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Re: Subversion security needs to improve.

From: John Szakmeister <john_at_szakmeister.net>
Date: 2004-10-21 04:04:39 CEST

On Wednesday 20 October 2004 20:34, Alex Holst wrote:
> Quoting kfogel@collab.net (kfogel@collab.net):
> > Except for the part about inspection, these are all vague wishes, not
> > concrete advice. You mention "rules", but do not describe them.
> > Everyone who writes an API in Subversion thinks about the security
> > implications. However, sometimes we don't think of them all. If you
> > have an improved process for thinking of them, this would be the
> > place to describe it...
> I did this recently. When I suggested you read the excellent Microsoft
> Press book "Threat Modeling" by Swiderski and Snyder, your comment was
> something along the line that you probably couldn't learn anything
> about security from Microsoft. :)

I'm sure that was a sarcastic remark, and a funny one at that. :-)

> As for rules, I was deliberately trying to avoid specific suggestions
> as they might not be 100% compatible with all the activities in this
> project. I thought it would be best to narrow them down together. I am
> not yet disillusioned enough to believe that a single person can define
> how this project should go about improving this.

Avoiding suggestions helps no one. I see words on a piece of paper that
really don't add up to much. You seem to suggest that we aren't aware of
security issues, yet you don't site specific behaviors that you feel are
contrary to developing more secure code, with the exception of auditing
code. But even then, you made a remark about not reviewing code and had
no real evidence to back up that claim.

I don't email the list every time I review a piece of code. I look at
every single commit that happens, and scrutinize it for errors, style,
and security. If you've really been lurking since 2001, then you should
know that the team does this, and does it well. I didn't come into this
project with that kind of style, the Subversion team molded me into it.
There *is* an atmosphere for developing high quality code here, and that
includes watching out for security implications.

Also, no one is trying to suggest that a single person review all of this
code. What is being suggested is that if you feel this is so important,
why don't you invest your time? We get a lot of suggestions on this list
on how we should do things, but when asked to step up to the plate to fix
it... well, it's all of a sudden less concerning to them. In coding
speak, "patches are welcome." :-)

> I'm just sorry I picked a wrong word and got the number of bugs wrong.
> > > The Subversion team do none of these things. They have a webpage
> > > with a contact address for reporting security bugs, and this is
> > > a good thing. They even react to security problems with the
> > > usual speed one has come to expect from non-commercial
> > > vendors. However, it would be better if the entire team actively
> > > started to audit existing code for bugs and implemented security
> > > review of new code. One or two people cannot do this alone. The
> > > entire team needs to participate.
> >
> > Yes, that would be nice, yet no one has volunteered to do it, because
> > they find other things to be higher priority.
> This conflicts with the essence of a point Ben Reser made, doesn't it?
> He spends time looking for security problems and goes so far as to say
> the effort made toward avoiding corruption bugs also go towards
> avoiding security problems.

No it doesn't. Just because we don't sit down a pick a day to audit code
for security flaws, doesn't mean we aren't concerned with it. FWIW, we
don't pick a day to sit down and examine the backends from top to bottom
either. We count on us reviewing each others commits, and when faced
with a particularly difficult situation, it's pushed to the list first.

Also, there are a number of features in the Subversion code that are
specifically designed to make programming easier, and to avoid common
security pitfalls.

> > What *specifically* is the team doing wrong now, or failing to do
> > right? If you want to change their behavior, what will the costs be?
> I've tried to expand on the specifics and I'll continue tomorrow. It's
> 2.30am here.

Where? I saw one, make svnserve chroot(). Do you have others?

> The costs depend on how aggressive you want to be, but it really boils
> down to some other work not getting done. I can't qoute a number as the
> cost for the subversion project of postponing features, nor the cost to
> the project of being subject to a particular number of vulnerabilities.
> Can you elaborate on what "costs" mean in this context? Maybe I can
> answer the question better.

How about time and energy? If we aren't doing enough, tell me how much
time we should be spending on this? How much code a day should we be
auditing? How much of an impact are the new more security-aware habits
going to have in terms of development? Let's face it, a person *could*
sit down and stare at code all day, but then nothing new ever gets

> > > Karl Fogel announced to the Subversion developer list in June
> > > 2004 that he was starting a security code audit and then
> > > followed up a month later by stating that he would not be able
> > > to finish the audit.
> >
> > That's right. It was taking a *huge* amount of time. (And I still
> > didn't spot the path-based-authz problems that were later discovered!
> > So all that time was wasted.)
> I don't agree it was a waste of time. It "just" takes more effort and
> more people actively looking over the code. If most developers were
> able to spend 30 minutes per week looking for security bugs, they would
> slowly get better at it and catch more things without a serious
> disruption to the development progress.

I spend more than 30 minutes a week looking over commits, and I'm sure
that most other Subversion developers do too. That said, some of the
security bugs found were pretty obscure, and most wouldn't have caught

> > The costs of the audit turned out to far outweigh the benefits, i.e.,
> > it was costing a lot and not benefiting us much anyway. If someone
> > with more skill at a security audit (you?) did it, it might cost less
> > and benefit Subversion more. Then the tradeoff would be worth it.
> Please see my point to Ben Reser about the value of building a culture
> of security-aware developers as opposed to a single individual who
> looks for these things. Do you still feel a single individual finding
> problems is the best approach?

Again, what about our culture isn't "security aware"? It's suggestions
like these that make me think you haven't been watching the list much
since 2001. :-)

> > > The Subversion team is very serious about repository
> > > integrity. They work hard to avoid bugs that could lead to
> > > corrupt repositories. That same effort should be applied to
> > > avoiding bugs that could lead to security compromises.
> >
> > That's a fallacy -- the efforts are not tradeable, for all sorts of
> > reasons.
> Again, I got the sense from Ben Reser that the approach I praised to
> avoid corruption bugs went towards avoiding security bugs. You don't
> seem to think so. It would be a great first step if all/most developers
> had the same understanding of the level of effort that goes into
> avoiding security bugs.

I think Karl was talking about this from an implementation sort of view.
We have tests in place to help detect when we do something wrong with the
backend. How do you do the same thing for security? You said yourself
that static tools aren't really up to the task, and require a great
effort to get configured correctly. It seems to me that good programming
practices, and peer review is the way to go... and I believe we do that

> > I'm saying all this only partly defend the Subversion team (of course
> > I too wish for fewer security releases!). I'm also saying it because
> > whatever you propose must be based on an realistic assessment of the
> > costs and benefits, and describe -- concretely -- how to get the work
> > done. You haven't done any of that, and that's why your document
> > isn't much help, I'm afraid.
> I'll try to be more specific. As mentioned on IRC, in my experience
> people seem to be more willing to follow along with an idea if they can
> see the overall point, instead of suddenly implementing a security
> counter-measure for no real reason. svn seems to be the exception to
> this rule :)

Not at all. Again, we gets lots of suggestions about how we should spend
our resources with no real commitment from the person suggesting it. If
you commit to it, site specific examples and behaviors with suggestions
on how to do it better, I'm willing to adopt them as long as they make

> I've revised the document again based on this email exchange. I'll
> continue tomorrow. If I left anything out, please tell me.

You left out the "specifics." :-)

Please don't take offense to anything that I've said. I'm really just
trying to understand what you think are the problems. You think we don't
have a "security aware" culture, and I think we have that and more.


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Received on Thu Oct 21 04:04:54 2004

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