Understanding Ansible Privilege Escalation

When using Ansible, different commands can be run. While some tasks can be performed with no admin privileges needed, most of the time you will need to escalate privileges to run successfully the commands that need to change the state of your managed hosts, like installing packages or restarting services.

We will see in this post how Ansible can use existing privilege escalation systems to allow a user to execute tasks as another.


Privilege Escalation


Let’s take a basic command to get the date on the localhost


Running these commands like pinging or fetching the date on remote servers works fine, but how about running tasks that need admin privileges.


In this example:

  • There are two command arguments. The -m (module) argument to specify the type of module to use, which in this case is the command module, and the -a argument which is the actual command to run.
  • We are performing a task against the local server, which is actually not the main purpose of Ansible. In fact, to start managing remote servers, some prerequisites need to be run. The main thing here is only to understand basic privilege escalation in Ansible.

We will see in more details what are Ansible modules and how to prepare managed hosts in future posts.


Let’s play with the shadow file by trying to display the root user information in the shadow file using grep.


Permission is denied. The point is, that only user root has the rights to do this.


Permission is denied to perform any administrative task because the Ansible user does not have admin privileges. However, instead of using the root account, it is considered a best practice to use a regular user to run all Ansible tasks. For this, we’ll make sure to get our Ansible admin privileges by adding it to the wheel group.


Let’s try the same command after logging out then loggin in again to update the security token. To pass the command with sudo privileges in Ansible, the -b or –become argument is used.


Ansible is now complaining that the sudo password is required to run this admin command. The -K or –ask-become-pass argument is used in this case to tell Ansible to ask for the sudo password before running commands that need privileges.


To avoid having to provide a sudo password, you can simply uncomment this option in the sudoers file, but you need to consider the security implications by doing such configuration.



Let’s try the same command withou the -K argument


Bear in mind that the Ansible user needs to be created in all the servers that have to be managed by the Ansible controller. So for ease of management, stick to the same user / same password in your environment.

The arguments related to privilege escalation can be pre-configured in the Ansible configuration file, making it possible to run Ansible commands without providing any privilege directive. We will see how to to do it in the upcoming posts.

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