Networking / Beginners

Open source issues

The first thing that comes to mind when considering the security issues pertaining to open source is that anyone can see the code. This means that hackers looking to cause trouble can spend countless hours analyzing your code to find logical errors, such as the following:

  • Hackers will look for embedded passwords or backdoors. The software developer may hard code a password authentication into the application as a convenience feature to the end user. This is clearly a poor practice because the passwords are easily detected and acquired. Attackers can then use the passwords to gain access to the resources outside of the constraints of the application.
  • Hackers may identify places in the code where input is not properly checked. Most programmers have tunnel vision when writing code; they assume they will receive the proper input from the end user (or from another function). For code to be truly secure, programmers must assume that they will receive completely irrelevant input from the user. The programmer must really think out of the box about validating input. For example, special characters and Unicode should be considered. Simple checks on the input data may not detect data put in following a \0 (NULL terminator). If hackers find locations where the input is not properly checked, they will attempt to exploit this by entering strange data. The result may be that the application reacts in a totally unpredicted manner, giving hackers a means to exploit the application.
  • Hackers will examine the open source code for variables that are set but not properly checked. Programmers should check that their variables do not go out of range, meaning that only valid values are assigned to the variables. If a variable goes out of range, it may clobber memory or have other unintended consequences. If hackers can manipulate the application in such a way as to cause variables to go out of range, the application's behavior may be unpredictable. Under these circumstances, the application may exhibit a vulnerability that can be exploited.
  • Hackers will look for instances in the open source code in which the user's input is used as code or instructions. A common example of this might be when an end user is allowed to build an SQL query. The query might then be passed to a function that executes the query. This is a dangerous practice. Merely checking the input for proper format will not suffice in this case. The end user's input should not be processed directly; rather an interpreter should be written to read the input and rebuild the SQL necessary to run the queries. This interpreter must be very restrictive in the calls it will use and make.

Having found potentially vulnerable points in the code, hackers can attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities. This is still not a simple process, but hackers are well ahead of the game just by knowing where to concentrate their efforts.

In addition to exposing the open source code to the hacker community, the code is also scrutinized by the user community. The user community does not spend time reading source code for logical (security) flaws. The user community will only identify logic errors that are encountered during an examination of the code for some other reason, the most common reasons being that the code is faulty (does not work for that user), or the user wants to extend or improve the code to cover his or her particular circumstances.

While not as good as employing an army of "white hat" hackers (persons who test applications to find flaws to better the product, not exploit it) to scrutinize the code, software developers have hundreds of extra eyes going over their code when they make it open source. Because most people are honorable and reputable, this appears to be a net gain for software developers, from a security perspective.

When logic problems are found and brought to the attention of the user community, in open source software, they tend to be corrected quickly due to the following:

  • Software developers can't pretend that the flaws don't exist because they are there for the whole world to see.
  • The user community will often contribute to making the fix.

Open source has an added benefit of allowing security to influence the evolution of software products. For the reasons stated earlier, the development of software in an open source manner may contribute to the improvement of software available for a given need. Most user requirements have a number of applications that could satisfy the need. Except in the case of a monopoly, the user community will eventually decide which of the applications survive and become popular. When open source is subjected to this selection process, it can be assumed that the security (lack of logic errors) of the code will be a factor when the user community chooses their favorite applications. All things being equal, users will choose a secure application over a risky one.

Physical Security

The first (or last, depending on your perspective) line of defense against a security threat is physical security. Some measures can be taken to improve the security of a UNIX workstation in the event that an attacker gains physical access to the device. The following UNIX-specific methods to improve the physical security of a workstation are discussed here:

  • Limit access to the UNIX workstation during boot operations.
  • Detect hardware changes to understand any physical changes to the system.
  • Disk portioning can lessen the impact of damage from a security problem.
  • Prepare for the inevitable security attack.

Limiting access

It is a general principle that any network device (such as a UNIX workstation) can be compromised if an attacker has physical access to the device. The type of compromise varies depending on the network device. For a UNIX workstation, the following are some possible means to achieve this compromise:

  • Reboot-If the workstation can be rebooted with a floppy or CD, an attacker can boot an operating system of their choice. In this way, they could have full access to all the workstation's resources.
  • Data collection-If an attacker installs a covert monitoring device, such as a keystroke capturer, sensitive information may then be stored on the monitoring device. The device may either phone home the information to the attacker or the attacker may get physical access to the box a second time and retrieve the device.
  • Theft-An attacker who can remove a hard drive from the premises will have sufficient time and resources to extract all the information on the drive.
  • BIOS control-If an attacker is able to reboot the workstation and get into BIOS, the person may set a BIOS password to lock everyone else out of the workstation. This would constitute an effective denial-of-service (DoS) attack.

The following steps will improve the physical security of the UNIX workstation. These measures should be considered part of a defense-in-depth methodology, because all these steps together will still not completely secure a workstation that has been physically compromised:

  • Enable the BIOS password. BIOS changes will be protected from change if this password is set. Also, if the BIOS password is in the disabled state, the attacker can enable it and set a password. This can result in a denial-of-service attack because legitimate users will not be able to boot and use the workstation.
  • Change BIOS settings. BIOS settings should be changed to prevent booting from a floppy or CD. These are typically infrequent events, therefore the impact will, in most cases, be minimal.
  • Set the boot loader password. Typically, this involves the Linux Loader (LILO) or Grand Unify Bootloader (GRUB) loaders. If an attacker can modify the boot loader configuration, he or she will be able to access and change resources that were otherwise off limits.

Some versions of Linux can be booted directly into a root account using one of the following commands at the boot prompt:

linux single


linux init=/bin/sh

In the first case, Linux boots using the single user mode. This mode, in UNIX, gives someone root access to all the resources on the host machine without needing to log in with a password. Requiring a password during the boot process will provide additional security. Single-user mode access will require a password if the following line is inserted in the /etc/inittab file after the initdefault line:


In the second case, linux init=/bin/sh, Linux is booted and runs a Bourne shell instead of the init process. This provides the user with root access. To add a password to the LILO prompt, put the following lines in the /etc/lilo.conf file:

password="<root password>"

The boot loader password takes effect after rebooting. When prompted, enter the root password. Now when the workstation is rebooted, any additional boot arguments will require the root password.

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