PeX: A Permission Check Analysis Framework for Linux Kernel

Research Areas: End System Security

Principal Investigator: Changhee Jung

Permission checks play an essential role in operating system security by providing access control to privileged functionalities. However, it is particularly challenging for kernel developers to correctly apply new permission checks and to scalably verify the soundness of existing checks due to the large codebase and complexity of the kernel. In fact, Linux kernel contains millions of lines of code with hundreds of permission checks, and even worse its complexity is fast-growing.

This work presents PeX, a static Permission check error detector for LinuX, which takes as input a kernel source code and reports any missing, inconsistent, and redundant permission checks. PeX uses KIRIN (Kernel InteRface based In-direct call aNalysis), a novel, precise, and scalable indirect call analysis technique, leveraging the common programming paradigm used in kernel abstraction interfaces. Over the inter-procedural control flow graph built by KIRIN, PeX automatically identifies all permission checks and infers the mappings between permission checks and privileged functions. For each privileged function, PeX examines all possible paths to the function to check if necessary permission checks are correctly enforced before it is called.

We evaluated PeX on the latest stable Linux kernel v4.18.5 for three types of permission checks: Discretionary AccessControls (DAC), Capabilities, and Linux Security Modules(LSM). PeX reported 36 new permission check errors, 14 of which have been confirmed by the kernel developers.

Representative Publications

  • Tong Zhang, Wenbo Shen, Dongyoon Lee, Changhee Jung, Ahmed Azab, and Ruowen Wang
    "PeX: A Permission Check Analysis Framework for Linux Kernel",
    The 28th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security), Santa Clara, California, August 2019.

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