DARPA funds open-source bug hunt

Uncle Sam wants you

Conventional wisdom has long held that open source software garners extra security from the sheer number of people who are free to review the code -- "Many eyes make all bugs shallow," the adage goes. The reality is often different; it turns out many of those eyes have little interest in the thankless task of examining other people's code for security holes.

But now the "many eyes" school of software security may become more than a theory, thanks to a reward system devised by a Oregon-based computer scientist and funded by the U.S. Defense Department, which was announced over security mailing lists Tuesday.

Part software development system and part psychological gambit, the Sardonix project would replace the current loosely-structured open source security review process with a central Web site that tracks which code has been audited for security holes, and by whom. An automated reward loop grants points to volunteer auditors according to the amount of code they've examined, and the number of security holes they've found. Auditors lose points if a subsequent audit by someone else turns up bugs they missed.

There's no prize for being a top security auditor, but none is necessary, according to the project's conceiver. "We are harnessing the open source community's instinctive skepticism and need for recognition," says Crispin Cowan, chief research scientist of WireX Communications. "You can be mechanically rated as more elite than the next guy by spotting more bugs in code."

Cowan is turning to the community to construct the exact rating system, which he hopes will produce the same cocktail of goodwill and computer-judged competition that fuels other successful geeky endeavors, from the distributed computing effort that recognizes top producers in the search for new prime numbers, to the "karma" points awarded highly-rated posters on news-for-nerds site Slashdot.

Source code will win points as well, with which open source users can judge how safe a particular piece of software might be. A given chunk of code will be automatically rated according to the cumulative score of every person who has audited it, i.e., the overall level of experience and skill that's been brought to bear on the software.

"Open source enables many eyes, but does not assure it," says Cowan. "So lots and lots of code goes unread. Sardonix gives you a way to find out what eyes are on the code."

Sardonix -- named, Cowan says, for the sardonic attitude the tech community holds towards security claims -- is funded for two years under a grant awarded last July by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is increasingly supporting open source security research as the Pentagon becomes more reliant on open source software. After that, Cowan hopes to have enough corporate sponsorship to continue the project.

The proposal was well received by Linux security experts Tuesday. "I love the idea in principal," says Jay Beale, founder of JJB Security Consulting. "The primary strength is we'll know what is being looked at, and what isn't... And people will go to the stuff that hasn't been looked at in an effort to build their karma, and build their name."

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