.@ Tony Finch – blog

My opinion is not mainstream, but I think if you really examine the practices and security processes that use and recommend sudo, the reasons for using it are mostly bullshit.

When I started my career in the late 1990s, I was already aware of really(8) and userv because one of my friends wrote them. As tools they embody criticisms of sudo’s design. (really came from Cambridge University’s central unix timesharing service CUS in about 1990, and before that from the Computer Lab unix systems in the 1980s.)

My first job after university was at Demon Internet where it was normal for ops staff to log in as root over ssh. Demon had patched sshd to change how it found user public keys, which allowed the security team to manage which staff had access to which servers. (In practice, most ops staff had access to everything, which was sometimes fun!) At that time I was paying attention to the prevailing sysadmin wisdom, and sudo was being suggested as a good idea. It was not yet dogma, but it was heading that way.

There were a bunch of reasons for recommending sudo:

  1. As a safety guard.

    If you never have a root shell prompt it’s harder to accidentally do something with root powers that has catastrophic consequences. This is also what really(8) is for, and it’s about 1000x simpler than sudo.

    I have never been persuaded by this argument. As a safety guard sudo is pretty feeble. The idea is to provide some mechanical assistance to the sysadmin’s situational awareness: do I really mean to run this command as root? In my career I have always been working with distributed systems, so a simple privileged/unprivileged sudo-or-not guard fails to capture many of the other ways to fuck up: like, are you even logged into the right system?

    Other tools you can use to avoid mistakes include:

    • put your username, hostname, and working directory in your shell prompt, and pay attention to it so you maintain your situational awareness

    • use multiple terminal windows – I always took this for granted, but only a few years before I started my career, X terminals were a rare privilege. Spatial awareness is a powerful tool for keeping track of things, so use it to separate root or not, this machine or that machine.

    • use colours or decorations to make privileged terminal prompts or privileged windows more obvious

  2. Because you should not log in to root directly.

    There’s a lot of angst out there about the dangers of exposing a root login to the big bad internet. It is not backed by a rational assessment of the security of root’s login credentials (whether keys or passwords) nor by any analysis of whether you get a meaningful security improvement from logging in as another user then raising privilege with sudo.

    By the time Ansible came along, this advice had turned into dogma. Ansible by default prefers to log in to a remote system using a non-root account then escalate to root using sudo or some alternative. Because Ansible is an automation tool, it must be able to escalate privilege without interaction. So there is no meaningful security boundary, and this non-root account is effectively equivalent to root. So Ansible has a lot of gratuitous complexity just to conform to this dogma.

  3. For auditing.

    I doubt I have ever seen or heard of sudo’s logs being used effectively.

    But (assuming there is in fact some practical use to it) sudo was better at logging who did what than other privilege escalation tools, such as login or su. In particular, sshd was for a long time unable to log which public key was used to authenticate, which is a sad omission especially for shared privileged accounts such as root.

  4. It’s a general-purpose tool.

    This is sudo as a bad userv, rather than sudo as a bloated really(8).

    In the early 1990s it was not easy to provide a tool that crossed privilege boundaries. That was before it made sense to make a web app to handle such things. It was wasteful of limited computing resources to have a persistent daemon (like userv) when you could use setuid (like sudo). And back then SCM_CREDS was advanced technology not available everywhere, which led to some compromises in userv’s design.

    I think sudo became popular because of this broad utility, then it became the recommended way to escalate to root (for reasons 1 and 2). However sudo has a really complicated rules language to describe which users can run which tools with which privileges, which is the cause of many of its security vulnerabilities (undermining 1 and 2).

    One of the things that surprised me about doas was that it still implements most of a sudo-style rules language. When they said it was radically stripped down I expected something like really(8), but no!

  1. For single-user workstations.

    After sudo was already a thing, Mac OS X and Ubuntu needed to solve the problem of allowing the workstation’s user to get administrative access without making their account trivially equivalent to root.

    Instead of demanding the credentials of the target account, sudo authenticates the user making the request. So a single user workstation can be set up without a root password, and its owner only has to worry about the credentials for a single login.

    And sudo allows you to authenticate once, then run it several times without re-authenticating. It’s almost as convenient as a root shell!

    I think this use of sudo in the most widespread unix systems really cemented dogmas 1 and 2. It’s popular so it must be right!

    In this case, sudo is more about usability than security. It’s doing an important job, but it’s far more complicated than necessary. Better would be something like really(8), with more authentication to verify the presence of the user.

So, to summarize, I think reasons 1, 2, 3 are bad reasons for using sudo. If you need to provide tools that cross security boundaries (4) then userv or a small web app is better. For single-user workstations (5) unfortunately there isn’t a good alternative to sudo. Personally I prefer to set up a root account that I can log into directly, but I’m not an average user.