a libpam bug

March 30, 2024

Over a past few months I updated libpam nixpkgs package a few times. I broke it at least three times:

It’s not great. But at least each breakage is slightly different. Exploring it gives me some insight into how libpam works.

Let’s have a look at the most recent breakage related to empty passwords.

actual password handling bug

In nixpkgs issue#297920 Thomas M. DuBuisson reported that users with empty passwords no longer work on NixOS.

An example /etc/nixos/configuration.nix snippet to create such an user is:

{ ... }:
  users.users.test = {
    isNormalUser = true;
    password = "";
    extraGroups = [ ];

After an update to libpam-1.6.0 login did not work any more:

login: test

Login incorrect

Why did it break? Let’s have a look at how passwords are stored in linux.

/etc/shadow structure

On linux desktops hashed user passwords are usually stored in /etc/shadow:

# cat /etc/shadow

man 5 shadow from shadow package has more detail on what each field means.

As hashed passwords are still sensitive information /etc/shadow is not readable by most users:

$ ls -l /etc/shadow
-rw-r----- 1 root shadow 3454 Mar 29 07:03 /etc/shadow

Programs that check passwords are usually ran as root or are SUID-root themselves.

hash structure

$6$D0XkOSlH$fWuW6/7aFD5ZD2YzBuerj0STra3LddBNoXMn5pomYRmdbmsjM6bGzIX7nQQS4bGepDBoao2U.IZRGhgAJ4qOp. is not just a hash string of a well known hash algorithm. It used to be. But not any more.

man 5 crypt from libxcrypt package explains the string format in detail. It’s 10 pages long!

The main takeaway from that page is that there are a few ways to encode empty (“” password) and blank (no password prompt) passwords for a user:


Hashed version (first) accepts only empty(““) password while empty version (second) does not prompt for a password at all.

This hashed version happens to use SHA512 algorithm ($6$ prefix). You can have other encodings as well: by varying used hash salt for SHA512 algorithm or by switching the hashing algorithm (for example to yescrypt.)

libpam overview

PAM stands for “Pluggable Authentication Modules”. It allows programs to embed user authentication without having to deal with the specifics of accessing /etc/shadow contents directly. libpam allows you to completely change authentication back end via /etc/pam.d/ configuration to use non-shadow mechanisms instead. I’ll focus on shadow here and will avoid any configuration aspects.

Well known libpam users are sudo and login programs. Those are expected to be ran as root or gain root via SUID root bit on the binaries. login can authenticate any user in the system while sudo probably only needs to authenticate current user.

Fun fact: normally you need root (or shadow) privileges to read /etc/shadow for password verification purposes.

But libpam can be used for non-root programs as well! The typical example is the session screen locker like swaylock or i3lock: those lock your screen until you type current user’s password. How do they manage to validate current user’s password without having a SUID root bit? libpam does it by by calling external unix_chkpwd SUID root program from libpam package:

$ ls -l `which unix_chkpwd`
-r-s--x--x 1 root root 63472 Mar 29 04:41 /run/wrappers/bin/unix_chkpwd

No magic unfortunately :)

back to password handling bug

In libpam issue#758 Chris Severance narrowed the regression down to the pam_unix/passverify change. Here are two diagrams to show the effect of that change.

Before the change libpam-1.5.3 password checking diagram looked this way:

G file /etc/shadow file /etc/shadow libpam-1.5.3 libpam-1.5.3 libpam-1.5.3->file /etc/shadow root uid: read directly unix_chkpwd unix_chkpwd libpam-1.5.3->unix_chkpwd non-root uid: execve() program program program->libpam-1.5.3 call pam_authenticate() unix_chkpwd->file /etc/shadow SUID-root: read directly

After the change libpam-1.6.0 password checking diagram looks this way:

G file /etc/shadow file /etc/shadow libpam-1.6.0 libpam-1.6.0 unix_chkpwd unix_chkpwd libpam-1.6.0->unix_chkpwd always execve() program program program->libpam-1.6.0 call pam_authenticate() unix_chkpwd->file /etc/shadow SUID-root: read directly

To phrase it in words: libpam-1.5.3 used unix_chkpwd external helper program only if program was not already ran as root. libpam-1.6.0 in contrast always uses unix_chkpwd.

In theory both versions should work the same.

In practice unix_chkpwd disallows empty passwords (bug) but allows the blank ones (feature).

Mechanically the bug happens as unix_chkpwd adds this extra bit of code:

--- a/modules/pam_unix/passverify.c
+++ b/modules/pam_unix/passverify.c
@@ -1096,6 +1096,12 @@ helper_verify_password(const char *name, const char *p, int nullok)
 	if (pwd == NULL || hash == NULL) {
 		helper_log_err(LOG_NOTICE, "check pass; user unknown");
 		retval = PAM_USER_UNKNOWN;
+	} else if (p[0] == '\0' && nullok) {
+		if (hash[0] == '\0') {
+			retval = PAM_SUCCESS;
+		} else {
+			retval = PAM_AUTH_ERR;
+		}
 	} else {
 		retval = verify_pwd_hash(p, hash, nullok);

Here helper_verify_password() started rejecting empty passwords with non-empty hashes present in /etc/shadow. Oops. This change is what distinguishes theses hashes:

Such an early rejection is a bug. The hash needs to have a chance to be verified instead.

helper_verify_password() function is only used by external helpers like unix_chkpwd and was never used by libpam.so itself. That’s why libpam-1.5.3 just worked for login.

The fix is simple:

--- a/modules/pam_unix/passverify.c
+++ b/modules/pam_unix/passverify.c
@@ -76,9 +76,13 @@ PAMH_ARG_DECL(int verify_pwd_hash,
 	hash_len = strlen(hash);
-	if (!hash_len) {
+	if (p && p[0] == '\0' && !nullok) {
+		/* The passed password is empty */
+		retval = PAM_AUTH_ERR;
+	} else if (!hash_len) {
 		/* the stored password is NULL */
-		if (nullok) { /* this means we've succeeded */
+		if (p && p[0] == '\0' && nullok) { /* this means we've succeeded */
 			D(("user has empty password - access granted"));
 			retval = PAM_SUCCESS;
 		} else {
@@ -1109,12 +1113,6 @@ helper_verify_password(const char *name, const char *p, int nullok)
 	if (pwd == NULL || hash == NULL) {
 		helper_log_err(LOG_NOTICE, "check pass; user unknown");
 		retval = PAM_USER_UNKNOWN;
-	} else if (p[0] == '\0' && nullok) {
-		if (hash[0] == '\0') {
-			retval = PAM_SUCCESS;
-		} else {
-			retval = PAM_AUTH_ERR;
-		}
 	} else {
 		retval = verify_pwd_hash(p, hash, nullok);

Here we move all the null password checking to a common verify_pwd_hash code and check for password length and not for hash length to handle nullok libpam configuration.

debugging tips

unix_chkpwd is a SUID root binary. Moreover it changes it’s behaviour based on actual user calling it. I wanted to find a way to probe directly it’s ability to validate /etc/shadow contents without involving external login binary.

On a system with libpam installed password checking session for an arbitrary user could be done this way:

$ printf "correct-password\0" | sudo unix_chkpwd testuser nullok; echo $?
$ printf "incorrect-password\0" | sudo unix_chkpwd testuser nullok; echo $?

You need to pass null-terminated password into unix_chkpwd’s stdin descriptor. The error code will tell you back if the check succeeded or why it failed.

I needed an equivalent check for a locally built unix_chkpwd from linux-pam git repository. I came up with this hack:

# build unix_chkpwd
$ cd linux-pam
$ ./configure --disable-doc
$ make

# mark unix_chkpwd SUID-root
$ sudo chown root modules/pam_unix/unix_chkpwd
$ sudo chmod 4755 modules/pam_unix/unix_chkpwd

# check if it can authenticate the suer
$ printf "\0" | sudo modules/pam_unix/unix_chkpwd nulloktest nullok; echo $?

This setup allowed me to quickly find the problematic bit using printf() debugging.

hashed empty passwords

Is it typical to have empty hashed passwords? At least passwd does not allow you to specify an empty password explicitly:

# passwd nulloktest
New password:
Retype new password:
No password has been supplied.
passwd: Permission denied
passwd: password unchanged

But we can set a blank password with a -d option:

# passwd -d nulloktest
passwd: password changed.

# grep nulloktest /etc/shadow

This subtlety was one of the reasons why upstream linux-pam had a hard time verifying a problem of empty hashed password. So how does NixOS manage to create empty hashed passwords in the first place?

It uses perl code to call crypt() function from libxcrypt to generate one. Actual code:

sub hashPassword {
    my ($password) = @_;
    my $salt = "";
    my @chars = ('.', '/', 0..9, 'A'..'Z', 'a'..'z');
    $salt .= $chars[rand 64] for (1..8);
    return crypt($password, '$6$' . $salt . '$');

Here the $password passed is an empty string. We can generate a few of them just for fun:

$ perl -e 'my $salt = ""; my @chars = (".", "/", 0..9, "A".."Z", "a".."z"); $salt .= $chars[rand 64] for (1..8); print(crypt("", "\$6\$" . $salt . "\$") . "\n");'

parting words

libpam updates are tricky. Every time I update libpam I break something. This time it was a somewhat benign case of empty password handling. We need more tests. The empty password fix fix was merged to libpam as PR#784 and to nixpkgs as PR#298994.

If you are affected by an empty password bug you can set the password to a blank hash with hashedPassword = "". Or set it to blank with passwd -d $user. Both are equivalent.

libpam-1.6.0 executes an externalunix_chkpwd binary with SUID root set to validate passwords.

Blank passwords (empty hash) are subtly different from empty passwords (present hash of empty string): blank passwords don’t get prompted by login and friends while empty passwords do. Sometimes this causes the confusion.

NixOS uses direct crypt() call to libxcrypt to generate /etc/shadow entries.

libxcrypt supports quite a few hashing algorithms and tweaks on top of them that control hashing rounds and so on.

linux-pam upstream is very responsive! It’s always a pleasure to send fixes there.

Have fun!