U.S. military helps fund Calgary hacker
By David Akin
Globe and Mail
April 6, 2003
The U.S. military believes the work of a Calgary hacker may be its best bet to protect its computer networks from so-called cyber-terrorist attacks. And although Theo de Raadt is happy to have more than $2-million (U.S.) in research support from the U.S. military's research and development office, the source of that funding has made him more than a little uneasy.
"I actually am fairly uncomfortable about it, even if our firm stipulation was that they cannot tell us what to do. We are simply doing what we do anyways — securing software — and they have no say in the matter," Mr. de Raadt said in a recent e-mail exchange. "I try to convince myself that our grant means a half of a cruise missile doesn't get built."
The grant comes from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the R&D arm of the U.S. military, whose most widely known invention would be the Internet. For this grant, DARPA is interested in testing the security of commercial software systems against the security of open source software projects.
Mr. de Raadt leads development of an open source project called OpenBSD. It is a computer operating system, used most often to power the large server computers that run corporate networks or Web sites. OpenBSD, a derivative of the Unix operating system, is widely considered by computer experts to be the most resistant to unauthorized use.
"We were convinced OpenBSD was the best platform to use as a basis for further securing open source," said Jonathan Smith, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Because DARPA does not directly fund projects outside the United States, it is Mr. Smith's computer science department that received the grant, although most of the money — $2.3-million — flows through to Mr. de Raadt's project.
Although Microsoft Corp., whose Windows products are the world's dominant operating system products, and many other commercial software vendors are paying new attention to the security of their products, that renewed interest has done little to improve their products so far, Mr. de Raadt said.
"Low code quality keeps haunting our entire industry. That, and sloppy programmers who don't understand the frameworks they work within. They're like plumbers high on glue," Mr. de Raadt said.
Microsoft, for example, has issued 68 security bulletins or alerts for its products in the past year, better than one a week. OpenBSD, which does not develop as many products as Microsoft, says only one vulnerability or hole has been found in its software in the past seven years. OpenBSD has been created largely through the work of volunteers over its seven-year existence.
The DARPA grant enabled Mr. de Raadt to add the equivalent of four full-time developers to supplement the work of about 80 volunteers. And although he's happy about the extra support for the project, he's nervous that critics may get the idea he's working for the U.S. military.
"We're not doing anything for them. They just fund us to do what we do," said Mr. de Raadt, a 35-year-old graduate of the University of Calgary's computer science program. Mr. de Raadt is no fan of the U.S. military at the moment. He calls the war in Iraq an oil grab. "It just sickens me."
He also notes that the software his group develops is made available free of charge via Internet download or for a nominal fee on CD. The next major upgrade to the software, version 3.3., will be released on May 1. Because OpenBSD is often used in computing environments where security is a top concern, OpenBSD users are often reluctant to identify themselves. But Mr. de Raadt's group said that in addition to running the servers for several branches of the U.S. military, including the Pentagon, OpenBSD is also installed on the servers the U.S. Department of Justice uses to track and catch hackers and so-called cyber-terrorists.
OpenBSD is also used by the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, Adobe Systems Inc. and FSC Internet Corp. of Toronto. More than 50,000 copies of OpenBSD have been downloaded from the project's servers in the past six months.
Corrections Canada, Health Canada, Parliament and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency are among the federal users that have downloaded the software, although it's not clear if it is being used by them.
OpenBSD is one of several open source operating systems, the most famous of which is Linux. The source code for the software is open or uncompiled, which means any software programmer can examine the code and can make changes before it is formatted to run on a computer. OpenBSD is a variant of a kind of Unix-based operating system known as BSDs, short for Berkeley Software Distribution.
The software traces its roots to projects that began in the 1970s at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. de Raadt, who's been working full-time on the OpenBSD project for seven years, pays his own bills with the money from the sale of the CDs — he sells about 8,000 a year — as well as from selling OpenBSD T-shirts and other paraphernalia.
David Akin is national business and technology correspondent for CTV News and a contributing writer to The Globe and Mail.