Open Source

Tech Tip: Hackers don't discriminate

Security incidents show hackers don't discriminate.

By Jonathan Yarden

If you still think that Microsoft is the only target of hackers, you're in for a surprise. Both Windows and Linux have faced security incidents, and both are reasonably serious.

On Microsoft's end, software pirates distributed Longhorn, Microsoft's latest version of the Windows operating system, which the software giant doesn't plan to release for at least a year. This "unexpected" release could have serious security implications for the new OS.

Even if Longhorn isn't close to completion, the hackers of the world are undoubtedly looking for possible exploits already. Since there's no way to know what they have found or will find, Microsoft might consider making some drastic changes to Longhorn before releasing it—perhaps even a complete recompile with a different compiler.

On the Linux front, hackers compromised the Debian Linux distribution, which led to the subsequent discovery that a previously published "local" root exploit was to blame. That's the second incident in less than a month targeting the Linux kernel.

In the Debian incident, a hacker used a packet sniffer to capture a contributor's account information and took advantage of a local root exploit specific to Linux 2.4.22. While the actual vulnerability surfaced in September, it went uncorrected because a new Linux kernel was getting ready for release.

So despite the exploit's documentation, it still found its way into the Linux kernel. It didn't make for very good press for Linux, Debian, or the open source movement in general.

While many people believe that Microsoft is the only target of choice for today's hackers, this theory diminishes the seriousness of Internet security. Any widely distributed operating system or program is subject to scrutiny by hackers. Both operating systems are squarely in the crosshairs of people who want to cause problems.

Microsoft isn't the only target for hackers, and Linux incidents show that hackers are only just beginning to cause problems. Case in point: In December of 2003, attackers compromised a Gentoo Linux project server, which Gentoo subsequently pulled offline for a full forensic analysis. These incidents highlight the fact that there's no panacea for Internet security.

It's important to remember your enemy: The people who want to infest your computer systems, whether it's for sending SPAM, stealing personal information, or simply wreaking havoc. If hackers can cause problems, they will—there's little you can do to stop them unless you make sure they can't get access in the first place.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

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