TL;DR: adb setuid exhaustion attack (aka RageAgainstTheCage) was present in Android 1.6 to 2.2. During adb initialisation, while dropping its privileges there is no check for setuid syscall’s return value. This can be exploited by causing a race condition by creating RLIMIT_NPROC processes and killing adb, on adb restart setuid syscall might fail and can lead to adb continue running with root privileges.

Time To Read: 5 min

In 2010 Sebastian Krahmer discovered a vulnerability in the implementation of adb for Android 1.6 to 2.2 versions. The vulnerability is - adb fails to check setuid return code and this can be caused to fail by a shell user already having RLIMIT_NPROC processes. The vulnerability in itself is very simple, unlike many other vulnerabilities which require various memory gymnastics to exploit. Apart from the simplicity, the vulnerability gives us a good insight into some of the Linux kernel working and also a good lesson for the developers.


To understand the working of this exploit, we need to understand how resource allocation works in Linux. Linux uses getrlimit() and setrlimit() system calls to get and set resource limits for a process. Some of the process resources are: virtual memory size, CPU time a process can consume etc, a list is available at getrlimit man page. In this case we are interested in RLIMIT_NPROC resource. This resources was introduced to protect against a fork bomb. As per the man page:

This is a limit on the number of extant process (or, more precisely on Linux, threads) for the real user ID of the calling process. So long as the current number of processes belonging to this process’s real user ID is greater than or equal to this limit, fork(2) fails with the error EAGAIN.


When Android Debug Bridge (adb) is started, there are multiple tasks need to be performed before adb is available to the user. To accomplish these tasks, adb is launched with root privileges and once all the initialisation is complete, it drops its privileges. Linux system call setuid is used to lower the privileges. The main cause of the vulnerability is, in Android 1.6 to 2.2, adb does not check the return value of this setuid syscall while lowering its privileges.

// setuid call in adb 


When setuid is called, the kernel checks if the number of processes for that non-root user set by administrator is not crossed (i.e RLIMIT_NPROC). If this non-root user already has RLIMIT_NPROC processes running, then setuid call will fail.

If we can somehow reach this RLIMIT_NPROC processes and then make adb restart, the kernel will prevent the adb to lower its privileges. Since, adb does not check the setuid return value, it will continue to execute with root privileges. To accomplish this, we can launch multiple dummy processes and reach RLIMIT_NPROC process limit for the user. Then kill adb, which will cause adbd to restart adb. While relaunching adb, it causes a race condition between adb and the processes we launched to spawn the last RLIMIT_NPROC process. If our dummy process is launched, setuid for adb will fail, and in this case it will continue running with root privileges.

Multiple dummy processes can be launched using the following code:

if (fork() == 0) {
    for (;;)


One obvious fix for this vulnerability is to check the return value of setuid. But it seems non-checking of setuid return value is a common mistake with grave consequences. In the past, sendmail capabilities bug was caused by the same programming malpractice. The common occurrence of this programming pattern has lead to discussion within Linux Kernel community to fix it in the Kernel itself, discussed in this excellent LWN article.