Monday, May 20, 2024

Bash Microsoft? Hell, Yes, Urges Linux Backer

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By Dennis Powell

It’s all but impossible for anyone in the Linux sphere to have missed the laughably
desperate whining coming from Microsoft Corp. to the effect that the multitude of
truly dangerous security holes in Microsoft products are the fault of … those who
discovered them!

By this reasoning, the crime prevention bureaus of police departments ought to be
arrested and jailed, because they make it their business to point out the kinds of things
that make it easy for criminals, so that those of us who do not care to become targets for
criminals can take the appropriate precautions.

(I don’t mean to get off on a tangent, but this latest Redmondian outrage caused me to
think back and try to figure out if anything they have ever done has been moral, ethical,
truthful, or even good code, and in the post-DOS era I draw a total blank. I long thought
that Windows came about when the boys decided they’d experiment a little and got some LSD
and then watched Yellow Submarine. But I’ve abandoned that view — LSD might make you
crazy, but it does not rob you of your soul. And Microsoft, as exemplified by the latest
tantrum, is as soulless a place as exists on the planet.)

There’s more, though, to be said, and it’s about Linux.

Cyberattacks have become commonplace, and the day is not far away when we’ll encounter
cyberterrorism, with very critical installations specifically targeted or with very broad
attacks designed to cripple commerce. Security will become not just an important feature
but the most important feature in an operating system.

I’ve long held the view that anyone
using Microsoft products connected to a network connected to the Internet to store
critical data is prima facie guilty of malfeasance. I do not think the day is far away
when a lawsuit will list the use of unsecure Microsoft software among the allegations
justifying the payment of damages, and I think there is sufficient evidence to make it
stick. In a danger-free world, you could get away with Microsoft software, but today you
cannot, any more than you can sniff up the powder in the bottom of an envelope that came
from location unknown.

The alternative is, really, Linux. But Linux, as distributed, is not all that it could
be. Distributions have gotten much better about turning off unneeded services that used to
be shipped on by default, and distributions are very good, as a rule, about getting out
security updates.

We’re in the midst of upgrade season right now; Red Hat 7.2, a worthy contender but
for its insistence on putting things where they don’t belong (desktops in /usr), has
already found its way onto some machines, and SuSE 7.3 is said to exist somewhere, though
not here yet, which is why I’m not writing about it this week in this space.

The spring round of upgrades promises to be even better, with KDE-3.0, 3.01, or 3.1,
Qt-3.x, KOffice with good filters and WYSIWIG, a new and improved version of StarOffice,
the latest barely functional Mozilla, and whatever the GNOMEs are doing, which should be
2.0 or better. (No, this is not a flame against GNOME — I’m simply not following all that
closely what they’re up to — so hold your water.)

And recent events cause me to think that by spring someone will have produced a
hyper-secure Linux. Not that goofy H-P idea of a secure Linux for, what, $3,000, but plain
old Linux, only tight as can be.

As you probably know, the U.S. National Security Agency early
this year undertook a project called “Security-Enhanced Linux.” There are some,
whose tinfoil hats are on a little tight, who immediately assume that this means Linux
with all kinds of back doors and things so that the government can spy on you.

They ignore the fact that this is all entirely open source stuff, available to anybody and followed
and audited by kernel developers. (In my experience, those who most fear this are those in
whom the government would have the least interest. If there’s a real concern, it’s that
bad guys could make use of SELinux — but the government has a front door for those
situations: they pull up in black sedans, grab their guns, and, armed with warrants, knock
down the front door.)

In fact, what SELinux does is make it impossible for a wayward or misconfigured
application to compromise the whole system. Through mandatory access controls, it provides
tremendous granularity in security policy, giving applications only the bare minimum
permissions needed to perform tasks. There are no SUID programs; nor is there a root
user. And that’s just the beginning.

It allows, indeed requires, that the system administrator establish a security policy,
and at its tightest SELinux is pretty solid — more so than that you’ll find on any
out-of-the-box Linux. It is the first and arguably biggest step toward Linux as a trusted

SELinux is to a truly secure operating system as Ext3 is to other journaling
filesystems — its design goals include compatibility with existing applications and, for
the most part, existing system utilities; those that don’t work are patched so that they

In short, it’s a really good idea, put together by some of the best people in the
business. Anyone can download and build it into an existing Linux system. It’s designed
against Red Hat, but that’s little matter for what I have in mind.

Pause a moment and think. Think back a couple of months, before Security was spelled
with a capital s. Was there any reason, any reason in the world, why anyone would not have
wanted the most secure system possible? No, of course not (but for the few apps that, with
the overly broad security policies we have available now, simply would not run on a very
tight machine). There having never been a reason for a wide-open box, and now there being
greater reason than ever for a box that’s really locked down, seems to me that there is
wisdom in distributions working toward adiption of SELinux as the standard kernel or at
minimum an option at install.

Indeed, in many respects SELinux can be seen as a government grant to defeat Microsoft
where it is weakest. It would be plain foolish for distributions not to avail themselves
of the help.

The whole thing is open and documented, complete with suggestions of areas where
additional work can be done to make the system even more secure. Given the number and
variety of projects on which distributions have spent money to little effect, it seems
they would jump at one that has slam-dunk merit.

I hope to see the SELinux kernel, further enhanced, in the spring round of
distributions. There is good reason for it to become standard.

This story was first published on LinuxPlanet, an site.

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