Feeds

Why Microsoft ‘Shared Source’ can never be trusted

Trojan wars and Cold Wars

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Yesterday we recounted the tale of how at the height of the Cold War Soviet infrastructure had been penetrated by software containing Trojans. Retired spook and nuclear scientist Thomas Reed claims that the United States provided compromised software to the USSR which detonated the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline. The Cold War's over, but we suggested that without an open toolchain - unless users could also inspect the source code for the tools used to build the OS - initiatives such as Microsoft's Shared Source program are worthless PR exercises.

But that's not quite right, as a few of you have pointed out. So let's correct that. Even with an open toolchain, initiatives such as Microsoft's Shared Source program are worthless PR exercises.

In 1984 the co-author of Unix Ken Thompson gave a theoretical example of how even an open toolchain could be compromised He described what he called the "cutetst program I ever wrote" in a paper subsequently known as Reflections on Trusting Trust. Thompson set about producing a program which produced as output an exact copy of its source, in other words a program that will create a self-reproducing program. His compromised compiler could be used to replace the standard UNIX compiler, and the intruder could then remove the traces from the compiler source code, knowing that any program generated by the compiler would harbor the Trojan.

Thompson's point was simple. "You can't trust code that you did not totally create yourself. No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code," he pointed out.

The answer is to have a clean room environment - both tool chain and operating system - that the user has created and knows is free of compromises. This can then be trusted to bootstrap the toolchain and OS of your choice.

A reader casts doubt on Reed's claim and points out that the leading protagonists are "conveniently now dead". Reed could have been covering a genuine covert operation, or could be indulging in psyops in his retirement. You never know with spooks.

"In September," Mercury News reminds us today, "the governments of China, Japan and South Korea announced they would collaborate on developing an open-source alternative to Windows, citing cost and security benefits."

"Code for open-source software is freely available for anyone to download and modify. The Chinese government, concerned about security holes in Windows, favors a system it can customize and control."

For all of its educational benefits for the Chinese - and the programmers' comments evident the Windows source code recently on the Internet will certainly help expand their vernacular English - Shared Source doesn't help allay foreign governments' security concerns. And it probably never will. ®

Related Story

Explosive Cold War Trojan has lessons for Open Source exporters

External Link

Reflections on Trusting Trust - Ken Thompson

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
'Stop dissing Google or quit': OK, I quit, says Code Club co-founder
And now a message from our sponsors: 'STFU or else'
Why has the web gone to hell? Market chaos and HUMAN NATURE
Tim Berners-Lee isn't happy, but we should be
Microsoft boots 1,500 dodgy apps from the Windows Store
DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! Naughty, misleading developers!
Apple promises to lift Curse of the Drained iPhone 5 Battery
Have you tried turning it off and...? Never mind, here's a replacement
Mozilla's 'Tiles' ads debut in new Firefox nightlies
You can try turning them off and on again
Linux turns 23 and Linus Torvalds celebrates as only he can
No, not with swearing, but by controlling the release cycle
Scratched PC-dispatch patch patched, hatched in batch rematch
Windows security update fixed after triggering blue screens (and screams) of death
This is how I set about making a fortune with my own startup
Would you leave your well-paid job to chase your dream?
prev story

Whitepapers

Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Backing up distributed data
Eliminating the redundant use of bandwidth and storage capacity and application consolidation in the modern data center.
The essential guide to IT transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIOs automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.