Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Kernel.org breach does not reflect well on admins

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Seventeen days. That how long it took for the elite administrators at the Linux kernel project to find out that servers at the project had been breached.

That's also a fact that the kernel folk quietly hid from the world at large when they disclosed the breach on August 31.

It doesn't exactly jell with the idea of open source - it smacks of spin.

The Linux Foundation, which employs Linus Torvalds and promotes the use of the software, had a long article about the breach written by by prominent kernel developer Jonathan Corbet - but it didn't offer the public this fact either.

No, Corbet was at pains to emphasise exactly why there was nothing to fear.

But truth, like oil and cadavers, generally tends to come to the surface and so it did. Dan Goodin, a hack from The Register, a British tech news site, was leaked an email sent by the kernel's chief sysadmin, John Hawley.

The email tells us that everyone with a kernel.org account knew on August 29 that people had been rooting (pun intended) around on kernel project servers.

Corbet's own publication, Linux Weekly News, carried a link to the kernel.org announcement but the figure of 17 days did not figure on his publication either.

Some may argue that disclosing the fact that a breach occurred is in itself a positive, and that if something like had taken place at a proprietary software company nobody would have known.

That's like saying it's better to be Dick Cheney rather than Muammar Gaddafi.

It remains to be seen whether the kernel project administrators will level with the public at large since they know more about the breach - whether they will detail exactly how the intruders, who are said to have gained access using one user's credentials, elevated their privileges to root.

The kernel admins also need to explain why nearly 500 people need to have shell access on the servers.

The amount of information that comes out about the breach from now on will give us an idea about how seriously the project takes the idea of openness - or whether it chooses to selectively leak details through favoured outlets.

It will provide an indication of how much trust the public should repose in the kernel project. For the moment, it is a terrible look - and not disclosing the one fact that would have reflected badly on the project makes it even worse.

Seventeen days. It doesn't inspire confidence at all.


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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.