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Understanding and Mitigating Privilege Escalation Vulnerabilities in the Linux Kernel

Rohan Timalsina

May 27, 2024 - TuxCare expert team

  • Privilege escalation is a critical security issue in Linux systems, potentially leading to full system compromise.
  • The Dirty COW and Dirty Pipe vulnerabilities are popular examples of privilege escalation vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel.
  • Modernize your Linux patching approach with an automated and rebootless patching solution, KernelCare Enterprise.

Like any complex software, the Linux kernel is not immune to vulnerabilities. Among the most critical Linux kernel vulnerabilities are privilege escalation vulnerabilities, which allow attackers to gain elevated access to system resources and execute unauthorized actions. In this article, we’ll explore the Linux kernel privilege escalation vulnerabilities and other common privilege escalation techniques, as well as discuss mitigation strategies to fortify your systems against such threats.

Understanding Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks are a type of cyberattack where an attacker gains elevated access rights beyond what was originally granted. These attacks exploit vulnerabilities or misconfigurations to move from a lower-privileged user account to a higher-privileged level, such as administrative or root access. This allows attackers to wreak havoc, steal sensitive data, execute arbitrary code, and potentially take full control of the system. Privilege escalation can occur in two forms: vertical and horizontal.

Vertical Privilege Escalation: The attacker moves from a lower to a higher level of privilege, such as gaining root or administrative rights from a standard user account. For example, a regular user may exploit a vulnerability in the system to execute commands with root privileges.

Horizontal Privilege Escalation: The attacker gains access to the same level of privileges but to different user accounts or resources. For example, a user may exploit a vulnerability to access another user’s files or data without gaining higher privileges.

Common Privilege Escalation Techniques in Linux

In Linux systems, privilege escalation can be achieved through various techniques, including:

Kernel Exploits: Exploiting kernel vulnerabilities can lead to significant security breaches, including unauthorized access, data manipulation, and full control over the system.

Password Reuse and Weak Passwords: Using easily guessable passwords that lack complexity makes them vulnerable to brute force attacks, dictionary attacks, or even credential stuffing. Also, using the same passwords across multiple accounts or systems poses significant security risks. If one account is compromised, attackers can use the same password to gain access to other accounts.

Unpatched Software: If you have installed any software and it has not been patched, it might contain privilege escalation vulnerabilities that could allow unauthorized access. A glibc vulnerability tracked as CVE-2023-6246 allowed local attackers to gain root privileges on the system, for example.

Abusing Sudo Rights: Sudo (superuser do) provides a secure way to grant temporary elevated access for specific users. However, misconfigured sudo rights can be exploited to gain unauthorized root access. If sudo permissions are poorly managed, attackers can execute critical system commands or run malicious scripts as the root user, compromising the entire system.

Misconfigured Permissions: Incorrectly configured files and directory permissions can expose sensitive files or executables that should not be accessible by regular users. This misconfiguration can lead to privilege escalation if users can read or write to critical system files.

Examples of Linux Kernel Privilege Escalation Vulnerabilities

Following are some privilege escalation vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel that have been rated as having high severity.


The Dirty COW vulnerability (CVE-2016-5195) is a well-known example where a race condition in the handling of the copy-on-write (COW) mechanism allowed write access to read-only memory mappings. An unprivileged local attacker can exploit this to escalate their privileges on the system.


Also known as the Dirty Pipe vulnerability, it allows an unprivileged local user to overwrite data in read-only files, potentially leading to privilege escalation. This issue arises from the Linux kernel’s incorrect handling of Unix pipes.


A use-after-free vulnerability in the Linux kernel’s traffic control index filter (tcindex) can be exploited for local privilege escalation. The tcindex_delete function fails to properly deactivate filters when dealing with perfect hashes while deleting the underlying structure, potentially leading to a double-free condition. A local user can leverage this vulnerability to elevate their privileges to root.


A vulnerability in the Linux kernel’s memory management subsystem arises from incorrect lock handling during access and updates to virtual memory areas (VMAs). This flaw leads to use-after-free issues, which can be exploited to execute arbitrary kernel code, escalate containers, and gain root privileges.


A use-after-free vulnerability was found in the Linux kernel’s netfilter: nf_tables component which could be exploited to achieve local privilege escalation. The nft_verdict_init() function allows positive values as drop errors within the hook verdict, leading the nf_hook_slow() function to trigger a double-free vulnerability when NF_DROP is issued with a drop error that mimics NF_ACCEPT.

Mitigation Strategies for Privilege Escalation Vulnerabilities

Regular Kernel Updates

One of the most effective solutions is keeping the Linux kernel up to date with the latest security patches. Kernel developers or the Linux distribution vendors frequently release security patches that fix vulnerabilities, including those related to privilege escalation. Applying these updates reduces the risk of potential exploitation of known vulnerabilities in the kernel.

The conventional patching method would require a reboot, however, with live patching, you can eliminate the need to reboot the system. TuxCare’s KernelCare Enterprise live patching solution allows you to apply security patches to the running kernel without needing to reboot the system. Furthermore, it automates the patching process and ensures patches are deployed immediately when they are available.

Learn how KernelCare Enterprise delivers vulnerability patches without downtime or disruptions.

Software Updates

Outdated software usually contains vulnerabilities, making it an easy target for attackers. So, it is essential to keep your installed software up to date with the latest security updates.

Principle of Least Privilege

If an attacker compromises an account with limited access, the damage they can do is limited too. Thus, following the principle of least privilege helps minimize the impact of potential exploits. It is a security concept where users and processes are granted the minimum level of permissions required to complete their tasks. For example, a user who only needs read access should not have write or execute permissions.

Proper File and Directory Permissions

Ensure that sensitive files and directories have appropriate permissions to prevent unauthorized access. Regularly check file permissions, especially in critical directories like /etc, /var, and /home. You can use tools like chmod and chown to modify the access permissions.

Utilize Security Modules

Implement kernel modules like SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) or AppArmor, which enforce Mandatory Access Control (MAC), further restricting unauthorized access.

Security Audits

Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments to identify and address potential weaknesses before attackers exploit them.

Final Thoughts

Privilege escalation vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel pose significant security risks and it is crucial to patch them immediately. By understanding privilege escalation techniques and effective mitigation strategies, system administrators can significantly reduce the attack surface and keep their Linux systems protected. Remember, security is an ongoing process, and maintaining a secure and reliable environment requires constant vigilance. Stay informed about the latest Linux kernel vulnerabilities and updates!

Unsure how to patch your Linux systems more efficiently? Our Linux security experts are here to help! Simply ask a question and we’ll guide you towards a modern patching approach.

Mitigating Privilege Escalation Vulnerabilities in the Linux Kernel
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Mitigating Privilege Escalation Vulnerabilities in the Linux Kernel
Explore privilege escalation vulnerabilities in Linux and learn effective mitigation strategies to secure your system from potential attacks.
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