In September 2011, news first broke that the kernel.org site that hosts the core development infrastructure behind the Linux kernel was breached. For the last five years, few facts about the attack have been revealed and the attacker remained at large—that is, until he was picked during a traffic stop in Miami on Aug. 28.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California issued a release on Sept. 1 announcing the arrest of 27-year-old Donald Ryan Austin in connection with the kernel.org attack. Austin is being charged in a four-count indictment in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Austin appeared in a federal court in Miami on Aug. 29 and was released on $50,000 bail on Sept. 1. He is scheduled to be back in court on Sept. 21.
“If convicted, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of ten years of imprisonment, and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution, for each violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(A),” the Justice Department stated.
The attack against kernel.org occurred between Aug. 12, 2011, and Sept. 1, 2011, and involved a breach of at least four servers. According to the indictment, Austin made use of a pair of hacking tools to gain access to kernel.org. The tools he used included the Phalanx rootkit, which helped to enable unauthorized backdoor access to kernel.org servers. In addition, the attack made use of the Ebury Trojan, which was used to collect the SSH (Secure Shell) credentials of users who logged into infected servers.
“The Ebury trojan collected the credentials and transmitted them over the internet to an outside computer controlled by the person who installed the malicious software,” the indictment states.
After the kernel.org attack was first discovered on Sept. 1, 2011, Linux kernel developers, including Linus Torvalds, temporarily moved the mainline of development to GitHub. On Oct. 4, 2011, service to kernel.org was restored, and additional security hardening measures were taken.
Linux is used to power the internet today and is widely deployed by the world’s largest stock exchanges, supercomputers, mobile phones and everything in between. According to the indictment, “one of Austin’s goals was to gain access to the software distributed through the www.kernel.org website.”
The indictment claims Austin was able to gain access to kernel.org servers by using “credentials belonging to an individual, J.H., to gain unauthorized access to servers belonging to the Linux Foundation.”
The indictment doesn’t identify who J.H is though, although J.H. is a mailing list name widely used by kernel.org administrator John Hawley. Somewhat ironically, Hawley was the first person associated with kernel.org to publicly reveal in a mailing list message on Aug. 29, 2011, that a breach had occurred.
“We’re grateful to the law enforcement officers who have diligently pursued this investigation since 2011,” Mike Dolan, vice president of strategic programs at the Linux Foundation, said in a statement sent to eWEEK. “Because this matter is the subject of an active court case, we’re unable to comment on it further. We will continue to support law enforcement officers by providing information as requested in support of this investigation.”
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.