Defeating expensive lockdowns with cheap shellscripts

Recently, I was given the opportunity to work with an embedded Linux OS that was locked down to prevent unauthorized access. I was able to obtain a shell fairly quickly, but then I ran into a number of security mechanisms. Fortunately, I found creative ways to overcome each of them.

Here's the list of the biggest problems I encountered, in the order that I overcame them:

  • The user account couldn't 'ls' most folders due to lack of privileges
  • Process management tools (like ps) didn't work (thanks to the missing 'ls')
  • The user account could only write to designated areas, in spite of file permissions
  • Architecture was PowerPC, which I have no experience with
  • netstat, ifconfig, arp, and other tools were disabled

I can't talk about how I actually obtained a shell, unfortunately, because the nature of the device would be too obvious. But I will say this: despite all their lockdowns, they accidentally left netcat installed. Oops :)

If you've been in similar situations and found some other tricks, I'd like to hear about them!

Implementing ls

Unfortunately, I was only able to obtain user access, not root. Despite permissions to the contrary, I couldn't run 'ls' against any system folders:

$ cd /
$ ls
/bin/ls: cannot open directory .: Permission denied
$ cd /bin
$ ls
/bin/ls: cannot open directory .: Permission denied
$ find /
$ find .

And so on. I could, however, run ls on /home/user, /tmp, and subfolders thereof.

As a side effect, I couldn't run the 'ps' command because it didn't have permission to read /proc:

$ ps
Error: can not access /proc.

But I'll get to that later.

After struggling a little, I was happy to discover that the 'which' command was enabled!

$ which ls
$ which ps

Great luck! I wrote a script on my personal laptop that would find every executable:

# find / -perm /0111 -type f |       # Find all executable files
  grep -v '^/home'           |       # Remove files stored on /home
  grep -v '\.so$'            |       # Remove libraries
  grep -v '\.a$'             |       # Remove libraries
  grep -v '\.so\.'           |       # Remove libraries
  sed 's|^.*/||'                     # Remove the path

And redirected the output from this script to a file. Then, I uploaded the file to the device using netcat and, after adding the sbin folders to the $PATH, I ran the following command:

$ export PATH=/sbin:/usr/sbin:/usr/local/sbin:$PATH
$ cat my-programs.txt | xargs which | sort | uniq > installed-programs.txt

Which returned a list that looked like:

$ head installed-programs.txt

And finally, if you want more information:

$ cat installed-programs.txt | xargs ls -l > installed-programs-full.txt

Which, of course, gives you this type of output:

$ head installed-programs-full
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        2896 2008-03-31 16:56 /bin/arch
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        7696 2008-04-07 00:42 /bin/bzip2recover
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root       52800 2007-04-07 12:04 /bin/cpio
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        4504 2008-03-31 16:56 /bin/dmesg
-rwsr-xr-x 1 root   root       19836 2008-03-07 19:52 /bin/fusermount
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        9148 2008-03-31 23:10 /bin/hostname
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        3580 2008-03-31 23:10 /bin/ipmask
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root        8480 2008-03-31 16:56 /bin/kill
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root       14424 2006-12-19 18:07 /bin/killall
-rwxr-xr-x 1 root   root       44692 2008-03-24 15:11 /bin/login

Success! Now I have a pretty good idea of which programs are installed. I could collect samples from a wider variety of machines than just my laptop, potentially turning up more interesting applications, but I found that just the output from a single Linux system was actually a good enough sample to work with.

Remember, with the full 'ls -l' output, keep your eye out for 's' in the permissions. ;)

Implementing ps

As I mentioned earlier, the ps command fails spectacularly when you can't ls folders:

$ ps
Error: can not access /proc.

The first thing I tried was an experimental 'cat', which worked nicely:

$ cat /proc/1/status
Name:   init
State:  S (sleeping)

Which tells me that the /proc filesystem is there, and that I have access to their accounting information. The only reason I can't list them is because 'ls /proc' (or the equivalent thereof) is failing. An investigation also told me that /proc/cpuinfo and /proc/meminfo also exist, which were helpful. So, I threw together a quick script to bruteforce the list:

for i in `seq 1 100000`; do    # Take the first 100,000 PIDs 
                               #(experimentally determined)
  if [ -f /proc/$i/status ]; then   # Check if the status file exists
    CMDLINE=`cat /proc/$i/cmdline | # Read the commandline
              sed 's/|//g' |        # Remove any pipes (will break things)
              sed "s/\x00/ /g"`;    # Replace null with space
    cat /proc/$i/status |           # Get the process details
      grep 'Name:'      |           # We only want the name
      cut -b7-          |           # Remove the prefix "Name:  "
      sed "s|$| ($CMDLINE)|";       # Add the commandline to the end

The output for this will look like:

init (init [3]        )
kthreadd ()
udevd (/sbin/udevd --daemon )
syslogd (/usr/sbin/syslogd )
klogd (/usr/sbin/klogd -c 3 -x )

So now I have a pretty good list of the running processes. Win!

Another option would be to write a patch for procps that implements a bruteforce listing, but that was beyond what I really wanted to do.

Writing to protected areas

This one, I want to be careful with. The reason is, I don't understand what was happening, or why.

In any case, in spite of permissions, I couldn't write to most folders, including /home/user. How they locked it down, I don't know, but I can't touch, cat, grep, etc them.

After some poking, though, I discovered that I could rm files and read/write them using redirection. So, oddly, it would look like this:

$ touch test
touch: cannot touch `test': Permission denied
$ echo "TEST DATA" > test
$ cat test
cat: test: Permission denied
$ cat < test
$ mv test test2
mv: cannot move `test' to `test2': Permission denied
$ cat < test > test2
$ rm test

That's all I can really say about that one. This bug let me write to some sensitive folders and modify settings I shouldn't have been able to.


The architecture of this device turned out to be PowerPC, which presented an interesting challenge. I've never done any cross compilation before, and I didn't even know where to start. So, I was going to skip it altogether.

Then, this past weekend, my friend brought over a device called WD HD Live. After installing Linux on it, I discovered that, like our old friend WRT54g, it had a MIPS core. So I took a couple hours out and learned how to cross compile for MIPS.

By Monday, I knew everything one or two things about cross compiliation, and was ready to get started! I downloaded Hobbit's Netcat from Debian and compiled it with the crosstool commands (note: I have *no* idea whether or not this is the right way to cross compile; all I know is, it worked :) ):

$ export PATH=/opt/crosstool/gcc-4.1.0-glibc-2.3.6/powerpc-860-linux-gnu/powerpc-860-linux-gnu/bin:$PATH
$ wget
$ wget
$ tar -xvvzf netcat_1.10.orig.tar.gz
$ gunzip -v netcat_1.10-38.diff.gz
$ patch -p0 < netcat_1.10-38.diff
$ patch -p0 < netcat-1.10.orig/debian/patches/glibc-resolv-h.patch
$ cd netcat-1.10.orig
$ make linux CC=gcc

I successfully copied the new netcat to the device and ran it, to prove that the cross compile worked.

Obviously, using netcat to copy netcat to the device makes very little sense. But the point was to prove that cross compilation works, not that I could do something interesting with it.

No networking tools

Finally, I was dismayed to find out that netstat, ifconfig, arp, and others all returned a "Permission denied" error when I tried to run them. How am I supposed to figure out the system state without them?

Fortunately, none of them require setuid to run, so I downloaded the latest net-tools package, compiled it with the PowerPC toolchain, uploaded them with netcat, and tried them out:

$ ./netstat-ron -an
Active Internet connections (servers and established)
Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address           Foreign Address         State
tcp        0      0    *               LISTEN
tcp        0      0     TIME_WAIT
tcp        0      0     ESTABLISHED
tcp        0      0     ESTABLISHED
tcp        0      0     ESTABLISHED
tcp        0      0     ESTABLISHED
$ ./ifconfig-ron lo
lo        Link encap:Local Loopback
          inet addr:  Mask:
          inet6 addr: ::1/128 Scope:Host
          UP LOOPBACK RUNNING  MTU:16436  Metric:1
          RX packets:1285090 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:1285090 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:0
          RX bytes:130762797 (124.7 MiB)  TX bytes:130762797 (124.7 MiB)
$ ./arp-ron
Address                  HWtype  HWaddress           Flags Mask            Iface            ether   00:0C:29:7E:21:63   C                     eth0          ether   00:50:56:C0:00:00   C                     eth0          ether   00:0C:29:42:B7:1B   C                     eth0



So, I managed to overcome the lockdown on the embedded device. Once I had shell I could do pretty anything I could normally do, in spite of the attempted lockdown. Therefore, I concluded that, in its current state, the lockdown was nearly useless.

I plan to work with the vendor, of course, to help them resolve these issues.

Now, your turn! Have you ever had to use makeshift tools on a locked down system? Any interesting stories?

9 thoughts on “Defeating expensive lockdowns with cheap shellscripts

  1. Reply

    Patrik Karlsson

    echo * - may serve as a cheap ls sometimes.

    1. Reply

      Ron Bowes Post author

      Yeah, unfortunately it wouldn't work in this case. It wasn't the actual ls program that was denying me, but any tool that tried to list directory contents. They were smart enough to put it at a deeper level.

  2. Reply


    Did you try using your own compiled bash? I'm curious if they actually locked it down in the kernel or if they just hacked up the shell...

    1. Reply

      Ron Bowes Post author

      That's a good question, I didn't try my own bash. But there are other programs that can normally get file listings installed that also fail, so I suspect it's at a lower level.

  3. Reply


    Its a linux kernel, so either glibc or uclibc, in any case they are tied to the gpl, so they have to publish the sourcecode to create a firmware, including the odd modifications to disable opendir().

    Thats what I'd ask the vendor to fix, the gpl violation.

  4. Reply

    Daniel Austin Hoherd

    I had a little bit of a hard time following your sudden use of `ls -l`, but realized that it worked because of an absolute file location, not a directory.

    When I've gone into embedded systems like this before, I usually do `find / > filenames.txt` and then grep that as a replacement for locate or ls.

    Speaking of find, don't you think that if the lockdown was an opendir() disablement then `find` wouldn't have worked either? It sounds to me like this was running a modified version of busybox with some additional tools like netcat that aren't built into the busybox binary.

    At least your vendor is willing to work with you, when I found things like this at a previous employer they didn't care one bit.

    1. Reply

      Ron Bowes Post author

      @Daniel - Thanks for the comments!

      They used some type of a loaded library that prevented 'ls', 'find', and even custom programs I wrote from working. Somebody pointed out to me, after I posted this, that I could set an environmental variable (LD_LOADPATH or something similar?) to the blank string, and suddenly I had full access to 'ls', 'find', and even write files to folders that I previously couldn't. Win!

  5. Reply


    Probably LD_LIBRARY_PATH which controls where the system looks for the dynamically linked libraries (or is it statically). The non-restricted libraries were probably installed in the default location, whereas the restrictive libraries in a special place, and the shell you got set LD_LIBRARY_PATH to use those instead of the defaults.

    Very cool!

  6. Reply


    Thats what I’d ask the vendor to fix, the gpl violation.

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