Xsecurity - X display access control
X provides mechanism for implementing many access control systems. The sample implementa-
tion includes five mechanisms:
Host Access Simple host-based access control.
MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1 Shared plain-text "cookies".
XDM-AUTHORIZATION-1 Secure DES based private-keys.
SUN-DES-1 Based on Sun's secure rpc system.
MIT-KERBEROS-5 Kerberos Version 5 user-to-user.
ACCESS SYSTEM DESCRIPTIONS
Any client on a host in the host access control list is allowed access to the X
server. This system can work reasonably well in an environment where everyone
trusts everyone, or when only a single person can log in to a given machine, and is
easy to use when the list of hosts used is small. This system does not work well
when multiple people can log in to a single machine and mutual trust does not
exist. The list of allowed hosts is stored in the X server and can be changed with
the xhost command. When using the more secure mechanisms listed below, the host
list is normally configured to be the empty list, so that only authorized programs
can connect to the display.
When using MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1, the client sends a 128 bit "cookie" along with the
connection setup information. If the cookie presented by the client matches one
that the X server has, the connection is allowed access. The cookie is chosen so
that it is hard to guess; xdm generates such cookies automatically when this form
of access control is used. The user's copy of the cookie is usually stored in the
.Xauthority file in the home directory, although the environment variable XAUTHOR-
ITY can be used to specify an alternate location. Xdm automatically passes a
cookie to the server for each new login session, and stores the cookie in the user
file at login.
The cookie is transmitted on the network without encryption, so there is nothing to
prevent a network snooper from obtaining the data and using it to gain access to
the X server. This system is useful in an environment where many users are running
applications on the same machine and want to avoid interference from each other,
with the caveat that this control is only as good as the access control to the
physical network. In environments where network-level snooping is difficult, this
system can work reasonably well.
Sites in the United States can use a DES-based access control mechanism called XDM-
AUTHORIZATION-1. It is similar in usage to MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1 in that a key is
stored in the .Xauthority file and is shared with the X server. However, this key
consists of two parts - a 56 bit DES encryption key and 64 bits of random data used
as the authenticator.
When connecting to the X server, the application generates 192 bits of data by com-
bining the current time in seconds (since 00:00 1/1/1970 GMT) along with 48 bits of
"identifier". For TCP/IP connections, the identifier is the address plus port num-
ber; for local connections it is the process ID and 32 bits to form a unique id (in
case multiple connections to the same server are made from a single process). This
192 bit packet is then encrypted using the DES key and sent to the X server, which
is able to verify if the requestor is authorized to connect by decrypting with the
same DES key and validating the authenticator and additional data. This system is
useful in many environments where host-based access control is inappropriate and
where network security cannot be ensured.
Recent versions of SunOS (and some other systems) have included a secure public key
remote procedure call system. This system is based on the notion of a network
principal; a user name and NIS domain pair. Using this system, the X server can
securely discover the actual user name of the requesting process. It involves
encrypting data with the X server's public key, and so the identity of the user who
started the X server is needed for this; this identity is stored in the .Xauthority
file. By extending the semantics of "host address" to include this notion of net-
work principal, this form of access control is very easy to use.
To allow access by a new user, use xhost. For example,
xhost keith@ email@example.com
adds "keith" from the NIS domain of the local machine, and "ruth" in the "mit.edu"
NIS domain. For keith or ruth to successfully connect to the display, they must
add the principal who started the server to their .Xauthority file. For example:
xauth add expo.lcs.mit.edu:0 SUN-DES-1 firstname.lastname@example.org
This system only works on machines which support Secure RPC, and only for users
which have set up the appropriate public/private key pairs on their system. See
the Secure RPC documentation for details. To access the display from a remote
host, you may have to do a keylogin on the remote host first.
Kerberos is a network-based authentication scheme developed by MIT for Project
Athena. It allows mutually suspicious principals to authenticate each other as
long as each trusts a third party, Kerberos. Each principal has a secret key known
only to it and Kerberos. Principals includes servers, such as an FTP server or X
server, and human users, whose key is their password. Users gain access to ser-
vices by getting Kerberos tickets for those services from a Kerberos server. Since
the X server has no place to store a secret key, it shares keys with the user who
logs in. X authentication thus uses the user-to-user scheme of Kerberos version 5.
When you log in via xdm, xdm will use your password to obtain the initial Kerberos
tickets. xdm stores the tickets in a credentials cache file and sets the environ-
ment variable KRB5CCNAME to point to the file. The credentials cache is destroyed
when the session ends to reduce the chance of the tickets being stolen before they
Since Kerberos is a user-based authorization protocol, like the SUN-DES-1 protocol,
the owner of a display can enable and disable specific users, or Kerberos princi-
pals. The xhost client is used to enable or disable authorization. For example,
xhost krb5:judy krb5:email@example.com
adds "judy" from the Kerberos realm of the local machine, and "gildea" from the
THE AUTHORIZATION FILE
Except for Host Access control, each of these systems uses data stored in the .Xauthority
file to generate the correct authorization information to pass along to the X server at
connection setup. MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1 and XDM-AUTHORIZATION-1 store secret data in the
file; so anyone who can read the file can gain access to the X server. SUN-DES-1 stores
only the identity of the principal who started the server (unix.hostname@domain when the
server is started by xdm), and so it is not useful to anyone not authorized to connect to
Each entry in the .Xauthority file matches a certain connection family (TCP/IP, DECnet or
local connections) and X display name (hostname plus display number). This allows multi-
ple authorization entries for different displays to share the same data file. A special
connection family (FamilyWild, value 65535) causes an entry to match every display, allow-
ing the entry to be used for all connections. Each entry additionally contains the autho-
rization name and whatever private authorization data is needed by that authorization type
to generate the correct information at connection setup time.
The xauth program manipulates the .Xauthority file format. It understands the semantics
of the connection families and address formats, displaying them in an easy to understand
format. It also understands that SUN-DES-1 and MIT-KERBEROS-5 use string values for the
authorization data, and displays them appropriately.
The X server (when running on a workstation) reads authorization information from a file
name passed on the command line with the -auth option (see the Xserver manual page). The
authorization entries in the file are used to control access to the server. In each of
the authorization schemes listed above, the data needed by the server to initialize an
authorization scheme is identical to the data needed by the client to generate the appro-
priate authorization information, so the same file can be used by both processes. This is
especially useful when xinit is used.
This system uses 128 bits of data shared between the user and the X server. Any
collection of bits can be used. Xdm generates these keys using a cryptographically
secure pseudo random number generator, and so the key to the next session cannot be
computed from the current session key.
This system uses two pieces of information. First, 64 bits of random data, second
a 56 bit DES encryption key (again, random data) stored in 8 bytes, the last byte
of which is ignored. Xdm generates these keys using the same random number genera-
tor as is used for MIT-MAGIC-COOKIE-1.
This system needs a string representation of the principal which identifies the
associated X server. This information is used to encrypt the client's authority
information when it is sent to the X server. When xdm starts the X server, it uses
the root principal for the machine on which it is running (unix.hostname@domain,
e.g., "firstname.lastname@example.org"). Putting the correct principal
name in the .Xauthority file causes Xlib to generate the appropriate authorization
information using the secure RPC library.
Kerberos reads tickets from the cache pointed to by the KRB5CCNAME environment
variable, so does not use any data from the .Xauthority file. An entry with no
data must still exist to tell clients that MIT-KERBEROS-5 is available.
Unlike the .Xauthority file for clients, the authority file passed by xdm to a
local X server (with ``-auth filename'', see xdm(1)) does contain the name of the
credentials cache, since the X server will not have the KRB5CCNAME environment
variable set. The data of the MIT-KERBEROS-5 entry is the credentials cache name
and has the form ``UU:FILE:filename'', where filename is the name of the creden-
tials cache file created by xdm. Note again that this form is not used by clients.
X(7x), xdm(1), xauth(1), xhost(1), xinit(1), Xserver(1)
X Version 11 Release 6.6 XSECURITY(7x)