Privileged Seperated Processes

Part I: talking to the other side

An Intorduction

In computer programming and computer security, privilege separation is a technique in which a program is divided into parts which are limited to the specific privileges they require in order to perform a specific task. This is used to mitigate the potential damage of a computer security vulnerability.

Privilege Separation

There are many great resources describing the architecture of a priviledge separated process and the need for such architecrues, which I'm sure you already read or will ;-)

What I'm really interested in, is the way the priviledged separated processes are able to talk to each other. Hope you haveare already familliar with Unix IPCs, but if you don't, here's Beej's Guide to Unix IPC.

This is (hopefully) the first of a few posts about writing privsep processes. Hope it helps.


The socketpair() call creates an unnamed pair of connected sockets in the specified domain d, of the specified type, and using the optionally specified protocol. The descriptors used in referencing the new sockets are returned in sv[0] and sv1. The two sockets are indistinguishable.

Unlike pipe(2) which are uni-directional way of sending messages, socket(2) are bi-directional, which means they are perfect for processes to talk back to each others. socketpair(2) will create two of them for us. each connected to the other using the specified Protocol.

The above, Illustrates a socketpair of type UNIX Sockets shared by the aprent and the child. Since the sockets are indistinguishable, there's no difference which uses which.

The following snippet, Creates a socket pair and pass it to the child:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <err.h>
#include <sys/wait.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>

#define MAX_BUF_SIZE      128

int child_process (int fd);
int parent_process (int fd, pid_t pid);

main (int argc, const char **argv)
    pid_t child_pid;
    int fd[2];

    if (socketpair (AF_UNIX, SOCK_STREAM, PF_UNSPEC, fd) == -1)
        errx (1, "Failed to open socketpair");

    if ((child_pid = fork()) == -1)
        errx (2, "Failed to fork the process");

    if (child_pid > 0)
        return parent_process (fd[0], child_pid);
        return child_process (fd[1]);

    return 0; /* Not reachable */

child_process (int fd)
    char buf[MAX_BUF_SIZE];

    snprintf(buf, MAX_BUF_SIZE, "Hello World");
    if (write (fd, buf, MAX_BUF_SIZE) == -1)
        errx (1, "Failed to write Message");

    return 0;

parent_process (int fd, pid_t pid)
    int status = 0;
    ssize_t nbytes;
    char buf[MAX_BUF_SIZE];

    if ((nbytes = read (fd, buf, MAX_BUF_SIZE- 1)) == -1)
        warn ("Failed to read");
    else if (nbytes > 0) {
        buf[nbytes] = '\0';
        printf ("Received \"%s\" from the Child\n", buf);

    waitpid (pid, &status, WAIT_ANY);
    return WEXITSTATUS(status);

And the output is:

$ gcc -o privsep main.c
$ ./privsep
Received "Hello World" from the Child


In the next post, I will introduce the imsg_init(3). The OpenBSD way of writing privsep processes.