Feeds

So, Linus Torvalds: Did US spooks demand a backdoor in Linux? 'Yes'

Bless me barnacles, tha' tricksy Finn be joshin' ... yarr?

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

Linux supremo Linus Torvalds has jokingly admitted US spooks approached him to put a backdoor in his open-source operating system.

During a question-and-answer ‪session ‬at ‪the LinuxCon gathering in New Orleans this week‪, Torvalds ‬and his fellow kernel programmers ‪w‬ere‪ asked by moderator Ric Wheeler whether America's g-men leaned on the Finn to compromise Linux's security, allowing spies to infiltrate computers.

Torvalds replied with a firm "no" while nodding his head to say yes, a response greeted with laughter fr‪o‬m the audience. He quickly followed up by repeating "no" while shaking his head in the negative.

South Korean Red Hat developer Tejun Heo, sitting alongside the kernel boss, quipped: "Not that I can talk about." A video of the Q&A session is below - the short exchange about US spooks starts at the 24-minute mark.

Rumours of backdoors and other forms of hidden access routes in Microsoft Windows, Linux and security protection products have circulated in infosec circles for years. Fresh revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that US and UK intelligence have subverted key technologies have reopened the debate.

These blockbuster claims from Snowden suggest that the NSA can crack TLS/SSL-encrypted connections, the widespread crypto securing HTTPS websites and virtual private networks (VPNs). Spooks can compromise these supposedly secure communications by gaining access to the root certificates and encryption keys, exploiting backdoors in equipment and algorithms, or otherwise allowing the signals boys and girls to run man-in-the-middle attacks on encrypted traffic flowing through the world's fibre optic cables.

The NSA's highly classified Bullrun programme relies, at least in part, on collaboration with unnamed technology companies.

Firsthand evidence from a former engineer at Microsoft sheds light on how the feds theoretically go about asking for special favours: Peter Biddle, an ex-Microsoft programmer who worked extensively on BitLocker - the company's full-disk encryption tool - claimed he was informally approached by g-men to add a backdoor to the product.

But he said he rebuffed the government agencies. The pressure on Biddle came primarily from FBI agents who said they needed a skeleton key, of sorts, to easily break the crypto on suspects' computers in child-abuse investigations, allowing the locked-up data to be examined.

Meanwhile, Nico Sell, founder of the pro-privacy self-destructing-messages app Wickr, said she had been informally approached by an FBI agent about placing a law-enforcement backdoor in her software.

It seems that developers are informally sounded out about the possibility of placing secret access to spooks in their technology before the discussion goes any further on the technical details and requirements. Once a programmer snubs the feds, the g-men back off, it's believed.

In light of these revelations, worried netizens have become far more paranoid about the possibility of backdoors in the technology they use and this paranoia extends to both closed-source and open-source software.

Earlier this month Torvalds rejected a petition calling for his kernel to turf out an Intel processor instruction called RdRand, which is used in the generation of cryptographically secure random numbers. It was feared Chipzilla had deliberately weakened that operation under the influence of US spooks to produce cryptographically weak values, ones that can be predicted by intelligence agents to smash encryption.

The fiery Finn dismissed the petition as technically clueless.

El Reg reckons his response to a question about backdoors at LinuxCon was intended as a joke - but just because you're not paranoid that doesn't mean they aren't out to get you, after all. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SMASH the Bash bug! Apple and Red Hat scramble for patch batches
'Applying multiple security updates is extremely difficult'
Apple's new iPhone 6 vulnerable to last year's TouchID fingerprint hack
But unsophisticated thieves need not attempt this trick
Hackers thrash Bash Shellshock bug: World races to cover hole
Update your gear now to avoid early attacks hitting the web
Oracle SHELLSHOCKER - data titan lists unpatchables
Database kingpin lists 32 products that can't be patched (yet) as GNU fixes second vuln
Who.is does the Harlem Shake
Blame it on LOLing XSS terroristas
Researchers tell black hats: 'YOU'RE SOOO PREDICTABLE'
Want to register that domain? We're way ahead of you.
Stunned by Shellshock Bash bug? Patch all you can – or be punished
UK data watchdog rolls up its sleeves, polishes truncheon
Ello? ello? ello?: Facebook challenger in DDoS KNOCKOUT
Gets back up again after half an hour though
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.