Linus Torvalds Admits He Was Approached By US Government To Insert Backdoor Into Linux -- Or Does He?
from the who-can-you-trust? dept
At the LinuxCon meeting in New Orleans, Linus Torvalds was asked if he had ever been approached by the US government to insert a backdoor into the Linux kernel.
Here's his characteristic answer:
Torvalds responded "no" while shaking his head "yes," as the audience broke into spontaneous laughter.
Obviously, it's hard to tell from that whether he really meant "yes" or "no". But the question does touch on an important issue: whether open source might be less vulnerable than traditional applications to tampering by the NSA or other intelligence organizations. That's plausible, because by definition free software's code is always available for inspection; the idea is that even if backdoors are somehow introduced, they will be spotted by people looking over the code.
Of course, there are some problems with that. The first is that just because the code is available does not mean anyone will look at it. Secondly, even if the source code is examined and looks fine, that doesn't imply that the compiled version you run on your machine will be -- a well known, and deep problem. So does that mean we should give up on the hope that open source might be better than traditional closed source when it comes to backdoors?
Not necessarily. Here, for example, is the security expert Bruce Schneier writing in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago on the best ways to stay secure in the light of the revelations about the NSA's activities. One suggestion was as follows:
Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It's prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software.
After listing a number of recommended software tools, he also makes the following comment:
I understand that most of this is impossible for the typical internet user. Even I don't use all these tools for most everything I am working on. And I'm still primarily on Windows, unfortunately. Linux would be safer.
That's just one voice, albeit a highly-respected one. Here's another, saying much the same thing as Schneier:
Thanks to the recent NSA leaks, people are more worried than ever that their software might have backdoors. If you don't believe that the software vendor can resist a backdoor request, the onus is on you to look for a backdoor. What you want is software transparency.
That's from Ed Felten (pdf), Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs, Princeton University, and someone whose name has appeared on Techdirt many times. Despite his upbeat assessment of the value of open source in providing software transparency, the rest of his post urges caution:
Transparency of this type is a much-touted advantage of open source software, so it's natural to expect that the rise of backdoor fears will boost the popularity of open source code. Many open source projects are fully transparent: not only is the source code public, but the project also makes public the issue tracker that is used to manage known defects and the internal email discussions of the development team. All of these are useful in deterring backdoor attempts.
transparency does not guarantee that holes will be found, because there might not be enough eyeballs on the code. For open source projects, finding backdoors, or security vulnerabilities in general, is a public good, in the economists' sense that effort spent on it benefits everyone, including those who don't contribute any effort themselves. So it's not obvious in advance that any particular open source project can avoid backdoors.
In other words, open source is not a panacea: it is not guaranteed to protect you from backdoors. But, like encryption, it is probably one of the best defenses we have -- whether or not Torvalds was asked to add a backdoor to Linux.