GotoFail, Open Source and Edward Snowden

On Friday Apple released a patch for a flaw in one of their core security libraries. The library is used both in Apple’s mobile operating system iOS, and their desktop operating system OSX. As of today, the desktop version has yet to be patched. This flaw, and its aftermath, are interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s very serious. The bug means that insecure network connections are falsely identified as secure by the operating system. This means that the flaw has an impact across numerous programs; anything that relies on the operating system to negotiate a secure connection could potentially be affected. This makes a whole range of services like web and mail vulnerable to so-called ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks where a disreputable network host intercepts your network traffic, and potentially thereby gains access to your personal information.

Secondly, the flaw was dumb. The code in question includes an unnecessarily duplicated ‘goto’, highlighted here:

It looks like a cut-and-paste error, as the rogue ‘goto’ is indented as though it is conditional when – unlike the one above it – it is not. There are many reasons a bug like this ought not to get through quality assurance. It results in unreachable code, which the compiler would normally warn about. It would have been obvious if the code had been run through a tool that checks coding style, another common best practice precaution. Apple have received a huge amount of criticism for both the severity and the ‘simplicity’ of this bug.

Thirdly, and this is where we take a turn into the world of free and open source software, the code in question is part of Apple’s open source release programme. That is why I can post an image of the source code up there, and why critics of Apple have been able to see exactly how dumb this bug is. So one effect of Apple making the code open source has been that – arguably – it has increased the anger and ridicule to which they have been exposed. Without the source being available, we would have a far less clear idea of how dumb a mistake this was. Alright, one might argue, open source release makes your mistakes clear, but it also lets anyone fix them. That is a good trade-off, you might say. Unfortunately, in this case, it is not that simple. Despite being open source, the security framework in question is not provided by Apple in a state which makes it easy to modify and rebuild. Third party hackers have found it easier to fix the OSX bug by patching the faulty binary – normally a much more difficult route – rather than using Apple’s open source code to compile a fixed binary.

It is often argued that one key benefit of open source is that it permits code review by anyone. In this case, though, despite being a key security implementation and being available to review for over a year, this bug was not seemingly identified via source review. For me, this once again underlines that – while universal code review is a notional benefit of open source release – in practice it is universal ability to fix bugs once they’re found that is the strongest argument for source availability strengthening security. In this case Apple facilitated the former goal but made the latter problematic, and thereby in my opinion seriously reduced the security benefit open source might have brought.

Finally, it is interesting to note that a large number of commentators have asked whether this bug might have been deliberate. In the atmosphere of caution over security brought about by Edward Snowden’s revelations, these questions naturally arise. Did Apple deliberately break their own security at the request of the authorities? Obviously we cannot know. However it is interesting to note the relation between that possibility and the idea that open source is a weapon against deliberate implantation of flaws in software.

Bruce Schneier, the security analyst brought in by The Guardian to comment on Snowden’s original documents, noted in his commentary that the use of free and open source software was a means of combating national security agencies and their nasty habit of implanting and exploiting software flaws. After all if you can study the source you can see the backdoors, right? Leaving aside the issue of compromised compiler binaries, which might poison your binaries even when the source is ‘clean’, the GotoFail incident raises another question about the efficacy of open source as a weapon against government snooping. Whether deliberate or not, this flaw has been available for review for over a year.

The internet is throbbing with the schadenfreude of programmers and others attacking Apple over their dumbness. Yet isn’t another lesson of this debacle that we cannot rely on open source release on it’s own to act as a guarantee that our security critical code is neither compromised nor just plain bad?

One thought on “GotoFail, Open Source and Edward Snowden

  1. Pingback: What can we learn from security failures? | OSS Watch team blog

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