can be run under root from any user's account using "
PolicyKit is an operating system component for controlling system-wide privileges in Unix-like operating systems.
Newer GUI applications are not designed to run as privileged processes. They talk to privileged processes via PolicyKit to perform administrative operations.
PolicyKit limits such operations to user accounts belonging to the
sudo group on the Debian system.
Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) is a framework to tighten privilege model tighter than the ordinary Unix-like security model with the mandatory access control (MAC) policies. The root power may be restricted under some conditions.
For system security, it is a good idea to disable as much server programs as possible. This becomes critical for network servers. Having unused servers, activated either directly as daemon or via super-server program, are considered security risks.
Many programs, such as sshd(8), use PAM based access control. There are many ways to restrict access to some server services.
configuration files: "
runlevel configuration for daemon
/etc/inetd.conf" for super-server
/etc/hosts.deny" and "
/etc/hosts.allow" for TCP wrapper, tcpd(8)
/etc/rpc.conf" for Sun RPC
/etc/at.allow" and "
/etc/at.deny" for atd(8)
/etc/cron.allow" and "
/etc/cron.deny" for crontab(1)
See Section 3.2.3, “The runlevel management example”, Section 3.2.4, “The default parameter for each init script”, Section 4.5.1, “Configuration files accessed by PAM and NSS”, Section 3.2.8, “Network service initialization”, and Section 5.9, “Netfilter infrastructure”.
If you have problems with remote access in a recent Debian system, comment out offending configuration such as "ALL: PARANOID" in "
The information here may not be sufficient for your security needs but it should be a good start.
Many popular transportation layer services communicate messages including password authentication in the plain text. It is very bad idea to transmit password in the plain text over the wild Internet where it can be intercepted. You can run these services over "Transport Layer Security" (TLS) or its predecessor, "Secure Sockets Layer" (SSL) to secure entire communication including password by the encryption.
Table 4.7. List of insecure and secure services and ports
|insecure service name||port||secure service name||port|
|smtp (mail)||25||ssmtp (smtps)||465|
The encryption costs CPU time. As a CPU friendly alternative, you can keep communication in plain text while securing just the password with the secure authentication protocol such as "Authenticated Post Office Protocol" (APOP) for POP and "Challenge-Response Authentication Mechanism MD5" (CRAM-MD5) for SMTP and IMAP. (For sending mail messages over the Internet to your mail server from your mail client, it is recently popular to use new message submission port 587 instead of traditional SMTP port 25 to avoid port 25 blocking by the network provider while authenticating yourself with CRAM-MD5.)
The Secure Shell (SSH) program provides secure encrypted communications between two untrusted hosts over an insecure network with the secure authentication. It consists of the OpenSSH client, ssh(1), and the OpenSSH daemon, sshd(8). This SSH can be used to tunnel an insecure protocol communication such as POP and X securely over the Internet with the port forwarding feature.
The client tries to authenticate itself using host-based authentication, public key authentication, challenge-response authentication, or password authentication. The use of public key authentication enables the remote password-less login. See Section 6.9, “The remote access server and utility (SSH)”.
Even when you run secure services such as Secure Shell (SSH) and Point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP) servers, there are still chances for the break-ins using brute force password guessing attack etc. from the Internet. Use of the firewall policy (see Section 5.9, “Netfilter infrastructure”) together with the following secure tools may improve the security situation.
Table 4.8. List of tools to provide extra security measures
||V:1, I:2||164||small port-knock daemon knockd(1) and client konck(1)|
||V:14, I:17||368||utility to help sysadmins thwart ssh hackers|
||V:64, I:73||402||ban IPs that cause multiple authentication errors|
||V:0, I:0||154||lock out remote attackers trying password guessing|
To prevent people to access your machine with root privilege, you need to make following actions.
Prevent physical access to the hard disk
Lock BIOS and prevent booting from the removable media
Set password for GRUB interactive session
Lock GRUB menu from editing
With physical access to hard disk, resetting the password is relatively easy with following steps.
Move the hard disk to a PC with CD bootable BIOS.
Boot system with a rescue media (Debian boot disk, Knoppix CD, GRUB CD, …).
Mount root partition with read/write access.
/etc/passwd" in the root partition and make the second entry for the
root account empty.
If you have edit access to the GRUB menu entry (see Section 3.1.2, “Stage 2: the boot loader”) for
grub-rescue-pc at boot time, it is even easier with following steps.
Boot system with the kernel parameter changed to something like "
root=/dev/hda6 rw init=/bin/sh".
/etc/passwd" and make the second entry for the
root account empty.
The root shell of the system is now accessible without password.
Once one has root shell access, he can access everything on the system and reset any passwords on the system. Further more, he may compromise password for all user accounts using brute force password cracking tools such as
The only reasonable software solution to avoid all these concerns is to use software encrypted root partition (or "
/etc" partition) using dm-crypt and initramfs (see Section 9.4, “Data encryption tips”). You always need password to boot the system, though.