Screen is a ncurses-based terminal multiplexer. There are tons of useful things you can do with it, and innumerable blog posts describing them. I have two common use cases:

  • On my local host when I don't start X Windows, I login to a virtual terminal and run screen. Then I can easily open several windows (e.g. for Emacs, Mutt, irssi, …) without having to log in on another virtual terminal.
  • On remote hosts when I'm doing anything serious, I start screen immediately aftering SSH-ing into the remote host. Then if my connection is dropped (or I need to disconnect while I take the train in to work), my remote work is waiting for me to pick up where I left off.

Treehouse X

Those are useful things, but they are well covered by others. A few days ago I though of a cute trick, for increasing security on my local host, which lead me to finally write up a screen post. I call it “treehouse X”. Here's the problem:

You don't like waiting for X to start up when a virtual terminal is sufficient for your task at hand, so you've set your box up without a graphical login manager. However, sometimes you do need a graphical interface (e.g. to use fancy characters via Xmodmap or the Compose key), so you fire up X with startx, and get on with your life. But wait! You have to leave the terminal to do something else (e.g. teach a class, eat dinner, sleep?). Being a security-concious bloke, you lock your screen with xlockmore (using your Fluxbox hotkeys). You leave to complete your task. While you're gone Mallory sneaks into your lab. You've locked your X server, so you think you're safe, but Mallory jumps to the virtual terminal from which you started X (using Ctrl-Alt-F1, or similar), and kills your startx process with Ctrl-c. Now Mallory can do evil things in your name, like adding export EDITOR=vim to your .bashrc.

So how do you protect yourself against this attack? Enter screen and treehouse X. If you run startx from within a screen session, you can jump back to the virtual terminal yourself, detach from the sesion, and log out of the virtual terminal. This is equivalent to climing into your treehouse (X) and pulling up your rope ladder (startx) behind you, so that you are no longer vulnerable from the ground (the virtual terminal). For kicks, you can reattach to the screen session from an xterm, which leads to a fun chicken-and-egg picture:

startx → X → Xterm → Screen → startx cycle
startx → X → Xterm → Screen → startx cycle

Of course the whole situation makes sense when you realize that it's really:

$ pstree 14542

where the first screen is the server and the second screen is the client.