Securing Applications on Linux with PAM

The basic concepts of PAM (Pluggable Authentication Module), developing a PAM-enabled application, a PAM authentication module and writing the PAM configuration file.
Securing Applications on Linux with PAM

The basic concepts of PAM (Pluggable Authentication Module), developing a PAM-enabled application and writing the PAM configuration file.

by Savio Fernandes and KLM Reddy

Authentication is a mechanism that verifies whether an entity is who it claims to be. On a Linux system, applications, such as su, passwd or login, are used to authenticate users before they are given access to the system's resources.

On almost all Linux distributions, user information is stored in /etc/passwd. This is a text file that contains the user's login, the encrypted password, a unique numerical user ID (called the uid), a numerical group ID (called the gid), an optional comment field (usually containing such items as the user's real name, phone number, etc.), the home directory and the preferred shell. A typical entry in /etc/passwd looks something like this:


In reality, though, if you look at your /etc/passwd, it's likely that you actually see something like this:

Where did the encrypted password go?

The /etc/passwd file is readable by all users, making it possible for any user to get the encrypted passwords of everyone on the system. Though the passwords are encrypted, password-cracking programs are widely available. To combat this growing security threat, shadow passwords were developed.

When a system has shadow passwords enabled, the password field in /etc/passwd is replaced by an “x”, and the user's real encrypted password is stored in /etc/shadow. Because /etc/shadow is only readable by the root user, malicious users cannot crack their fellow users' passwords. Each entry in /etc/shadow contains the user's login, their encrypted password and a number of fields relating to password expiration. A typical entry looks like this:


In the initial days of Linux, when an application needed to authenticate a user, it simply would read the necessary information from /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow. If it needed to change the user's password, it simply would edit /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow.

This method, though simple, is a bit clumsy and presents numerous problems for system administrators and application developers. Each application requiring user authentication has to know how to get the proper information when dealing with a number of different authentication schemes. Thus the development of the privilege-granting application software is linked tightly to the authentication scheme. Also, as new authentication schemes emerge, the old ones become obsolete. In other words, if a system administrator wants to change the authentication scheme, the entire application must be recompiled.

To overcome these shortcomings, we need to come up with a flexible architecture that separates the development of privilege-granting software from the development of secure and appropriate authentication schemes. The Linux Pluggable Authentication Module (PAM) is such an architecture, and it successfully eliminates the tight coupling between the authentication scheme and the application.

From the perspective of the application programmer, PAM takes care of this authentication task and verifies the identity of the user. From the perspective of the system administrator, there is the freedom to stipulate which authentication scheme is used for any PAM-aware application on a Linux system.

Figure 1. The PAM Ecosystem

Figure 1 shows the four major components of the PAM Ecosystem. The first component is the PAM Library, which provides the necessary interface and functions required for developing PAM-aware applications and modules.

Second is the PAM-Enabled Application, an application that provides some service. It also may need to authenticate the user before granting service. To perform the authentication step, the application interfaces with the Linux-PAM library and invokes whatever authentication services it requires. The application knows none of the specifics of the configured authentication method. The application is required to provide a “conversation” function, which allows the loaded authentication module to communicate directly with the application and vice versa.

The Pluggable Authentication Module is the third component and is a binary that provides support for some (arbitrary) authentication method. When loaded, modules can communicate directly with the application, through the application-provided “conversation” function. Textual information, required from (or offered to) the user, can be exchanged through the use of the application-supplied “conversation” function.

The final component is the PAM Configuration File. It is a text file where the system administrator can specify which authentication scheme is used for a particular application. On the Linux system, this configuration information can be stored either in a file under the /etc/pam.d folder or as a line in the /etc/conf configuration file. The PAM configuration file is read when the application initializes the PAM library. The PAM library then loads the corresponding authentication modules configured to support the authentication scheme specified for a particular module.



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getPassword function is incorrect

prashanth's picture

your getPassword function is incorrect

while((i = getch()) != '\n')
buf[i++] = i;
is incorrect

Very crisp and to the point.

Sunil's picture

Very crisp and to the point. Great work !