macOS's System Integrity Protection sanitizes your environment


macOS added System Integrity Protection in El Capitan. It’s supposed to limit what root users can do and prevent changes to system files. Noble goals, especially for non-developers.

But its more than. Some programs sanitize the environment before they start child processes so I can’t substitute my own, potentially malicious libraries. I’m being generous when I say that this is lightly documented. Specifically, environment variables starting with DYLD_ and LD_ are unset for child process started by system programs. This works in the Apple ecosystem, but some third-party tools still rely on it.

That macOS would do this makes sense for most people. These environment variables were supposed to be about debugging so you could compile a library and try it with a program. As with many things, how people used it was different. As a developer, I’m doing things virtually no one else in the world is doing. I don’t want to use these variables, but other things I want to use wants to use these variables.

Debugging hell

Imagine trying to debug something like this in a bizarro world in which I swear I’ve set the variable, I’ve stared at it for minutes to ensure I’ve spelled it correctly instead of DLYD_LIRARY_PATH, and I can see it in small test programs. I swear it’s set up, but when I go back to the big situation, it’s gone.

I discovered this because I was testing some Postgres stuff and setting different values on the command line:

$ env PGSSLMODE=require ...

My Perl program then couldn’t find /Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libssl.1.1.dylib and I’d get an error that says it can’t find the library:

Library not loaded: libssl.1.1.dylib

Googling did not help that much. Most answers were just cargo-culting advice about Homebrew that is essentially “have you tried reinstalling it?”

As an aside, I don’t mind that people use convenience tools such as brew. However, you should understand what it does and how it does it if you want to be a developer. You can see the trail of destruction and wasted time from people who’ve neglected to learn their tools—they can’t even diagnose the problem.


I can set the DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variable to tell processes where it can find dynamic libraries, and I can see that I’ve set it:

$ export DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH=/Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib

With a perl that I’ve compiled and installed myself (not the macOS system Perl), I can see the value from a Perl program, but from the system perl I can’t:

$ which perl
$ perl -le 'print $ENV{DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH}'
$ /usr/bin/perl -le 'print $ENV{DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH}'


But, if I run the same Perl one-liner under env, I can’t see it:

$ env which perl
$ env perl -le 'print $ENV{DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH}'


This isn’t a Perl thing. Here’s the same thing in Ruby, which I installed myself:

$ which ruby
$ ruby -e 'puts ENV["DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH"]'
$ env ruby -e 'puts ENV["DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH"]'


Even worse, just running env means I won’t see all of the environment variables. The variable is set and I can see it with echo, but env doesn’t even know it exists:

$ env | grep DYLD

And here’s a small Makefile to show the value of DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH:


It also sanitizes the environment when I use the XTools make (and I’d rather not muddy the waters with a different set of tools):

$ which make
$ make

What can I do?

As the nuclear option, I can turn off SIP. I have to boot into Recovery Mode and disable SIP from the terminal, then reboot into normal mode:

$ csrutil disable

I don’t really want to do that though. I’d rather leave my base system as close to pristine as I can. The more I diverge from the normal case, the less I develop for the normal case. Something works accidentally for me because I have a special. more omniscient system.

I can change my Makefile to set a default (assign with ?=) with a safe environment variable name and re-export it. Without the export, the echo sees the Makefile variable, but perl would not see an environment variable:


	perl -le 'print $$ENV{DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH}'

This requires me to set the extra environment variable, which is easy enough in a startup file. The hard part is adjusting foreign code to use this. This is where I think most developers would stop because it’s achievable and we’re used to working around obstacles when we can’t get through them.

However, I didn’t give up. There must be a better way. If I’m not supposed to use DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH, how does Apple expect me to do it?

After I compiled DBD::Pg, I looked at the .bundle file it created. otool can show you which libraries it wants:

$ otool -L ./blib/arch/auto/DBD/Pg/Pg.bundle
	libssl.1.1.dylib (compatibility version 1.1.0, current version 1.1.0)
	libcrypto.1.1.dylib (compatibility version 1.1.0, current version 1.1.0)
	libpq.5.dylib (compatibility version 5.0.0, current version 5.12.0)
	/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

Three of those paths are relative, which is why it needs something like DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH to find them. The other one is an absolute paths. Huh. If I update those to absolute paths, I don’t need to search through directories for them. The install_name_change tool (virtually completely undocumented) does this.

There are two ways to go here based on where this library is. If I can’t tell the root directory for the library, I can use the RPATH infrastructure. However, in this case, I know that the directory is going to be /Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib, so I can use absolute paths for these libraries.

The install_name_change lets me update the library paths for either RPATH or absolute paths (Fun with rpath, otool, and install_name_tool is a nice read):

$ install_name_tool -change libssl.1.1.dylib /Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libssl.1.1.dylib ./blib/arch/auto/DBD/Pg/Pg.bundle
$ install_name_tool -change libcrypto.1.1.dylib /Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libcrypto.1.1.dylib ./blib/arch/auto/DBD/Pg/Pg.bundle
$ install_name_tool -change libpq.5.dylib /Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libpq.5.dylib ./blib/arch/auto/DBD/Pg/Pg.bundle

I check with otool again to make sure it took:

$ otool -L ./blib/arch/auto/DBD/Pg/Pg.bundle
	/Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libssl.1.1.dylib (compatibility version 1.1.0, current version 1.1.0)
	/Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libcrypto.1.1.dylib (compatibility version 1.1.0, current version 1.1.0)
	/Library/PostgreSQL/12/lib/libpq.5.dylib (compatibility version 5.0.0, current version 5.12.0)
	/usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib (compatibility version 1.0.0, current version 1281.100.1)

And that works. I’ve filed an issue on DBD::Pg, but I haven’t worked on fixing the module installer.

A list of ignored variables:

SIP strips out any environment variables starting with DYLD_ or LD_, but here are the ones for the search engines: