By: John Kaster
Abstract: Charlie Caro, of Interbase R&D, provides some background information on the Interbase Security Hole that Borland has patched. Jim Starkey also has a reply.
In the midst of the furor over the discovery and
announcement by CERT of the Interbase backdoor,
feeding frenzy at slashdot and various newsgroups,
(including our own), and given the frigid relationship between
Borland and the people asserting that Borland did not respond,
I have published here a message posted to the newsgroup
by Charlie Caro, of Interbase R&D here at Borland. While both he
and I are Borland employees, I think he gives the most accurate
and even handed assessment of the situation and history I have seen
He also provides technical information that to this point has not been available.
Before going any further, I think it's important to let you know that you can find further
information and download the patch right now.
Here is his message. You can read news://news.mers.com/mers.interbase.list
The following response represents my personal opinions and not
necessarily those of my employer, Borland/Inprise.
I would like to respond to the account of the security back door and
doomsday function that has been described by senior members of the
IBPhoenix/Firebird team. In particular, Jim Starkey's account and its
posting to the IBDI Web sites has painted an inaccurate, irresponsible,
and frankly slanderous, characterization of the current Borland RD team.
He could have stuck to the technical aspects of the security breach but
made a conscious decision to personally attack me and members of the
Borland/InterBase RD team.
1) It is stated that:
"In July of 2000, Borland published the source code. It
apparently didn't occur to the Borland engineers that inserted
the back door in the first place and used it for other purposes
during version 6 development that a security back door was sufficiently
dangerous to call it to the attention of their management or a
A) None of the current Borland engineers inserted that back door. The
security database was introduced in IBV3.3 (not IBV4 as reported by
Starkey). We checked the IBV3.3 source code and there was no backdoor
security access. This means that the blatant security hole was not part
of the original design.
B) None of the current Borland engineers, except me, worked on IBV3.3.
Leave them out of it; they didn't participate in the security design or
implementation. I participated in design reviews in a peripheral
capacity around 1992. The Borland RD team was introducing InterBase to
the Windows platform as a Borland strategic initiative. The existing
InterBase security at the time relied on trusted clients and domains but
Windows 3.1 was naked; no host login, no Active Directory, Kerboros or
NT Domains ... nothing. Like the original security scheme it replaced,
it was not designed for wide open Internet database access by anarchic
C) At some point in IBV4.x, Borland splintered our development team to
work on Windows NT SuperServer. I refered to this division as
"SplinterBase"; it divided the team and took architectural control of
the server design away from my responsibility. When we shipped IB4.0 on
UNIX, the SplinterBase code was merged back to the main development
tree. At that time, our internal source code tool did not mail, to
members of the RD team, the source code change "diffs". If it did, the
changes were so numerous, that it was checked in undetected. It's
possible that the backdoor could have been introduced during this merge.
There was no formal or informal source code review at Borland/InterBase
or, for that matter, at ISC in the 1980's before that. These best
practices weren't introduced until the late 1990's.
D) I can't be sure but I suspect the thread re-entrancy complexities
with the SuperServer architecture led to the introduction of this
security hole because it didn't exist before this. I can assure you that
I didn't, nor did any current team member, introduce it. Nor was it
mentioned in any design review that I recall.
2) From the IBDI Web site:
"Inexplicably, the Inprise R & D engineers who worked alongside Ann
Harrison from February to July last year, as she managed the preparation
of the IB 6 beta source code for open release, had
never seen fit to document the exploits or even to alert Ann to their
existence. At least one of those engineers was well aware of one of the
vulnerabilities, since he used it to implement a new feature in version
E) I don't know what V6 feature Jim claims uses the security back door.
I suspect he is confusing the V6 garbage collector with the V3.3 sweep
thread to the Apollo/DomainOS multi-client server. The V6 garbage
collector doesn't use any security backdoor whatsoever. Someone modified
the V3 sweep thread, which attaches a database, to use the LOCKSMITH
username/password circa 1993-4. It doesn't have my coding fingerprint
with respect to indentation (look at the while loops, Jim). I was in
that area of the code to address thread safety issues using static
buffers but I wasn't consciously focusing on the semantics of the code
itself -- just the thread unsafety. It was similar to the attention paid
to surrounding code when replacing character-by-character moves with
memcpy(). If this is the basis of his argument, it doesn't hold water.
F) This leads to the last accusation that the current Borland RD team
was aware of the security hole. We weren't. If we were, why would we
have released the code? We did discuss with the July 2000 active
management member and responsible adult about whether we should withold
the password encryption and jrd/pwd.h file that held sensitive password
salts. Neither the responsible adult nor the team was aware of the
security backdoor it posed. We agreed together that we wouldn't replace
that module with a stub file because we wanted the executables to match
G) Jim isn't privy to the organizational structure, dynamics and
behavior at Borland. I have raised many protestations over technical
decisions over the years. I don't always win and I have shared some of
those defeats with the community. The Borland/InterBase QA raised the
quality of InterBase far beyond where it stood a decade ago. In my
opinion, it's a fair criticism to say that some of their procedures were
inefficient and delayed releases in the 1990s. However, pre-Borland
InterBase pretty much relied on localization of memory leaks and errors
in the Classic architecture to bail them out. Today InterBase is a far
more robust product because of Borland QA, notwithstanding that
H) We put a quick fix to change the LOCKSMITH username/password because
SourceForge would not take down the tree. This was to protect the
installed customer base. It was never intended as the final fix; we
followed up with a posted fix which eliminates any backdoor LOCKSMITH
Jim has impugned my reputation and the professionalism of my collegues.
He has done it thru this public announcement based on heresay, innuendo
and groundless facts. He has done it privately behind my back to my
managers, to members of this community and customers that I have served.
He called me last month to get the phone numbers of my director and
Borland Sr VP to relay the CERT information. I gave him the phone
numbers and later discovered that he called those individuals to
denigrate and slander me. When I called to confront him about it, he
said nothing to indicate that he was contrite or regretted the incident.
I suspect that Jim resents that I am still working for Borland -- that I
should be a conscientious objector. I can't put my kids thru college or
pay the mortgage with the source code accolades I would be paid with if
I worked for IBPhoenix. If the community can't scrape together the money
to release Jim's ODBC driver, how would it pay me?
To the community members, you will have to ask yourself whether his
description is consistent with your first hand experience of my behavior
and service. Each of us occupies a place in this community: to the party
right is Borland, to the party left is IBPhoenix and in the middle are
the majority who just want to use InterBase as a product. I, and the
current team, have contributed much to the InterBase project over the
years. I, and some others, insured its survival by moving to California
to be part of Borland. I've argued passionately in Borland boardrooms
with several chairmen/CEOs to keep InterBase alive. And I don't deserve
this treatment from a community member.
I demand a public apology from Jim and a retraction, or a fair and
balanced account, on the IBDI Web site. Otherwise, it's not
reporting but self-serving propoganda.
You have everything to gain by making the apology. If not for yourself,
then think of your partner -- there's no reason to tarnish her good
reputation, by association, because of your bad behavior. I can forgive
you and this community can forgive you. But if you can't do this, you
severely diminished your leadership credibility within this community.
On Saturday, Jan 13, 2001 this message was posted on news://news.mers.com/mers.interbase.list, with a title of "Retraction".
My statement that current members of Borland technical staff
were aware of the back door when it was implemented was based
on a conversation with an engineer employed by Borland at that
time. He has since clarified that his comments were based on
how he thought decision was reached and not how the decision
was actually reached. Furthermore, Charlie Caro is correct that
the sweep thread, which exploits the back door, is a separate
mechanism from the V6 garbage collect thread, which does not.
There is no reason that I am aware of to believe that any of the
present members of the Interbase development team had any involvement
or knowledge of the back door mechanism.
I would like to appologize formally to Charlie Caro for a
misunderstanding that I mistakingly propogated. I tend to
think of Charlie as the person entrusted with the care and
feeding of my baby; it is unfortunate that Borland has
not delegated that responsibility and authority to Charlie
or to any other individual.
The security back door was implemented long ago in a different
era. Other than serving as an historical example of the dangers
of security by obscurity, nothing useful can come from further
investigation of who did what when. It happened, it came to
light, and with coordination by CERT, both IBPhoenix and Borland
have been able to offer fixes to the Interbase community.
I hope this helps to give you a little more background on the situation.
Again, the important thing to note is that the backdoor has been closed in the patches
already made available.
John Kaster, Borland Developer Relations
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