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Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2020 16:40:05 -0400
From: Eli Schwartz <>
To: Simon McVittie <>,
Subject: Re: Pacman package manager - taking untrusted input

On 4/21/20 2:47 PM, 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?


However, some people publish thirdparty repositories. I do. My
thirdparty repo is generated wholly on my laptop by exactly one person
(me) and has database signatures, so the instructions for its use
include "set the per-repository SigLevel to DatabaseRequired". I would
generally encourage anyone who doesn't have to juggle security for
online signing keys, to do so. This is only a problem if you are for
example a distro and need to have an intake mechanism for built packages
by either packaging team members or buildbots, then sign the databases
with an online signing agent and securely manage that 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.

pacman supports a tristate setting here (SigLevel):

Required | Optional | Never

In the optional case, a bad signature is an error, but a missing
signature is skipped over and ignored as though Never was specified.

It can be set for package files, database files, or both. The
distribution default is to set it Required for package files, and
Optional for database files; every archlinux user is therefore checking
for database signatures, discovering they are not available, and making
use of the configured grace setting to proceed anyway. You could DoS all
arch users by hacking the mirror network and adding an invalid
signature, though if you have that level of access, there are easier ways...

> 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.

And indeed we have had two such bugs applicable to unsigned databases,
both fixed in current versions:

Both of them required enabling non-default options in /etc/pacman.conf
and then downloading a maliciously forged database containing filenames
which were passed, unsanitized, into system(3). This isn't even a parser
bug, it's a bit more fundamental... also, of course, fixed as long as
you are using pacman >= 5.2 which we hope you are.

Arch is, as are most others. You can still get a vulnerable version of
pacman if you use:

- the unmaintained bootstrap package on Gentoo,
- the bootstrap package on *old releases* of Alpine or Fedora
- the unmaintained FreeBSD port
- Hyperbola (, an Arch Linux derivative

Disregard the incorrect NixOS information on repology, since yesterday's
NixOS 20.03 tag has the latest version of pacman:

> 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.

Packages, once installed, are never downgraded via a sysupgrade unless
the --sysupgrade flag is specified twice. This is actually fairly common
since there's a lot of bad advice on the internet:

We continue to try to educate users that you don't try downgrading
packages in order to force updates to happen faster, in much the same
way you don't run everything with sudo because it failed with, I dunno,
a missing shared library error. It's a work in progress.

It's possible to manually specify a package to reinstall it even if it
is a downgrade, but doing so will log a yellow:
"warning: downgrading package XXX (currentversion => reinstall-version)"

(the same warning is logged for a double sysupgrade)

Installing packages for the first time is of course impossible to detect
and requires general downgrade-attack protection as discussed later.

> 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.
Database signing would prevent package downgrade attacks, but not
database downgrade attacks.

As a rolling-release distro, we are recreating the database with updated
or new packages, many many times per day, so we will automatically do
Valid-Until equivalents (if implemented) without any explicit refresh task.

We have intentions and some preliminary code to add a similar timestamp
to pacman databases. Most likely it would then be up to the user to
configure how long after the timestamp they would like to continue to
trust the database (with a suitable vendor default).

This would ensure that even database downgrade attacks cannot be
performed. Note that if database signing were activated by policy but
timestamps were not yet implemented in code, users can still engage
their sense of suspicion to observe that a rolling release distro is
unlikely to go more than a day or two without updates to at least one of
the packages installed on the system. This is obviously non-ideal when
we can use timestamps, but the savvy user can nevertheless have DIY

(Again, this is irrelevant since databases are not signed.)

Eli Schwartz
Arch Linux Bug Wrangler, Trusted User, pacman developer

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