Because unlike Red Hat, Microsoft is getting a pass by the media.
Piranha is web clustering/failover software that was released in April by Red Hat without much QA. It somehow went out the door with a default password ("Q") and without docs explaining in big bold caps that it must be changed. If you installed the Piranha RPM without reading the docs carefully, you had a security hole on your site.
The hole allowed an attacker to come in over port 80 and execute arbitrary commands as the Piranha user, which would have been the web user. Typically that's a nonprivileged "nobody" account. While this is never good, let's just note for the record that this is a read-only exploit unless the webserver is very poorly configured.
The media flipped, in a word, out.
Piranha: A Case Study
On April 25, Computerworld announced that the "backdoor password ... could allow an attacker to compromise a Web server and deface and destroy a Web site." Informationweek and Internetweek both warned about "a back-door security flaw that carries ISS's highest danger rating." MSNBC/ZDNET ran the story as "Red Hat Linux open to backdoor password" and explained "there's a backdoor account in Red Hat's Linux that would let a computer intruder access and alter files." The Standard's early report on April 25 wasn't too bad but attacked -- as all reports did to some degree -- the strawman myth that open source is inherently secure. At least it didn't use the word "backdoor." Newsbytes was pretty much the same.
"Backdoor" implies that the flaw was deliberately inserted, by a thoughtless or even malicious programmer. Why did most stories incorrectly use that word? Mostly because that was how it was described in the press release. A security firm called Internet Security Systems found the flaw on April 24 and sent out a security advisory that used the term four times by the end of the first paragraph.
ISS also made some interesting statements when speaking to the press about the vulnerability. Oft-quoted was a line about open-source being both a blessing and a curse (the media loves "on the one hand, on the other hand"). I also liked this comment from their research director:
"There's limited quality assurance in the open-source environment," says Rouland, "because open-source software is basically a bunch of peoples' hobby."
Of the early stories about Piranha, the best one I found was Henry Kingman's ZDNet piece on April 24 (both early and accurate: amazing). CNET's on April 25 wasn't bad either, though they let ISS lay down the anti-open-source and pro-Microsoft propaganda a little thick.
In the days to come, the story didn't change much except to note that Red Hat -- correctly, as it turned out -- denied the seriousness of the vulnerability and tried to explain that it wasn't really a backdoor. Inter@ctive Week's Charles Babcock did such a piece on May 1.
Computer Reseller News still called it a backdoor on April 27. And NetworkWorldFusion's report and Informationweek's followup both came out on May 1, both got the important facts right, but both still called it a backdoor.
ClieNT Server News ran an article in their May issue explaining "Red Hat Red-Faced." I'm not about to pay to read the whole thing. The free synopsis that's available smirks at how "embarrassed" the company must be, and ends: "It seems that Red Hat left a back door in," dot, dot, dot.
The Standard had a second, fair piece that eschewed the term and even, after quoting the line about open-source being a "hobby," gently suggested otherwise.
But the gold stars go to just two good reports. SecurityFocus' Elias Levy, on May 1, turned the spotlight on ISS by pointing out how they "...can make headlines by using the right jargon, even when it's wrong." And Linux World News' Liz Coolbaugh, who had weighed in a few days earlier, questioning the media's coverage in her story "Red Hat Security Hole Not a 'Backdoor'."
If you find any more stories about Piranha, post them below. The Red Hat-bashing pretty much came to a halt a week later, when a little Microsoft-specific email virus named "ILOVEYOU" did a few billion dollars' worth of damage.
Microsoft SQL Server 7.0
You've heard about the SQL Server vulnerability, right? The one found on Tuesday, six days ago?
Well, no, you probably haven't, unless you read NTBugtraq. Even the maintainer of SecurityPortal's Microsoft Security Digest missed it this week (don't worry: I dropped him a note, he added it).
As the cracker Herbless describes it:
"It has come to light that it is now common knowledge that MS-SQL has a blank 'sa' password by default. This seems to affect a _lot_ of servers on the internet."
A default password vulnerability? Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Herbless wasn't kidding when he said it affected a lot of servers. If you're running SQL Server 7.0, with a firewall that doesn't block its port, and you haven't changed the sysadmin password, you're vulnerable.
As he described it to me, unlike Piranha's vulnerability which gave read-only access as an unprivileged user, this one typically gives access as "BUILTIN\System." I don't speak NT, so he had to describe to me what this is: "god-like powers ... greater that those of even the 'Administrator' user."
In other words, you have been 0wn3d.
You may be thinking that this is a vulnerability. Go back and read Microsoft's acknowledgement again. They say quite clearly, "The code does not exploit a vulnerability."
Does it confuse you that what was previously a "backdoor" is now not even a "vulnerability"? That threw me for a loop too -- as well as some of Microsoft's other disclaimers, which only make sense when you realize you're reading non-sequiturs about the newer version SQL Server 2000 (the vulnerability only affects SQL Server 7.0).
All will become clear, though, once you read this story from vnunet.com -- the only media story I've seen, by the way. The fault lies with the website administrators:
"Hacked websites 'didn't read the manual'
"Microsoft has blamed administrator error, rather than a bug in its software, for leaving hundreds of websites running SQL server open to attack this week."
Did they say hundreds? Yes, hundreds, at the very least. And did they say "hacked websites"? Yes -- this is not a theoretical vulnerability with no known attacks, like Piranha was.
All this month, Herbless has been cracking into websites like the National Transportation Safety Board and leaving edgy political messages (while backing up the original files and telling the admins how to close the holes). He confirmed to me that all his attacks, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the UK's Adult Learning Inspectorate, and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, were done by exploiting Microsoft SQL Server.
Just to make the story that much better, according to Herbless, the default configuration of SQL Server 7.0 also has logging turned off -- in which case a successful attack would leave few if any tracks.
Sites are lucky if their webpages are hijacked; that way they know to fix the problem, format and reinstall. But some of those "hundreds" of websites running the vulnerable installation have surely been cracked by black hats who quietly installed Back Orifice or a similar remote-exploit program. They can set an SQL Server password, but it won't help them: they'll still be 0wn3d.
The proper fix would be to force the password to be changed before the software can be used, as piranha now does. Wayne Sowery of MIS Corporate Defence Solutions confirmed for me that "versions up to SQL Server 2000 do not ask for the SA password during installation ... we also tried various install options such as 'typical' and 'custom,' neither prompted for a new SA password." Incidentally, he too questions whether this is properly described as a "vulnerability," but I'm not sure what else it could be called.
The lesson here is that the media doesn't treat security reports very fairly. Some organizations have their own selfish reasons to push one agenda or another. (Like Slashdot? You bet. But you know where we stand.)
The motive doesn't have to be that devious, though sometimes, of course, it is. If a reporter gets to write a story that questions a core belief of Linux zealots -- whether or not it's actually a core belief, and whether or not they're actually zealots -- that will be much more attractive than simply reporting security news. The nitty-gritty of security news, after all, is rather dry.
So next time you see a biased polemic about system security, or even a small media feeding frenzy about the latest exploit, take a moment to ask why it's being reported outside of the admins' mailing lists. Open source software is still a new idea to many in the traditional news media, and that means that it's a hook for them to hang any kind of story on -- good or bad.