Front doors

We’ve all heard of “back door” access. This refers to a situation where some kind of access to the system is available that does not go through the normal procedures, and is sometimes present during the early stages of development to provide convenient and efficient ways to interact with a partially complete system.

Obviously, it is essential that the final version of the solution is built without these back doors present, otherwise you have a major hole in your security.

Then there is the front door, and that will be present in the final version you put into the hands of your customers.

During development it is tempting to make the front door as “convenient” as the back door, just to speed things up. You could, for example, just take the lock off the front door, so long as you remember to restore it before your product ships.

Big companies with millions of customers would never ship a product with the front door unlocked, would they?

Sadly, Apple did just exactly that. Yesterday the Apple ecosystem woke up to discover that macOS High Sierra, released to a bazillion Mac users, allowed anyone to log in as root with no password! The problem had been spotted a few weeks ago, but has suddenly gone public thanks to social media. Apple quickly issued instructions on how to put the lock back on the door, but you can be sure that there will be many Macs exposed for a long time, at least until Apple’s next automatic update.

To make matters worse, the bug first needs to be “activated” by someone actually attempting the root login. Once activated, it makes it far easier for malware to exploit the newly exposed root access. Thanks to the social media storm and human nature, this bug is going to be activated over, and over, and over.

It is quite possible that while the door is open, some malware (or someone with brief physical access to your laptop) could take advantage of this total loss of security to go in and leave something inside that will permit access at a later date, even when Apple fix their blunder. So the repercussions will be long lasting.

No doubt this episode will be a case study in text books for years to come.

Categorised as: Operating Systems, Security

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