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Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2020 21:15:10 +0200
From: Jelle van der Waa <>
Subject: Re: Pacman package manager - taking untrusted input

On 21/04/2020 20:47, Simon McVittie wrote:
> On Tue, 21 Apr 2020 at 21:51:56 +0430, Amin Vakil wrote:
>> On 4/21/20 8:57 PM, wrote:
>>> The code supports database signatures, so the real issue is the distro
>>> infrastructure.
> I interpret this as: pacman can accept either signed or unsigned
> databases, but the various distros that use pacman (such as Arch Linux)
> currently only publish unsigned databases in practice. Is that correct?

This is correct for Arch Linux and this is also something the Arch Linux
team wants to work on and is held up by figuring out a 'sane' way to
sign a pacman database using gpg without compromising the signing key.

> Can pacman be configured to *only* accept signed databases, so that a
> mirror containing an unverifiable database (unsigned, signed with a key
> that is not explicitly trusted, or with an invalid signature) is treated
> as an error? If it cannot, then there's an obvious downgrade attack:
> a malicious mirror could substitute an unsigned database and the pacman
> client would happily use that.

It can using SigLevel = Required in pacman.conf, as can be found in the
man page

There is however another scenario which could be used even if the
database was signed.

1. Wait till a package has a critical security issue (RCE in nginx for
2. As malicious mirror withhold updates, ie. no longer sync the
repository with upstream
3. Since the mirror is not updated the user will stay on the vulnerable

As a sidenote this can be circumvented by the administrator wondering
why there are no updates (pretty rare for Arch :-) ) or running
arch-audit which checks if the system has any vulnerable packages
installed which hopefully gives away that the mirror is out of date and
should be reported and changed.

Note that we do remove mirrors which do not keep up from our mirrorlist,
but changing mirror is still a manual task.

> On Tue, 21 Apr 2020 at 17:41:42 +0000, wrote:
>> An attacker need only find a bug in how Pacman does
>> parsing/reading of the database file to potentially get code execution
>> on the box as root.
> My understanding is that this is a risk, and at least arguably a design
> flaw, but not generally considered to be a vulnerability (CVE IDs,
> etc.) unless/until an unfixed parser bug with the necessary severity
> is found.
> Of course, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good idea to authenticate
> the database before parsing it: that would mitigate a lot of potential
> vulnerabilities.
> Something that might be considered to be a vulnerability already (or not,
> depending on the pacman and distro maintainers' threat models) is that
> an attacker could substitute a database that lists obsolete packages
> with known vulnerabilities. Those packages will presumably be validly
> signed by distro developers (because at one time they were considered
> to be the best version available). Presumably pacman won't normally
> downgrade from the version it has installed to a strictly older version
> from a mirror, but if a user installs a new (not currently installed)
> package using that mirror/database, they'll unknowingly be installing
> an older package that has known vulnerabilities.
> That form of attack is difficult to address in general, because it needs
> a revocation or expiry mechanism. apt-based distros are starting to
> address equivalent issues by setting a Valid-Until field on their archive
> metadata, so that clients will warn their user if presented with outdated
> archive metadata (the equivalent of pacman's database) - although this is
> somewhat awkward to deploy, because it requires a signing key to be
> made available on a regular basis, which conflicts with the idea that
> high-value signing keys should be kept offline when not in use.

A pacman developer has proposed a patchset to implement an expiry for
repo database.

P.S. for reporting security issues regarding Arch Linux's infra,
packages and package manager is preferred to be
used :)

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