Linux has a sleeper agent working as a core developer

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The latest news from Wikileaks, that GCHQ, the UK’s signal intelligence agency, has a sleeper agent working as a trusted member on the Linux kernel core development team should not come as a surprise to anybody.

The Linux kernel is embedded as a core component inside many critical systems; the kind of systems that intelligence agencies and other organizations would like full access.

The open nature of Linux kernel development makes it very difficult to surreptitiously introduce a hidden vulnerability. A friendly gatekeeper on the core developer team is needed.

In the Open source world, trust is built up through years of dedicated work. Funding the right developer to spend many years doing solid work on the Linux kernel is a worthwhile investment. Such a person eventually reaches a position where the updates they claim to have scrutinized are accepted into the codebase without a second look.

The need for the agent to maintain plausible deniability requires an arm’s length approach, and the GCHQ team made a wise choice in targeting device drivers as cost-effective propagators of hidden weaknesses.

Writing a device driver requires the kinds of specific know-how that is not widely available. A device driver written by somebody new to the kernel world is not suspicious. The sleeper agent has deniability in that they did not write the code, they simply ‘failed’ to spot a well hidden vulnerability.

Lack of know-how means that the software for a new device is often created by cutting-and-pasting code from an existing driver for a similar chip set, i.e., once a vulnerability has been inserted it is likely to propagate.

Perhaps it’s my lack of knowledge of clandestine control of third-party computers, but the leak reveals the GCHQ team having an obsession with state machines controlled by pseudo random inputs.

With their background in code breaking I appreciate that GCHQ have lots of expertise to throw at doing clever things with pseudo random numbers (other than introducing subtle flaws in public key encryption).

What about the possibility of introducing non-random patterns in randomised storage layout algorithms (he says waving his clueless arms around)?

Which of the core developers is most likely to be the sleeper agent? His codename, Basil Brush, suggests somebody from the boomer generation, or perhaps reflects some personal characteristic; it might also be intended to distract.

What steps need to be taken to prevent more sleeper agents joining the Linux kernel development team?

Requiring developers to provide a record of their financial history (say, 10-years worth), before being accepted as a core developer, will rule out many capable people. Also, this approach does not filter out ideologically motivated developers.

The world may have to accept that intelligence agencies are the future of major funding for widely used Open source projects.