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Does the NSA's SE Linux code need a review? Featured

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In the wake of the recent revelations that America's National Security Agency is spying on all and sundry, is it time for the Linux community to take another good, hard look at the NSA-developed Security Enhanced Linux?

The NSA's Security Enhanced Linux comprises a kernel patch to add security features, and patches to applications to allow them to determine the security domain in which to run processes.

The code was initially developed by the NSA and is under the GPLv2, the same licence as the kernel. Numerous individuals and companies have made contributions to the project.

Recently, Cyanogenmod, one of the more popular forks of the Android mobile operating systems, announced it would be incorporating SE Linux as part of its security features.

Asked whether a code audit was needed now, Russell Coker, a Melbourne-based developer for the Debian GNU/Linux project, who is listed as a contributor to SE Linux, told iTWire: "The SE Linux source is free for anyone to review. It's probably better reviewed than most kernel code because someone who finds a bug would get more fame for doing so than for finding bugs in most kernel code."

Russell, who has ported and packaged SE Linux for Debian, added: "It doesn't seem plausible that there would be anything inappropriate in patches publicly submitted by the NSA.

"Given that anyone anywhere in the world can submit a patch I don't think that we need to worry about patches coming from .gov email addresses."

Brian May, another Debian developer who is based in Melbourne, is credited with backporting Russell's work to Woody, a Debian release made in July 2002.

May, an open-source consultant, told iTWire he was no longer the maintainer for SE Linux for the stable stream of Debian.

"Unfortunately that is not the case," he said when the question of him being the maintainer arose. "I looked into SE Linux some years ago, but ran out of time to really get into it. I am a Debian developer, however."

However, May was confident about the integrity of the code.

"SE Linux is entirely open source software, that has been reviewed by many people," he said. "It has been merged into the mainline Linux kernel since version 2.6.0-test3, released on 8 August 2003.

"Linux has a reputation of being very conservative for allowing new features, this means everything would have been reviewed even more times by more people while pushing to have it accepted in the kernel release. If there were any concerns it would have been rejected.

"I am sure there would be a number of people very keen on finding backdoors in SE Linux for the sole purpose of discrediting NSA. Yet so far, I haven't seen any reports of anyone finding anything. I can only conclude that this is because there are no hidden backdoors."

He added: "PRISM, if the allegations are true, was designed around complete secrecy. SE Linux on the other hand has been a very open and transparent project for many years."


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.