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Computer (In)security: Infiltrating Open Systems

Ian Witten
ABACUS, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer 1987, pp. 7-25.

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Transcription and HTML by Cryptome. 1 December 1999. Thanks to ABACUS and IW.

Despite advances in authentication and encryption methods, computer systems are just as vulnerable as ever.

Ian H. Witten received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Essex University, England, in 1976. He is currently a professor in the Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary. His research interests span the field of man/machine systems, and he has specialized in fundamental problems of human and machine learning, in computational phonetics (the science of speech synthesis by computer), in signal processing and, recently, in document preparation systems and documentation graphics. He is the author or coauthor of about eighty publications, including three books: Communicating with Microcomputers (Academic Press, 1980), Principles of Computer Speech (Academic Press, 1982), and Talking with Computers (Prentice-Hall, 1986).

Shared computer systems today are astonishingly insecure. And users, on the whole, are blithely unaware of the weaknesses of the systems in which they place -- or misplace -- their trust. Taken literally, of course, to "trust" a computer system as such is meaningless, for machines are neither trustworthy nor untrustworthy; these are human qualities. In trusting a system one is effectively trusting all those who create and alter it -- in other words, all who have access (whether licit or illicit). Security is a fundamentally human issue.

This article aims not to solve security problems, but to raise reader consciousness of the multifarious cunning ways that systems can be infiltrated, and the subtle but devastating damage that an unscrupulous infiltrator can wreak. It is comforting, but highly misleading, to imagine that technical means of enforcing security have guaranteed that the systems we use are safe. True, in recent years some ingenious procedures have been invented to preserve security. For example, the advent of "one-way functions" (explained below) has allowed the password file, once a computer system's central stronghold, to be safely exposed to casual inspection by all and sundry. But despite these innovations, astonishing loopholes exist in practice.

There are manifest advantages in ensuring security by technical means rather than by keeping things secret. Not only do secrets leak, but as individuals change projects, join or leave the organization, become promoted, and so on, they need to learn new secrets and forget old ones. With physical locks one can issue and withdraw keys to reflect changing security needs. But in computer systems, the keys constitute information that can be given out but not taken back, because no one can force people to forget. In practice, such secrets require considerable administration to maintain properly. And in systems where security is maintained by tight control of information, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

Many systems suffer a wide range of simple insecurities. These are, in the main, exacerbated in open systems where information and programs are shared among users -- just the features that characterize pleasant and productive working environments. The saboteur's basic tool is the Trojan horse, a widely trusted program that has been surreptitiously modified to do bad things in secret. "Bad things" range from minor but rankling irritations through theft of information to holding users to ransom.

The inevitable fragilities of operating systems can be exploited by constructing programs that behave in some ways like primitive living organisms. Programs can be written that spread bugs like an epidemic. They hide in binary code, effectively undetectable (because nobody ever examines binaries). They can remain dormant for months or years, perhaps quietly and imperceptibly infiltrating their way into the very depths of a system, then suddenly pounce, causing irreversible catastrophe. A clever and subtle bug* can survive recompilation even though there is no record of it in the source program. This is the ultimate parasite. It cannot be detected because it lives only in binary code. Yet it cannot be wiped out by recompiling the source program! We might wonder whether these techniques, which this article develops and explains in the context of multiuser time-sharing operating systems, pose any threats to computer networks or even stand-alone micros.

Although the potential has existed for decades, the possibility of the kind of "deviant" software described here has been recognized only recently. Or has it? Probably some in the world of computer wizards and sorcerers have known for years how systems can be silently, subtly infiltrated -- and concealed the information for fear that it might be misused (or for other reasons). Nevertheless, knowledge of the techniques is spreading, and I believe it behooves us all -- professionals and amateurs alike -- to understand just how our continued successful use of computer systems hangs on a thread of trust. Those who are ignorant of the possibilities of sabotage can easily be unknowingly duped by an unscrupulous infiltrator.

The moral is simple. Computer security is a human business. One way of maintaining security is to keep things secret, trusting people (the very people who can do you the most harm) not to tell. The alternative is to open up the system and rely on technical means of ensuring security. But a really "open" system is also open to abuse. The more sharing and productive the environment, the more potential exists for damage. You have to trust your fellow users, and educate yourself. If mutual trust is the cornerstone of computer security, we'd better know it!

The Trend toward Openness

Many people believe that computer systems can maintain security not by keeping secrets but by clever technical mechanisms. Such devices include electronic locks and keys, and schemes for maintaining different sets of "permissions" or "privileges" for each user. The epitome of this trend toward open systems is the well-known UNIX operating system, whose developers, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, strove to design a clean, elegant piece of software that could be understood, maintained, and modified by users. (In 1983 they received the prestigious ACM Turing Award for their work.) Ken Thompson has been one of the prime contributors to our knowledge of computer (in)security, and was responsible for much of the work described in this article.

Figure 1

The most obvious sense in which the UNIX system is "open" is illustrated by looking at its password file. Yes, there is nothing to stop you from looking at this file! Each registered user has a line in it, and Figure 1 shows mine. It won't help you to impersonate me, however, because what it shows in the password field is not my password but a scrambled version of it. A program computes encrypted passwords from plain ones, and that is how the system checks my identity when I log in. But the program doesn't work in reverse -- it's what is called a "one-way function" (see Panel 1). Finding the plain version from the encrypted one is effectively impossible, even if you know exactly what the encryption procedure does and try to work carefully backward through it. Nobody can recover my plain password from the information stored in the computer. If I forget it, not even the system manager can find out what it is. The best that can be done is to reset my password to some standard one, so that I can log in and change it to a new secret password. (Needless to say, this creates a window of opportunity for an impostor.) The system keeps no secrets. Only I do.

Panel 1: One-Way Functions

A one-way function is irreversible: although the output can be calculated from the input, the input cannot be calculated from the output. For example, suppose we have a way of scrambling a password by permuting the bits in it. This is not one-way, since every permutation has an inverse. But suppose we apply the permutation a number of times that depends on the original password. For example, add together the numeric codes for each character of the password and save just the low-order four bits of the sum. This gives a number between 0 and 15, say m. Now repeat the permutation m times.

Consider the problem faced by John Hacker an intruder trying to guess the password. Suppose he knows the output of the function and the permutation used. He can certainly apply the inverse permutation. But this does not help very much, because he does not know m, and m is dependent on the original password. Still, he could repeatedly apply the inverse permutation and try to recognize when the original password is encountered. In our example this would be easy: just look at the low-order four bits of the sum of the character codes and see if that equals the number of times the permutation has been applied!

The function can be made more secure by complicating it. Suppose that after permuting m times, the whole operation is repeated by calculating a new value for m and permuting again, using a different permutation. Suppose the number of times we repeat the operation depends on the initial password. Suppose we have a large number of different permutations and switch from one to another depending on the password. It quickly becomes effectively impossible to invert the function.

Such ad hoc complications of an originally simple procedure can give a false sense of security. It may still be possible for a sufficiently clever intruder to see a way to invert the function: consequently, there is a great deal of interest in methods of producing one-way functions that can be theoretically analyzed and are provably difficult to invert. But this leads us far from our story.

Before people knew about one-way functions, computer systems maintained a password file, which gave everyone's plain password for the log-in procedure to consult. This was the prime target for anyone who tried to break security, and the bane of system managers because of the completely catastrophic nature of a leak. Systems that keep no secrets avoid an unnecessary Achilles heel.

Another sense in which UNIX is "open" is the accessibility of its source code. The software, written in the language C, has been distributed (to universities) in source form so that maintenance can be done locally. The computer-science research community has enjoyed numerous benefits from this enlightened policy (one is that we can actually look at some of the security problems discussed in this article).

Of course, in any other system there will inevitably be a large number of people who have or formerly had access to the source code, even though it may not be publicly accessible. Operating systems are highly complex pieces of technology, created by large teams of people. A determined infiltrator may well be able to gain illicit access to source code. Making it widely available has the very positive effect of bringing the problems out into the open and offering them up for public scrutiny.

Were it attainable, perfect secrecy would offer a high degree of security. Many people feel that technical innovations like one-way functions and open password files provide comparable protection. The aim of this article is to show that this is a dangerous misconception. In practice, security is often severely compromised by people who have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the system -- precisely the people you rely on to provide the security.

This does not cause problems in research laboratories, because they are founded on mutual trust and support. But in commercial environments, it is vital to be aware of any limitations on security. We must face the fact that in a hostile and complex world, computer security is best preserved by maintaining secrecy.

A Potpourri of Security Problems

Here are a few simple ways that security might be compromised.

Guessing a particular user's password. Whether your password is stored in a secret file or encrypted by a one-way function first, it offers no protection if it can easily be guessed. This will be hard if it is chosen at random from a large enough set. But for a short sequence of characters from a restricted alphabet (like the lowercase letters), an impostor could easily try all possibilities. And in an open system that gives access to the password file and one-way function, this can be done mechanically, by a program!

In Figure 2, the number of different passwords is plotted against the length of the password, for several different sets of characters. For example, there are about ten million (107) possibilities for a five-character password chosen from the lower-case letters. This may seem a lot, but if it takes 1 millisecond to try each one, they can all be searched in about 3 hours. If five-character passwords are selected from the sixty-two alphanumerics, there are more than a hundred times as many, and the search would take over 10 days.

Figure 2

To make matters worse, people have a strong propensity to choose as passwords such things as

Of course, this isn't particularly surprising, since passwords have to be mnemonic in order to be remembered! But it is easy for an enterprising impostor to gather a substantial collection of candidates (from dictionaries or mailing lists, for instance) and search them for your password. At 1 millisecond per possibility, it takes only 4 minutes to search a 250,000-word commercial dictionary.

Some years ago, a study of a collection of actual passwords that people used to protect their accounts revealed the amazing breakdown reproduced in Figure 3. Most fell into one of the categories discussed; the remainder, constituting less than 15% of the passwords, were considered hard to guess. Where does your own password stand in the pie diagram?

Figure 3

Finding any valid password. There is a big difference between finding a particular person's password and finding a valid password for any user. You could start searching through the candidates noted above until you found one that, when encrypted, matched one of the entries in the password file. Thus you would find the most vulnerable user, and there are almost certain to be some lazy and crazy enough to use easily guessable passwords, four-letter words, or whatever. Hashing techniques make it almost as fast to check a candidate against a group of encrypted passwords as against a single one.

A technique called "salting" protects against this kind of attack Whenever a user's password is initialized or changed, a small random number called the "salt" is generated (perhaps from the time of day). Not only is this combined with the password when it is encrypted, but, as Figure 1 shows, it is also stored in the password file for everyone to see. Every time someone claiming to be the user logs in, the salt is combined with the password offered before being encrypted and compared with whatever is stored in the password file. For example, suppose my password is "w#xs27" (it isn't!). If the salt is "U6" (as in Figure 1), the system will apply its one-way function to "w#xs27U6" to get the encrypted password.

Since all can see the salt, it is no harder for anyone to guess an individual user's password. One can salt guesses just as the system does. But it is harder to search a group of passwords, because the salt will be different for each, rendering it meaningless to compare a single encrypted password against all those in the group. Suppose you were checking to see if anyone had the password "hello". Without salting, you would simply apply the one-way function to this word and compare the result with everyone's encrypted password. But with salting it's not so easy: to see if my password is "hello" you must encrypt "helloU6", and the salt is different for everyone.

Forced-choice passwords. The trouble with letting users choose their own passwords is that they often make silly, easily guessed choices. Many systems attempt to force people to choose more "random" passwords, and force them to change their password regularly. All these attempts seem to be complete failures. The fundamental problem is that people have to be able to remember their passwords, because security is immediately compromised if they are written down. Many people try to thwart systems that dictate when they have to change their passwords. I had been using a new system for some weeks when it insisted that I change my password. Resenting it ordering me about, I gave my old password as the new one. But it was programmed to detect this ruse and promptly told me so. I complained to the user sitting beside me. "I know," she said sympathetically. "What I always do is change it to something else and then immediately change it back again!" Another system remembered your last several passwords, and insisted on a once-a-month change. So people began to use the name of the current month as their password!

Wiretaps. Obviously any kind of password protection can be thwarted by a physical wiretap. All one has to do is watch as you log in and make a note of your password. The only defense is encryption at the terminal. Even then you have to be careful to ensure that someone can't intercept your encrypted password and pose as you later by sending this encrypted string to the computer; after all, this is what the computer sees when you log in legitimately! To counter this, the encryption can be made time-dependent so that the same password translates to different strings at different times.

Assuming that you, like 99.9% of the rest of us, do not go to the trouble of terminal encryption, when was the last time you checked the line between your office terminal and the computer for a physical wiretap?

Search paths. We will see shortly that you place yourself completely at the mercy of other users whenever you execute their programs, and they can do some really nasty things like spreading infection to your files. You don't necessarily have to execute someone else's program overtly; many systems make it easy to use other people's programs without even realizing it. This is usually a great advantage, for you can install programs so that you or others can invoke them just like ordinary system programs, thereby creating personalized environments.

Figure 4

Figure 4 shows part of the file hierarchy in our system. The whole hierarchy is immense, and what is shown is just a very small fragment (I alone have something like 1,650 files, organized into 200 of my own directories under the "ian" node shown in the figure, and there are hundreds of other users). Users can set up a "search path" telling the system where to look for programs they invoke. For example, my search path in the six places that are circled. Whenever I ask for a program to be executed, the system seeks it in these places. It also searches the "current directory" -- the one where I happen to be at the time.

To make your work more convenient, it is easy to put someone else's file directories on your search path. But then that person can do arbitrary damage to you, sometimes quite accidentally. For example, I once installed a spreadsheet calculator called "sc" in one of my directories. Unknown to me, another user suddenly found that the Simula compiler stopped working and entered a curious mode where it cleared his VDT screen and wrote a few incomprehensible characters on it. His discovery caused quite a hiatus. The person who maintained the Simula compiler was away, but people could see no reason for the compiler to have been altered.

Of course, told like this, it is obvious that the user had my directory on his search path, and I had created a name conflict with sc, the Simula compiler. But it was not obvious to the user, who rarely thought about the search-path mechanism. And I had created the conflict in all innocence. I never use the Simula compiler; I didn't even know that other users had my directory on their search paths! This situation caused only frustration until the problem was diagnosed and fixed. But what if I were a bad guy who had created the new sc program to harbor a nasty bug (say, one that deleted the hapless user's files)?

You don't necessarily have to put someone on your search path to run the risk of executing another s programs accidentally. As noted above, the system (usually) checks your current working directory for the program first. Whenever you change your current workplace to another's directory, you might unwittingly begin to execute programs that had been planted there.

Suppose a hacker plants a program with the same name as a common utility program. How would you find out? The UNIX ls command lists all the files in a directory. Perhaps you could find impostors using ls? Sorry. The hacker might have planted another program called ls, which simulated the real ls exactly except that it lied about its own existence and that of the planted command! The which command tells you which version of a program you are using -- whether it comes from the current directory, another user's directory, or a system directory. Surely this would tell you something was amiss? Sorry. The hacker might have written another which that lied about itself, about ls, and about the plant.

If you put someone else on your search path, or change into someone's directory, you're implicitly trusting that party. You are completely at a user's mercy when you execute one of that person's programs, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Programmable terminals. Things are even worse if you use a "programmable" terminal. Then the computer can send a special sequence of characters to command the terminal to transmit a particular message whenever a particular key is struck. For example, on the terminal I used to type this article, you could program the return key to transmit the message "hello" whenever it is pressed. All you need to do to accomplish this is to send my terminal the character sequence


(ESCAPE stands for the ASCII escape character, decimal 27, which is invoked by a key labeled "Esc.") This is a mysterious and ugly incantation, and I won't waste time explaining the syntax. But it has an extraordinary effect. Henceforth every time I hit the return key, my terminal will transmit the string "hello" instead of the normal RETURN code. And when it receives this string, the computer I am connected to will try to execute a program called "hello"!

Here is a terrible source of insecurity. John Hacker could program my terminal so that it executed one of his programs whenever I pressed return. That program could reinstate the RETURN code to make it appear afterward as though nothing had happened. Before doing that, however, it could (for example) delete all my files.

The terminal can be reprogrammed just by sending it an ordinary character string. The string could be embedded in a file, so that the terminal would be bugged whenever I viewed the file. It might be in a seemingly innocuous message; simply reading mail could get me in trouble! It could even be part of a file name, so that the bug would appear whenever I listed a certain directory -- not making it my current directory, as was discussed above, but just inspecting it. But I shouldn't say appear, for that's exactly what it might not do. I might never know that anything untoward had occurred.

How can you be safe? The programming sequences for my terminal all start with ESCAPE, which is an ASCII control character. Whenever possible, anyone using such a terminal should work through a program that exposes control characters; by this I mean a program that monitors output from the computer and translates the escape code to something like the five-character sequence "<ESC>". Then a raw ESCAPE itself never gets sent to the terminal, so the reprogramming mechanism is never activated.

Not only should you avoid executing their programs, take the utmost care in any interaction with untrustworthy people -- even in reading their electronic mail.

Not only should you avoid executing programs written by people you don't trust, but in extreme cases you should take the utmost care in any interaction with untrustworthy people -- even in reading their electronic mail.

Trojan Horses: Getting under the Skin. The famous legend tells of a huge, hollow wooden horse that was left, ostensibly as a gift, at the gates of the city of Troy. After it was brought inside, Greek soldiers emerged from its belly at night and opened the gates for their army, which destroyed the city. To this day, something used to subvert an organization from within by abusing misplaced trust is called a Trojan horse.

In any computer system where security is a concern, there must be things that need protecting. These invariably constitute some kind of information (since the computer is, at heart, an information processor), and such information invariably outlasts a single log-in session and is stored in the computer's file system. Consequently, the file system is the bastion to be kept secure; it will be the ultimate target of any invader. Some files contain secret information that not just anyone may read; others are vital to the operation of an organization and must at all costs be preserved from surreptitious modification or deletion. Also to be protected is the "identity" of each user. False identity could be exploited by impersonating someone else in order to send mail. Ultimately, of course, this is the same as changing data in mailbox files. Conversely, since for any secret file someone must have permission to read and alter it, preserving file-system security requires that identities be kept intact.

What might a Trojan horse do? The simplest kind of Trojan horse turns a common program like a text editor into a security threat by implanting code in it that secretly reads or alters files in an unauthorized way. An editor normally has access to all the user's files (otherwise they couldn't be altered). In other words, the program runs with the user's own privileges. A Trojan horse in it can do anything the user could do, including reading, writing, or deleting files.

It is easy to communicate stolen information back to the person who bugged the editor. Most blatantly, the access permission of a secret file could be changed so that anyone can read it. Alternatively, the file could be copied temporarily to disk (most systems allocate scratch disk space for programs that need to create temporary working files) and there given open access. Another program could continually check for the file and, when it appeared, read and immediately delete it to destroy the trace. More subtle ways of communicating small amounts of information might be to rearrange disk blocks physically so that their addresses formed a code, or to signal with the run/idle status of the process to anyone who monitored the system's job queue. Clearly, any method of communication will be detectable by others -- in theory. But so many things go on in a computer system that messages can easily be embedded in the humdrum noise of countless daily events.

Trojan horses don't necessarily do bad things. Some are harmless but annoying, created to meet a challenge rather than to steal secrets. One such bug, the "cookie monster," signals its presence by announcing to the unfortunate user, "I want a cookie." Merely typing the word cookie will satiate the monster and cause it to disappear as though nothing had happened. But if the user ignores the request, although the monster appears to go away it returns some minutes later with "I'm hungry; I really want a cookie!" As time passes the monster appears more and more frequently with increasingly insistent demands, until it makes a serious threat: "I'll remove some of your files if you don't give me a cookie." At this point the poor user realizes that the danger is real, and is effectively forced into appeasing the monster's appetite by supplying the word cookie. Although the story is amusing, it is not pleasant to imagine being intimidated by an inanimate computer program.

A more innocuous Trojan horse, installed by a system programmer to commemorate leaving her job, occasionally drew a little teddy bear on the graph-plotter. This didn't happen often (roughly every tenth plot), and even when it did the bear occupied a remote corner of the paper, well outside the normal plotting area. Although they initially shared the joke, management soon ceased to appreciate the funny side and ordered the programmer's replacement to get rid of it. Unfortunately, the bug was well disguised, and many fruitless hours were spent seeking it. Management grew more irate, and the episode ended when the originator received a desperate phone call from her replacement, whose job was by now at risk, begging her to divulge the secret!

Installing a Trojan horse. The difficult part is installing the Trojan horse into a trusted program. System managers naturally take great care that only a few people get access to suitable host programs. If anyone outside the select circle of "system people" is ever given an opportunity to modify a commonly used program like a text editor (for example, to add a new feature), all changes will be closely scrutinized by the system manager before being installed. Through such measures the integrity of system programs is preserved. Note, however, that constant vigilance is required, for once bugged, a system can remain compromised forever. The chances of a slipup may be tiny, but the potential consequences are unlimited.

One good way of getting bugged code installed in the system is to write a popular utility program. As its user community grows, more and more people will copy the program into their disk areas so that they can use it easily. Eventually, if it is successful, the utility will be installed as a "system" program. This will be done to save disk space so that the users can delete their private versions and perhaps also because the code can now be made "sharable," in that several simultaneous users can all execute a single copy in main memory. As a system program the utility may inherit special privileges, and so be capable of more damage. It may also be distributed to other sites, spreading the Trojan horse far and wide.

Installing a bug in a system utility like a text editor puts anyone who uses that program at the mercy of whoever perpetrated the bug. But it doesn't allow that person to get in and do damage at any time, for nothing can be done to a user's files until that user invokes the bugged program. Some system programs, however, have a special privilege that allows them access to files belonging to anyone, not just the current user. We'll refer to this as the "ultimate" privilege, since nothing could be more powerful.

An example of a program with the ultimate privilege is the login program, which administers the logging-in sequence, accepting the user name and password and creating an appropriate initial process. Although UNIX login runs as a normal process, it must have the power to masquerade as any user, because that in effect is the goal of the logging-in procedure! From an infiltrator's point of view, this would be an excellent target for a Trojan horse. For example, it could be augmented to grant access automatically to any user who typed the special password "trojanhorse" (see Panel 2). Then the infiltrator could log in as anyone at any time. Naturally, any changes to login will be checked especially carefully by the system administrators.

Panel 2: Installing a Trojan Horse in the login Program

Here is how one logs in to UNIX.

  Login: ian      Here I type my login name, which is "ian" 
  Password:       Here I type my secret password, which I
  		  am not going to tell you 

The program that administers the log-in procedure is written in the C language, and in outline is something like this:

  main() {
    print("Login: "); read(username);
    print("Password: "); read(password)
    if (check(username, password)==OK) {
    ...             /* Let the user in */
    else {
                    /* Throw the user out */
  check(username, password) {
    ...             /* Here is the code for actually checking the password */

For simplicity, some liberties have been taken with the language (for example, variables are not declared). Main() just says that this is the main program. Print and read print and read character strings on the terminal. The check(username, password) subroutine will check that the user has typed the password correctly, although the code isn't shown.

Suppose an extra line was inserted into the check subroutine, to make it like this:

  check(username, password) {
    if (match(password, "trojanhorse")) return OK;

    ...             /* Same code as before for checking other passwords */

Now the password "trojanhorse" will work for any user, as well as the regular one (match just compares the two character strings). Users who are not in on the secret will notice no difference. But those who are will be able to impersonate anyone without having to know the rea1 password.

Some other programs are equally vulnerable -- but not many. Of several hundred utilities in UNIX, only around a dozen have the ultimate privilege that login enjoys. Among them are the mail facility, the passwd program (which lets users change their passwords), ps (which examines the status of all processes in the system), lquota (which enforces disk quotas), df (which shows how much of the disk is free), and so on. These specially privileged programs are prime targets for Trojan horses, since they allow access to any file in the system at any time.

Bugs can lurk in compilers. Assuming infiltrators can never expect to be able to modify the source code of powerful programs like login, is there any way a bug can be planted indirectly? Yes, there is. Remember that it is the object code -- the file containing executable machine instructions -- that actually runs the logging-in process. This is what has to be bugged. Altering the source code is only one way. The object file could perhaps be modified directly, but it is likely to be just as tightly guarded as the login source. More sophisticated is a modification to the compiler itself. A bug could try to recognize when login is being compiled, and then insert a Trojan horse automatically into the compiled code.

Panel 3: Using the Compiler to Install a Trojan Horse

Here is a critical part of a compiler, a subroutine that compiles the next line of code:

   * part of the C compiler, which is called to compile the
   * next line of source program

    ...       Code to compile a line of source program

compile(s) is called with its argument, the character string s, containing the next input line. It inserts into the output stream the compiled version of this line. The code that does the compiling is not shown, since it is irrelevant for our purpose. In actuality the structure of the compiler is like to be considerably more complicated than this (for one thing, it will take more than one pass through the source code before producing output). However, this simplified caricature is good enough to convey the idea. Note that the compiler really is written in the C language, as is explained in the main text.

Here is a bugged version of the compiler, which works exactly as normal except when compiling the login program.

   * The compiler modified to include a Trojan horse
   * which matches code in the "login" program.
   * "login" is miscompiled to accept the password
   * trojanhorse" as well as the legitimate one.
  compile(s) {
    ...         <em>Compile the statement in the normal way</em>
    if (match(s, "check(username, password) {"))
       compile("if (match(password, \"trojan-horse\"))
         return OK;");

(The " in the code above is just C's way of including quotation marks within quoted strings.

The compiler looks for a line that occurs in the source of login, and the line that has been chosen is the header of the check function (see the previous panel). Having satisfied itself that what is being compiled is really login (that is, when match succeeds), the bugged compiler compiles an extra line into the program. That extra line

 if (match(password, "trojanhorse")) return OK;

is exactly the Trojan horse that was used in the login program in the earlier panel.

Panel 3 shows the idea. The UNIX login program is written in the C programming language. We need to modify the compiler so that it recognizes when it is compiling the login program. Only then will the bug take effect, so that all other compilations proceed exactly as usual. When login is recognized, an additional line is inserted into it by the compiler, at the correct place, so that exactly the same bug is planted as in Panel 2. But this time the bug is placed there by the compiler itself, and does not appear in the source of the login program. Note that nothing about this operation depends on the programming language used. All examples in this article could be redone using, say, Pascal. C has the advantage that it is actually used in a widespread operating system.

The true picture would be more complicated than this simple sketch. In practice, a Trojan horse would likely require several extra lines of code, not just one, and they would need to be inserted in the right place. Moreover, the code in Panel 3 relies on the login program being laid out in exactly the right way; in fact, it assumes a rather unusual convention for positioning the line breaks. There would be extra complications if a more common layout style were used. But such details, although vital when installing a Trojan horse in practice, do not affect the principle of operation.

We have made two implicit assumptions that warrant examination. First, the infiltrator must know what the login program looks like in order to choose a suitable pattern from it. This is part of what we mean by "openness." Second, the bug would fail if the login program were altered so that the pattern no longer matched. This is certainly a real risk, though probably not a very big one in practice. For example, one could simply check for the text strings "Login" and "Password"; it would be very unlikely that anything other than the login program would contain those strings, and equally unlikely that the login program would be altered so that it didn't. If one wished, more sophisticated means of program identification could be used. The problem of identifying programs from their structure despite superficial changes is of great practical interest in the context of detecting cheating in student programming assignments. Some research on the subject has been published and could be exploited to make such bugs more reliable.

The Trojan horses we have discussed can all be detected quite easily by casual inspection of the source code. It is hard to see how such bugs could be hidden effectively. But with the compiler-installed bug, the login program is compromised even though its source is clean. In this case one must seek elsewhere -- namely in the compiler -- for the source of trouble, but it will be quite evident to anyone who glances in the right place. Whether such bugs are likely to be discovered is a moot point. People simply don't go around regularly (or even irregularly) inspecting working code.

Viruses: Spreading Infection like an Epidemic

The thought of a compiler planting Trojan horses into the object code it produces raises the specter of bugs being inserted into a large number of programs, not just one.

A compiler could certainly wreak a great deal of havoc, since it has access to a multitude of object programs. Consequently, system programs like compilers, software libraries, and so on, will be well protected, and it will be hard to get a chance to bug them even though they don't possess the ultimate privilege themselves. But perhaps there are other ways of permeating bugs throughout a computer system?

Unfortunately, there are. The trick is to write a bug -- a "virus" -- that spreads itself like an infection from program to program. The most devastating infections are those that do not affect their carriers -- at least not immediately -- but allow them to continue to live normally and in ignorance of their disease, innocently infecting others while going about their daily business. People who are obviously sick aren't nearly so effective at spreading disease as those who appear quite healthy! In the same way, program A can corrupt program B silently, unobtrusively, so that when B is invoked by an innocent and unsuspecting user it spreads the infection still further.

The neat thing about this, from the point of view of whoever plants the bug, is that the infection can pass from programs written by one user to those written by another, gradually permeating the whole system. Once it has gained a foothold it can clean up the incriminating evidence that points to the originator, and continue to spread. Recall that whenever you execute a program written by another, you place yourself in that person's hands. For all you know, the program you use may harbor a Trojan horse, designed to do something bad to you (like activating a cookie monster). Let us suppose that, being aware of this, you are careful not to execute programs belonging to other users unless they were written by your closest and most trusted friends. Even though you hear of wonderful programs created by those outside your trusted circle, programs that could be very useful to you and save a great deal of time, you are strong-minded and deny yourself their use. But maybe your friends are not so circumspect. Perhaps Mary Friend has invoked a hacker's bugged program, and unknowingly caught the disease. Some of her own programs are infected. Fortunately, they may not be the ones you happen to use. But day by day, as your friend works, the infection spreads throughout all her programs. And then you use one of them....

How viruses work. How can mere programs spread bugs from one to the other? Surely this can't be possible! Actually, it's very simple. Imagine that you take any useful program others may want to execute, and modify it as follows. Add some code to the beginning, so that whenever it is executed, before entering its main function, unknown to the user it acts as a "virus." In other words, it searches the user's files for one that is

Having found its victim, the virus "infects" the file, simply by putting a piece of code at the beginning to make that file a virus too! Panel 4 shows the idea.

Panel 4: How Viruses Work

Figures 5,6

Figure 5 illustrates an uninfected program, and the same program infected by a virus. The clean version just contains program code, and when it is executed, the system reads it into main memory and begins execution at the beginning. The infected program is exactly the same, except that preceding this is a new piece of code that does the dirty work. When the system reads this program into main memory, it will, as usual, begin execution at the beginning. Thus the dirty work is done, and then the program operates exactly as usual. Nobody need know that the program is not a completely normal, clean one.

But what is the dirty work? Well, John Hacker who wrote the virus probably has his own ideas what sort of tricks he wants to play. Besides playing these tricks, though, the virus attempts to propagate itself further whenever it is executed. To reproduce, it just identifies as its target an executable program that it has sufficient permission to alter. Of course, it should first check that the target is not already infected. And then the virus copies itself to the beginning of the target.

Figure 6 illustrates how the infection spreads from user to user. Picture me standing over my files, and suppose that my domain is currently uninfected. I spy a program of someone else's that I want to use to help me do a job. Unknown to me, it is infected. As I execute it, symbolized by copying it up to where I am working, the virus gains control and secretly infects one of my own files. If the virus is written properly, there is no reason I should ever suspect that anything untoward has happened -- until the virus starts its dirty work.

Notice that, in the normal case, a program you invoke can write or modify any files that you are allowed to write or modify. It's not a matter of whether the program's author or owner can alter the files; it's the person who invoked the program. Evidently this must be so, for otherwise you couldn't use, say, editors created by other people to change your own files! Consequently, the virus is not confined to programs written by its perpetrator. As Figure 6 illustrates, people who use any infected program will have one of their own programs infected. Any time an afflicted program runs, it tries to pollute another. Once you become a carrier, the germ will eventually spread to all your programs, and anyone who uses one of your programs, even once, will get in trouble too. All this happens without you having an inkling that anything unusual is going on.

Would you ever find out? Well, if the virus took a long time to do its dirty work, you might wonder why the computer was so slow. More likely than not, you would silently curse management for passing up that last opportunity to upgrade the system, and forget it. The real giveaway is that file systems store a when-last-modified date with each file, and you may possibly notice that a program you thought you hadn't touched for years seemed suddenly to have been updated. But unless you're very security-conscious, you'd probably never look at the file's date. Even if you did, you might well put it down to a mental aberration -- or some inexplicable foible of the operating system.

You might very well notice, however, if all your files changed their last-written date to the same day! This is why the virus described above only infects one file at a time. Sabotage, like making love, is best done slowly. Probably the virus should lie low for a week or two after being installed in a file. (It could easily do this by checking its host's last-written date.) Given time, a cautious virus will slowly but steadily spread throughout a computer system. A hasty one is much more likely to be discovered. (Richard Dawkins's fascinating book The Selfish Gene gives a gripping account of the methods evolved in nature for self-preservation, which are far more subtle than the computer virus I have described. Perhaps this bodes ill for computer security in the future.)

Cause and effect are impossible to fathom when you are faced with randomness and long time delays.

So far, our virus has sought merely to propagate itself, not to inflict damage. But presumably its perpetrator had some reason for planting it -- maybe to read a file belonging to some particular person. Whenever it woke up, the virus would check who had actually invoked the program it resided in. If the targeted victim was the one -- bingo, it would spring into action. Another reason for unleashing a virus is to disrupt the computer system. Again, this is best done slowly. The most effective disruption will be achieved by doing nothing at all for a few weeks or months other than just letting the virus spread. It could watch a certain place on disk for a signal to start doing damage. It might destroy information if its perpetrator's computer account had been deleted (say John Hacker had been fired). Or the management might be held to ransom. Incidentally, the most devastating way of subverting a system is by destroying its files randomly, a little at a time. Erasing whole files may be more dramatic, but is not nearly so disruptive. Contemplate the effect of changing a random bit on the disk every day!

Experience with a virus. Earlier I said "imagine." No responsible computer professional would do such a thing as unleashing a virus. Computer security is not a joke. A bug such as this could easily get out of control and end up doing untold damage to every user.

As an experiment, however, having agreed with a friend that we would try to bug each other, I did once plant a virus. Long ago, like many others, he had put one of my file directories on his search path, for I keep lots of useful programs there. (It is a tribute to human trust -- or foolishness -- that many users, including this friend, still have my directory on their search paths, despite my professional interest in viruses!) So it was easy for me to plant a modified version of the ls command, which lists file directories. My modification checked the name of the user who had invoked ls, and if it was my friend, infected one of his files. Actually, because the virus was sloppily written and made the ls command noticeably slower than usual, my friend twigged what was happening almost immediately. He aborted the ls operation quickly, but not quickly enough, for the virus had already taken hold. Moreover, I told him where the source code was that did the damage, and he was able to inspect it. Even so, twenty-six of his files had been infected (and a few of his graduate student's, too) before he was able to halt the spreading epidemic.

Like a real virus, this experimental one did nothing but reproduce itself at first. Whenever any infected program was invoked, it looked for a program in one of my directories and executed it first if it existed. Thus, I was able to switch on the "sabotage" part whenever I wanted. But my sabotage program didn't do any damage. Most of the time it did nothing, but it had a 10% chance of starting up a process that waited a random time (up to 30 minutes) and printed a rude message on my friend's VDT screen. As far as the computer was concerned, of course, this was his process, not mine, so it was free to write on his terminal. He found this incredibly mysterious, partly because it didn't often happen, and partly because it happened long after he had invoked the program that caused it. Cause and effect are impossible to fathom when you are faced with randomness and long time delays.

In the end, my friend found the virus and wiped it out. (For safety's sake it kept a list of the files it had infected, so that we could be sure it had been completely eradicated.) But to do so, he had to study the source code I had written for the virus. If I had worked in complete secrecy, he would have had very little chance of discovering what was going on before the whole system had become hopelessly infiltrated.

Exorcising a virus. If you know that a virus is running around your computer system, how can you get rid of it? In principle, it's easy: simply recompile all programs that might conceivably have been infected. Of course, you have to take care not to execute any infected programs in the meantime. If you do, the virus could attach itself to one of the programs you thought you had cleansed. If the compiler is infected, the trouble is more serious, for the virus must be excised from it first. Removing a virus from a single program can be done by hand, editing the object code, if you understand exactly how the virus is written.

But is it really feasible to recompile all programs at the same time? This would certainly be a big undertaking, since all users of the system may be involved. Probably the only realistic way to go about it would be for the system manager to remove all object programs from the system, expecting individual users to recreate their own. In any real-life system this would be a major disruption, comparable to changing to a new, incompatible version of the operating system -- but without the benefits of "progress."

Another possible way to eliminate a virus, without having to delete all object programs, is to design an antibody, which would have to know about the exact structure of the virus in order to disinfect programs that had been tainted. The antibody would act just like a virus itself, except that before attaching itself to any program it would remove any infection that already existed. Also, every time a disinfected program was run, the antibody would first check that it hadn't been reinfected. Once the antibody had spread throughout the system, so that no object files remained that predated its release, it could remove itself. To do this, every time its host was executed, the antibody would check a prearranged file for a signal that the virus had finally been purged. On seeing the signal, it would simply remove itself from the object file.

Will this procedure work? There is a further complication. Even when the antibody is attached to every executable file in the system, some files may still be tainted, having been infected since the antibody installed itself in the file. So the antibody must check for this eventuality when finally removing itself from a file. But wait! Then that object program was run, the original virus would have gotten control first, before the antibody had a chance to destroy it. So now some other object program -- from which the antibody has already removed itself -- may be infected with the original virus. Oh, no! Setting a virus to catch a virus is no easy matter.

Surviving Recompilation: The Ultimate Parasite

Despite the devastation that Trojan horses and viruses can cause, neither is the perfect bug from an infiltrator's point of view. The trouble with a Trojan horse is that it can be seen in the source code; it would be quite evident to anyone who looked that something fishy was happening. Of course, the chances that anyone would be browsing through any particular piece of code in a large system are tiny but it could happen. The trouble with a virus is that although it lives in object code, which hides it from inspection, it can be eradicated by recompiling affected programs. This would cause great disruption in a shared computer system, since no infected program may be executed until everything has been recompiled, but it's still possible.

How about a bug that survives recompilation and lives in object code, with no trace in the source? Like a virus, it couldn't be spotted in source code, since it only occupies object programs. Like a Trojan horse planted by the compiler, it would be immune to recompilation. Surely this is not possible!

Astonishingly, it is possible to create such a monster under any operating system whose base language is implemented in a way that has a special "self-referencing" property described below. This includes the UNIX system, as was pointed out in 1984 by Ken Thompson himself. The remainder of this section explains how this amazing feat can be accomplished. Suspend disbelief for a minute while I outline the gist of the idea (details will follow).

Panel 3 showed how a compiler can insert a bug into the login program whenever the latter is compiled. Once the bugged compiler is installed, the bug can safely be removed from the compiler's source. It will still infest login every time that program is compiled, until someone recompiles the compiler itself. thereby removing the bug from the compiler's object code.

Most modern compilers are written in the language they compile. For example, C compilers are written in the C language. Each new version of the compiler is compiled by the previous version. Using exactly the same technique described for login, the compiler can insert a bug into the new version of itself, when the latter is compiled. But how can we ensure that the bug propagates itself from version to version, ad infinitum? Well, imagine a bug that replicates itself; whenever it is executed, it produces a new copy of itself. That is just like having a program that, when executed, prints itself. It may sound impossible but in fact is not difficult to write.

Now for the details. First we see how and why compilers are written in their own language and hence compile themselves. Then we discover how programs can print themselves. Finally, we put it all together and make the acquaintance of a horrible bug that lives forever in the object code of a compiler, even though all trace has been eradicated from the source program.

Compilers compile themselves. Most modern programming languages implement their own compiler. Although this seems to lead to paradox (how can a program possibly compile itself?), it is actually a reasonable thing to do.

Imagine being faced with the job of writing the first-ever compiler for a particular language -- call it C -- on a "naked" computer with no software at all. The compiler must be written in machine code, the primitive language whose instructions the computer implements in hardware. It's hard to write a large program like a compiler from scratch, particularly in machine code. In practice, auxiliary software tools would be created first, to help with the task -- an assembler and loader, for example -- but for conceptual simplicity we omit this step. Our task will be much easier if we are content with writing an inefficient compiler -- one that not only runs slowly itself, but produces inefficient machine code whenever it compiles a program.

Suppose we have created the compiler, called v.0 (version 0), but now we want a better one. It will be much simpler to write the new version, v.1, in the language being compiled (C) rather than in machine code. When compiling a program, v.1 will produce excellent machine code because we have taken care to write it so that it does. Unfortunately, in order to run v.1, it has to be compiled into machine code by the old compiler, v.0. Although this works all right, the result is that v.1 is rather slow. It produces good code, but takes a long time to do it. Now the final step is clear. Use the compiled version of v.1 on itself. Although the compilation takes a long time to complete, it produces fast machine code. But this machine code is itself a compiler: it generates good code (for it is just a machine-code version of the v.1 algorithm), and it runs fast, for it has been compiled by the v.1 algorithm! See Figure 7.

Figure 7

Once you get used to this topsy-turvy world of "bootstrapping," as it is called, you will recognize that this is really the natural way to write a compiler. The first version, v.0, is a throwaway program written in machine code. It doesn't even have to cope with the complete language, just a subset large enough to write a compiler in. Once v.1 has been compiled, and has compiled itself, v.0 is no longer of any interest. New versions of the compiler source -- v.2, v.3, and upwards -- will be modifications of v.1; as the language evolves, changes in it will be reflected in successive versions of the compiler source code. For example, if the C language is enhanced to C +, the compiler source code will be modified to accept the new language, and then compiled, creating a C+ compiler. Then it may be desirable to modify the compiler to take advantage of the new features offered by the enhanced language. Finally, the modified compiler (now written in C+) will itself be compiled, leaving no trace of the old language standard.

Programs print themselves. The next tool we need is reproduction. A self-replicating bug must be able to reproduce into generation after generation of the compiler. To see how to do this, we first study a program that, when executed, prints itself.

Self-printing programs have been a curiosity in computer laboratories for decades. At first, it seems unlikely that a program could print itself. Imagine a program that prints an ordinary text message, like "Hello world" (see Panel 5). It must include that message somehow. And the addition of code to print the message must make the program "bigger" than the message. So a program that prints itself must include itself and therefore be "bigger" than itself. How can this be?

Panel 5: A Program that Prints Itself

How could a program print itself? Here is one that prints the message "hello world":

  main() {
    print("hello world");

A program to print the above program would look like this:

  main() {
    print("main() {print(\"hello world\");}");

(Again, " is C's way of including quotation marks within quoted strings.)

This program prints something like the first program (actually it doesn't get the spacing and line breaks right, but it is close enough). Yet it certainly doesn't print itself! For that, it would need something like:

  main() {
    print("main() {print(\"main() {print(\"hello

We are clearly fighting a losing battle here, developing a potentially infinite sequence of programs each of which prints the previous one. But this is getting no closer to a program that prints itself. The trouble with all these programs is that they have two separate parts: the program itself, and the string it prints. A self-printing program seems impossible because the string it prints obviously cannot be as big as the whole program itself.

The key to resolving the riddle is to recognize that something in the program has to do double duty -- to be printed twice, in different ways. Figure 8 shows a program that does print itself. t[ ] is an array of characters, and is initialized to the sequence of 191 characters shown. The for loop prints out the characters one by one, and the final print prints out the entire string of characters again.

C cognoscenti will spot some problems with this program. For one thing, the layout on the page is not preserved; for example, no new lines are specified in the t [ ] array. Moreover, the for loop actually prints out a list of integers, not characters (the %d specifies integer format). The actual output of Figure 8 is all on one line, with integers instead of the quoted character strings; thus it is not quite a self-replicating program. But its output, which is a valid program, is a true self-replicating one.

Much shorter self-printing programs can be written. For those interested, here are a couple of lines that do the job:

  char *t = "char *t = %c%s%c; main(){char q=%d,
    n=%d; printf(t,q,t,q,q,n,n);}%c"
  main(){char q='"',n=' '; printf(t,q,t,q,q,n,n);}

Again, this needs to be compiled and executed once before becoming a true self-replicating program.

There is really no contradiction here. The "bigger" argument, founded on our physical intuition, is just wrong. In computer programs the part does not have to be smaller than the whole. The trick is to include m the program something that does double duty -- something that is printed out twice in different ways.

Figure 8 shows a self-printing program that is written for clarity rather than conciseness. It could be made a lot smaller by omitting the comment, for example. But there is a lesson to be learned here: excess baggage can be carried around quite comfortably by a self-printing program. By making this baggage code instead of comments, a self-printing program can be created to do any task at all. For example, we could write a program that calculates the value of pi and also prints itself, or (more to the point) a program that installs a Trojan horse and also prints itself.

Figure 8

[Original poor quality]

Bugs reproduce themselves. Now let us put these pieces together. Recall the compiler bug in Panel 3, which identifies the login program whenever it is compiled and attaches a Trojan horse to it. The bug lives in the object code of the compiler, and inserts another bug into the object code of the login program. Now contemplate a compiler bug that identifies and attacks the compiler instead. As we have seen, the compiler is just another program, written in its own language, that is recompiled periodically -- just like login. Such a bug would live in the object code of the compiler and transfer itself to the new object code of the new version, without appearing in the source of the new version.

Panel 6: Using a Compiler to Install a Bug in Itself

Here is a modification of the compiler, just like that in Panel 3, but designed to attack the compiler itself instead of the login program.

  compile (s) {
    ...          /* Compile the statement in the normal way */
    if (match(s, "compile(s) {"))
      compile("print(\"hello world\");");

Imagine that this version of the compiler is compiled and installed in the system. Of course, it doesn't do anything untoward until it compiles any program that includes the line compile(s) {". Now suppose the extra lines above are immediately removed from the compiler, leaving the compile(s) routine looking exactly as it should, with no bug in it. When the now-clean compiler is next compiled, the above code will be executed and will insert the statement print("hello world") into the object code. Whenever this second-generation compiler is executed, it prints

hello world

after compiling every line of code. This is not a very devastating bug. The important point is that a bug has been inserted into the compiler even though its source was clean when it was compiled, just as a bug can be inserted into login even though its source is clean.

Of course, the bug will disappear as soon as the clean compiler is recompiled a second time. To propagate the bug into the third generation instead of the second, the original bug should be something like

  compile(s) {  
    ...        /* Compile the statement in the normal way */
    if (match(s, "compile(s) {"))
       compile("if (match(s, \"compile(s) {\"))
         compile (\"print(\"hello world\");\");"

By continuing the idea further, it is possible to arrange that the bug appears to the nth generation.

Panel 6 shows how to create precisely such a bug, which is no more complex than the login-attacking bug presented earlier. Moreover, just as that bug didn't appear in the source of the login program, the new bug doesn't appear in the source of the compiler program. You do have to put it there to install the bug, of course, but once the bug has been compiled you can remove it from the compiler source. Then it waits until the compiler is recompiled once more, and at that point does its dirty deed (even though no longer appearing in the compiler source). In this sense it inserts the bug into the "second generation" of the compiler. Unfortunately (from the infiltrator's point of view), the bug disappears when the third generation is created.

The bug can almost as easily be targeted at the third -- or indeed the nth -- generation instead of the second, using exactly the same technique. Let us review what is happening here. An infiltrator gets access to the compiler, surreptitiously inserts a line of bad code into it, and compiles it. Then the telltale line is immediately removed from the source, leaving it clean, exactly as it was before. The whole process takes only a few minutes, and afterward nobody can tell that anything has happened. Several months down the road, when the compiler is recompiled for the nth time, it starts behaving mysteriously. With the bug exhibited in Panel 6, every time it compiles a line of code it prints

hello world

as well! Again, inspection of the source shows nothing wrong. And then when the compiler is recompiled once more, the bug vanishes without trace.

The final stage is clear. Infiltrators do not want a bug that mysteriously appears in just one version of the compiler and then vanishes; they want one that propagates itself from version to version indefinitely. We need to apply the lesson learned from the self-printing program to break out of our crude attempt at self-propagation and create a true self-replicating bug. That is exactly what Panel 7 accomplishes.

Panel 7: Installing a Self-Replicating Bug in a Compiler

Here is a compiler modification that installs a self-replicating bug. It combines the idea of the previous two panels.

  compile(s) {
    ...                 /* Compile the statement in the normal way */
    char t[ ] = { ...   /* Here is a character string, defined like */
/*      that of Figure 8 */ ... };
    if (match(s, "compile(s) {")) {
       compile (" char t[ ] = {");
       for (i=0, t[i]!=0; i=i+1)
       compile("print(\"hello world\");");

The code is very similar to that of Figure 8. But it passes the output to the compile(s) procedure in a recursive call, which will compile the code instead of printing it. (It will not cause further recursion because the magic line

compile(s) {

is not passed recursively.) The other salient differences form Figure 8 are the inclusion of the test

 if (match(s, "compiles(s) {"))

-- which makes sure we only attack the compiler itself -- along with the actual bug that we plant in it:

 compile("print(\"hello world\");");

There are some technical problems with this program fragment. For example, the C language permits variables to be defined only at the beginning of a procedure, and not in the middle as t [ ] is. Also, calls to compile are made with arguments of different types. However, such errors are straightforward and easy to fix. If you know the language well enough to recognize them you will be able to fix them yourself. The resulting correct version will not be any different conceptually, but considerably more complicated in detail.

A more fundamental problem with the self-replicating bug is that although it is supposed to appear at the end of the output to the compile(s) routine, it replicates itself at the beginning of it, just after the header line

 compile(s) {

This technicality, too, could be fixed. It hardly seems worth fixing, however, because the whole concept of a compile(s) routine that compiles single lines is a convenient fiction. In practice, the self-replicating bug is likely to be considerably more complex than indicated here, but it will embody the same basic principle.

As soon as the self-replicating bug is installed in the object-code version of the compiler, it should be removed from the source. Whenever the compiler recompiles a new version of itself, the bug effectively transfers itself from the old object code to the new object code without appearing in the source: once bugged, always bugged. Of course, the bug would disappear if the compiler were changed so that the bug ceased to recognize it. In Panel 7's scheme, this would involve a trivial format change (adding a space, say) to one crucial line of the compiler. Actually, this doesn't seem likely to happen in practice. But if one wanted, a more elaborate compiler-recognition procedure could be programmed into the bug.

Once the bug was installed, nobody would ever know about it. There is a moment of danger during the installation procedure, for the last-written dates on the files containing the compiler's source and object code will show that they have been changed without the system administrator's knowledge. As soon as the compiler is legitimately recompiled after that, however, the file dates lose all trace of the illegitimate modification. Then the only record of the bug is in the object code, and only someone single-stepping through a compile operation could discover

Using a virus to install a self-replicating bug. Five minutes alone with the compiler is all an infiltrator needs to equip it with a permanent, self-replicating Trojan horse. Needless to say, getting this opportunity is the hard part. Good system administrators know that even though the compiler does not have the ultimate privilege, it needs to be guarded just as well as if it did, for it creates the object versions of programs (like login) that do have the ultimate privilege.

Could a self-replicating Trojan horse be installed by releasing a virus to do the job? In addition to spreading itself, a virus could check whether its unsuspecting user had permission to write any file containing a language compiler; if so, it could install a Trojan horse automatically. This could be a completely trivial operation. For example, John Hacker might doctor the compiler beforehand and save the bugged object code in one of his own files. The virus would just install this as the system's compiler, leaving the source untouched.

In order to be safe from this threat, system administrators must ensure that they never execute a program belonging to any other user while they are logged in with sufficient privilege to modify system compilers. Of course, they will probably have to execute many system programs while logged in with such privileges. Consequently, they must ensure that the virus never spreads to any system programs, and therefore they have to treat all system programs with the same care as the compiler. By the same token, all these programs must be treated as carefully as those few (such as login) that enjoy the ultimate privilege. There is no margin for error. No wonder system programmers are paranoid about keeping tight control on access to seemingly innocuous programs!

Networks and Micros

It is worth contemplating whether the techniques introduced above can endanger configurations other than single time-shared operating systems. What about networks of computers, or stand-alone micros? Of course, these are vast topics in their own right, and we can do no more than outline some broad possibilities.

Can the sort of bugs discussed be spread through networks? Before we tackle this question, note that the best way to infect another computer system is probably to send a tape with a useful program on it that contains a virus. (Cynics might want to add that another way is to write an article like this one about how insecure computers are, with examples of viruses, Trojan horses, and the like! My response is that all computer users need to know about these possibilities in order to defend themselves.)

The programmable-terminal trick, where a piece of innocent-looking mail reprograms a key on the victim's terminal, will work remotely just as it does locally. Someone on another continent could send me mail that deletes all my files when I next hit return. That's why I read my mail inside a program that does not pass escape codes to the terminal.

In principle, there is no reason you could not install any kind of bug through a programmable terminal. Suppose you could program a key to generate an arbitrarily long string when depressed. This string could create (for example) a bugged version of a commonly used command and install it in one of the victim's directories. Or it could create a virus and infect a random file. The virus could be targeted at a language compiler, as described above. In practice, however, these possibilities seem somewhat farfetched. Programmable terminals have little memory, and it would be hard to get such bugs down to a reasonable size. You are probably safe -- but don't count on it.

The smaller and more primitive the system, the safer it is. For absolute security, don't use a computer at all!

Surely you would be better off using a microcomputer that no one else could access? Not necessarily. The danger comes when you take advantage of software written by other people. If you use other people's programs, infection could reach you via a floppy disk. Admittedly it would be difficult to spread a virus to a system with no hard-disk storage. In fact, the smaller and more primitive the system, the safer it is. For absolute security, don't use a computer at all -- stick to paper and pencil!

Worm Programs

An interesting recent development is the idea of "worm" programs, presaged by Brunner in his 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider [see Kurt Schmucker, "Computer Crime: Science Fiction and Science Fact," ABACUS, Spring 1984]. The idea was developed in fascinating detail by Shoch and Hupp in 1982.

A worm consists of several segments, each being a program running in a separate workstation in a network. The segments keep in touch through the network. Each segment is at risk because a user may reboot the workstation it currently occupies at any time, indeed, one of the attractions is that segments only occupy machines that would otherwise be idle. When a segment is lost, the others conspire to replace it on another processor: they search for an idle workstation, load it with a copy of themselves, and start it up. The worm has repaired itself.

Worms can be greedy, trying to create as many segments as possible; or they may be content with a certain target number of live segments. In either case they are very robust. Stamping one out is not easy, for all workstations must be rebooted simultaneously; otherwise, any segments that are left will discover idle machines in which to replicate themselves.

While worms may seem a horrendous security risk, it is clear that they can only invade "cooperative" workstations. Network operating systems normally do not let foreign processes indiscriminately start themselves up on idle machines. In practice, therefore, although worms provide an interesting example of software that is "deviant" in the same sense as viruses or self-replicating Trojan horses, they do not pose a comparable security risk.

The Moral

Despite advances in authentication and encryption methods, computer systems are just as vulnerable as ever. Technical mechanisms cannot limit the damage that can be done by an infiltrator; there is no limit. The only effective defenses against infiltration are old-fashioned ones.

The first is mutual trust between users of a system, coupled with physical security to ensure that all access is legitimate. The second is a multitude of checks and balances. Educate users, let them know when and where they last logged in, encourage security-minded attitudes, examine dates of files regularly, and check frequently for unusual occurrences.

The third defense is secrecy. Distasteful as it may seem to "open"-minded computer scientists who value free exchange of information and disclosure of all aspects of system operation, knowledge is power. Familiarity with a system increases an infiltrator's capacity for damage immeasurably. In an unfriendly environment, secrecy is paramount.

Finally, talented programmers reign supreme. The real power resides in their hands. If they can create programs that everyone wants to use, if their personal libraries of utilities are so comprehensive that others put them on their search paths, if they are selected to maintain critical software -- to the extent that their talents are sought by others, they have absolute and devastating power over the system and all it contains. Cultivate a supportive, trusting atmosphere to ensure they are never tempted to wield it.


I would especially like to thank Brian Wyvill and Roy Masrani for sharing with me some of their experiences in computer (in)security, and Bruce MacDonald and Harold Thimbleby for helpful comments on an early draft of this article. My research is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

For Further Reading

* Throughout this article the word bug is meant to bring to mind a concealed snooping device as in espionage, or a microorganism-carrying disease as in biology, not an inadvertent programming error.

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