Archive for November, 2012

Android, Busybox and the GNU project

12/11/2012 2 comments

Richard Stallman, the father of the Free Software movement and the GNU project, always insists that people refer to some Linux based operating systems as “GNU/Linux”. This point is so important to him, he will refuse to grant an interview to anyone not willing to use the correct term.

There are people who don’t like this attitude. Some have even tried to “scientifically prove” that GNU project code comprises such a small part of a modern Linux distribution that it does not deserved to be mentioned in the name of such distributions.


Personally, I used to think that the GNU project deserved recognition for it’s crucial historical role in building freedom respecting operating systems, even if it was only a small part of a modern system.

But a recent experience proved to me that it is not about the amount of code lines or number of packages. And it is not a historical issue. There really is a huge distinction between Linux and GNU/Linux, but to notice it you have to work with a different kind of Linux. One that is not only stripped of GNU components, but of its approach to system design and user interface.

Say hello to Android. Or should I say Android/Linux…


Many people forget, it seems, that Linux is just a kernel. And as such, it is invisible to all users, advanced and novice alike. To interact with it, you need an interface, be it a text based shell or a graphical desktop.

So what happens when someone slaps a completely different user-space with a completely different set of interfaces on top of the Linux kernel?


Here is the story that prompted me to write this half rant half tip post:

My boss wanted to backup his personal data on his Android phone. This sounds like it should be simple enough to do, but the reality is quite the opposite.

In the Android security model, every application is isolated by having its own user (they are created sequentially and have names like app_123).

An application is given its own folder in the devices data partition where it is supposed to store its data such as configuration, user progress (for games) etc.

No application can access the folder of another application and read its data.


This makes sense from the security perspective, except for one major flaw: no 3rd party backup utility can ever be made. And there is no backup utility provided as part of the system.

Some device makers provide their own backup utilities, and starting with Android 4.0 there is a way to perform a backup through ADB (which is part of Android SDK), but this method is not designed for the average user and has several issues.


There is one way, an application on the device can create a proper backup: by gaining root privileges.

But Android is so “secure” it has no mechanism to allow the user to grant such privileges to an application, no matter how much he wants or needs to.

The solution of course, is to change the OS to add the needed capability, but how?

Usually, the owner of a stock Android device would look for a tool that exploits a security flaw in the system to gain root privileges. Some devices can be officially unlocked so a modified version of Android can be installed on them with root access already open.


The phone my boss has is somewhat unusual: it has a version of the OS designed for development and testing, so it has root but the applications on it do not have root.

What this confusing statement means is, that the ADB daemon is running with root privileges on the device allowing you to get a root shell on the phone from the PC and even remount the system partition as writable.

But, there is still no way for an application running on the device to gain root privileges, so when my boss tried to use Titanium Backup, he got a message that his device is not “rooted” and therefore the application will not work.


Like other “root” applications for Android, Titanium Backup needs the su binary to function. But stock Android does not have a su binary. In fact, it does not even have the cp command. Thats right – you can get a shell interface on Android that might look a little bit like the “regular Linux”, but if you want to copy a file you have to use cat.

This is something you will not see on a GNU/Linux OS, not even other Linux based OSs designed for phones such as Maemo or SHR.


Google wanted to avoid any GPL covered code in the user-space (i.e. anywhere they could get away with it), so not only did they not use a “real” shell (such as BASH) they didn’t even use Busybox which is the usual shell replacement in small and embedded systems. Instead, they created their own very limited (or as I call it neutered) version called “Toolbox”.


Fortunately, a lot of work has been done to remedy this, so it is not hard to find a Busybox binary ready made to run on Android powered ARM based device.

The trick is installing it. Instructions vary slightly from site to site, but I believe the following will work in most cases:

adb remount
adb push busybox /system/bin
adb shell chmod 6755 /system/bin/busybox
adb shell busybox --install /system/bin

Note that your ADB must run as root on the device side!

The important part to notice here is line 3: you must set gid and uid bits on the busybox binary if you want it to function properly as su.

And no – I didn’t write the permissions parameter to chmod as digits to make my self look like a “1337 hax0r”. Android’s version of chmod does not accept letter parameters for permissions.


After doing the steps above I had a working busybox and a proper command shell on the phone, but the backup application still could not get root. When I installed a virtual terminal application on the phone and tried to run su manually I got the weirdest error: unknow user: root

How could this be? ls -l clearly showed files belonging to ‘root’ user. As GNU/Linux user I was used to more descriptive and helpful error messages.

I tried running ‘whoami’ from the ADB root shell, and got a similarly cryptic message: unknown uid 0

Clearly there was a root user with the proper UID 0 on the system, but busybox could not recognize it.


Googling showed that I was not the only one encountering this problem, but no solution was in sight. Some advised to reinstall busybox, others suggested playing with permissions.

Finally, something clicked: on a normal GNU/Linux system there is a file called passwd in etc folder. This file lists all the users on the system and some information for each user such as their home folder and login shell.

But Android does not use this file, and so it does not exist by default.


Yet another difference.

So I did the following:

adb shell
# echo 'root::0:0:root:/root:/system/sh' >/etc/passwd

This worked like a charm and finally solved the su problem for the backup application. My boss could finally backup and restore all his data on his own, directly on the phone and without any special trickery.


Some explanation of the “magic” line:

In the passwd file each line represents a single user, and has several ‘fields’ separated by colons (:). You can read in detail about it here.

I copied the line for the root user from my PC, with some slight changes:

The second field is the password field. I left it blank so the su command will not prompt for password.

This is a horrible practice in terms of security, but on Android there is no other choice, since applications attempting to use the su command do not prompt for password.

There are applications called SuperUser and SuperSU that try to ask user permission before granting root privileges, but they require a special version of the su binary which I was unable to install.


The last field is the “login shell” which on Android is /system/sh

The su binary must be able to start a shell for the application to execute its commands.

Note, this is actually a symlink to the /system/mksh binary, and you may want to redirect it to busybox.


So this is my story of making one Android/Linux device a little more GNU/Linux device.

I took me a lot of time, trial and error and of course googling to get this done, and reminded me again that the saying “Linux is Linux” has its limits and that we should not take the GNU for granted.

It is an important part of the OS I use both at home and at work, not only in terms of components but also in terms of structure and behavior.


And it deserves to be part of the OS classification, if for no other reason than to distinguish the truly different kinds of Linux that are out there.