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Countering the trusting trust attack

Countering the trusting trust attack

Posted Feb 5, 2010 19:44 UTC (Fri) by Baylink (guest, #755)
In reply to: Countering the trusting trust attack by paulj
Parent article: Security in the 20-teens

> How does it get better exactly? Old software doesn't come sandwiched, ossified between rock strata that can further attest to its obvious age.

Sure it does. :-)

There are lots of things which make it difficult to run really old software on newer platforms, and the more obstacles you place in the way of a notional IRIX Trusting-attack implementor, the less likely you make an outcome positive to him.

> You're still going to have to determine whether or not the bag of bits you have before you really is the same as that old compiler you want to put your faith in. You'll have to trust your md5sum binary (oops) and you'll have to trust MD5. Oops. And you're still trusting the original compiler author.

Yes, but what you're trusting him to do *now* is to have written a compiler which could properly identify and mangle a compiler which did not even exist at that time. And compilers are sufficiently different from each other syntactically that I don't think that attack is possible even in theory, though clearly, "I don't think" isn't good enough for our purposes here. :-).

> The "the old author can't have thought of future compilers" argument seems weak. Viruses are much more sophisticated these days - there's no need the attack has to be limited to specific implementations of software.

Well, I think that depends on which attack we're actually talking about here, and "virus" doesn't really qualify. The Trusting attack was a compiler-propagated Trojan Horse, a much more limited category of attack than "viruses these days", and therefore even harder to implement.

I'm not sure why failing to expect clairvoyance from an earlier-decade's attack author is a weak approach, either. :-)

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Countering the trusting trust attack

Posted Feb 5, 2010 21:42 UTC (Fri) by paulj (subscriber, #341) [Link]

Thompson implementing his attack as a compiler attack is a detail, primarily
because source code was the normal form of software interchange but the
basic compiler toolchain obviously still required passing around binaries. In
short it was the *only* place he could have implemented an attack by
subverting binaries. His paper is explicit that the compiler attack is merely a
demonstration of a more fundamental problem of having to place trust in
computer systems. Particularly, he mentions microcode as a possible level of
attack - clearly a completely different thing from compiler level and indication
that Thompson was making a very general point.

To think that Thompson's attack is only about compilers is surely to miss the
point of a classic paper.

Also, I don't expect clairvoyance. Indeed, you miss my point about which
direction the attacker is going.

I think perhaps I should properly write up my criticism...

Countering the trusting trust attack

Posted Feb 5, 2010 21:52 UTC (Fri) by Baylink (guest, #755) [Link]

Because I am a believer in the traditions of science, yes, I think it would be an excellent idea if you wrote up formally your problems with his paper...

which I *promise* I'm going to read, tonight while I wait for a server upgrade to finish. :-)

And certainly any level of the stack can be attacked, and I understand that was his point. But one either has to say "there's no practical way for me to validate the microcode of the CPU, and thus there's a practical limite to what I can verify", or one has to -- in fact -- do that validation.

If one can.

As we note on RISKS regularly, there are two issues at hand here: "pick your own low-hanging fruit", ie: make sure you apply extra security balm equally to all layers of your problem (as adjusted by your threat estimates at each layer), and "know your CBA": the amount of security at all levels you apply has to be in keeping with not only your threat estimate, but with what the bad guys can *get*.

This is, in particular, the part of the issue that terrorists throw monkey wrenches into: trying to inspire asymmetrical responses to what are, objectively, low-level threats. Your opponent wears himself out on the cape and never sees the sword. Bruce Schneier likes to address this issue.

Countering the trusting trust attack

Posted Sep 20, 2010 14:53 UTC (Mon) by paulj (subscriber, #341) [Link]

Took a while, but I wrote up those views on "Diverse Double-Compiling" and stuck them online here.

Countering the trusting trust attack

Posted Feb 5, 2010 23:05 UTC (Fri) by nix (subscriber, #2304) [Link]

Of course paulj's attack is possible in theory. We just need strong AI

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