Practical Technology

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Open-Source Security Idiots


Sometimes, people do such stupid things that words almost fail me. That’s the case with a Debian ‘improvement’ to OpenSSL that rendered this network security program next to useless in Debian, Ubuntu and other related Linux distributions.

OpenSSL is used to enable SSL (Secure Socket Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) in Linux, Unix, Windows and many other operating systems. It also includes a general purpose cryptography library. OpenSSL is used not only in operating systems, but in numerous vital applications such as security for Apache Web servers, OpenVPN for virtual private networks, and in security appliances from companies like Check Point and Cisco.

Get the picture? OpenSSL isn’t just important, it’s vital, in network security. It’s quite possible that you’re running OpenSSL even if you don’t have a single Linux server within a mile of your company. It’s that widely used.

Now, OpenSSL itself is still fine. What’s anything but fine is any Linux, or Linux-powered device, that’s based on Debian Linux OpenSSL code from September 17th, 2006 until May 13, 2008.

What happened? This is where the idiot part comes in. Some so-called Debian developer decided to ‘fix’ OpenSSL because it was causing the Valgrind code analysis tool and IBM’s Rational Purify runtime debugging tool to produce warnings about uninitialized data in any code that was linked to OpenSSL. This ‘problem’ and its fix have been known for years. That didn’t stop our moronic developer from fixing it on his own by removing the code that enabled OpenSSL to generate truly random numbers..

After this ‘fix,’ OpenSSL on Debian systems could only use one of a range from 1 to 32,768—the number of possible Linux process identification numbers—as the ‘random’ number for its PRNG (Pseudo Random Number Generator). For cryptography purposes, a range of number like that is a bad joke. Anyone who knows anything about cracking can work up a routine to automatically bust it within a few hours.

Why didn’t the OpenSSL team catch this problem? They didn’t spot it because they didn’t see it. You see Debian developers have this cute habit of keeping their changes to themselves rather than passing them upstream to any program’s actual maintainers. Essentially, what Debian ends up doing is forking programs. There’s the Debian version and then there’s the real version.

Usually, it’s a difference that makes no difference. Sometimes, it just shows how pig-headed Debian developers can be. My favorite case of this is when they decided that rather than allow Mozilla to have control of the logo in the Firefox browser, because that wasn’t open enough according to the Debian Social Contract, they forked Firefox into their own version: Iceweasel.

That was just stupid. This is stupid and it’s put untold numbers of users at risk for security attacks.

First, the mistake itself was something that only a programming newbie would have made and I have no idea how this ever got passed by the Debian code maintainers. This is first-year programming assignment. “What is a random number generator and how do you make one?”

Then, insult to injury, because Debian never passed its ‘fix’ on to OpenSSL, the people who would have caught the problem at a glance, this sloppy, insecure mess has now been used on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of servers, PCs, and appliances.

This isn’t just bad. This is Microsoft security bad.

Now, there’s a fix for Debian 4.0 Etch and its development builds. Ubuntu, which is based on Debian,, also have fixes for it. In Ubuntu, the versions that need patches are Ubuntu 7.04, Feisty; Ubuntu 7.10, Gutsy; the just released Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Hardy, and the developer builds of Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex.

Debian has also opened a site on how to rollover your insecure security keys to the better ones once you’ve installed the corrected software.. For more on how to fix your system, see Fixing Debian OpenSSL on my ComputerWorld blog, Cyber Cynic.