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Date: Mon, 29 Apr 2024 20:57:10 +0100
From: Gabriel Ravier <>
To:, Vegard Nossum <>
Cc: Hank Leininger <>, Jacob Bachmeyer <>
Subject: Re: Update on the distro-backdoor-scanner effort

On 4/29/24 10:46, Vegard Nossum wrote:
> On 28/04/2024 08:34, Hank Leininger wrote:
>> On 2024-04-27, Jacob Bachmeyer wrote:
>>>> - Check for irregular contents in .pc files, inspired by Vegard 
>>>> Nossum's oss-security post
>>> Much easier:  look for pkg-config descriptions containing text
>>> other than a variable definition.  The pkg-config tool itself
>>> should probably enforce "cleanliness" on this matter and refuse to
>>> process files containing other text.  (It also should complain
>>> about and reject an *-uninstalled.pc file found in the system
>>> directories, which was another logic error exploited in that sample
>>> backdoor.)
>> Really, doing this seems a more robust approach anyway, because
>> allowing only known-good > rejecting known-bad. I was mostly driven
>> by "hang on, how many of the things Nossum's example does are
>> actually used by real files?" and the answer from my initial sample
>> size was zero, so it'd be trivial to extend that check to every .pc
>> file shipped by every current distro's packages.
>> I think Sam looked into existing pkg-config verifiers and found they
>> do not complain about things we thought they should complain about
>> (this could just mean we misunderstand their purpose). A strict
>> lint-checker for such files would be better than just checking for
>> specific suspicious patterns. But, I don't yet know how strict a
>> format we could insist on (would it turn out 10% of files in fact
>> break what we initially think are reasonable rules?). Even still, I
>> think you could embed badness in legit variables, although I haven't
>> dug in enough to know that for sure.
> Hi,
> Masquerading a shell command as a pkg-config variable definition is
> trivial (but probably still detectable) since you can just do:
> foobar=/usr echo hi
> which AFAIK is a valid pkg-config variable definition but also a valid
> shell command.
> Also remember that in my particular example I reused the same file but
> it would also be trivial to use a different file in the $(...) expansion
> so that the payload actually lives somewhere else. The payload doesn't
> even have to be a shell script, it could also be a small ELF binary or
> something where you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell at a glance
> that it does something malicious.
> So probably the real thing to look for would be $(...) in pkg-config
> files -- Hank, you mentioned in the GitHub issue that you did fine this
> in one file; out of curiosity, could you share it?

I am not Hank, but having done a search myself, the one example I found 
appears to be a typo in a GTK pkgconfig package, which I found in my 
/usr/lib64/pkgconfig folder:

$ grep -r '\$(' /usr/lib64/pkgconfig
-I:${gapidir}/gtk-api.xml -I:$(gapidir)/gtkbeans-api.xml

> I tried this on my system and didn't find anything:
> $ grep -R '\$(' /usr/share/pkgconfig /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/pkgconfig
> It's also worth asking if there are other ways to encode that $() that
> bypasses the very simple '\$(' pattern -- e.g. something like "$\(" or
> maybe an expansion of a variable that itself contains the $ character:
> $ cat test.pc
> foo=\$
> Name: test
> Version: 0
> Description:
> Cflags: ${foo}(echo hi)
> $ PKG_CONFIG_PATH=. pkg-config --cflags test
> $(echo hi)
> There are also other ways to achieve the same effect.
> I should also add that I found out-of-bounds memory accesses in both the
> original pkg-config and pkgconf (used on Debian and RedHat derivatives,
> respectively, AFAIK) when using long variable names -- it doesn't look
> exploitable to me but I've submitted some patches for both packages just
> in case.
> Thanks,
> Vegard

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