10.1 Why root?

One common complaint about sendmail centers on the fact that it is often run set-user-id root (that is, run as root no matter who actually runs it).[3] Beginning with V8.12, the default is to run sendmail as a user other than root (Section 2.6.2). The listening daemon needs to be root, but sendmail itself no longer needs to be set-user-id root.

[3] Contrary to popular belief, sendmail does not run as root to handle local delivery (except that sendmail can deliver directly to files when necessary, but that is not directly germane to this discussion). Local delivery is handled by delivery agents (such as /bin/mail), which may run set-user-id root themselves (or set-group-id mail as in SysV).

For the most part it is necessary for sendmail to run as root to satisfy legitimate needs. Consider the following:

  • Users want ~/.forward files to work even when their home directory is set to mode 700. The sendmail program requires root privilege so that it can temporarily become the user to read and process the ~/.forward file.

  • Users want :include: mailing-list files readable only by themselves and sendmail. The sendmail program requires root privilege so that it can temporarily become the owner of the list.

  • Users want programs that run on their behalf to run as themselves. This requires root privileges, and running as anything else would be potentially very dangerous.

  • Users want sendmail to listen on TCP/IP ports that are common (ports 25 and 587). The sendmail program requires root privilege so that it can initiate listening connections to privileged ports.

Some folks have been tempted to run sendmail as an untrusted pseudo-user (such as nobody). But this doesn't really work. For example, it causes programs in users' ~/.forward files to be run as nobody, and it requires the queue to be owned by nobody. Consequently, such a scheme allows any user to break into and modify the queue.[4]

[4] But note that V8.8 sendmail has loosened the latter for use on firewall machines, where it won't complain about non-root qf files if it is not running as root.

10.1.1 Test seteuid and setreuid

Clearly, many of sendmail's duties require it to run as root. As a corollary, however, whenever sendmail does not need to be root, it should become the appropriate non-privileged user. It does this by using the following bit of logic:

  • If it was compiled with support for seteuid(3) (USESETEUID), use that routine to set the effective uid to that of the desired non-root user. This is less preferred than the following.

  • If it was compiled with support for setreuid(3) (HAS...), use that routine to set the effective and real uids to those of the desired non-root user.

  • Otherwise, use setuid(3) to become the desired non-root user.

Note that setreuid(3) is preferred over seteuid(3)[5] and setuid(3) because it allows sendmail to temporarily give away both its real and effective root privilege, then to get it back again. To illustrate the need for this behavior, consider processing a mailing list that saves mail to two different files:

[5] Except when seteuid(3) is Posix-compliant. Old implementations of seteuid(3) didn't properly save the uid; hence the preference, in that case, for setreuid(3).

/u/bill/archive    owned by the user bill, mode 4600
/u/alice/archive   owned by the user alice, mode 4600

Further consider that these files both have permissions of set-user-id to the individual users[6] and are writable only by the individual users. To perform delivery in this instance, sendmail must[7] first become bill (this requires root privilege). To become another user, sendmail forks. The parent remains root and the child becomes the user, bill in our example. When it is done, the child exits. The parent sendmail remains root so that it can next become alice. By retaining a real uid of root, sendmail is able to change its effective uid to one user after another as needed.

[6] When delivering to files, sendmail will become the owner of the file if that file's set-user-id bit is set and if no execute bits are set.

[7] We say "must" because in an NFS environment, root is mapped to nobody, so in that instance, even root won't be able to write to bill's files unless sendmail becomes bill.

See the description of the test directory in USESETEUID for more on this subject.

    Part I: Build and Install
    Part II: Administration
    Part III: The Configuration File