Talos Vulnerability Report


Microsoft Azure Sphere Linux namespace ptrace unsigned code execution vulnerability

April 13, 2021
CVE Number



An unsigned code execution vulnerability exists in the Linux namespace ptrace functionality of Microsoft Azure Sphere 21.01. Specially crafted shellcode could allow an adversary to execute unsigned code. An attacker can change the namespace and use ptrace to modify the code of a running process to trigger this vulnerability.

Tested Versions

Microsoft Azure Sphere 21.01

Product URLs


CVSSv3 Score

6.2 - CVSS:3.0/AV:L/AC:L/PR:N/UI:N/S:U/C:N/I:H/A:N


CWE-284 - Improper Access Control


Microsoft’s Azure Sphere is a platform for the development of internet-of-things applications. It features a custom SoC that consists of a set of cores that run both high-level and real-time applications, enforces security and manages encryption (among other functions). The high-level applications execute on a custom Linux-based OS, with several modifications to make it smaller and more secure, specifically for IoT applications.

A Linux namespace is an abstraction provided by the kernel to limit the execution context of a given process or thread and potentially also to isolate it.
Currently, there exist 8 kinds of namespaces: Cgroup, IPC, Network, Mount, PID, Time, User, UTS. An unprivileged user can create a new user namespace (using the CLONE_NEWUSER flag) and have a full capabilities (root user with all caps) in that namespace. From man user_namespaces(7):

User namespaces isolate security-related identifiers and
attributes, in particular, user IDs and group IDs (see
credentials(7)), the root directory, keys (see keyrings(7)), and
capabilities (see capabilities(7)).  A process's user and group
IDs can be different inside and outside a user namespace.  In
particular, a process can have a normal unprivileged user ID
outside a user namespace while at the same time having a user ID
of 0 inside the namespace; in other words, the process has full
privileges for operations inside the user namespace, but is
unprivileged for operations outside the namespace.

Once in the new user namespace, the user has full capabilities in the namespace (including CAP_SYS_PTRACE) to all other resources within the namespace, which allows for tracing arbitrary processes within the namespace. It is worth emphasizing again that the elevated permissions only apply to resources within the user namespace, if one were to attempt tracing a process outside the new user namespace, the credentials utilized by the tracer would be the same unpriviledged credentials as before.

In the Azure Sphere platfom, a more novel approach at preventing unsigned code execution exists: only the code already present in the device, or signed code that has been deployed to the device via the cloud, and marked as executable can ever be executed. This is enforced by Linux kernel patches around and inside mprotect and mmap that make sure that memory that has ever been writable cannot ever be executable. Moreover, this is also enforced at the kernel driver level by ensuring all mountpoints are exclusively either writable or executable.

In order to stop attackers from simply using PTRACE_ATTACH and PTRACE_POKETEXT to write to non-writable memory for subsequent execution, kernel patches have been added to deny the ptracing of any process unless the device is running in development mode. This is implemented via LSM hooks:

static struct security_hook_list azure_sphere_hooks[] = {
    LSM_HOOK_INIT(ptrace_access_check, azure_sphere_ptrace_access_check),
    LSM_HOOK_INIT(ptrace_traceme, azure_sphere_ptrace_traceme),

// LSM entry only called on ptrace_traceme
static int azure_sphere_ptrace_traceme(struct task_struct *parent)
    // if pluton says we are in development mode then allow otherwise fail
    if(azure_sphere_in_dev_mode()) {
        return 0;

    return -EPERM;

// LSM entry only called on ptrace_attach and a small subset of /proc entries impacting if you can see other PIDs
static int azure_sphere_ptrace_access_check(struct task_struct *child, unsigned int mode)
    struct mm_struct *mm;
    const struct cred *cred = current_cred();
    bool ret;
    struct azure_sphere_task_cred *child_tsec;
    struct azure_sphere_task_cred *self_tsec;

    // if CAP_SYS_PTRACE is active then allow        // [1]
    ret = az_ptrace_has_cap(cred, __task_cred(child)->user_ns, mode);
    if (ret) {
        // check if the user_ns is accessible for the task memory
        mm = child->mm;
        if (mm && az_ptrace_has_cap(cred, mm->user_ns, mode)) {
                return 0;

    // make sure that the capabilities of the process is a superset of the process being traced to avoid elevating privileges
    child_tsec = get_task_cred(child)->security;
    self_tsec = get_task_cred(current)->security;
    if(!child_tsec || !self_tsec || ((child_tsec->capabilities & self_tsec->capabilities) != child_tsec->capabilities))
        return -EPERM;

    // if pluton says we are in development mode then allow otherwise fail
    if(!azure_sphere_in_dev_mode()) {
        return -EPERM;

    return 0;

Notice how azure_sphere_ptrace_traceme is disallowed altogether in non-dev mode, while azure_sphere_ptrace_access_check (hit from PTRACE_ATTACH, PTRACE_SEIZE and PTRACE_MODE_READ) allows ptracing to occur when not in development mode, assuming process owns the CAP_SYS_PTRACE [1] capability.
Indeed, the function az_ptrace_has_cap determines if a process is allowed to trace, just by checking CAP_SYS_PTRACE:

static bool az_ptrace_has_cap(const struct cred *cred, struct user_namespace *ns,
              unsigned int mode)
   int ret;

   if (mode & PTRACE_MODE_NOAUDIT)
       ret = security_capable(cred, ns, CAP_SYS_PTRACE, CAP_OPT_NOAUDIT);
       ret = security_capable(cred, ns, CAP_SYS_PTRACE, CAP_OPT_NONE);

   return ret == 0;

Returning back to azure_sphere_access_check:

ret = az_ptrace_has_cap(cred, __task_cred(child)->user_ns, mode); // [2]
if (ret) {
    // check if the user_ns is accessible for the task memory
    mm = child->mm;
    if (mm && az_ptrace_has_cap(cred, mm->user_ns, mode)) {       // [3]
            return 0;

At [2], the security module checks to see that the tracing process has CAP_SYS_PTRACE within the tracee process’s user namespace. This check can be passed simply by entering a new username space, fork()‘ing or clone()‘ing and then having the parent process ptrace the child process. Since the credentials of the parent are inherited by the child (most importantly the user namespace), and also because the parent has CAP_SYS_PTRACE within this user namespace, we can pass this check rather easily. The check at [3] however is not automatically passed with fork() or clone(), while the child’s credential structure might live in the same namespace as the parent, the child’s memory map (child->mm->user_ns) does not necessarily follow the trend, extra steps must be taken by an attacker (one of the simpler ways to pass this check is to just execl() after clone()or fork()).

Regardless, since there are no checks are in place to verify that the parent process’ namespace is not the root namespace (init_user_ns), it’s allowed to create a new namespace (either via unshare or clone) and use ptrace inside it. Thus, once an attacker has passed both az_ptrace_has_cap checks, it follows that a process can spawn a new child, attach to it via PTRACE_ATTACH, modify its executable memory via PTRACE_POKETEXT, and let it resume, effectively running unsigned code on the device (similarly to how it was demonstrated in TALOS-2020-1090).


2021-02-12 - Vendor Disclosure
2021-04-13 - Public Release


Discovered by Claudio Bozzato and Lilith >_> of Cisco Talos.