Research and Development

Whilst there has been quite a lot of analysis of Microsoft’s new Windows Subsystem for Linux (aka WSL or Bash on Ubuntu on Windows) and how it functions (particularly from Alex Ionescu), most of this has focused on how it affects the Windows security model. Being a keen UNIX focused researcher, I decided to take it for a spin.

The first thing I did once I had it installed was look at how the Windows process tree had changed. Running it results in two new branches to your process tree. The first contains the Windows bash.exe instance which hosts your new terminal:

  • explorer.exe (runs as your user):
    • bash.exe (runs as your user):
      • conhost.exe (runs as your user)

Whilst the second contains the Linux process tree:

  • svchost.exe (runs as SYSTEM):
    • init (runs as your user, no disabled privileges, locked into a job):
      • bash (runs as your user, disabled privileges, locked into a job, break away set to true)

As you might expect, new code compiled to support this is well hardened and uses Windows 10′s advanced mitigations. Specifically, bash.exe has the following mitigations enabled:

  • DEP enabled
  • ASLR high entropy, bottom up
  • CFG enabled

Digging a little further, the same can’t be said for init, bash and other parts of the Linux process tree. Whilst DEP is enabled, ASLR and CFG are not. In fairness, this shouldn’t come as any great surprise – they’re Ubuntu packaged binaries however it does start to show show how introducing WSL to your system can change the systems posture.

The kernel

So what does the “kernel” version look like. Well, at the point I examined it:

x@DESKTOP-L4857K3:~$ uname -a
Linux DESKTOP-L4857K3 3.4.0+ #1 PREEMPT Thu Aug 1 17:06:05 CST 2013 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux

This version of the Linux kernel should be vulnerable to dirty cow, so what of it? It doesn’t work which again isn’t a huge surprise. As Alex has alluded to there is a quite a substantial amount of mapping going on to implement the Linux system calls on Windows and whilst they should be API compatible, the implementations between a real Linux kernel and what WSL gives up may be quite different.

This does however bring up the first critical point: There is no relationship between the patches supplied as part of Windows Update and what goes on with WSL. If you don’t patch regularly you’ll still be vulnerable to a whole plethora of Ubuntu (userland) vulnerabilities.

Memory corruption mitigations

Some Linux mitigations are in play however (as they would be on any real Ubuntu system) as can be seen with

  • System-wide ASLR (kernel.randomize_va_space): On (Setting: 2)
  • Does the CPU support NX: Yes

And of course binaries are compiled with whatever Ubuntu hardening is currently supported:

	COMMAND    PID RELRO             STACK CANARY           NX/PaX        PIE
	  init      1 Full RELRO        Canary found           NX enabled    Dynamic Shared Object
	  sudo     14 Partial RELRO     Canary found           NX enabled    Dynamic Shared Object
	    su     15 Partial RELRO     Canary found           NX enabled    No PIE
	  bash     16 Partial RELRO     Canary found           NX enabled    No PIE
	  bash      2 Partial RELRO     Canary found           NX enabled    No PIE

Shared memory

So what does WSL look like more generally. Well, since I’ve had some fun with shared memory, I wondered how this was implemented. Well, it turns out that it’s not:

root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:~# ipcs

kernel not configured for shared memory

kernel not configured for semaphores

kernel not configured for message queues

Whether this will have any security implications, it’s difficult to say but at the very least it may stop certain applications from working. Other applications may revert to using other less well tested IPC mechanisms which may expose security issues along the way.


Moving on, how about debugging something. A simple tool which exercises the ptrace() system call is strace. Here’s what happens when strace is run on a normal process:

root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/sys# strace -f printf "test" 2>&1 | head -n 5
execve("/usr/bin/printf", ["printf", "test"], [/* 15 vars */]) = 0
brk(0)                                  = 0xa9d000

However you can’t strace PID 1 (as would have been possible on real Linux), instead ptrace() returns an error: “Operation not permitted”.

File systems

Whilst /mnt doesn’t show up as a different file system, /mnt/c is actually used to map the underlying Windows system disk. This is immediately peculiar since it is mapped with permissions of 0777 (world readable, world writable amongst others). Moreover any files created under it are created with an owner of root. You’d think this might be a problem but from what I’ve seen so far, assuming the Windows file permissions are set right then (because everything (even setUID processes) runs as you from Windows’ perspective) you won’t be able to access anything inappropriate (think SAM etc). It. Just. Looks. Weird.

Furthermore, the way that WSL implements umasks too is an oddity. umask doesn’t work on all file system types and in particular the aforementioned /mnt/c. Observe the following:

root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/# umask 666
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/# touch foo
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/# ls -la foo
---------- 1 root root 0 Mar 28 23:10 foo
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:~# rm foo
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:~# cd /mnt/c/Users/x/
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/mnt/c/Users/x# touch foo
root@DESKTOP-L4857K3:/mnt/c/Users/x# ls -la foo
-rwxrwxrwx 1 root root 0 Mar 28 23:10 foo

Umask is honoured in the first location but not the second (a umask of 0666 should mean that files are created with no permissions). Whilst there’s a fundamental Windows reason why this is the case, there is nothing to indicate this to the Ubuntu instance’s userland and thus files created within your home directory might be created with undesirable permissions. Microsoft are tracking this in the GitHub as issue 352.


Unlike on a real Ununtu there’s no terminal level authentication (whilst user accounts within the Ubuntu instance do have passwords, they’re not needed unless you want to access the system remotely or gain root privileges via sudo). Moreover, from Windows’ perspective there is no difference between UID 0 and UID 1000. You can start a terminal and then use sudo to elevate your privileges and Windows will be none the wiser (Linux capabilities aren’t mapped into Windows user rights or special tokens). That might mean that users won’t care too much about their Ubuntu instance’s passwords but as you can imagine with no password policy enforcement, users might be tempted to reuse their Windows passwords.

I should also note that whilst sudo prompts for a password on each new instance of bash.exe/conhost.exe pair hosting a terminal however if you authenticate to sudo, close the terminal and then reopen it, then your sudo ticket may still be valid – this requires exact co-ordination as sudo sessions are tracked by PID, however the first terminal opened will always have a Linux bash process with a PID of 2 which may well be blessed from a previous sudo session.


Finally, as per issue issue 561, because everything runs as you from Windows’ perspective, the only way to successfully execute ping (which requires an ICMP raw socket on Linux) is to run bash.exe in elevated mode (as Administrator). This, despite the fact that a non-elevated user can quite happily execute ping on the Windows host. WSL doesn’t even implement concept of root in any real sense, let along implement the necessary Linux syscalls to support capabilities in any useful fashion. This in turn means that everything else spawned from the elevated shell also runs with Windows administrative privileges. For comparison, here’s what the new branches of your process tree will look like:

  • wininit.exe.exe (runs as SYSTEM):
    • services.exe (runs as SYSTEM):
      • svchost.exe (runs as SYSTEM):
        • RuntimeBroker.exe (runs as your user, disabled privileges, not elevated):
          • bash.exe (runs as your user, disabled privileges, elevated):
            • conhost.exe (runs as your user, disabled privileges, elevated)

The first contains the Windows bash.exe instance which hosts your new terminal, whilst the second contains the Linux process tree:

  • svchost.exe (runs as SYSTEM):
    • init (runs as your user, no disabled privileges, locked into a job, elevated):
      • bash (runs as your user, disabled privileges, locked into a job, break away set to true, elevated):
        • sudo (runs as your user, disabled privileges, locked into a job, break away set to true, elevated):
          • ping (runs as your user, disabled privileges, locked into a job, break away set to true, elevated)

Microsoft’s stock answer is that the Ubuntu instance (or rather the bash.exe instance hosting the terminal and accompanying lxss.sys kernel implementation) is locked down, effectively sandboxed by a combination of Windows DACLs, the concept of jobs (touched upon at the start and akin to Linux cgroups) and syscall mapping that effectively uses lxss.sys to proxy most syscalls onto their corresponding NT kernel implementation.


The design of WSL seems to be relatively robust if slightly odd, however time will tell, particularly if offensive teams pick up the whiff of a new opportunity. If nothing else, take this article as a reminder that WSL should not be considered a security boundary and that it will remain unmanaged irrespective of how you administer your Windows hosts.

Request to be added to the Portcullis Labs newsletter

We will email you whenever a new tool, or post is added to the site.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)