Disclaimer: This post is for research and educational purposes only. I do not take any responsibility, in regards to the actions taken by readers of this article. Never attempt to hack a device for which you do not have the required permissions to do so.

What does privilege escalation mean?

At it’s core, Privilege Escalation usually involves going from a lower permission to a higher permission. More technically, it’s the exploitation of a vulnerability, design flaw or configuration oversight in an operating system or application to gain unauthorized access to resources that are usually restricted from the users.

Rarely when doing a CTF or real-world penetration test, will you be able to gain a foothold (initial access) that affords you administrator access. Privilege escalation is crucial, because it lets you gain system administrator levels of access. This allow you to do many things, including:

  •  Reset passwords
  •  Bypass access controls to compromise protected data
  •  Edit software configurations
  •  Enable persistence, so you can access the machine again later.
  •  Change privilege of users
  •  Getting the root flag.

As well as any other administrator or super user commands that you desire.

The Privilege Tree:

There are two main privilege escalation variants:

Horizontal privilege escalation: This is where you expand your reach over the compromised system by taking over a different user who is on the same privilege level as you. For instance, a normal user hijacking another normal user (rather than elevating to super user). This allows you to inherit whatever files and access that user has. This can be used, for example, to gain access to another normal privilege user, that happens to have an SUID file attached to their home directory (more on these later) which can then be used to get super user access. [Travel sideways on the tree]

Vertical privilege escalation (privilege elevation): This is where you attempt to gain higher privileges or access, with an existing account that you have already compromised. For local privilege escalation attacks this might mean hijacking an account with administrator privileges or root privileges. [Travel up on the tree]

There are two ways we can enumerate and escalate our privileges, either by using an automated script or doing it manually. Remember enumeration is the key.

Some Basic Concepts

Finding and Exploiting SUID Files

The first step in Linux privilege escalation exploitation is to check for files with the SUID/GUID bit set. This means that the file or files can be run with the permissions of the file(s) owner/group. In this case, as the super-user. We can leverage this to get a shell with these privileges!

What is an SUID binary?

As we all know in Linux everything is a file, including directories and devices which have permissions to allow or restrict three operations i.e. read/write/execute. So when you set permission for any file, you should be aware of the Linux users to whom you allow or restrict all three permissions. Take a look at the following demonstration of how maximum privileges (rwx-rwx-rwx) look:

r = read

w = write

x = execute

    user     group     others

    rwx       rwx       rwx

    421       421       421

The maximum number of bit that can be used to set permission for each user is 7, which is a combination of read (4) write (2) and execute (1) operation. For example, if you set permissions using “chmod” as 755, then it will be: rwxr-xr-x.

But when special permission is given to each user it becomes SUIDor SGID. When extra bit “4” is set to user(Owner) it becomes SUID (Set user ID) and when bit “2” is set to group it becomes SGID (Set Group ID).

Therefore, the permissions to look for when looking for SUID is:





Finding SUID Binaries

We already know that there is SUID capable files on the system, thanks to our LinEnum scan. However, if we want to do this manually we can use the command: “find / -perm -u=s -type f 2>/dev/null” to search the file system for SUID/GUID files. Let’s break down this command.

find – Initiates the “find” command

– Searches the whole file system

-perm – searches for files with specific permissions

-u=s – Any of the permission bits mode are set for the file. Symbolic modes are accepted in this form

-type f – Only search for files

2>/dev/null – Suppresses errors

Exploiting a writable /etc/passwd

Understanding /etc/passwd

The /etc/passwd file stores essential information, which  is required during login. In other words, it stores user account information. The /etc/passwd is a plain text file. It contains a list of the system’s accounts, giving for each account some useful information like user ID, group ID, home directory, shell, and more.

The /etc/passwd file should have general read permission as many command utilities use it to map user IDs to user names. However, write access to the /etc/passwd must only limit for the superuser/root account. When it doesn’t, or a user has erroneously been added to a write-allowed group. We have a vulnerability that can allow the creation of a root user that we can access.

Understanding /etc/passwd format

The /etc/passwd file contains one entry per line for each user (user account) of the system. All fields are separated by a colon : symbol. Total of seven fields as follows. Generally, /etc/passwd file entry looks as follows:


[as divided by colon (:)]

  1. Username: It is used when user logs in. It should be between 1 and 32 characters in length.
  2. Password: An x character indicates that encrypted password is stored in /etc/shadow file. Please note that you need to use the passwd command to compute the hash of a password typed at the CLI or to store/update the hash of the password in /etc/shadow file, in this case, the password hash is stored as an “x”.
  3. User ID (UID): Each user must be assigned a user ID (UID). UID 0 (zero) is reserved for root and UIDs 1-99 are reserved for other predefined accounts. Further UID 100-999 are reserved by system for administrative and system accounts/groups.
  4. Group ID (GID): The primary group ID (stored in /etc/group file)
  5. User ID Info: The comment field. It allow you to add extra information about the users such as user’s full name, phone number etc. This field use by finger command.
  6. Home directory: The absolute path to the directory the user will be in when they log in. If this directory does not exists then users directory becomes /
  7. Command/shell: The absolute path of a command or shell (/bin/bash). Typically, this is a shell. Please note that it does not have to be a shell.

How to exploit a writable /etc/passwd

It’s simple really, if we have a writable /etc/passwd file, we can write a new line entry according to the above formula and create a new user! We add the password hash of our choice, and set the UID, GID and shell to root. Allowing us to log in as our own root user!

What is Cron?

The Cron daemon is a long-running process that executes commands at specific dates and times. You can use this to schedule activities, either as one-time events or as recurring tasks. You can create a crontab file containing commands and instructions for the Cron daemon to execute.

How to view what Cronjobs are active.

We can use the command “cat /etc/crontab” to view what cron jobs are scheduled. This is something you should always check manually whenever you get a chance, especially if LinEnum, or a similar script, doesn’t find anything.

Format of a Cronjob

Cronjobs exist in a certain format, being able to read that format is important if you want to exploit a cron job. 

# = ID

m = Minute

h = Hour

dom = Day of the month

mon = Month

dow = Day of the week

user = What user the command will run as

command = What command should be run

For Example,

#  m   h dom mon dow user  command

17 *   1  *   *   *  root  cd / && run-parts –report /etc/cron.hourly

What is PATH?

PATH is an environmental variable in Linux and Unix-like operating systems which specifies directories that hold executable programs. When the user runs any command in the terminal, it searches for executable files with the help of the PATH Variable in response to commands executed by a user.

It is very simple to view the Path of the relevant user with help of the command “echo $PATH”.

How does this let us escalate privileges?

Let’s say we have an SUID binary. Running it, we can see that it’s calling the system shell to do a basic process like list processes with “ps”. Unlike in our previous SUID example, in this situation we can’t exploit it by supplying an argument for command injection, so what can we do to try and exploit this?

We can re-write the PATH variable to a location of our choosing! So when the SUID binary calls the system shell to run an executable, it runs one that we’ve written instead!

As with any SUID file, it will run this command with the same privileges as the owner of the SUID file! If this is root, using this method we can run whatever commands we like as root!

Manual Privilege Escalation Enumeration

Info regarding the OS:

#Distribution type? What version?

cat /etc/issue
cat /etc/*-release
cat /etc/lsb-release      # Debian based
cat /etc/redhat-release   # Redhat based

#What's the kernel version? 

cat /proc/version
uname -a
uname -mrs
rpm -q kernel
dmesg | grep Linux
ls /boot | grep vmlinuz-

#Environmental variables?

cat /etc/profile
cat /etc/bashrc
cat ~/.bash_profile
cat ~/.bashrc
cat ~/.bash_logout

Info regarding application and services:

#Services are running? Which service has which user privilege?

ps aux
ps -ef
cat /etc/services

#Which service(s) are been running by root? Of these services, which are vulnerable

ps aux | grep root
ps -ef | grep root

#What applications are installed? What version are they? Are they currently running?

ls -alh /usr/bin/
ls -alh /sbin/
dpkg -l
rpm -qa
ls -alh /var/cache/apt/archivesO
ls -alh /var/cache/yum/

#Any of the service(s) settings misconfigured? 

cat /etc/syslog.conf
cat /etc/chttp.conf
cat /etc/lighttpd.conf
cat /etc/cups/cupsd.conf
cat /etc/inetd.conf
cat /etc/apache2/apache2.conf
cat /etc/my.conf
cat /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf
cat /opt/lampp/etc/httpd.conf
ls -aRl /etc/ | awk '$1 ~ /^.*r.*/

#What jobs are scheduled?

crontab -l
ls -alh /var/spool/cron
ls -al /etc/ | grep cron
ls -al /etc/cron*
cat /etc/cron*
cat /etc/at.allow
cat /etc/at.deny
cat /etc/cron.allow
cat /etc/cron.deny
cat /etc/crontab
cat /etc/anacrontab
cat /var/spool/cron/crontabs/root

#Any plain text usernames and/or passwords?

grep -i user [filename]
grep -i pass [filename]
grep -C 5 "password" [filename]
find . -name "*.php" -print0 | xargs -0 grep -i -n "var $password"   

Info regarding networking:

#What NIC(s) does the system have? Is it connected to another network?

/sbin/ifconfig -a
cat /etc/network/interfaces
cat /etc/sysconfig/network

#What are the network configuration settings?

cat /etc/resolv.conf
cat /etc/sysconfig/network
cat /etc/networks
iptables -L

#What other users & hosts are communicating with the system?

lsof -i
lsof -i :80
grep 80 /etc/services
netstat -antup
netstat -antpx
netstat -tulpn
chkconfig --list
chkconfig --list | grep 3:on

#Whats cached? IP and/or MAC addresses
arp -e
/sbin/route -nee

#Is packet sniffing possible?
tcpdump tcp dst 80 and tcp dst 21
#Note: tcpdump tcp dst [ip] [port] and tcp dst [ip] [port]

Confidential Information:

#user info
cat /etc/passwd | cut -d: -f1    # List of users
grep -v -E "^#" /etc/passwd | awk -F: '$3 == 0 { print $1}'   # List of super users
awk -F: '($3 == "0") {print}' /etc/passwd   # List of super users
cat /etc/sudoers
sudo -l

#What sensitive files can be found?

cat /etc/passwd
cat /etc/group
cat /etc/shadow
ls -alh /var/mail/

#Anything "interesting" in the home directorie(s)? 
ls -ahlR /root/
ls -ahlR /home/

#Are there any passwords in; scripts, databases, configuration files or log files? Default paths and locations for passwords

cat /var/apache2/config.inc
cat /var/lib/mysql/mysql/user.MYD
cat /root/anaconda-ks.cfg

#Is there any password in plain text? 

cat ~/.bash_history
cat ~/.nano_history
cat ~/.atftp_history
cat ~/.mysql_history
cat ~/.php_history

#What user information can be found?

cat ~/.bashrc
cat ~/.profile
cat /var/mail/root
cat /var/spool/mail/root

#Can private-key information be found?

cat ~/.ssh/authorized_keys
cat ~/.ssh/identity.pub
cat ~/.ssh/identity
cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub
cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa
cat ~/.ssh/id_dsa.pub
cat ~/.ssh/id_dsa
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_config
cat /etc/ssh/sshd_config
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_dsa_key.pub
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_dsa_key
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key.pub
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_key.pub
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_host_key

Info on File systems

#Which configuration files can be written in /etc/? Able to reconfigure a service?

ls -aRl /etc/ | awk '$1 ~ /^.*w.*/' 2>/dev/null     # Anyone
ls -aRl /etc/ | awk '$1 ~ /^..w/' 2>/dev/null       # Owner
ls -aRl /etc/ | awk '$1 ~ /^.....w/' 2>/dev/null    # Group
ls -aRl /etc/ | awk '$1 ~ /w.$/' 2>/dev/null        # Other

find /etc/ -readable -type f 2>/dev/null               # Anyone
find /etc/ -readable -type f -maxdepth 1 2>/dev/null   # Anyone
#What can be found in /var/ ?

ls -alh /var/log
ls -alh /var/mail
ls -alh /var/spool
ls -alh /var/spool/lpd
ls -alh /var/lib/pgsql
ls -alh /var/lib/mysql
cat /var/lib/dhcp3/dhclient.leases

#Any settings/files (hidden) on website? Any settings file with database information?

ls -alhR /var/www/
ls -alhR /srv/www/htdocs/
ls -alhR /usr/local/www/apache22/data/
ls -alhR /opt/lampp/htdocs/
ls -alhR /var/www/html/

#Is there anything in the log file(s) (Could help with "Local File Includes"!)

cat /etc/httpd/logs/access_log
cat /etc/httpd/logs/access.log
cat /etc/httpd/logs/error_log
cat /etc/httpd/logs/error.log
cat /var/log/apache2/access_log
cat /var/log/apache2/access.log
cat /var/log/apache2/error_log
cat /var/log/apache2/error.log
cat /var/log/apache/access_log
cat /var/log/apache/access.log
cat /var/log/auth.log
cat /var/log/chttp.log
cat /var/log/cups/error_log
cat /var/log/dpkg.log
cat /var/log/faillog
cat /var/log/httpd/access_log
cat /var/log/httpd/access.log
cat /var/log/httpd/error_log
cat /var/log/httpd/error.log
cat /var/log/lastlog
cat /var/log/lighttpd/access.log
cat /var/log/lighttpd/error.log
cat /var/log/lighttpd/lighttpd.access.log
cat /var/log/lighttpd/lighttpd.error.log
cat /var/log/messages
cat /var/log/secure
cat /var/log/syslog
cat /var/log/wtmp
cat /var/log/xferlog
cat /var/log/yum.log
cat /var/run/utmp
cat /var/webmin/miniserv.log
cat /var/www/logs/access_log
cat /var/www/logs/access.log
ls -alh /var/lib/dhcp3/
ls -alh /var/log/postgresql/
ls -alh /var/log/proftpd/
ls -alh /var/log/samba/

#Note: auth.log, boot, btmp, daemon.log, debug, dmesg, kern.log, #mail.info, mail.log, mail.warn, messages, syslog, udev, wtmp
#Note: http://www.thegeekstuff.com/2011/08/linux-var-log-files/

#If commands are limited, you break out of the "jail" shell?

python -c 'import pty;pty.spawn("/bin/bash")'
echo os.system('/bin/bash')
/bin/sh -i

#How are file-systems mounted?

df -h

#Are there any unmounted file-systems?

cat /etc/fstab

#What "Advanced Linux File Permissions" are used? Sticky bits, SUID & #GUID

find / -perm -4000 -type f -exec ls -la {} 2>/dev/null \; 

find / -perm -1000 -type d 2>/dev/null   # Sticky bit - Only the owner of the directory or the owner of a file can delete or rename here.
find / -perm -g=s -type f 2>/dev/null    # SGID (chmod 2000) - run as the group, not the user who started it.
find / -perm -u=s -type f 2>/dev/null    # SUID (chmod 4000) - run as the owner, not the user who started it.

find / -perm -g=s -o -perm -u=s -type f 2>/dev/null    # SGID or SUID
for i in `locate -r "bin$"`; do find $i \( -perm -4000 -o -perm -2000 \) -type f 2>/dev/null; done    # Looks in 'common' places: /bin, /sbin, /usr/bin, /usr/sbin, /usr/local/bin, /usr/local/sbin and any other *bin, for SGID or SUID (Quicker search)

# find starting at root (/), SGID or SUID, not Symbolic links, only 3 folders deep, list with more detail and hide any errors (e.g. permission denied)
find / -perm -g=s -o -perm -4000 ! -type l -maxdepth 3 -exec ls -ld {} \; 2>/dev/null

#Where can written to and executed from? A few 'common' places: /tmp, /var/tmp, /dev/shm

find / -writable -type d 2>/dev/null      # world-writeable folders
find / -perm -222 -type d 2>/dev/null     # world-writeable folders
find / -perm -o w -type d 2>/dev/null     # world-writeable folders

find / -perm -o x -type d 2>/dev/null     # world-executable folders

find / \( -perm -o w -perm -o x \) -type d 2>/dev/null   # world-writeable & executable folders
Any "problem" files? Word-writeable, "nobody" files

find / -xdev -type d \( -perm -0002 -a ! -perm -1000 \) -print   # world-writeable files
find /dir -xdev \( -nouser -o -nogroup \) -print   # Noowner files

Automatic Enumeration Scripts

These scripts will automatically enumerate and help you with getting root access.