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Friday, 20 November 2015 10:24

How were Linux kernel servers rooted four years ago?


On August 28, 2011, the servers of the Linux kernel project were breached, a fact that was discovered only 17 days later. News of this leaked out in September and it became known that the intrusion had been effected by stealing some user's credentials.

But how this intrusion was elevated to root status was never revealed. Indeed, four years and three months later, we still don't know.

The last time the issue was raised in a technology publication was in September 2013, when Dan Goodin wrote a piece for Ars Technica asking the same questions that have been asked over and over again: how did this hack happen?

More recently, on November 11, Rick Moen, a senior systems administrator from California and one who has been around the FOSS community for ages, raised the issue on the forums of the Linux Weekly News website.

Moen made his comments as part of the feedback to an article about the Washington Post's take on Linux security.

He pointed out that shortly after the compromise on August 28, 2011, a notice had been put up on the site promising a report on the incident in the future. This notice was removed in May 2013.

Moen added that in sharp contrast, when the servers of the Debian GNU/Linux project were broken into in 2007, developer Wichert Akkerman posted what he (Moen) described as "an excellent report" about what had happened. Moen added that when the servers of the Apache web server were compromised, the Apache Foundation did not hold back on detailing what had taken place.

And when the Debian project released a version of OpenSSL with a serious vulnerability unwittingly created by one of its own developers, it made no bones about it and made a full public confession.

The Linux kernel project seems to have its own rules and does not seem to care about letting the public in on what happens when intrusions take place.

I have asked senior kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman many times about a detailed explanation but I finally gave up.

A few days back, I wrote to the Linux Foundation which funds the kernel project asking if any details of the hack could be provided. All I got was a reply from staffer Jennifer Cloer with nothing in it. This was promptly pointed out but there has been no response.

The kernel project came under some fire in the Washington Post recently for the security of its code. It looks like the same mentality prevails among those who are responsible for keeping it safe from crackers.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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