Inside the Mind of a Hacker

A kernel hacker discusses the motivation behind his Month of Kernel Bugs project.

It may sound contradictory, but the hacker behind the Month of Kernel Bugs, or MOKB, project actually said he believes in responsible disclosure. Throughout November, the man known as LMH has been releasing daily exploits for unpatched kernel-level flaws in operating systems—including Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris and FreeBSD. In an interview with Senior Editor Ryan Naraine, LMH explains the motivation for the project, weighs in on vulnerability disclosure ethics and rips software vendors that downplay security flaws.

Can you introduce yourself? Who is LMH?

I have a name, as we all do. LMH is, in fact, a reference to my real name. The reason for "hiding" behind it is that while I dont mind appearing on public mailing lists, news media, etc., I want to be recognized by the work I do.

What prompted you to do the MOKB project? Any particular reason for focusing on kernel bugs?

The original intent was to get a general overview of the current state of kernel-land code, but I was also pushed by the fact that some bugs apparently were being patched silently, without proper disclosure or credits to researchers.

Whats wrong with silent fixes? Microsoft says that anything it finds itself will be fixed silently because releasing information only serves to help attackers.

Its wrong when developers and vendors are dishonest. Actually, silent fixing aids attackers. Someone who thinks that no one can notice a silent fix by either reverse engineering or simple mining of change logs is definitely someone harmful to himself, his company and the user base of the product itself.

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Ive said it already: Im not a fan of full disclosure, but sometimes you get the feeling that developers and vendors dont deserve the privilege/advantage of being warned about them.

Ive also seen another criticism that your Linux kernel bugs are mere low-risk DoS [denial of service] issues. Is there a concern that you might be overblowing things?

Youre right—some are low-risk. However, there are issues that have some other implications. DoS issues, when it comes to file system bugs, also lead to file system corruption, especially with Linux. Im not overblowing issues. Im simply explaining the security implications.

The fact that some developers arent familiar with those might lead to criticism, and I get the feeling that some people want me to do their homework as well, and they feel cheated when I dont give all the relevant details about a specific issue.

Have you been contacted by a vendor affected by any of the MOKB releases?

Yes, surprisingly, the so-called proprietary software vendors had the most positive responses so far. No negative response, no personal attacks. Microsoft and Apple, so far, seem to be changing their minds about some stuff (even if most end users are still confused, especially when it comes to Mac OS X issues).

What was the response from Apple and Microsoft? What did they want to talk about?

I got nice feedback from the MSRC [Microsoft Security Response Center]. They were asking for any additional information to help them work around the issues and were willing to provide information that I could use to check and research on some kernel-land interfaces. I talked to an Apple employee working around security issues, and I get the feeling they were willing to work together and share information as necessary.

Generally, both wanted to know if I could give them notice in advance for future releases, so they could plan to deal with issues affecting their respective products.

Beyond what weve already seen (Mac OS X, Windows, wireless drivers, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris), are you planning to look in new areas?

Im planning to take a look at smart phones and PDA-type devices, maybe find some Bluetooth issues. Maybe youll see some more bugs in different BSD flavors. More wireless bugs are coming for sure.

Actually, were working on at least an AirPort bug that will be related to the "shipping" Intel-based Macs such as the new MacBook laptops, but theres work to be done around it.

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