Analysis & Opinions - Lawfare

Backdoor in XZ Utils That Almost Happened

| Apr. 09, 2024

The recent cybersecurity catastrophe that wasn’t reveals an untenable situation, one being exploited by malicious actors.

Last week, the internet dodged a major nation-state attack that would have had catastrophic cybersecurity repercussions worldwide. It’s a catastrophe that didn’t happen, so it won’t get much attention—but it should. There’s an important moral to the story of the attack and its discovery: The security of the global internet depends on countless obscure pieces of software written and maintained by even more obscure unpaid, distractible, and sometimes vulnerable volunteers. It’s an untenable situation, and one that is being exploited by malicious actors. Yet precious little is being done to remedy it.

Programmers dislike doing extra work. If they can find already-written code that does what they want, they’re going to use it rather than recreate the functionality. These code repositories, called libraries, are hosted on sites like GitHub. There are libraries for everything: displaying objects in 3D, spell-checking, performing complex mathematics, managing an e-commerce shopping cart, moving files around the internet—everything. Libraries are essential to modern programming; they’re the building blocks of complex software. The modularity they provide makes software projects tractable. Everything you use contains dozens of these libraries: some commercial, some open source and freely available. They are essential to the functionality of the finished software. And to its security.

You’ve likely never heard of an open-source library called XZ Utils, but it’s on hundreds of millions of computers. It’s probably on yours. It’s certainly in whatever corporate or organizational network you use. It’s a freely available library that does data compression. It’s important, in the same way that hundreds of other similar obscure libraries are important.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Schneier, Bruce.“Backdoor in XZ Utils That Almost Happened.” Lawfare, April 9, 2024.

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