Julia Evans

Why strace doesn't work in Docker

While editing the capabilities page of the how containers work zine, I found myself trying to explain why strace doesn’t work in a Docker container.

The problem here is – if I run strace in a Docker container on my laptop, this happens:

$ docker run  -it ubuntu:18.04 /bin/bash
$ # ... install strace ...
root@e27f594da870:/# strace ls
strace: ptrace(PTRACE_TRACEME, ...): Operation not permitted

strace works using the ptrace system call, so if ptrace isn’t allowed, it’s definitely not gonna work! This is pretty easy to fix – on my machine, this fixes it:

docker run --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE  -it ubuntu:18.04 /bin/bash

But I wasn’t interested in fixing it, I wanted to know why it happens. So why does strace not work, and why does --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE fix it?

hypothesis 1: container processes are missing the CAP_SYS_PTRACE capability

I always thought the reason was that Docker container processes by default didn’t have the CAP_SYS_PTRACE capability. This is consistent with it being fixed by --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE, right?

But this actually doesn’t make sense for 2 reasons.

Reason 1: Experimentally, as a regular user, I can strace on any process run by my user. But if I check if my current process has the CAP_SYS_PTRACE capability, I don’t:

$ getpcaps $$
Capabilities for `11589': =

Reason 2: man capabilities says this about CAP_SYS_PTRACE:

       * Trace arbitrary processes using ptrace(2);

So the point of CAP_SYS_PTRACE is to let you ptrace arbitrary processes owned by any user, the way that root usually can. You shouldn’t need it to just ptrace a regular process owned by your user.

And I tested this a third way – I ran a Docker container with docker run --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE -it ubuntu:18.04 /bin/bash, dropped the CAP_SYS_PTRACE capability, and I could still strace processes even though I didn’t have that capability anymore. What? Why?

hypothesis 2: something about user namespaces???

My next (much less well-founded) hypothesis was something along the lines of “um, maybe the process is in a different user namespace and strace doesn’t work because of… reasons?” This isn’t really coherent but here’s what happened when I looked into it.

Is the container process in a different user namespace? Well, in the container:

root@e27f594da870:/# ls /proc/$$/ns/user -l
... /proc/1/ns/user -> 'user:[4026531837]'

On the host:

bork@kiwi:~$ ls /proc/$$/ns/user -l
... /proc/12177/ns/user -> 'user:[4026531837]'

Because the user namespace ID (4026531837) is the same, the root user in the container is the exact same user as the root user on the host. So there’s definitely no reason it shouldn’t be able to strace processes that it created!

This hypothesis doesn’t make much sense but I hadn’t realized that the root user in a Docker container is the same as the root user on the host, so I thought that was interesting.

hypothesis 3: the ptrace system call is being blocked by a seccomp-bpf rule

I also knew that Docker uses seccomp-bpf to stop container processes from running a lot of system calls. And ptrace is in the list of system calls blocked by Docker’s default seccomp profile! (actually the list of allowed system calls is a whitelist, so it’s just that ptrace is not in the default whitelist. But it comes out to the same thing.)

That easily explains why strace wouldn’t work in a Docker container – if the ptrace system call is totally blocked, then of course you can’t call it at all and strace would fail.

Let’s verify this hypothesis – if we disable all seccomp rules, can we strace in a Docker container?

$ docker run --security-opt seccomp=unconfined -it ubuntu:18.04  /bin/bash
$ strace ls
execve("/bin/ls", ["ls"], 0x7ffc69a65580 /* 8 vars */) = 0
... it works fine ...

Yes! It works! Great. Mystery solved, except…

why does --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE fix the problem?

What we still haven’t explained is: why does --cap-add=SYS_PTRACE would fix the problem?

The man page for docker run explains the --cap-add argument this way:

   Add Linux capabilities

That doesn’t have anything to do with seccomp rules! What’s going on?

let’s look at the Docker source code.

When the documentation doesn’t help, the only thing to do is go look at the source.

The nice thing about Go is, because dependencies are often vendored in a Go repository, you can just grep the repository to figure out where the code that does a thing is. So I cloned github.com/moby/moby and grepped for some things, like rg CAP_SYS_PTRACE.

Here’s what I think is going on. In containerd’s seccomp implementation, in contrib/seccomp/seccomp_default.go, there’s a bunch of code that makes sure that if a process has a capability, then it’s also given access (through a seccomp rule) to use the system calls that go with that capability.

		case "CAP_SYS_PTRACE":
			s.Syscalls = append(s.Syscalls, specs.LinuxSyscall{
				Names: []string{
				Action: specs.ActAllow,
				Args:   []specs.LinuxSeccompArg{},

There’s some other code that seems to do something very similar in profiles/seccomp/seccomp.go in moby and the default seccomp profile, so it’s possible that that’s what’s doing it instead.

So I think we have our answer!

--cap-add in Docker does a little more than what it says

The upshot seems to be that --cap-add doesn’t do exactly what it says it does in the man page, it’s more like --cap-add-and-also-whitelist-some-extra-system-calls-if-required. Which makes sense! If you have a capability like CAP_SYS_PTRACE which is supposed to let you use the process_vm_readv system call but that system call is blocked by a seccomp profile, that’s not going to help you much!

So allowing the process_vm_readv and ptrace system calls when you give the container CAP_SYS_PTRACE seems like a reasonable choice.

strace actually does work in newer versions of Docker

As of this commit (docker 19.03), Docker does actually allow the ptrace system calls for kernel versions newer than 4.8.

But the Docker version on my laptop is 18.09.7, so it predates that commit.

that’s all!

This was a fun small thing to investigate, and I think it’s a nice example of how containers are made of lots of moving pieces that work together in not-completely-obvious ways.

If you liked this, you might like my new zine called How Containers Work that explains the Linux kernel features that make containers work in 24 pages. You can read the pages on capabilities and seccomp-bpf from the zine.

New zine: How Containers Work! Metaphors in man pages