unshare without superuser privileges

categories: code, debian, linux

TLDR: With the help of Helmut Grohne I finally figured out most of the bits necessary to unshare everything without becoming root (though one might say that this is still cheated because the suid root tools newuidmap and newgidmap are used). I wrote a Perl script which documents how this is done in practice. This script is nearly equivalent to using the existing commands lxc-usernsexec [opts] -- unshare [opts] -- COMMAND except that these two together cannot be used to mount a new proc. Apart from this problem, this Perl script might also be useful by itself because it is architecture independent and easily inspectable for the curious mind without resorting to sources.debian.net (it is heavily documented at nearly 2 lines of comments per line of code on average). It can be retrieved here at https://gitlab.mister-muffin.de/josch/user-unshare/blob/master/user-unshare

Long story: Nearly two years after my last last rant about everything needing superuser privileges in Linux, I'm still interested in techniques that let me do more things without becoming root. Helmut Grohne had told me for a while about unshare(), or user namespaces as the right way to have things like chroot without root. There are also reports of LXC containers working without root privileges but they are hard to come by. A couple of days ago I had some time again, so Helmut helped me to get through the major blockers that were so far stopping me from using unshare in a meaningful way without executing everything with sudo.

My main motivation at that point was to let dpkg-buildpackage when executed by sbuild be run with an unshared network namespace and thus without network access (except for the loopback interface) because like pbuilder I wanted sbuild to enforce the rule not to access any remote resources during the build. After several evenings of investigating and doctoring at the Perl script I mentioned initially, I came to the conclusion that the only place that can unshare the network namespace without disrupting anything is schroot itself. This is because unsharing inside the chroot will fail because dpkg-buildpackage is run with non-root privileges and thus the user namespace has to be unshared. But this then will destroy all ownership information. But even if that wasn't the case, the chroot itself is unlikely to have (and also should not) tools like ip or newuidmap and newgidmap installed. Unsharing the schroot call itself also will not work. Again we first need to unshare the user namespace and then schroot will complain about wrong ownership of its configuration file /etc/schroot/schroot.conf. Luckily, when contacting Roger Leigh about this wishlist feature in bug#802849 I was told that this was already implemented in its git master \o/. So this particular problem seems to be taken care of and once the next schroot release happens, sbuild will make use of it and have unshare --net capabilities just like pbuilder already had since last year.

With the sbuild case taken care of, the rest of this post will introduce the Perl script I wrote. The name user-unshare is really arbitrary. I just needed some identifier for the git repository and a filename.

The most important discovery I made was, that Debian disables unprivileged user namespaces by default with the patch add-sysctl-to-disallow-unprivileged-CLONE_NEWUSER-by-default.patch to the Linux kernel. To enable it, one has to first either do

echo 1 | sudo tee /proc/sys/kernel/unprivileged_userns_clone > /dev/null


sudo sysctl -w kernel.unprivileged_userns_clone=1

The tool tries to be like unshare(1) but with the power of lxc-usernsexec(1) to map more than one id into the new user namespace by using the programs newgidmap and newuidmap. Or in other words: This tool tries to be like lxc-usernsexec(1) but with the power of unshare(1) to unshare more than just the user and mount namespaces. It is nearly equal to calling:

lxc-usernsexec [opts] -- unshare [opts] -- COMMAND

Its main reason of existence are:

  • as a project for me to learn how unprivileged namespaces work
  • written in Perl which means:
    • architecture independent (same executable on any architecture)
    • easily inspectable by other curious minds
  • tons of code comments to let others understand how things work
  • no need to install the lxc package in a minimal environment (perl itself might not be called minimal either but is present in every Debian installation)
  • not suffering from being unable to mount proc

I hoped that systemd-nspawn could do what I wanted but it seems that its requirement for being run as root will not change any time soon

Another tool in Debian that offers to do chroot without superuser privileges is linux-user-chroot but that one cheats by being suid root.

Had I found lxc-usernsexec earlier I would've probably not written this. But after I found it I happily used it to get an even better understanding of the matter and further improve the comments in my code. I started writing my own tool in Perl because that's the language sbuild was written in and as mentioned initially, I intended to use this script with sbuild. Now that the sbuild problem is taken care of, this is not so important anymore but I like if I can read the code of simple programs I run directly from /usr/bin without having to retrieve the source code first or use sources.debian.net.

The only thing I wasn't able to figure out is how to properly mount proc into my new mount namespace. I found a workaround that works by first mounting a new proc to /proc and then bind-mounting /proc to whatever new location for proc is requested. I didn't figure out how to do this without mounting to /proc first partly also because this doesn't work at all when using lxc-usernsexec and unshare together. In this respect, this perl script is a bit more powerful than those two tools together. I suppose that the reason is that unshare wasn't written with having being called without superuser privileges in mind. If you have an idea what could be wrong, the code has a big FIXME about this issue.

Finally, here a demonstration of what my script can do. Because of the /proc bug, lxc-usernsexec and unshare together are not able to do this but it might also be that I'm just not using these tools in the right way. The following will give you an interactive shell in an environment created from one of my sbuild chroot tarballs:

$ mkdir -p /tmp/buildroot/proc
$ ./user-unshare --mount-proc=/tmp/buildroot/proc --ipc --pid --net \
    --uts --mount --fork -- sh -c 'ip link set lo up && ip addr && \
    hostname hoothoot-chroot && \
    tar -C /tmp/buildroot -xf /srv/chroot/unstable-amd64.tar.gz; \
    /usr/sbin/chroot /tmp/buildroot /sbin/runuser -s /bin/bash - josch && \
    umount /tmp/buildroot/proc && rm -rf /tmp/buildroot'
(unstable-amd64-sbuild)josch@hoothoot-chroot:/$ whoami
(unstable-amd64-sbuild)josch@hoothoot-chroot:/$ hostname
(unstable-amd64-sbuild)josch@hoothoot-chroot:/$ ls -lha /proc | head
total 0
dr-xr-xr-x 218 nobody nogroup    0 Oct 25 19:06 .
drwxr-xr-x  22 root   root     440 Oct  1 08:42 ..
dr-xr-xr-x   9 root   root       0 Oct 25 19:06 1
dr-xr-xr-x   9 josch  josch      0 Oct 25 19:06 15
dr-xr-xr-x   9 josch  josch      0 Oct 25 19:06 16
dr-xr-xr-x   9 root   root       0 Oct 25 19:06 7
dr-xr-xr-x   9 josch  josch      0 Oct 25 19:06 8
dr-xr-xr-x   4 nobody nogroup    0 Oct 25 19:06 acpi
dr-xr-xr-x   6 nobody nogroup    0 Oct 25 19:06 asound

Of course instead of running this long command we can also instead write a small shell script and execute that instead. The following does the same things as the long command above but adds some comments for further explanation:


set -exu

# I'm using /tmp because I have it mounted as a tmpfs

# bring the loopback interface up
ip link set lo up

# show that the loopback interface is really up
ip addr

# make use of the UTS namespace being unshared
hostname hoothoot-chroot

# extract the chroot tarball. This must be done inside the user namespace for
# the file permissions to be correct.
# tar will fail to call mknod and to change the permissions of /proc but we are
# ignoring that
tar -C "$rootdir" -xf /srv/chroot/unstable-amd64.tar.gz || true

# run chroot and inside, immediately drop permissions to the user "josch" and
# start an interactive shell
/usr/sbin/chroot "$rootdir" /sbin/runuser -s /bin/bash - josch

# unmount /proc and remove the temporary directory
umount "$rootdir/proc"
rm -rf "$rootdir"

and then:

$ mkdir -p /tmp/buildroot/proc
$ ./user-unshare --mount-proc=/tmp/buildroot/proc --ipc --pid --net --uts --mount --fork -- ./chroot.sh

As mentioned in the beginning, the tool is nearly equivalent to calling lxc-usernsexec [opts] -- unshare [opts] -- COMMAND but because of the problem with mounting proc (mentioned earlier), lxc-usernsexec and unshare cannot be used with above example. If one tries anyways one will only get:

$ lxc-usernsexec -m b:0:1000:1 -m b:1:558752:1 -- unshare --mount-proc=/tmp/buildroot/proc --ipc --pid --net --uts --mount --fork -- ./chroot.sh
unshare: mount /tmp/buildroot/proc failed: Invalid argument

I'd be interested in finding out why that is and how to fix it.

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus