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November 9, 2020

GHSL-2020-202: Local Privilege Escalation (LPE) in Ubuntu gdm3 - CVE-2020-16125

Kevin Backhouse


gdm3 can be tricked into launching gnome-initial-setup, enabling an unprivileged user to create a new user account for themselves. The new account is a member of the sudo group, so this enables the unprivileged user to obtain admin privileges.

The vulnerability in gdm3 is triggered when the accountsservice daemon is unresponsive. I have simultaneously reported a separate denial-of-service vulnerability in accountsservice to Ubuntu. On Ubuntu 20.04.1 LTS, I am able to use the vulnerability in accountsservice to trigger the vulnerability in gdm3 and escalate privileges. As far as I know, the vulnerability in accountsservice only exists on Ubuntu. The freedesktop and debian versions of accountsservice do not contain the vulnerable code. However, gdm3 may also be vulnerable on other systems if a different way can be found to block D-Bus communication with the accountsservice daemon.



Tested Version


Issue 1: gdm3 LPE due to unresponsive accounts-daemon (GHSL-2020-202, CVE-2020-16125)

gnome-initial-setup is an application that is run on freshly installed systems. It presents a series of dialog boxes to the user, enabling them to create a new account on the machine. The newly created account is an admin account (it is a member of the sudo group). gnome-initial-setup is invoked by gdm3 when there are no user accounts on the machine. Therefore, if we can trick gdm3 into thinking that there are no user accounts, then it will launch gnome-initial-setup, enabling us to gain root privileges.

gdm3 uses a D-Bus method call to get the list of existing users from the accountsservice daemon, in look_for_existing_users_sync:

static void
look_for_existing_users_sync (GdmDisplay *self)
        GdmDisplayPrivate *priv;
        GError *error = NULL;
        GVariant *call_result;
        GVariant *user_list;

        priv = gdm_display_get_instance_private (self);
        priv->accountsservice_proxy = g_dbus_proxy_new_sync (priv->connection,
                                                             0, NULL,

        if (!priv->accountsservice_proxy) {
                g_warning ("Failed to contact accountsservice: %s", error->message);
                goto out;

        call_result = g_dbus_proxy_call_sync (priv->accountsservice_proxy,

        if (!call_result) {
                g_warning ("Failed to list cached users: %s", error->message);
                goto out;

        g_variant_get (call_result, "(@ao)", &user_list);
        priv->have_existing_user_accounts = g_variant_n_children (user_list) > 0;
        g_variant_unref (user_list);
        g_variant_unref (call_result);
        g_clear_error (&error);

It seems that the value of priv->have_existing_user_accounts is false by default, so if the D-Bus method call fails (due to a timeout) then it will remain false. You will see the message “Failed to list cached users” in the system log.

look_for_existing_users_sync is called from gdm_display_prepare:

gdm_display_prepare (GdmDisplay *self)
        GdmDisplayPrivate *priv;
        gboolean ret;

        g_return_val_if_fail (GDM_IS_DISPLAY (self), FALSE);

        priv = gdm_display_get_instance_private (self);

        g_debug ("GdmDisplay: Preparing display: %s", priv->id);

        /* FIXME: we should probably do this in a more global place,
         * asynchronously
        look_for_existing_users_sync (self);

        priv->doing_initial_setup = wants_initial_setup (self);

        g_object_ref (self);
        ret = GDM_DISPLAY_GET_CLASS (self)->prepare (self);
        g_object_unref (self);

        return ret;

If priv->have_existing_user_accounts is false, then wants_initial_setup returns true, leading to the invocation of gnome-initial-setup.


This issue may lead to local privilege escalation, where an unprivileged user is able to gain root privileges.


I recommend making the default value of priv->have_existing_user_accounts true.


Coordinated Disclosure Timeline


This issue was discovered and reported by GHSL team member @kevinbackhouse (Kevin Backhouse).


You can contact the GHSL team at, please include a reference to GHSL-2020-202 in any communication regarding this issue.