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Systemd Units Hardening


  • Familiarity with command-line tools
  • Basic understanding of systemd and file permissions
  • Ability to read man pages


Many services run with privileges they do not really need to function properly. systemd ships many tools that help to minimize the risk when a process gets compromised, by enforcing security measures and limiting permissions.


  • Improving the security of systemd units


This guide explains the mechanics of securing systemd units and does not cover the proper configuration of any particular unit. Some concepts are oversimplified. Understanding them and some commands used, requires a deeper dive into the topic.



systemd includes a great tool that gives a quick overview on overall security configuration of a systemd unit. systemd-analyze security provides a quick overview of the security configuration of a systemd unit. Here is the score of a freshly installed httpd:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security httpd
  NAME                                  DESCRIPTION                                                              EXPOSURE
✗ RootDirectory=/RootImage=             Service runs within the host's root directory                            0.1
  SupplementaryGroups=                  Service runs as root, option does not matter
  RemoveIPC=                            Service runs as root, option does not apply
✗ User=/DynamicUser=                    Service runs as root user                                                0.4
✗ CapabilityBoundingSet=~CAP_SYS_TIME   Service processes may change the system clock                            0.2
✗ NoNewPrivileges=                      Service processes may acquire new privileges                             0.2
✓ NotifyAccess=                         Service child processes cannot alter service state
✓ PrivateMounts=                        Service cannot install system mounts
✗ UMask=                                Files created by service are world-readable by default                   0.1

→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 9.2 UNSAFE 😨


The concept of capabilities can be very confusing. Understanding it is crucial for improving the security of systemd units. Here's an excerpt from the Capabilities(7) man page:

For the purpose of performing permission checks, traditional UNIX implementations distinguish two categories of processes: privileged processes (whose effective user ID is 0, referred to as superuser or root), and unprivileged processes (whose effective UID is nonzero).  Privileged processes bypass all kernel permission checks, while  unprivileged  processes are subject to full permission checking based on the process's credentials (usually: effective UID, effective GID, and supplementary group list).

Starting  with  Linux 2.2, Linux divides the privileges traditionally associated with superuser into distinct units, known as capabilities, which can be independently enabled and disabled. Capabilities are a per-thread attribute.

Basically it means that capabilities can grant some of root privileges to unprivileged processes, but also limit the privileges of processes run by root.

There are currently 41 capabilities. It means the privileges of the root user has 41 sets of privileges. Here are a few examples:

  • CAP_CHOWN: Make arbitrary changes to file UIDs and GIDs
  • CAP_KILL: Bypass permission checks for sending signals
  • CAP_NET_BIND_SERVICE: Bind a socket to Internet domain privileged ports (port numbers less than 1024)

The Capabilities(7) man page contains the full list.

There are two types of capabilities:

  • File capabilities
  • Thread capabilities

File capabilities

File capabilities allow associating privileges with an executable, similar to suid. They include three sets: Permitted, Inheritable, and Effective, stored in an extended attribute.

Refer to the Capabilities(7) man page for a full explanation.

File capabilities cannot affect the overall exposure level of a unit and are therefore only slightly relevant to this guide. Understanding them can be useful, though. Therefore a quick demonstration:

Let us try running httpd on the default (privileged) port 80 as an unprivileged user:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo -u apache /usr/sbin/httpd
(13)Permission denied: AH00072: make_sock: could not bind to address
no listening sockets available, shutting down

As expected, the operation fails. Let us equip the httpd binary with previously mentioned CAP_NET_BIND_SERVICE and CAP_DAC_OVERRIDE (to override file permission checks on log and pid files for the sake of this excercise) and try again:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo setcap "cap_net_bind_service=+ep cap_dac_override=+ep" /usr/sbin/httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo -u apache /usr/sbin/httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ curl --head localhost
HTTP/1.1 403 Forbidden

As expected, the web server could be successfully started.

Thread capabilities

Thread capabilities apply to a process and its children. There are five thread capability sets:

  • Permitted
  • Inheritable
  • Effective
  • Bounding
  • Ambient

For full explanation refer to Capabilities(7) man page.

You have already established that httpd does not need all the privileges available to the root user. Let us remove the previously granted capabilities from the httpd binary, start the httpd daemon, and check its privileges:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo setcap -r /usr/sbin/httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl start httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ grep Cap /proc/$(pgrep --uid 0 httpd)/status
CapInh: 0000000000000000
CapPrm: 000001ffffffffff
CapEff: 000001ffffffffff
CapBnd: 000001ffffffffff
CapAmb: 0000000000000000
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ capsh --decode=000001ffffffffff

The main httpd process runs with all available capabilities, even though most of them are not required.

Restricting capabilities

systemd reduces the capability sets to the following:

  • CapabilityBoundingSet: limits the capabilities gained during execve
  • AmbientCapabilities: useful if you want to execute a process as a non-privileged user but still want to give it some capabilities

To preserve the configuration over package updates, create an override.conf file within the /lib/systemd/system/httpd.service.d/ directory.

Knowing the service needs to access a privileged port and it is being started as root, but forks its threads as apache, it is required to specify the following capabilities in the [Service] section of the /lib/systemd/system/httpd.service.d/override.conf file:


Reducing the overall exposure level from UNSAFE to MEDIUM is possible.

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl restart httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security --no-pager httpd | grep Overall
→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 7.1 MEDIUM 😐

However, this process still runs as root. Lowering the exposure level further by running it exclusively as apache is possible.

Apart from accessing the port 80, the process needs to write to the logs located in /etc/httpd/logs/ and be able to create /run/httpd/ and write to it. Achieving this in the former is done by changing the permissions with chown and the latter by using the systemd-tmpfiles utility. You can use it with the option --create for it to create the file without rebooting, but the creation of this file occurs automatically on every system startup from now on.

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo chown -R apache:apache /etc/httpd/logs/
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ echo 'd /run/httpd 0755 apache apache -' | sudo tee /etc/tmpfiles.d/httpd.conf
d /run/httpd 0755 apache apache -
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemd-tmpfiles --create /etc/tmpfiles.d/httpd.conf
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ ls -ld /run/httpd/
drwxr-xr-x. 2 apache apache 40 Jun 30 08:29 /run/httpd/

You need to adjust the configuration within /lib/systemd/system/httpd.service.d/override.conf. You need to grant the new capabilities with AmbientCapabilities. If httpd is enabled on startup, expanding the dependencies in the [Unit] section for the service to start after the creation of the temporary file must occur.


[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl restart httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ grep Cap /proc/$(pgrep httpd | head -1)/status
CapInh: 0000000000000400
CapPrm: 0000000000000400
CapEff: 0000000000000400
CapBnd: 0000000000000400
CapAmb: 0000000000000400
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ capsh --decode=0000000000000400
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security --no-pager httpd | grep Overall
→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 6.5 MEDIUM 😐

File system restrictions

Controlling the permissions on the files that the process creates is done by setting the UMask. The UMask parameter modifies default file permissions by performing bitwise operations. Mostly, this sets default permissions to octal 0644 (-rw-r--r--), and the default UMask is 0022. This means the UMask does not change the default set:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ printf "%o\n" $(echo $(( 00644 &  ~00022 )))

Assuming the desired permission set for files created by the daemon is 0640 (-rw-r-----), you can set the UMask to 7137. It achieves the goal even if the default permissions are set to 7777:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ printf "%o\n" $(echo $(( 07777 &  ~07137  )))


  • ProtectSystem=: "If set to "strict" the entire file system hierarchy is mounted read-only, except for the API file system subtrees /dev/, /proc/ and /sys/ (protect these directories using PrivateDevices=, ProtectKernelTunables=, ProtectControlGroups=)."
  • ReadWritePaths=: makes particular paths writable again
  • ProtectHome=: makes /home/, /root, and /run/user inaccessible
  • PrivateDevices=: turns off access to physical devices, allows access only to pseudo devices like /dev/null, /dev/zero, /dev/random
  • ProtectKernelTunables=: makes /proc/ and /sys/ read-only
  • ProtectControlGroups=: makes cgroupsaccessible read-only
  • ProtectKernelModules=: denies explicit module loading
  • ProtectKernelLogs=: restricts access to the kernel log buffer
  • ProtectProc=: "When set to "invisible" processes owned by other users are hidden from /proc/."
  • ProcSubset=: "If "pid", all files and directories not directly associated with process management and introspection are made invisible in the /proc/ file system configured for the unit's processes."

Restricting the executable paths is also possible. The daemon only needs to execute its own binaries and libraries they use. The ldd utility can tell us what libraries a binary uses:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ ldd /usr/sbin/httpd (0x00007ffc0e823000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360d61000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360d34000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360d05000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360ccb000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360c9a000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360c5a000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360a00000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360964000)
        /lib64/ (0x00007fa360e70000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360c4e000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fa360889000)

The following lines will be appended to the [Service] section in the override.conf file:

ReadWritePaths=/run/httpd /etc/httpd/logs


ExecPaths=/usr/sbin/httpd /lib64

Let us reload the configuration and check the impact on the score:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl restart httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security --no-pager httpd | grep Overall
→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 4.9 OK 🙂

System restrictions

Various parameters can restrict system operations to enhance security:

  • NoNewPrivileges=: ensures the process cannot gain new privileges through setuid, setgid bits and filesystem capabilities
  • ProtectClock=: denies writes to system and hardware clocks
  • SystemCallArchitectures=: if set to native, processes can make only native syscalls (in most cases x86-64)
  • RestrictNamespaces=: namespaces are mostly relevant to containers, therefore can be restricted for this unit
  • RestrictSUIDSGID=: prevents the process from setting setuid and setgid bits on files
  • LockPersonality=: prevents the execution domain from being changed, which could be useful only for running legacy applications, or software designed for other Unix-like systems
  • RestrictRealtime=: realtime scheduling is relevant only to applications that require strict timing guarantees, such as industrial control systems, audio/video processing, and scientific simulations
  • RestrictAddressFamilies=: restricts socket address families that are available; can be set to AF_(INET|INET6) to allow only IPv4 and IPv6 sockets; some services will need AF_UNIX for internal communication and logging
  • MemoryDenyWriteExecute=: ensures that the process cannot allocate new memory regions that are both writable and executable, prevents some types of attacks where malicious code is injected into writable memory and then executed; may cause JIT compilers used by JavaScript, Java or .NET to fail
  • ProtectHostname=: prevents the process from using syscalls sethostname(), setdomainname()

Let us append the following to the override.conf file, reload the configuration and check the impact on the score:

RestrictAddressFamilies=AF_INET AF_INET6 AF_UNIX
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl restart httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security --no-pager httpd | grep Overall
→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 3.0 OK 🙂

System call filtering

Restricting system calls may not be easy. It is difficult to determine what system calls some daemons need to make to function properly.

The strace utility can be useful to determine what syscalls created. The option -f specifies to follow forked processes and -o saves the output to the file called httpd.strace.

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo strace -f -o httpd.strace /usr/sbin/httpd

After running the process for a while and interacting with it, stop the execution to inspect the output:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ awk '{print $2}' httpd.strace | cut -d '(' -f 1 | sort | uniq | sed '/^[^a-zA-Z0-9]*$/d' | wc -l

The program made 79 unique system calls during its runtime. You can set the list of the system calls to allowed with the following one-liner:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ echo SystemCallFilter=$(awk '{print $2}' httpd.strace | cut -d '(' -f 1 | sort | uniq | sed '/^[^a-zA-Z0-9]*$/d' | tr "\n" " ") | sudo tee -a /lib/systemd/system/httpd.service.d/override.conf
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ sudo systemctl restart httpd
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze security --no-pager httpd | grep Overall
→ Overall exposure level for httpd.service: 1.5 OK 🙂
[user@rocky-vm ~]$ curl --head localhost
HTTP/1.1 403 Forbidden

The web server is still running and the exposure has been significantly lowered.

The above approach is very precise. If a system call has been left out, it may lead to the program crashing. systemd groups system calls into predefined sets. To make restricting system calls easier, instead of a single system call, setting a whole group on the allowed or disallowed list, is possible. To look up the lists:

[user@rocky-vm ~]$ systemd-analyze syscall-filter
    # System calls that are always permitted

System calls within groups may overlap, especially for some groups include other groups. Therefore single calls or groups can be set to disallowed by being specified with the ~ symbol. The following directives in the override.conf file should work for this unit:

SystemCallFilter=~@privileged @resources @mount @swap @reboot


The default security configuration of most systemd units is loose. Hardening them may take some time, but it is worthwhile, especially in larger environments exposed to the internet. If an attacker exploits a vulnerability or misconfiguration, a hardened unit may prevent them from taking control of the system.

Author: Julian Patocki

Contributors: Steven Spencer