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10.2 Security

In some cases tar may be used in an adversarial situation, where an untrusted user is attempting to gain information about or modify otherwise-inaccessible files. Dealing with untrusted data (that is, data generated by an untrusted user) typically requires extra care, because even the smallest mistake in the use of tar is more likely to be exploited by an adversary than by a race condition.

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10.2.1 Privacy

Standard privacy concerns apply when using tar. For example, suppose you are archiving your home directory into a file ‘/archive/myhome.tar’. Any secret information in your home directory, such as your SSH secret keys, are copied faithfully into the archive. Therefore, if your home directory contains any file that should not be read by some other user, the archive itself should be not be readable by that user. And even if the archive’s data are inaccessible to untrusted users, its metadata (such as size or last-modified date) may reveal some information about your home directory; if the metadata are intended to be private, the archive’s parent directory should also be inaccessible to untrusted users.

One precaution is to create ‘/archive’ so that it is not accessible to any user, unless that user also has permission to access all the files in your home directory.

Similarly, when extracting from an archive, take care that the permissions of the extracted files are not more generous than what you want. Even if the archive itself is readable only to you, files extracted from it have their own permissions that may differ.

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10.2.2 Integrity

When creating archives, take care that they are not writable by a untrusted user; otherwise, that user could modify the archive, and when you later extract from the archive you will get incorrect data.

When tar extracts from an archive, by default it writes into files relative to the working directory. If the archive was generated by an untrusted user, that user therefore can write into any file under the working directory. If the working directory contains a symbolic link to another directory, the untrusted user can also write into any file under the referenced directory. When extracting from an untrusted archive, it is therefore good practice to create an empty directory and run tar in that directory.

When extracting from two or more untrusted archives, each one should be extracted independently, into different empty directories. Otherwise, the first archive could create a symbolic link into an area outside the working directory, and the second one could follow the link and overwrite data that is not under the working directory. For example, when restoring from a series of incremental dumps, the archives should have been created by a trusted process, as otherwise the incremental restores might alter data outside the working directory.

If you use the ‘--absolute-names’ (‘-P’) option when extracting, tar respects any file names in the archive, even file names that begin with ‘/’ or contain ‘..’. As this lets the archive overwrite any file in your system that you can write, the ‘--absolute-names’ (‘-P’) option should be used only for trusted archives.

Conversely, with the ‘--keep-old-files’ (‘-k’) and ‘--skip-old-files’ options, tar refuses to replace existing files when extracting. The difference between the two options is that the former treats existing files as errors whereas the latter just silently ignores them.

Finally, with the ‘--no-overwrite-dir’ option, tar refuses to replace the permissions or ownership of already-existing directories. These options may help when extracting from untrusted archives.

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10.2.3 Dealing with Live Untrusted Data

Extra care is required when creating from or extracting into a file system that is accessible to untrusted users. For example, superusers who invoke tar must be wary about its actions being hijacked by an adversary who is reading or writing the file system at the same time that tar is operating.

When creating an archive from a live file system, tar is vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks. For example, an adversarial user could create the illusion of an indefinitely-deep directory hierarchy ‘d/e/f/g/...’ by creating directories one step ahead of tar, or the illusion of an indefinitely-long file by creating a sparse file but arranging for blocks to be allocated just before tar reads them. There is no easy way for tar to distinguish these scenarios from legitimate uses, so you may need to monitor tar, just as you’d need to monitor any other system service, to detect such attacks.

While a superuser is extracting from an archive into a live file system, an untrusted user might replace a directory with a symbolic link, in hopes that tar will follow the symbolic link and extract data into files that the untrusted user does not have access to. Even if the archive was generated by the superuser, it may contain a file such as ‘d/etc/passwd’ that the untrusted user earlier created in order to break in; if the untrusted user replaces the directory ‘d/etc’ with a symbolic link to ‘/etc’ while tar is running, tar will overwrite ‘/etc/passwd’. This attack can be prevented by extracting into a directory that is inaccessible to untrusted users.

Similar attacks via symbolic links are also possible when creating an archive, if the untrusted user can modify an ancestor of a top-level argument of tar. For example, an untrusted user that can modify ‘/home/eve’ can hijack a running instance of ‘tar -cf - /home/eve/Documents/yesterday’ by replacing ‘/home/eve/Documents’ with a symbolic link to some other location. Attacks like these can be prevented by making sure that untrusted users cannot modify any files that are top-level arguments to tar, or any ancestor directories of these files.

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10.2.4 Security Rules of Thumb

This section briefly summarizes rules of thumb for avoiding security pitfalls.

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